On Balance: Parenting and Education

The Magic of Kindergarten: Academics, Identity and Play with Tu Harris, Amalia Velazquez and Laurie Seligman

November 14, 2020 Blue School / Tu Harris, Amalia Velazquez and Laurie Seligman Season 2 Episode 6
On Balance: Parenting and Education
The Magic of Kindergarten: Academics, Identity and Play with Tu Harris, Amalia Velazquez and Laurie Seligman
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode Dawn Williams speaks with Blue School’s kindergarten innovators including, Tu Harris, Director of the Primary Division, Amalia Velazquez and Laurie Seligman, our lead kindergarten teachers. They discuss what makes a kindergartener’s experience magical. We learn how the balance of academics, identity and play blend together to form the foundations of this quintessential year in a child's life.

Visit Blue School's website to learn more about our education philosophy and how to apply. BlueSchool.org

DAWN: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance can be a challenge. And now, so many of us are finding that our work, home, school and parenting lives are more tangled than ever. We see you and we’re here to partner with you. 

Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful, and compassionate. I am Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we will find our way. 

Today I am joined by Tu Harris, Blue School’s Director of Primary Programs as well as Laurie Seligman and Amalia Valazquez, two of our  Kindergarten teachers. Today we are digging into Kindergarten-- what makes it so special? What are five year olds capable of? How can we create an environment for kindergarten that invites wonder and play and meaning-making? Tu, Laurie, Amalia, I’m so happy to talk with you today! 

So, kindergarten is this time full of possibility and wonder, and growth. What drew you to want to work with kindergarteners? And sort of, what keeps you interested in this age?

AMALIA: I want to say that the first word that comes into starting a year with kindergarten-- I think of the word “magic”. In kindergarten, it’s a world of magic in all essence of the word. Whether it’s experiencing the magic of a child when they first enter your classroom -- timid, shy, holding onto their grown-up and sort of clenching really hard because they don’t know what to expect. If there’ll be play, if there will be their wonderings. And they have so many curiosities. And then by the end of the school year, we’ve cultivated this magical individual who’s super-confident and in love with the idea of learning. And passionate about continuing to play in new ways. Meeting new friends, and building that connection with us as their teachers. What keeps me back is that connection that I’ve nurtured in my years as a kindergarten teacher at Blue School. Is, I have students that are writing me letters now, that were sort of in this distanced learning world, and we don’t see each other in the  hallways. Or sort of seeing me in passing when we’re on site, through the terrace , and being like, “Remember when I was here?” [LAUGHTER] 


AMALIA: And that’s that magic, right? That you spark this joy with students, and you create this everlasting relationship by getting to really know them, and witness this process together, and grow together. 

DAWN: That’s so, so lovely, Amalia. I can picture it. And Laurie, you’re new to kindergarten. Can you talk about what your experience has been? How this has been unfolding for you?

LAURIE: Sure. What’s been really exciting is to — I feel privileged to be working with many of the children that I worked with last year, in addition to some children who are new to Blue School, and some children who I was familiar with from the other fours/fives class. But it’s — and I have a significant amount  of experience working with four and five-year-olds. So coming into kindergarten and seeing this growth trajectory that happens — thinking about them as growing in autonomy and capability, and seeing those sparks of readiness for more structured pieces of school, in the sense that one might think about structure, thinking about those more academic pieces of learning. Getting in at this place where this is their first real exposure to certain things. they have an idea about numbers and letters, and how they work, and how they function. 

And being able to scaffold these early experiences where they’re actually putting the knowledge they have to use, and then being exposed to so much more. Watching them grow and feel like experts, and supporting them in that journey, so far, has been really exciting. All while holding that social emotional learning that happens. And making sure children are feeling seen and heard and valued in a community, and knowing that you are there to support them as whole children as they encounter these new challenges that are feeling really exciting to them at this stage of development.

DAWN: Thank you for sharing that, Laurie. I’m wondering as — and I know we’re still at the beginning of the year. But is there anything that has happened this year, as you’ve sort of watched these children move to kindergarten, that would shift anything in your practice in the fours/fives?

LAURIE: You know, it’s really interesting. I think in the fours/fives, we really started to make space for different sound exploration, thinking about literacy. And of course, all of those more explic—what people deem to be the more explicit areas of academics, are so beautifully, naturally woven in in pre-primary, from work in the block area and the way children might label their structures. The way they might use environmental print. The way they might count out a collection of materials to make sure that it feels fair with the children that they’re working with. I think there’s something so important and valuable and beautiful about those more organic moments of exposure to that kind of curriculum, that really allows children to then feel comfortable and ready and safe to engage in that more kind of explicit learning, in terms of structured experiences in kindergarten.

DAWN: That makes so much sense. Thank you, Laurie. Tu, I know you also are a kindergarten person. [LAUGHTER] 

TU: I am, yes. I was thinking, I had so many connections to both what Amalia and Laurie were saying. That kindergarten is — I like the word that Amalia used. She said, “It’s magic. It’s a year of magic.” And I think the piece that keeps me coming back as an educator — I love popping into the kindergarten classrooms — is just that the kids, they come in with full capability. And our goal, our job, is to help them see that. Right? And to see that they’re able to accomplish all these different pieces. These different goals within kindergarten. And to see that look of accomplishment on their face. Like, when they realize that yeah, they can — you know, they can count. Or they can do one-to-one correspondence when they’re counting. Or they can share out and notice and create this pattern. Or that they begin to read. And you know, via pictures, and they make sense of what’s in front of them in terms of print. All of those, like — I would say those are like, the first that they become involved in. And it’s really exciting to see. It’s exciting to see, like, that they have this challenge set before them, and that we can guide them to accomplishing that challenge. And seeing that is really powerful. 

I’ve taught a few different grades. And in all of the-- I think in kindergarten, what I always saw is that constant feedback. Because there’s just so much possibility for growth — that that was really just energizing for me as a teacher. And it definitely is the reason why I keep coming back and poking my head into the kindergarten classrooms. 

DAWN: Thank you, Tu. Laurie, when you were just talking about the fours/fives, and sort of — experiences that are really grounded in exploration. Really grounded in play. I would love to talk more about play, and what you all see as the importance and possibilities for play in kindergarten. 

LAURIE: Yeah. I love play. I mean, I think that grown-ups need to be playing more. But play is the work of children. I think when they’re playing, they’re deepening their understanding of themselves and the world. As they use materials, they symbolize the experiences they’re having. They’re expressing their ideas. They’re encountering new information offered by peers. And I think all of this is really the foundation for flexible thinking. It helps us to become — it helps them to become creative and empathetic and resilient moving forward. And I think sometimes folks can have such different ideas about what play is, as if it’s kind of this own thing. But it really can't be compartmentalized, right? Like, as I was saying before, thinking about work with materials in the block area, or maybe even more targeted work with letters. It can really be immersed in everything. And I think in kindergarten, we task ourselves with finding ways to make sure that it remains at the center of everything.  Whether it’s through a dice game to reinforce skills like subitizing, and one-to-one correspondence, as Tu was saying, or going on a scavenger hunt to find objects that begin with a certain sound.

Or having a more open-ended experience with friends in the dramatic play area. I think children learn by doing. And that doing is playing. And the more we integrate that into all domains of curriculum, I think the more we set them up for success. 

DAWN: Thank you for that, Laurie.

TU: I really want to connect to what Laurie just talked about. That there’s an intentionality about the play that is done. There’s space for open-ended playing, which is incredibly valuable for kindergarteners, for them to explore and negotiate. And just grow their own independence. 

But in addition to that open-ended playing, there’s that very strategic playing that the teachers are employing within their curriculum. They’re embedding skills into play. And so I think that’s that in-depth understanding that teachers, that the kindergarten teachers have, that allow children just to engage in activity, fully enjoy it, fully be engaged in it because they think they’re playing. But  within that, those children are still able to build the foundations of the academic skills that they need. And so I think that piece is important to highlight, that we have open play and that we have guided play. That’s very strategic as well. 

DAWN: I’m wondering if any of you have thoughts about play during this time, maybe a little more generally. I know that many parents that I’ve spoken to over the past months have really worried about, or put a lot of attention on children’s academic work during this distance learning time. During time when they’re doing school from home. But is there a way that you’re also working with parents and thinking about the importance of play during this time, too? Like, is that something you’re having to negotiate a little bit?

AMALIA: I think it’s something that we’re working in partnership with our families. And that partnership entails communicating about the ways that we’re doing play, and how it may look and feel a little different this year, whether we’re sitting in a breakout room and guiding students through a dramatic play of being underwater, or pretending like you’re all sort of these heroes in a story, and building a world of imagination in four little squares on Zoom. And kids won't even notice it, because they’re building language off of each other. They’re — and that’s learning, right? You’re learning about language. You’re exploring language while you’re playing together, whether it’s onsite, it’s that social-emotional learning piece that we talk to families about. 

You know, we give them language to have individuality. To find themselves. To communicate with others. Things that may feel really good while they’re playing with someone. Things that, maybe they don’t like when a friend does something. Sort of the language piece that goes into play, whether it’s structured by us or it’s during recess and they’re seeking support from us to help them navigate those relationships. And providing them with the language, and that independence to navigate a world of play on their own with a lot of independence, and empowering students in their play and in their imagination, and in navigating this new ever-changing world and still finding the joy in playing and meeting new people, and building those relationships with each other.

LAURIE: Yeah. And to build off what Amalia was just sharing and thinking about. Tu, before you used the language of intentionality. I think about — Amalia had this great idea when we were kind of introducing our math-manipulative boxes, and just kind of exploring the different mathematical tools in there but in a completely fully open-ended way. So maybe it’s like, we’re on this vehicle and it’s broken. And everything in this box is going to help us get to where we need to go. It might be the jungle, it might be space, it might be underwater. So then it’s about the way we communicate what a moment like that is like, and all of the learning embedded in that, to our families. To parents. To say, like, “Oh. During this particular activity, we noticed this child was using the cubes and created an A-B-A-B pattern with color.” Really, every moment of that more open-ended play that happens, there’s so much learning in that play, that we then have the power and responsibility to — especially to adults who might feel more concerned about those academic pieces. Of, like, “But look at X, Y, and Z.”

Amalia was just talking about kind of that social negotiation piece, of friends needing to talk about their feelings when something doesn't feel okay. And how might you check in? Do you think about all of the oral language development that happens there, right? What it means to read somebody’s body language. Their facial expression. What words will you use to then express yourself? How do you show you’re thoughtfully listening? It’s all connected.

DAWN: Yeah. I just want to call out how remarkable it is that you all have held and reconceived play for these online experiences that children are having. It’s really profound, to think of all the work you’ve had to put in. To still honoring play in this very different environment.

TU: There is a huge piece of that where when I sit down and talk with the kindergarten team, we acknowledge that there’s a reality check for us in this current environment, where we know that children interact and play — we look for opportunities for them to play in person. And we try to recreate that virtually. And we know there are limitations to that.

And I think that’s why we’ve discussed as a team that we extend this work and invite families into this. To help them understand that, you know, there are so many play opportunities that can happen at home. It could happen when one of our students, one of our kindergarteners, is cooking with Mom or cooking with Dad. Or it could happen when we are taking a walk outside and noticing just the signs of fall before us. 

Just all of those pieces, in this current structure, it has compelled us to extend our partnership, definitely, into the home space, to invite parents into fostering opportunities for play. So that’s a piece I think that is important for us to highlight. That that is something that is happening as well.

DAWN: So, there’s nothing like watching kindergarteners fall in love with writer’s workshop and become proud authors. Amalia, I believe it was in your class a few years ago that the culture of excitement around writer’s workshop got so intense that children would say “Aw” if writer’s workshop wasn’t on your schedule when you went through the schedule in the morning. I wonder if you could share a little about how you build that culture of joy and intention around what we sometimes think of as that more sort of academic work.

AMALIA: Yeah. And I remember this vividly. It’s always so, so funny to see. And you want to give them time, but sometimes there isn’t time. But, you know, I think it all starts with building and fostering a relationship with them. I think that applies to everything that you do with five-year-olds. You know, it’s sort of fostering a relationship of trust, and a great foundation of friendship and, in the sense of understanding that things will be tricky, and trusting that we, as their partners in learning, we’re going to help them get through that.

And that works from the beginning of the school year, and from the moment that we start building a relationship with our friends. And then we go into more exploration of many things that are related to academic work, but they don’t even feel academic, right? And it’s exploring it through play, and setting up provocations with different letters in the alphabet. Sort of leaning into their own curiosities and wonderings about the world around them. Finding print wherever they are, whether it’s on the train, in a box of something that they love to eat. And then from there, we get into this mode of storytelling. Five-year-olds love to tell stories, whether it’s a made-up story that comes from their beautiful imagination, or they’re experts at something and they just want to tell it.

And so that’s what makes this work so joyful. Is that it’s about them. And they lead this work. And they have a great sense of ownership. And that’s when we get the, “Aw, I want more time telling you my story! I want more time telling you about this cool number I just found.” It’s all about the trust that we have with them, that leans into that joy. And it’s the amount of intention that we put into getting to know them as learners, and the way that we explore the world together.

DAWN: Thank you, Amalia. Tu, Laurie, do you have anything about that that you’d like to share?

LAURIE: This was just a quick little anecdote. Amalia and I were actually meeting yesterday with our incredible teaching partners, Mellasenah and Sally, thinking about writing workshop, and how we are going to continue to lay those building steps in getting into it. And it just feels really exciting. And we were talking additionally as children, as Amalia was saying, how five-year-olds are storytellers in everything that they do. Thinking about ways to also tell those stories as a community. And thinking about creating community books together if there’s a topic or a more broad idea, and having every person contribute their page of their story. The page, the part that feels truthful and reflective of them. And then there’s that piece of learning that happens right when you put all of those together and think about this community book that you’ve created, that has the voices and ideas and experiences of everybody in your community. So that writing, reading, literacy piece, can be such a beautiful part of the classroom culture.

DAWN: For sure. And actually, hearing you say that, Laurie, makes me think about the books that I see on your shelves. And this is in kindergarten. And then also in your fours/fives class, this idea of the importance of making sure that all the voices and many identities are represented in the books on your shelf. I wonder if you can share a little bit, any of you, about how you think about the stories that you surround children with, too. Or the information you surround children with.

TU: I think it’s acknowledging that school is a part of life. And in kindergarten, it’s an opportunity to have children come in and talk about the world and their experiences. And to have these honest conversations about what their world entails.

And to address those head-on. And at Blue School, we make space to affirm all the different identities that children come into our space with. And you’ll see that in the books that you just talked about, in Laurie’s classroom. There’s a lot of intentionality in how books are picked, because we want to challenge what are societal norms of what is accepted. We want to honor voices that may not typically have as much power in society. But they are all part of our fabric. 

And so in kindergarten, because children are — they’re craving just understanding of the world. What we do is that we make space for those conversations. We do address what’s happening in the world. And I can talk about this from the elections just past. Election night and the aftermath. And we’re still in the process of figuring out where the nation is headed. But those are conversations that teachers engage with. So I know kindergarten have had conversations with children to process the elections. And again, that’s just an example of how school is part of life. And so when there are things that happen at home or in the world, those become extensions in the classroom that we do talk about. I hope I answered a little bit of the intentionality of how we talk about things, and the books that are in the classrooms.

DAWN: Uh-huh. Laurie, Amalia, do you have anything you want to add to that? 

AMALIA: Yeah. I would — thank you, Tu, for sharing that. And that reminds me of the books that are surrounding our students as a part of, “Oh, I can identify with that book.” Or, “We as a community can identify with that book.” In my years of teaching five-year-olds, teaching kindergarten, I’ve grown to see the love for books that children have. And it’s almost like surreal, how much when you put a book in front of them, how the little things that maybe as a grown-up, you’re reading it, you may not have noticed there was a brown child playing with a toy, or something like that. They pay attention to those details, right? And they’re like, “Oh, that person looks like me and I can play that game.” 

So it’s sort of like, how can we celebrate the differences in our community and come together to share that joy through a book? And that’s the intention that goes around what book is on display. What book are we going to read? What book can the children — walk into a classroom, even in a virtual classroom, and see themselves in? And be like, “Oh, wow. That reminds me of something that I just thought about. Or a piece of my imagination. Or it reminds me of a way that my family and I share around the table.” You know. So it’s really exploring with the lens that we celebrate the diversity in our classroom.

LAURIE: Yeah. I would add, to also say that I think over the past few years especially, as educators, we’ve really been tasked with not only thinking about the content of the stories in the books on the shelves, and the characters in those stories, but who is telling the stories, who were the authors and illustrators. 

DAWN: Yes. Thank you so much for sharing that. So, I’d love to talk about big studies. How do you lay that groundwork for the big study? How do you incorporate children’s questions and ideas and previous knowledge into your planning? And I guess maybe even if you could just share what a big study is, what our hopes for big studies are. 

TU: Big studies are a months-long or year-long dive into an area that allow children to explore a topic in-depth, to really think and ponder and wonder about a topic. And I think what’s really beautiful is that they originate from students’ interests. And that comes from how our kindergarten teachers know who these learners are when they’re walking through the door. And we’re paying attention.

So there may be a class that is really fascinated by birds. Or there may be a class that come in and are paying attention to the shadows that form when we’re on Play Street. And so we’re really paying attention to what children love, and what they’re talking about. What they’re curious about when they come in. And those become the foundation for some possibilities for big studies. And so it may be that children have a lot of interest in one area, and teachers will take that and run with it. And to say, you know, “There’s this class who are fascinated by birds. And we’re going to go from that.” 

And it starts off by asking children and acknowledging that they come in with just so much information. And we say, “Hey. What do you know?” Or like, “Tell me everything you know about this topic. Tell me everything you know about birds.” And so we collect that schema, and we bring in that schema, of what it is that children already come in with. And we capture their wonderings. 

And through intentional building of that big study during the course of the year — so, teachers would also have mapped out, where might the study go? And that is such a beautiful part of the journey. That we’ll sit down and map out, where might this path, where might it go based on kindergarteners’ interests, all about birds? We’ll map out different possible paths to think about. But what’s always very beautiful about a big study is that the kindergarteners will take us on a different path. They might touch on some of those pieces that we anticipate will come up in, say, a study about birds. But what normally happens, what typically happens, is that children will take us on a different journey altogether. That’s what’s powerful. It’s that this — it’s this ongoing topic. And months-long deep dive, that really allow children to become experts. To become — and it’s also this area, because it’s so cross-content and integrated, it allows children to showcase what they are doing as readers. What they are doing as writers and mathematicians. Because in a big study, we’re pulling in all those different content areas.

And so it’s really this incredible opportunity for wonder. For exploration, for deep thinking. And an opportunity for children to really synthesize on their own what they’re learning during the course of the year.

AMALIA: I wanted to add that, at least for this specific age group, big study always starts with big questions. Whether they come in with lots of information, some students may not. And so because it’s a big study that incorporates our entire community of learners, we start by asking these really big questions through different provocations. Once we see, like — let’s say for example they’re all building castles. Whether they like to realize it or not, in their own way, through art or through block-building, or hands-on material building, right, sometimes it’s very beautiful to see that they all come in with a shared interest. 

And so, how do we lean into that? How do we set up provocations for the launch of our big studies? And it all starts with a big question. A huge wondering that we have, that it’s like, “Well, we’ve got to do some research. We’ve got to do some data collecting. Let’s explore our community, to see. To answer that big question. How can we answer that question?” And it’s a question that leads us into deeper thinking. More curiosities. And then tying our big study into our community, either by looking at our neighborhoods, looking at — you know. It’s a beautiful thing to experience and to witness how it then taps into different content areas that we’re working along with our kindergarteners.

DAWN: Thank you so much for that. Laurie, coming from pre-primary, and thinking about this really important bridge between early childhood and primary school, I wonder if you could share some of the aspects of materials work or identity work, or a focus on building voice or agency or autonomy, that you see connecting fours to Ks.

LAURIE: Yeah. I mean, the exciting thing about identity work and materials work and voice, what you’re talking about, is they never stop being important no matter how old you are.

DAWN: Right -- Absolutely.

LAURIE: That whether you’re two, or three, four, five, 12, 30, 60, you’re always going to bring all parts of yourself into every experience you have. And I think at five years old, especially after a year of really doing the work of understanding what it means to take on the perspectives of those outside of yourself, as your community expands, as you develop continued friendships and encounter more people in your expanding world — after that perspective-taking happens, and just developing that ability, then there’s that real opportunity to be thinking deeper about yourself and your own identity, as well as the identities of those around you.

And beginning to really have deep conversations about who we are, and who we are as people and together. At Blue School, there’s a real responsibility to teach the whole child. Which means honoring every experience and every identity in the classroom. When I first came to Blue School, my amazing co-teacher introduced me to the idea of thinking about identity as a person’s outside stories and inside stories. How someone might present to the world. What you see when you look at me, what I see when I look in the mirror. And then inside stories, right? Those stories that are in each of our hearts, and only for us as individuals to express.

In kindergarten, as children expand their oral language development as well, we talk a lot about language. People being in charge of the words they use to describe themselves. We talk and model thoughtful listening to others, to truly learn and consider their ideas. And then apply the new language that we learn. And I don't know. I think that thoughtful listening and learning is — that fosters empathy. And I think adults need to be better at it too, right? when we’re having conversations about identities, or trying to just learn information that might be new about somebody’s experience that might be different than us, that listening, and then what you do with that information you glean, is so incredibly powerful. 

It supports us in our ability to be advocates and allies for one another, and finding what commonalities we have and how we are different. And how both of those things are so incredibly important. I’m thinking — a conversation we had with our children this year in regards to thinking about gender. And young children are going to have those kind of binary ideas about gender, right? That pink is for girls and blue is for boys, and you can like superheroes, but I can't like princesses. And again, thinking about the books we have on our shelves, we really hear the conversations that are coming up, lean into them, but never tell children information. We let them come to this nuanced, nonbinary understanding about gender on their own. We have them create heart maps to show some things that are in their own individual inside stories. And share them with one another. 

And what happens is, naturally, you end up seeing that divide, right? Like, “Oh, wait. But you call yourself a boy and I call myself a girl, but we both have pictures of our dogs in our heart map.” Or, “We both like to play soccer.” And there’s not one thing that’s only for one person or one gender identity. We think about that, in terms of thinking about the materials work piece that we have, and how materials work can be connected to identity. 

We did an activity — we have these little wooden peg people. And they were all the same just light shade of wood. So after having  read books that, again, as Amalia and Tu and I were sharing before, books that show the beautiful range of colors that we are, and having conversations about race, thinking about how we could transform these wooden peg people. And how we were doing painting and color mixing, and then naming those colors. And within that work, as you just sit and observe children engaging with materials, natural more deep conversations about race emerge. And how we are then supporting and scaffolding them. And so with that painting, right, you think about children’s ability to transform materials. And this is what really — this is what I fell in love with in the pre-primary division. The classrooms. And this carries over into both Amalia’s classroom and mine as well, I think. The importance of surrounding yourself with beautiful things and loose parts and collections and natural materials. And when you work with materials, how children discover their own power in transforming materials, and their ability to create and make and alter. And then how you can use those loose parts and natural materials in your more academic learning.

We did, I know in both of our classes — we had children around their homes create treasure boxes, and find the collections of things that they have in their homes. And then maybe you do a math exploration, where you’re asking children to open up their treasure boxes, lay out their treasures, and sort them by category. Maybe they put some seashells in a group together because they’re all circle shape. Or maybe they have another object that has a different texture or physical attribute.

We invite children — we did an activity using ten frames, a mathematical too for one-to-one correspondence and subitizing. And we referred to them as trains. And when we invited children to kind of tell a story with their trains, using their natural materials or any kind of material, really. And having some characters get on the train, and others go off. And then noticing, “Oh, wait. And then there were four stones. There’s room for six more! They called to their friends, ‘Come on the train! Come on the train!’ And one would come on, and then another.” And you hear their number thinking. And one child used these beautiful stones and gems, and referred to it as the sparkle train.   

So, again, how you can connect those materials. And in that work, learn about children’s identity as learners. And think about identity, materials work, and academic learning as this unit that exists in kindergarten. 

DAWN: Oh, that was so beautifully-said. Thank you so much, Laurie.


DAWN: I want to close with a question about balance. At Blue School we talk so much about balance, especially this balance of — and I feel like, Laurie, you were just getting at this — the balance of academic mastery and self and social intelligence and creative thinking. And I wonder if any of you have more to share about how that balance between and amongst those priorities plays out in kindergarten, or plays out with five-year-olds.

TU: Laurie, thank you so much for sharing what you just talked about. I was so excited to hear about it, because I thought it captures so well how these three components—these are foundational elements of the kindergarten experience. And not just in K, but throughout primary. But I thought the example that you talked about, about how children bring in their collections.

So, they’re bringing in their identities to the classroom. And as teachers, there’s so much intentionality in the crafting of a lesson. Where students are just experiencing that as an expression of themselves. But there’s the math component. Right? And so it’s that type of intentionality that does happen in the kindergarten program. 

And I just want to start by acknowledging that creative thinking piece. And that I know kindergarteners, they come in bringing these gifts of curiosity and creativity. And that’s just who they are as four and five-year-olds. And it’s how they see the world. And so we can give them a provocation, like a piece of cloth. Or we can give them a provocation like asking them to see possibilities in the loose parts, and these treasures in their home. It can become different things. A piece of cloth can become a cape, or a piece of cloth can become a fort. 

Those are all how children just naturally — like, these kindergarteners just naturally process the world. And it’s our job, I would say in kindergarten, to help them learn how to then express that ingenuity. That resourcefulness, and that inventive spark. So that’s where that creative thinking piece — like, we center on that. it connects so well with the academic mastery part. 

we have academic mastery within content areas like literacy and math and science, social studies and the arts. And those are all core parts of our kindergarten program. And the academic mastery become the toolset by which students then can express their thinking.

DAWN: Right.

TU: To extend their thinking. Yeah. And so it’s this incredible connection between those two components. so our intention with academic mastery is for the kindergartens then to have the tools to revise and to challenge, to explain, and to teach their thinking. And I would say further that academic mastery in kindergarten is not just having a solid foundation in literacy skills and early numeracy skills. It is also developing that mindset. And Amalia talked about it much earlier. About that mindset, to love learning. And Laurie talked about it, too. How to engage with one another in a very purposeful way to make understanding of the world.

And it brings me to that third element of self and social intelligence. And I would say kindergarten is the year of guiding students to negotiate who they are as individuals within a community. And it’s a year where we’re helping them understand and build friendships, and negotiating relationships, and learning to use their small but incredibly big voice in a way to communicate their thinking. I think that is incredibly powerful, to let kindergarteners know that they have this empowering voice. And that it does set us up later for them to know that that is the tool by which they become change agents For themselves and for one another. And so I think it’s those three elements, and how they play out in kindergarten, are incredibly important.    

DAWN: What you just said, thank you, Tu, it made me think, Amalia, about your classroom last year and the work that you did in a big study around playgrounds that then became not only about students understanding themselves, but really advocating for each other. Understanding how they could use their voice in advocacy, in support. Can you share a little bit about that big study?

AMALIA: Yeah, I’m happy to. It was such a beautiful moment in my life, honestly. Because we started by sort of leaning into their interests, right? Which was going to the playground together and looking at slides. And in one day having a conversation of the exploration of the different parts of a playground, a student suddenly, like — you could see the lightbulb in their eyes. Sort of like, “Oh my gosh. I just realized this, and I’ve got to share it.” And so we called on this student, and they shared that they noticed that they only see people like them at the playground. And I was like, “Well, what do you mean by that?” Sort of asking them to tell us more, because I was really curious what that even meant.

And the child said, “Well, I don’t see children in a wheelchair at the playground. I don’t see children that, maybe they can't see or they can't hear. What if I had a little sibling who needed a wheelchair? How are they going to go up the stairs in the playground?” And sort of — I stopped doing the talking, and they were just — had a moment of spit balling this whole idea together. And my co-teacher and I just sat there in borderline tears, sort of like, “This is what we’re going to study.”

And it led to this beautiful march around our neighborhood, advocating for JennSwings in our playground. We started writing to representatives. And we really sort of explored, like, “If I have something to say, if I want to make a difference, how can I do that?” We looked at different change-makers. Whether it was like, Martin Luther King — we had students that were really interested in learning about him in general. So he had a voice. He had something to say. How did he do it? And we learned about that at the beginning of the school year. We looked at Maya Angelou and how she advocated through her writing. And kids were writing letters, making these beautiful signs around the school. We found ways to sign a petition. 

And so it became this beautiful thing, advocating for people with different abilities, and finding the language to use when referring to people with different and diverse abilities. It was a beautiful thing, and you know, we still think about it in that way of really leaning into their curiosities and the sparks that they bring in. Where you as a teacher walk in, and you’re like, “Today we’re going to learn about playgrounds.” And suddenly they’re like, “No, we’re not. We’re going to look into that a little deeper.”  

DAWN: Yeah.

AMALIA: So that felt really, really good, and really wholesome. And it really flourished a lot of their advocacy and their student voice as a community. Because it wasn’t just one child. It was this beautiful community moment, where some kids were working on science, other kids were working on building structures that would be accessible by all children, not just one. And it became this sort of — like, all children should have access to this thing that we all like to play. 

DAWN: Thanks, Amalia. So, I thank all of you so much for your time this morning. It’s been so lovely to hear your voices and your stories. 

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