On April 21st and 22nd, Bank Street College of Education hosted an inspiring and much-needed conference called the “Teaching Kindergarten Conference: Where Did Our Garden Go? Practice, Policy, and Advocacy.” Over 200 teachers, school leaders, and policy makers from all over the country and world, including Chile, Romania, and Nigeria, gathered in New York City to consider the unique and important role of kindergarten in the life of a child. The conference grew out of deep concern about the push-down of academic standards and pressures placed on Kindergarten teachers and the students they teach, and centered around how we as educators can “push up” from developmentally and experientially informed perspectives to advocate for healthy practices in kindergarten. Keynote speakers presented current research on learning and development and its implication for kindergarten practice, while workshops engaged participants in interactive sessions on project-based learning, literacy, math, music, blocks, science, field trips, family engagement, and more.

Some of the highlights included:

Dr. Derrick Gay, consultant to educational, artistic, and philanthropic organizations around the world on issues of diversity, inclusion, and global citizenship transporting us to a time when kindergarten was full of music, play, arts, and blocks through discussion and song. We were even treated to his performance of “Deep River”:

Dr. Gay presented research showing that kindergarten classrooms today are 4-6 times more focused on literacy and numeracy than play, and on average spend 20 minutes a day on test preparation. At the end of his address, he left us with questions about reimagining kindergarten that were considered throughout the remainder of the conference, including:

  • “What would an ideal kindergarten look like?”
  • “What is the vision of kindergarten that is developmentally appropriate while also providing equitable access to all students?”
  • “In light of changing demographics, how do we differentiate teaching and learning to support all students – learning styles, race, gender, SES, religion, etc.?”
  • “What does learning-centered kindergarten look like within a paradigm of high-stakes testing and different parental and societal expectations?”

Dr. Lesley Koplow, Director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice at Bank Street College, grounding our thinking in “reclaiming the garden” in an understanding of who the five-year old is. She posits that the core developmental issue for the five-year old is one of power versus powerlessness. It is critical that the kindergarten classroom provide time, space, and respect for symbolic play through which children can explore this theme. Regarding academic standards and tasks, school can be empowering if students are given opportunities to explore their learning at a level that is appropriate to them. If the five-year old is not up to the tasks asked of him or her, s/he becomes vulnerable to feeling incompetent, and powerlessness thus lives in the classroom. Effective teachers in this era need to become “bilingual,” as Dr. Koplow describes it. That is, we must learn the language of the Common Core so as to be able to apply it to developmentally appropriate practices. Meaningful accountability, she argues, is knowing development and the individual child in front of you.

Susan Harris and Henry Chapin, music educators (and our own SEC integration team member!) actively engaging us in music for building community and engaging in social justice. Additionally, we considered how songs and musical games can be used as tools for skill development and for assessment. Watch some of it in action here:

Beverly Falk, Professor and Director of the Graduate Programs in Early Childhood Education at The School of Education, The City College of New York, presenting high quality project-based learning occurring at several public and charter schools around New York City. One classroom at PS 244 in Queens, The Active Learning School, engaged in an aviation study, which emerged from the children’s interests in planes they would see flying over their school. The project involved visiting LaGuardia Airport (down the street from the school), creating an airport in the classroom, and integrating the study in all aspects of the curriculum during choice time. Effective teaching, Falk illustrated, needs to infuse standards into meaningful, purposeful experiences connected to children’s interests.

Museum Studies in Kindergarten – Project-based learning presented by Washington Heights school PS 210 kindergarten co-teachers Margaret Blachly and Andrea Fonseca. These teachers shared how they used the process described in Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years to craft an experience-based, integrated, developmentally appropriate curriculum while meeting the demands of a Reading and Writing Workshop bilingual school. Born in part out of a desire to help families learn about the resources of the city, the project entailed visiting museums all around New York City, reflecting on these shared experiences back in the classroom, delving deeper into the learning through dramatic play, blocks, surveys, nonfiction reading and writing, art, and lots of music, and ultimately culminated in planning for and operating the class’s own museum open to families and the school. These wonderful artifacts gave us a sense of how the project unfolded:






Wise words from Yvonne Smith, a veteran teacher who was been teaching kindergarten for 42 years, 32 of those years at Central Park East 1. She described the role of the teacher as “holding up a mirror and helping [children] see what it is they know.” When asked about some of the obstacles that educators currently face, she spoke about critical the role of trust in the classroom, and how challenging it can be to uphold trust when teachers themselves are not trusted. She encouraged us to continue valuing and standing up for the immeasurable.


Dr. Shannon Riley-Ayers, Associate Research Professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, presenting her work with 17 kindergarten teachers in New Jersey to transform their classrooms to be of higher quality. Using the APEEC assessment to evaluate the physical environment, the social context, and the instructional context of the classrooms, Dr. Riley-Ayers, her colleagues, and the classroom teachers illustrated that rigor can be developmentally appropriate.

Sal Vascellaro, course instructor at Bank Street College, and former classroom teacher and head of elementary school, presenting on the essential role of trips in the kindergarten curriculum. Vascellaro described three field trips he took his students on in 1970’s New York City. While walking around the school block with his students, seeing the city through their eyes, Vascellaro noticed three small shops to which the children were particularly drawn: a tailor shop, the shoe repair, and the florist. He spoke with the shop keepers and arranged for the students to visit the work sites in three simultaneously occurring groups. Equipped with clipboards in hand for sketching and questions the students had developed, each group visited their assigned shop to learn about the nature of the work, how it is done, the shopkeeper himself, and had an opportunity to learn and practice one of the skills performed by the shopkeeper, with each group bringing back to the classroom some memento from the trip. Vascellaro shared videos and anecdotes of similarly motivated trips and projects, one at a public school in Memphis that grew out of students’ interest in paper airplanes and took them to the local airport, the other at a private school in Manhattan in which students visited post offices and created and ran their own school post office. The learning that occurred from these instances of “venturing out into the world out there” was different, more visceral, and longer lasting than any other – including other field trips which had been exciting, but more observational –  Vascellaro shared with us, because it enabled the students to experience the connections that exist in the physical and social worlds around them and see how these connections affect their lives. Field trips build on the students’ desire to make sense of the world around them and become active citizens in that world. Check out this inspiring book written by Vascellaro, Out of the Classroom and into the World, to learn more.

“Hopes, Hurdles, and Dreams for Kindergarten” Advocacy Poster – Participants left sticky notes with thoughts about obstacles and possibilities for kindergarten.






www.highqualityearlylearning.org — Includes video examples of high quality learning in early childhood

www.investigatingchoicetime.com — Blog by Renee Dinnerstein that investigates how choice time is used in early childhood classrooms

www.historyofkindergarten.com — A new film about the history of kindergarten is coming out this summer! Watch the trailer and learn more on this website.

www.deyproject.org — Defending the Early Years website. The principal goals of the project are to: “(1) To mobilize the early childhood community to speak out with well-reasoned arguments against inappropriate standards, assessments, and classroom practices. (2) To track the effects of new standards, especially those linked to the Common Core State Standards, on early childhood education policy and practice. (3) To promote appropriate practices in early childhood classrooms and support educators in counteracting current reforms which undermine these appropriate practices.”

www.allianceforchildhood.org — “The Alliance for Childhood promotes policies and practices that support children’s healthy development, love of learning, and joy in living. Our public education campaigns bring to light both the promise and the vulnerability of childhood. We act for the sake of the children themselves and for a more just, democratic, and ecologically responsible future.”

http://nieer.org/ — The National Institute for Early Education Research promotes early learning and development through science and evidence-based policy making.


* Conference Presenters