Shanon Greenfield is currently a first grade teacher at Ethical Culture in Manhattan. With an early passion for working with children, she initially entered teaching to support her long term goal of becoming a child therapist. After many years as a NYC elementary public school teacher, she left the classroom to pursue her Master’s in Social Work and worked at places like Bellevue, NYU’s Child Study Center, and then ParentCorps, where she went into urban schools and consulted with teachers, principals and parents on helping inner city kids succeed. As she spent more time working in classrooms, she began to think critically about social, emotional learning, design and materials, and because she never fit into the office job mold, she decided to take what she had spent years learning and apply it in her own classroom.
Kyla Ryman: You are teaching first grade—and you taught my son in first grade. Let’s just put that on the table (he is just starting his first year of college). I want to talk about literacy—what is it that is important or interesting to you?
Shanon Greenfield: I love teaching literacy. It’s connected to self esteem, interaction, communication, and to so many other things. I feel like it’s the thing I use to intertwine everything.
KR: What would you call your philosophy of how you teach reading and writing and literacy?
SG: I believe in an integrated and balanced approach. I use reading to support writing development, and writing to support reading. You can’t have one without the other. When I speak to children about writing, I begin the year by asking “Why do people write?” and “Why do people read?” I spend a lot of time making sure children understand that the purpose of writing is to communicate with others. I support this by having children create authentic writing pieces for an intentional audience, whether it be a letter to a friend or a recount of their weekend. If no one is going to read your writing, what’s the point? I find it is really empowering and helps children develop a natural passion for writing and reading at a very young age. Over time, children learn and are self-motivated to write clearly in terms of handwriting, word choice, punctuation and spelling so that the person reading their writing has enough details, information, and punctuation to understand the message they are trying to communicate. I often say writer’s write for readers, so when you are reading, be sure to look for clues from the writer. I like to use student writing as mentor text for teaching literacy skills. The peer to peer element can be very motivating. Of course, that’s not to say I don’t teach phonics, comprehension, and word study in isolation, because I do and there is definitely value in that. However, there is not a one size fits all model to this work. Everyone is different, with different learning styles and skills. Therefore, before working with students, I believe in taking the time to know them as readers and writers, in terms of their attitudes towards these subjects as well as their specific stage of skill development. Observations early on help me figure out which approach is best and which tool to pull out first.
KR: Do you think your thinking about teaching literacy has shifted, since Sam was in your class 12 years ago?
SG: Yes. In the beginning, I had a limited skill set to draw from. Over time, the more students and parents you work with, the more workshops you attend, books you read, conversations you have with colleagues, and opportunities to watch students develop as they get older, you learn more about yourself as a teacher and what approaches work well for which type of student, family and school environment. At this point, I have a much larger bank of resources to draw from. I am also much more mindful of the type of literacy exposure and opportunities some children have versus others. In some school environments and with some classes, I need to spend more time on beginning phonetic and vocabulary development than I do in others. As a result, I am able to move a group of students and/or individuals further along the line of development, depending on their prior knowledge and exposure.
KR: Is your school affected by common core at all?
SG: No. One of the advantages of working in a private school is that you are are not required to follow Common Core. You have the ability to make curricular decisions to support the needs of your students and school community.
KR: PS234 was a fascinating school to work in. The whole social studies work, which is going to be phased out because of common core, was brilliant.
SG: Brilliant! It is the basis of everything I continue to do. It is the core foundation of everything. I begin with a what the students are wondering about and teach to that. I have the flexibility to take a trip to the park, bookstore, bakery...wherever, to conduct research and interview workers. It’s real learning in action.
KR: And the way teachers planned together made everything so much richer.
SG: It was so rich, and there was so much positive collaboration, yet still room for a teacher’s choice and flexibility. Our meetings were well run and based in conversations about teaching and learning. I also think they were so productive because regardless of years teaching, we all believed in the approach and came from a similar “progressive teaching” mindset. The end of study celebrations were my favorite, it was an opportunity for students to share learning with family, friends and the school community, which in turn supported a wonderful home school connection. It was also a way for me to tap into my creative spirit. Where else could I have been a part of turning the classroom into a bakery, a shoe store, a restaurant, and produced two student written and led musicals on snails and bookstores… among many other things! In fact, I wouldn’t be teaching if I wasn’t able to continue working this way.
KR: I think people are leaving in droves because common core is changing so much of what you can do.
SG: It’s hard to visualize the changes. It was so magical, and you know what we did a lot of? We went into to each other’s classrooms and there were so many inter-classroom visits. That was very special. We learned from each other constantly. Learning was visible throughout the building—classroom celebrations were open to the entire school community. There was also an aesthetic quality to the work we did and to the overall school environment that I really appreciated. I believe it was a crucial element that added to the overall feel and cohesiveness of learning and environmental design throughout the building. In addition to further developing my interest in classroom & school design, I have also evolved to learn that studies at that time were not very organic. It was not an emergent curriculum.
*emergent curriculum is a teaching style that stems from the interests of the children
KR: The teachers decided everything.
SG: We decided pretty much everything ahead of time. And that was something I had the opportunity to move away from and explore further when I worked at Blue School—which is rooted in an emergent curriculum. I’m so fortunate for these varied teaching experiences, including working in Common Core school’s when I worked for ParentCorps at NYU. Because I am always evolving as a teacher, at this point in my career, I think if we want kids to be collaborators, inventors and researchers, then we need to give them the skills. In K, I think there is value in pre-determining a child centered study such as snails and bakeries and mapping out the essential questions you want children to arrive at ahead of time, such as What is a bakery?, Where can you find them? Why are there bakeries? etc. The topic doesn’t matter, as long as it’s of interest to the age group; it’s the inquiry skills and the process of learning you are teaching that is essential and most valuable.
I love teaching children how to study something they are interested in. Though, if you are working with a class of Kindergarteners, it needs to be a whole group topic at that age, and you need to pick something of high interest to spark passion and excitement. Kids like certain things at certain ages. You can kind of predict: animals, tools, cooking. Once the first study is scaffolded in Kindergarten, you can say to 1st graders, remember when we studied snails?
How did we do that? And because I taught K-1 at 234, I could refer to the year before to build on our research skills.
KR: I loved that looping for two grades. And you can go into first grade cohesive as a group.
SG: It was the best! I wish I could still teach this way. It makes so much sense and creates such a strong and familiar bond between teachers, students, parents, and school community. You can begin the new year pretty much where you left off. And then that second study [they did two a year], when they are ready, you can change it up and ask the class what they want to research. And then, by fifth grade there is this bigger thing happening—they can be taking on their own studies and presenting them to the school. If only...
KR: But the school had mandates that they had to do.
SG: That’s right, but I feel an ideal school would be something like that, and then the students decide how they want to share their knowledge. For example, last year, after spending time learning about birds, as a spin off to our study of central park, we decided to hatch chicks. Instead of pre-planning a study celebration, I gave the class the freedom to choose how they wanted to share their learning with others. I left it open. They could work independently, in pairs or in small groups. It was awesome. They used so many different materials and came up with so many creative ideas I would never think of. Some created their own bird guides, others created a chick park/playground and used blocks to make hayrides. The hayride was made out of construction paper, and they used chick bedding as the hay, pipe cleaners and lego wheels for a makeshift handle, in one corner they used mirrors for a funhouse, and in another corner they made a maze with a slide. It was amazing. Another group made a chick board game with chick facts written on the cards. It always amazes me what students come up with if we step away and give them the freedom to access the skills we have exposed them too!
KR: What is your advice for the parent of the emergent reader? What is the most important thing they can do?
SG: Children can never be read to or sung to enough! Let them read to you, even if they make up the entire story! Play music, take them out into the world and expose them to environmental print, point out street signs, items in store fronts and awning labels. Follow their inquiries. Engage in dramatic play, act out one of your child’s favorite characters from a book, play board games, take trips to bookstores, museums and libraries, cook with them and read recipes aloud. Let them see you reading and the pleasure and knowledge it gives you. All of these things support literacy skills in natural, child friendly ways.
I feel like there is an expectation that parents should read to their kids every night. For some kids and parents, reading at night isn’t an ideal time, and for some, reading right before bed can be overstimulating. What about reading in the morning? In the subway? There are so many other times. Exposure, exposure, exposure. I can always tell when kids have been exposed. It’s different work when you are working with kids who are exposed to a lot of language—you can delve deeper into story elements, and conversations about books are richer. But if children come to school with less exposure to language, they are at a very different starting point than others, and my work is very different.
KR: That’s my issue with the standard common core thing for everyone. You can’t have a one size fits all model. There are completely different populations of cultural everything—socioeconomic, the whole thing—different schools need different things…
SG: And parents need different things, and teachers need different things. It’s not just about the kids—it’s a whole process and it involves a whole community.
KR: and it’s a safe place…
SG: I think it is so interesting how different groups of children have different needs. It’s never the same from year to year. I feel lucky that I have the freedom to select the ways in which I support the varied needs of the students I teach. But at the same time, its not a free for all. I have the foundation. I know when to throw in a word study lesson and when I want to bring the class together for book talk. I am picking and choosing as I am working, constantly, because of all the great training I was fortunate to receive.
KR: Yes, all that training, all that knowledge, all those tools at your disposal….
SG: I was so scripted in the beginning [of my career] and I needed that. I tell my friends who are starting out as teachers, go to public schools—get that training. You need to have that experience to do the this type of work. I now have the confidence and skill set to let go, to listen to students, and to teach with them not at them, in support of a rich, intentional and joyful learning.
KR: I don’t think people understand what it really takes—there is such a huge difference between a seasoned teacher and a green teacher.
SG: Agreed! The longer I do this work, in many ways the harder it becomes!