Having the Courage to Inquire with Kids

Posted 06/27/16
Last updated 06/27/16

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Abstract: 

In July 2013, the Professional Dyads and Culturally Relevant Teaching (PDCRT) program was created to provide a space for supporting early childhood school-based educators of color who teach children of color, English Language Learners, and children from low-income communities in the formal study, documentation, and dissemination of culturally relevant practices in early childhood classrooms. The Professional Dyads pair teacher educators with practicing teachers as collaborators, while also providing mentorship in the organization and in developing the stance of teacher as researcher and leader. The program was developed by the Affirmative Action Committee of the Early Childhood Education Assembly (ECEA) of the National Council of Teachers of English, and is now supporting its second cohort of dyads. The following article sharing the current work of two current dyads has been reprinted here with permission, having first appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of ECE Assembly of NCTE News (pdf).

“Can we listen to ‘I Heart Memphis’?”

“Is our neighborhood good? Is it bad? Are there murders?” 

These were questions raised by children in Shashray McCormack’s kindergarten at Mill Creek Elementary and Janelle Henderson’s 2nd grade classroom at JB Atkinson Academy in the Jefferson County Public School district in Louisville, Kentucky. Shashray and Janelle partner with University of Louisville faculty members Kathryn F. Whitmore and Tasha Tropp Laman as part of ECEA’s Professional Dyads and Culturally Relevant Teaching (PDCRT) program. U of L doctoral students Emily Zuccaro and Tytianna Wells Smith support the work of the Kentucky Dyads.

 We’ve taken advantage of numerous learning opportunities on the road to shaping a culturally responsive curriculum for Shashray and Janelle’s classrooms. In late August, we participated in a self-guided Civil Rights Tour through Louisville to explore our community’s rich history. In November, we loved meeting with PDCRT Dyads from across the country at NCTE in Minneapolis.

During the spring 2016 we organized our work around developing inquiry-based curriculum that creates equitable, multimodal spaces for young learners and honors their interests and questions. Shashray’s students traced their love of contemporary hip-hop music back to its roots of jazz and spirituals. Janelle’s students deepened their understanding about their neighborhood and asked tough questions about where they live. These curricular moves were risky for both teachers because they broke from typical planning practices in their schools and district, and they pushed against normative topics and themes. 

“Music Makes Me Feel”

Painting to musicShashray understood the importance of music and dance in her students’ lives—they loved “Hit the Quan” and “Watch Me (Whip and Nae Nae)”. She wanted to broaden their knowledge of the many genres of music that reflected the African American history of most of the children in the class. We helped Shashray organize her physical classroom space and build a rich library of picture books, taking care to make sure the books were always accessible and that their main characters and themes emphasized content about African American historical and contemporary music. We developed hands-on engagements that emphasized art and science: children sketched and played with different musical instruments, discovered sounds with materials in plastic eggs, and painted to music. A jazz ensemble and an Irish folk duo shared their knowledge as guest speakers.

Student response to musicEach morning Shashray invited her students to journal as they listened to a new song, and over the weeks of the inquiry the students’ writing exploded! The children were inspired to draw with detail, invent musical notation, and share personal connections. Kendrick wrote that Marion Anderson’s “Deep River” made him “feel like praying” and John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” led Aaliyah to describe dancing with her granny in the kitchen. Zion told Shashray one morning, “Guess what, I heard jazz at Olive Garden last night, and my mama asked me how did I know that, and I said I learned it at school!”

What’s Good in the Hood? 

Janelle and her second graders read a local newspaper article about their West Louisville neighborhood that featured residents’ and nonresidents’ perspectives about the community. Janelle’s students commented about the crime they saw and wonderings about if their neighborhood was “good.” Their responses inspired Janelle to choose neighborhoods as an inquiry topic, which launched a large-scale project that evolved over the rest of the school year. 

Janelle planned a written conversation that invited children to respond to photos she took around the neighborhood. She hoped the activity would deepen students’ perceptions and help them find evidence of the positive aspects of the community. Students were so enthusiastic they asked Janelle questions like, “Can I write a story about this photo?” These led to students writing informational, fictional, and opinion pieces about where they live.

Students review community bus mapsMaps were an integral part of this study. Students tried to find their homes on local bus system maps. When they couldn’t, Janelle went to the local library to collect maps that included places that were familiar to the children. She found a website that allowed her to make a map that marked location for each of the children’s homes. Children also created their own maps—of their rooms at home, their streets, their families, etc.—and loved learning with and from guest speakers, such as a local cartographer who introduced them to nautical maps, using a compass and GPS, and answered their questions about mapmaking and owning a business.

At the end of the study, children were still wrestling with their initial questions and feelings about their neighborhood. Kimeri recognized that, “There are a lot of businesses in the neighborhood.” Jayla said, “I learned that our neighborhoods are not the same and there can be crime. Our neighborhood isn’t the best, but I think it’s good for me.” 

Community leader discusses leadershipAs we think about our next year as the Kentucky Dyads, we continue to conceptualize culturally relevant spaces for young children’s learning via inquiry studies. Our intentions are to: 

  • Expand the initial inquiries we describe here. Shashray’s kindergarten team will join her to teach the music inquiry again and widen it to a study of Hip Hop. Janelle will take her neighborhood inquiry further into a historical perspective and develop a second inquiry with a third-grade colleague.
  • Continue to improve our documentation strategies. We plan to visit each other’s classrooms regularly, and refine our teacher research skills.
  • Increase our attention on connections to families and the community and bring families more actively and intentionally into our inquiries.