When Dao Krings, a second-grade teacher at P.S. 145 in New York City, asked how many students had never been inside a car, Tyler Rodriguez was one of several students who raised their hands. “I’ve been inside a bus,” the boy said. “Does that count?”
The anecdote illustrates why teachers at the Brooklyn school regularly take the children in their classrooms on “field trips to the sidewalk,” according to a terrific story in The New York Times that shows how teachers in a high-poverty school increase the background knowledge, vocabulary and comprehension skills of their young students. In the process, the field trips prepare the children to become strong readers.
Reading, as outlined in “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” is a complex process that is as much about comprehension as it is about decoding words on the page. The background knowledge and vocabulary a reader brings to a text are critical ingredients of comprehension. Consider, the Times notes, that “by age 4, the average child in an upper-middle-class family has heard 35 million more words than a poor child.” And one-third of kindergartners from the bottom fifth of the income distribution are read to every day, compared with two-thirds of kindergartners in the wealthiest 20% of households.
“When a new shipment of books arrives, Rhonda Levy, the principal, frets,” the Times reports. “Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge, and cars are not the only gap at P.S. 142. Many of the children have never been to a zoo or to New Jersey. Some think the emergency room of New York Downtown Hospital is the doctor’s office.
‘The solution of the education establishment is to push young children to decode and read sooner, but Ms. Levy is taking a different tack. Working with Renée Dinnerstein, an early childhood specialist, she has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons, in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.”
Thus the sidewalk field trips were born. One such trip was a visit to an auto repair shop. Tyler, for the first time, sat in a car, first in the front seat and then in the back. “It made him feel like the star in one of their library books, ‘Honda, the Boy Who Dreamed of Cars,’” the Times reports.
“In early February the second graders went around the block to study Muni-Meters and parking signs. They learned new vocabulary words, like ‘parking,’ ‘violations’ and ‘bureau.’ JenLee Zhong calculated that if Ms. Krings put 50 cents in the Muni-Meter and could park for 10 minutes, for 40 minutes she would have to put in $2. They discovered that a sign that says ‘No Standing Any Time’ is not intended for kids like them on the sidewalk,” the Times reports.
“One day last week [second grader] Ariana Flores said: ‘We’re going to see a municipal parking garage today. We’re getting a good education.’ When reading, children are taught to make predictions of what is to come in a book, based on a variety of evidence — the cover, chapter headings, foreshadowing. Ms. Krings’s students used their field trip booklets to do the same before their visit to the Delancey and Essex Municipal Parking Garage. Several predicted that drivers would have to pay to get in.”
In addition to instituting sidewalk field trips, the principal added play areas to first and second grade classrooms.
“When Ms. Dinnerstein first came to the school, staff members ran for cover. One of the miseries of being a teacher is that every year, someone shows up from Tweed Courthouse headquarters with a new plan to raise test scores,” the Times reports. “But after four years of academic lessons built around sidewalk trips to the Essex Street Market, the subway, several bridges and a hospital emergency room, Ms. Krings is moved by how much learning goes on.”
The learning occurs because a strong instructional leader propelled a creative, developmentally appropriate approach that integrates play, experience-based curriculum and language to promote literacy and other learning.