Sunday, February 26, 2012

We're In the Spotlight & "Out to Change the Face of Education"

The Star Tribune wrote a nice story about Dodge's proposed Kindergarten (see "Building 20" post earlier this month); check out the article, "Dodge Nature Center is out to Change the Face of Education,"  in the Sunday Feb. 24th South Metro edition.

Thanks very much to writer, Ashley Bray, and photographer, Marisa Wojcik (these are more of Marisa's photos), who took the time to investigate Dodge Nature Preschool, and our new kindergarten endeavor.

Please don't hesitate to contact me, or my Director, Marty Watson, to learn more about Kindergarten at Dodge:  651-455-4555

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Building 20 & Building A Better Kindergarten

"The Spruce Room Office:  Our Own "Bulding 20"
So we have this joke, about our classroom office.  We call it "Building 20."  We've named it after a now famous former building on the campus of MIT.  The building was ugly and not purpose built for anything but a warehouse.  Each time MIT tried to demolish the place and re-build, something came up and distracted them from this intention.  The building remained standing, by sheer oversight.  The structure was at the bottom of everyone's To Do List.  Building 20 came to house everybody who couldn't find another place in a better building.  As a result lots of new disciplines, that initially had very few things in common, came to call Building 20 "home."  Nobody paid much attention to the place, and so the building was altered by its tenants, who sought to retro fit it for all sorts of experiments and studies.

To make a long and really interesting story shorter, the crowded chaos of the building forced all kinds of scientists into nearly constant contact.  The result:  some the the most exciting discoveries of the modern age-- high speed photography, microwaves, stereos, the first video game, the discovery of cognitive structures in the brain.  Building 20 wound-up being a hot bed of creative thinking and intellectual enterprise.  Today, Apple and lots of other companies model their own headquarters on the Building 20 premise:  shove creative thinkers together, and make them socialize, "It is human friction that makes the sparks."*  Sharing one bathroom, a tight hallway, a single elevator or a laboratory forces people into contact.  The best discoveries at Building 20 were inspired by chance meetings in crowded corridors.  The inhabitants felt they could act on their new ideas because they were not constrained by convention, or working within a segregated hive of labs, dedicated to a single discipline.  Building 20 was an inter-disciplinary place.  While we joke about our very messy office and Building 20, they both teach us something about how we teach, and about how children learn.

Here at Dodge Nature Preschool, we are trying to launch a kindergarten classroom.  As teachers of preschoolers, this enterprise is dear to our hearts.  We feel that tweaking the nationwide status quo of kindergarten may be the first step in having an influence on how children learn to think creatively, "outside the box," in subsequent years.  Across the country, universities and employers are complaining about the current pool of graduates and job seekers.  They are not complaining about poor grades or underachievement, they are complaining about rigidity and lack of initiative.  The CEO of Boeing has a gripe:  he just wants to hire engineers who are creative, people who want to take risks, people who can imagine heretofore unimagined things.  He can't find enough of them.  Well, guess how children grow up to be creative risk takers?  By thinking creatively and taking risks, that's how.

Babies are creative risk takers.  They learn through experience.  Having an experience requires a leap of faith, to actually try something new through hands-on experimentation.  A baby does not learn to walk by watching everybody else walk.  Watching is part of the process, but she must try to pull herself up and then take that first wobbly step.  And she must fall, many, many times.  Why do we think children stop learning by doing when they go to elementary school?  And why do we think they should enter the job force, or go to college and suddenly be able to learn by doing, and to excel at this--imagining the unimagined--when we have spent the intervening twelve years requiring them to sit and take in information that we have packaged for them?  Dreaming, risk-taking, experimenting and experiencing seem to be largely absent through the formal school years.

This Preschool was established for the same reasons that STEM schools and alternative magnet schools are being established and building steam.  Many of us, including teachers-to-be in current college programs, know that children learn best in a socially dynamic environment which emphasizes autonomy and self-determination.  Learning that follows the lead of the child, curriculum that is emergent, project-based and inter-disciplinary, is learning that invites creativity and encourages taking risks.  The new STEM schools are now realizing the importance of inviting the Arts into their equation too, as they embark on ever more inter-disciplinary pursuits.

Kindergarten is the new battle ground for the next wave in education.  This is the wave that pushes back the wrong-headed impulse to drill children with facts.  This kind of education is not age-appropriate for kindergartners.  A host of longitudinal studies point to the fact that kindergartens with a heavy emphasis on Reading, Writing and Arithmetic and the acquisition of facts, instead of an emphasis on play and discovery, do not come out ahead by the time they reach 5th grade.  Children in these kindergartens have in fact lost ground, because they have wasted time on inappropriate activities instead of learning how to get along with others, acquiring autonomy, exploring the possibilities of their physical bodies and building stronger and more nimble brains through creative and complicated play (such brain development actually paves the way for earlier literacy).  So you can see, we all have a stake with this kindergarten thing, here at Dodge and elsewhere.

With a Dodge Kindergarten, we not only have the opportunity, as teaching professionals, to ride the crest of this next wave, to pioneer the right way to learn and to inspire our colleagues to greater future change, we also have a chance to provide kids with a developmentally appropriate experience, which seems utterly fundamental to our country's future as a bright and shining example of discovery and enterprise.  You may be scared to join us, to go against the grain and pioneer a return to the age-appropriate kindergarten.  But it may be scarier not to join this endeavor and to "be the change" we all want to see in the future.

The truth is, we only need 12 kids to make our first Dodge Kindergarten class happen.  And the truth is, we can't do it without you.  And the truth is, you parents and educators have to be willing to take a risk, so our kids can take a risk.

If you're interested in learning more about Dodge Kindergarten, call the Preschool at:  651-455-4555, or email me,, if only to tell me what you think of taking this risk!

*Special thanks to Jonah Lehrer and his inspiring article, "Groupthink" from The New Yorker, January 30, 2012, and to our boss, Marty, for turning a blind eye on the Spruce Room office.

And special thanks to all the kids and their families who take risks and think "outside the box" with us every day at Dodge Nature Preschool.  Please enjoy the following photo essay of our recent exploits...