It's a delicate dance in early childhood education these days. Teachers, principals, SETAs (Special Education Teacher Assistants), and administrators must manage the outsized expectations of policymakers and parents alike, while unlocking the imaginations of their tiny charges.
Universal preschool (UPK) brings both promise and peril. Still, it is seen as the most viable approach to giving all children a chance to thrive, says Steven Antonelli, with whom I recently spoke.
Antonelli, who began his career as a classroom teacher, runs Bank Street Head Start on the Lower East Side of New York City. Here are excerpts from our conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What does a typical Head Start classroom look like?
A good preschool classroom includes a block area, a dramatic play area, a science area, a library, and an arts area. At the beginning of each day, during what’s called free play time, children decide which area to play in. As teachers try to assess the creative impulses of each child, they try to find creative opportunities to address areas of strength and challenge. So, suppose you have a child who is very strong in speech but not quite as developed in fine motor skills. If the child goes to the block area, a teacher might engage him in conversation at a fairly sophisticated level about the structure he’s building. Meanwhile, the teacher will encourage the child to work with the blocks to build his fine motor skills.
How many hours are the children in school each day?
Seven. We go from 8:30 to 3:30.
That sounds like a long day.
It’s certainly more difficult for some children than for others. You have to remember that preschool has always been about allowing parents to pursue work and other goals in their life. There’s an element of serving the family’s needs, too, by extending the school day.
What happens at 3:30, when many parents are still at work?
In two-parent families, one parent might be working and another not. Or a babysitter or other family member may pick up the child.
In New York City, ACS [Administration for Children’s Services] has a service that extends from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There are kids who spend much more time in a preschool setting than at home with their families. But this is reflective of the reality of how much parents work.
We’re planning to extend one of our classrooms next fall to 5:30 to help families who really struggle with the 3:30 pick-up of children.
Could you describe how a teacher takes cues from a child to foster engagement?
That’s reflective of what I was talking about earlier, the balance between teacher-directed and student-directed learning. For example, a teacher may have an elaborate lesson planned for the day, based on a story or a concept that she wants to put across. If a child walks in and on the way to school has seen a fire and fire trucks, for the teacher to try to do the lesson that was planned, and ignore the fact that this child is excited about the concept of fire and fire trucks and community, would be foolish. It would be wasting an opportunity where the child is really engaged and ready to learn. To ignore the child’s experience is just poor methodology.
That’s a dramatic example. But there are many lesser examples, where a child may have a sibling born into the house or the father may get a job, or the child may be witnessing conflict in the house. Children begin to mention these things because in a classroom environment, they bring their home life and experiences into the classroom. A good teacher is observant of that and begins to design activities around the kinds of things that they know their students are experiencing.
About how much time is spent on reading in a typical day?
The environment is print-rich. There are always books in the classroom, and they’re not necessarily just in the “library” area. Books are likely to be distributed throughout the various areas. For example, in the science area, there might be books about animals. In the block area, there might be books about trucks and construction materials.
Time is typically set aside in the morning and in the afternoon for reading. The teacher will very often read a story aloud at that time. During the day, if the teacher has an opportunity and knows that the child responds well to it, he or she may just take one or two children aside and read a story quickly. That’s often an activity for which we have parent volunteers. We may have parents read stories to an individual child. So there’s a lot of reading that goes on, but it’s not necessarily a group activity of reading aloud. There’s also singing and discussion and physical activity, but reading is definitely a core activity.
Do you encourage parents to read and sing with their children at home?
Yes. One of the things that happens in preschool, particularly with the population we serve, where we sometimes have parents who didn’t have successful school experiences themselves, they’ll come in with unrealistic expectations of what they want their child to learn at three and four years old. We have to try to enlighten parents that learning through play is essential, and we don’t want to be drilling children on the alphabet.
Occasionally, we have parents who say to us about their three- or four-year-old child: “I want my child to have homework every night.” What I say to them is, “Your child doesn’t have homework. You have homework. Read to your child tonight.”
What about the seeping down of standards like the Common Core into preschool classrooms?
The Common Core is not the first set of standards that preschool educators have had to meet. Even in Head Start, there was a whole system called the “learning domains,” which defined various outcomes that children should reach. So it’s not completely new. The Common Core describes comprehensively and well a lot of the essential things that we’d like to see children learn, even in a preschool setting. The problem with the Common Core, from my view, is the amount of testing assessment that is required, to document that students are reaching these various milestones. It’s very time-consuming, and it can be stressful for children, who even at three and four can tell when they’re being assessed and don’t always react well to that.
In terms of academics being driven down into preschool, that’s definitely a fact. We have that pressure from parents, and occasionally we feel that pressure from the Department of Education. They want to make sure that children have various cognitive outcomes. But from our view, for preschool, one of our main goals is just having children be socially and emotionally ready to learn and be able to exist and thrive in this whole world of school that they’re going to be in for the next 12 or 16 years. We really focus on that in preschool, having children learn how to express themselves, how to feel safe and secure with adult teachers, how to share and how to wait their turn, and how to feel confident about speaking in front of other children.
The key is having them be excited about coming to school. I love it in the morning when I see kids tugging their parents down the street to get to school faster. That’s when I know that we’re doing something right. If we have children who have that attitude, that’s something that’s very hard to measure by an assessment. But if we succeed in that, they’re going to do fine.
Do your three- and four-year-olds have to take assessments?
Three times a year, we have to use an assessment system to record their progress in various areas: physical development, social and emotional development, language development, cognitive areas like counting and letter recognition, and so on.
No one’s being held back in preschool. But completing the report takes a lot of time, and we share it with parents. In some cases, it may be appropriate if it raises their awareness about how a child is doing. Most of the time, it just ends up feeding into this sort-of report card mentality, which is not what we’re trying to do.
Photo: Suzanne McCabe