Profile of Two Early Childhood Classrooms in DC

The end of the 2016-17 school year marked the completion of the second phase of the Children Are Citizens (CAC) project. Supported by a grant from Fight For Children and serving 17 early childhood-early elementary classrooms across the city, CAC involved six sites: DC Bilingual Public Charter School, E.W. Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, J.O. Wilson Elementary School (DCPS), Sacred Heart School, Seaton Elementary School (DCPS) and Sunshine Early Learning Center. In 2017-18, the project has added two more sites, School Within School at Goding (which was part of the pilot for this project, and who supplied two teachers as mentors in the second year) and Van Ness Elementary School, both of which are part of DCPS. There are 27 classrooms participating this year.

Children Are Citizens takes its inspiration from the practices of the municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, and was developed by early childhood specialists at Project Zero, an educational research group at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. The project is grounded in the belief that children are not just future or hypothetical citizens—rather, they are citizens of the city in the here and now, with the right to express their opinions and participate in the civic and cultural life of Washington, DC.

Over the course of the project, teachers discover that their children are fascinated by aspects of our city such as the Metro and streetcar systems, monuments, museums, Union Station, natural spaces, public sculptures, and playgrounds. In their explorations, children share their work, questions, and feedback across neighborhoods and across schools; in the process they become part of something bigger than themselves.

This post profiles two classrooms from last year’s project: a PreK3 Spanish immersion class from DC Bilingual Public Charter School, and a PreK3-4 French immersion class from E.W. Stokes Public Charter School.

La Casita de Libros

DC Bilingual PreK3 Spanish teacher Catalina Stirling joined the 2016-17 cohort after attending the Washington International School Summer Institute for Teachers (WISSIT): Connecting DC Educators with Project Zero Ideas. Over the course of the autumn and early winter, she spent a number of weeks exploring various possibilities for projects with her young students, many of whom were attending school for the first time.

She grew anxious that the children were seizing on ideas but quickly losing interest. Inspired by a neighborhood walk the teachers took during one of the professional development seminars, Catalina began taking her children out on walks in the Fort Totten neighborhood around the school. One day, serendipitously, an idea took root. In her own words, Catalina writes: “Walking back to school a little tired and a little sad about not being able to find the ‘it’ (i.e., a topic of investigation for the class project), something magical happened. The children saw something near the school and started running toward it. As soon as we got close, they could not stop touching and trying to open it. It was a little house library (“la casita de libros”) and it had BOOKS!!! The best part was trying to open it.”

Catalina sharing a treasure found in one of the little house libraries.

These little libraries became an object of endless fascination by the students. Catalina invited them to continue exploring by creating a special place in the classroom for their investigation. She carefully planned provocations that kept their interest keen. Eventually, they started creating stories about the little libraries. An added bonus through the CAC project was that educators from Imagination Stage partnered with Catalina’s class and visited DCB regularly to inspire storytelling.The children also inspired one another with their ideas. The story created by the students eventually was turned into a play performed as a gift to the class by the specialist teachers in the school.  

The set-up for their own little house library in Catalina’s classroom.

For Catalina, there were powerful lessons learned along the way, among them the power of storytelling: “At times I felt that during this project I was not hearing enough from some students. Some were a little shy, not as comfortable communicating yet. I worked with them by doing some storytelling about the little house library. Storytelling is very important because it encourages children’s emotional involvement with literacy. Storytelling also teaches children that they can communicate their ideas, feelings and thoughts with body language and gestures, not just with words.”

Catalina noted the transformation in her own teaching practice over the course of the year. Her classroom has become truly child-centered. She saw convincing evidence that her students were able to meet the early childhood standards through discovery learning and she eagerly looks forward to what this year’s students will choose to explore. Since completing the project last year, Catalina has joined the faculty of WISSIT and has presented her findings in professional development workshops across the city.

“Some bridges are real and some are pretend.”

In a combined PreK 3-4 French classroom not too far away from DC Bilingual, at E.W. Stokes, teacher Lili Duchene had challenges with her young students similar to Catalina’s. She too began taking the class on walks around in the neighborhood surrounding the school, in Brookland. Documenting their interests, Lili soon came to see that the children were deeply interested in bridges. They began an investigation and discovered that there are many types of bridges. They took walks to see how many different kinds they could find in the neighborhood; they sketched those they came across; they read books about bridges; they worked with an educator from the National Building Museum to play with materials that can make bridges.

Children in Lili’s classroom visit bridges in their neighborhood.

Eventually, the class began to imagine other bridges that could make DC more interesting. They worked collaboratively to design blueprints and consider materials to use. They built models, all the while learning about the strength of materials and adding imaginative elements.

Children create their own bridges.

Guided by Lili, the students synthesized their learning about bridges in their contribution to the Children Are Citizens book: “Not all bridges look the same. Some bridges are real and some are pretend. We can make bridges with our bodies and blocks.

“Bridges have to be very strong to carry all the cars. If they’re not strong, they will fall. If you build a bridge of bricks, be careful because they’re heavy and you could drop them on your toes!”

The children in Catalina’s and Lili’s classrooms–as well as those in the 15 other classrooms that took part in the Children Are Citizens project–experienced powerful learning, driven by their own interests. The teachers learned to facilitate discussion expertly, listened carefully to their students, built curriculum with authentic exploration at the center, and documented the learning along the way.

The ambition of the Children Are Citizens leadership team is to spread this kind of authentic project-based learning across the city in many more classrooms, in all eight wards. Fight For Children’s enthusiastic support is helping to make this dream a reality.