Celia Genishi with Tran Templeton

 

Dr. Celia Genishi

Dr. Celia Genishi

Celia GenishiProfessor Emerita of Education and former Department Chair and Co-Coordinator of the Program in Early Childhood Education in the Department of Curriculum & Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia Universityis an authority on early childhood education, language in the classroom, qualitative research and childhood bilingualism. In this conversation, Tran Templeton and Professor Genishi discuss the importance of play in the early childhood classroom, and making space for play in the midst of the implementation of Universal Pre-K in the New York City public school system. The conversation then progresses to topics such as Professor Genishi’s retirement and forms of play in adult lives and in academia. Genishi’s penchant for storytelling comes through as she reflects on the life of Maxine Greene and recounts an experience from the early days of her academic career.

 

TRAN TEMPLETON

What we’re interested in are the experiences of new and experienced scholars and learning beyond what’s taught, learning from each other. Your work is so prolific and rich that it’s hard to cover everything, so I wanted to home in on something that’s been on my mind and I wanted to tap into you as a resource. First is what you’ve advocated over the years, and that is the seriousness of play. You’ve talked about the sacrifices that we’re making in terms of children’s play work by subscribing to more rigorous, standardized measures. So the first question is sort of an obvious one – how do you see Universal Pre-K [fitting into this issue]? Because it’s a thing right now, budding up, that talking about play and the sacrifices we’re making…

CELIA GENISHI

Well I’m so glad you started with a non-controversial topic (laughs). Universal Pre-K makes me both very excited, because there’s a lot of potential, and very nervous because any time there’s a major reform there’s a possibility for greater standardization and accountability, or more desire for accountability. The upside is that preschools can be very good; the downside is we don’t know whether they’re going to be good. It’s also like anything that’s done with great enthusiasm and speed; it may roll out in a way that isn’t really good, or of high quality.

That’s my response to the policy. On the other hand, I’ve heard from a few people who are very much into elementary education and their ways of working with prospective and in-service teachers, and these folks, and it’s a small number, have talked a lot about the need for play in the pre-K, as if that’s the one place it may be okay to let the kids choose, let the kids play. I would say they’re in the minority but the people I’m thinking of are pretty active and influential in the New York City schools, so I see that there’s hope.

I don’t know how optimistic to be about people’s meaning of play, so if we want to be really child-focused, it’s important for the educators, teachers, and planners, to have a meaning of play that really allows children to choose and play and interact.

TRAN TEMPLETON

And the reason why I started out with that question is because I really wanted to delve into the question of teacher agency, because I think even though we’re moving towards this neo-liberal agenda, and [I’d like to] think – and I think you agree – that teachers have some sort of agency to work within these systems to allow for play to come as part of the curriculum. It’s hard to support that, to help lift the voices of teachers to be able to do what we know is the right thing to do but still work within that system, if that makes any sense. So I’m starting to work right now with Eileen Blanco and Haeny Yoon, our new faculty member–

CELIA GENISHI

–Oh, yes! It’s so wonderful!

TRAN TEMPLETON

–She’s talking about including more play into the integrated curriculum course—

CELIA GENISHI

–Right, and have it be the foundation, I think.

TRAN TEMPLETON

I think it can be hard for pre-service teachers to expand their ideas of what curriculum is, especially if they’re coming from [cultures in which curriculum means academics specifically] – to understand that we’re not focusing just on academics, or even that that’s our main focus. Play can be, or is, a curriculum. I think that’s the hard part for me [to help new teachers understand]. How have you found that in your classrooms with pre-service teachers? What have you found to be the way to help them grasp that idea?

CELIA GENISHI

I’m not sure that I have figured out the way to weave in play in a way that’s clear for the students. I sometimes think that I assume they know what I mean when I say play, and how important play is. But over the years I’ve realized that there really is less and less play in the classrooms that they’re placed in, so I have to be more explicit about choice, because I think when there’s choice, young children are going to choose to play. For example, if I were [still] teaching the language and literacy class, I would probably change it a bit so that we start with an emphasis on both storytelling and play, and how the two are related.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Do you mean role-playing, or…

CELIA GENISHI

Yeah, because when the graduate students tell stories they are usually about their childhoods and so play is often incorporated. I was just thinking about how to make that need to incorporate play explicit without imposing a theme for everybody’s stories. There’s story and there’s play and they do come together. Maybe at the beginning of the course, the instructor would need to give examples of how they do come together, for example, in dramatic play. Then once there’s a discussion about different kinds of play and the need for them in the classroom, then students can be pushed to carefully observe what children are actually able to do—to play or not—as they carry out their child studies of early language and literacy in emergent bilinguals—

TRAN TEMPLETON

—to kind of have that as a lens, right? How does this child-centered approach—

CELIA GENISHI

Right. In that aged 4-5 range, it’s very hard not to see play if you’re being observant. So, I probably would just talk more about play itself in any general or specialized curriculum course. How play underlies things like literacy. How it impels interaction, friendship. I would be more…“explicit,” although that is not really the right word.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Illustrative?

CELIA GENISHI

Illustrative… I would pull more out of Vivian Paley. They would read The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter, and so I think that would be a good source for pulling out examples of play, and talking about how it plays into the curriculum. Where are you seeing it? And are you worried that you’re not seeing it? So it would just be a more central topic because it can’t be taken for granted. It’s fading away.

TRAN TEMPLETON

But also to expand ideas of play too. Play in one context might not be seen as play in another context. Sometimes I’m seeing a child do something and to me it’s not play, like the example that you’ve given is just playing with a pen and pencil and just spinning it or something… Is it play?

CELIA GENISHI

Right, or exploration—

TRAN TEMPLETON

—but there’s something to be seen there. There’s something that’s happening, and when we stop it we may be stopping some of that exploration. And I myself learned to stop myself, to see only those things that served a function, whereas it could be a playful behavior in a home where playful behavior is jumping on another child (laughs)… you know what I mean? That’s been something that’s on my mind. Play doesn’t look the same everywhere.

CELIA GENISHI

Right, it definitely won’t.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Especially when we have students coming in from other countries. Certain things don’t look like play [in the same ways that they look like play to me]. So how do we expand what play is?

CELIA GENISHI

Especially when groups of young children in Universal Pre-K may be from different cultural backgrounds. Like playing superheroes. That takes over in many U.S. settings. But it occurs to me that if we say that play is about choice and child agency then teachers may sometimes misinterpret when children are intending to be playful. So it’s possible that in some cultures being aggressive is playful, and many teachers in U.S. settings would find that not to be playful, but negative. The cultural variation really sets up a lot of challenges, and what it makes me think of is the need for a greater explicitness about what different cultures mean by play. Play could be conceptualized as the foundation—almost a literal base for—any curriculum in the early years (from birth to about age 8).

TRAN TEMPLETON

And now with your retirement do you have more time to play?

CELIA GENISHI

What a good question, Tran! I would say yes, even though I am telling some folks that in a way I’m flunking retirement because people see me here at TC so much that they say, “Didn’t you retire? Why do I see you here all the time?” I am seeing more movies and going to more museums, and those are playful activities for me. And I’m seeing my grandson and his parents. How else am I playful? You know, because I’m not teaching I think that my whole outlook is more playful, more open. Have you ever heard of the term “mental space”? I feel as though something has opened up because I’m not thinking, “I should be grading those papers!”

TRAN TEMPLETON

That’s interesting because I think walking into your classroom has always felt like a playful environment. Even talking to you has always felt like a playful moment.

CELIA GENISHI

That’s so interesting! I guess that’s good.

TRAN TEMPLETON

It provides lightness within such a heavy environment — you know, academia.

CELIA GENISHI

That’s interesting because I don’t see myself that way in a professional environment. I also feel that at any moment I could be playful, that playfulness could pop out, because I must just be that way. It’s also something that children must identify. I don’t know what signals I send out but even some children who seem very restrained seem to just start playing with me .I don’t think it’s anything that I do overtly but it could be just a kind of waiting to see what the child will do. There must be something, like an expectation—

TRAN TEMPLETON

—Even for us as adults. The seminar room [where we had class] is not a playful room, but somehow that class felt that we could play with ideas—

CELIA GENISHI

Yeah, well that’s because I think that’s what teaching should be about, at least in part. The intellect is supposed to be freed up somehow in a college university environment.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Well, whatever it is, it’s great.

CELIA GENISHI

Well thanks! This is really interesting to me. So I’m so glad you asked about play. It’s really one of my favorite topics now.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Well, in academia we’re not allowed to play so much—in teaching classes, or taking classes. Where are those spaces in your career where you can do that?

CELIA GENISHI

The academic calendar is really pretty good for allowing some spaces. Even though I feel that what I do best is work and meet obligations, I think because I’ve been on school calendar for as long as I can remember, I say, “Okay! I can make it to the end of the semester, I will grade these papers, and then I’m going to go to the museum!” So there are these planned play times and that sort of defines what vacation could be about. I guess there’s an academic yearly rhythm.

You know, when I checked out the [Esteem] link that you sent I saw that you had interviews, and I saw Maxine, and then on the right side there were the memorial comments about her, and I didn’t know that she had passed. Was it yesterday? The comments were quite new. So it really made me sad because I wasn’t a close friend of hers but I was a friend. I saw after some time the announcement about her passing on the TC home page. I was reading through it; at some point the writer said that the key concept/word for Maxine, was possibility. That’s true, but I would have chosen imagination. So linking this to our conversation, she was really all about intellectual play and the need for teachers to make space for that. And she always did.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Yeah, it’s a really sad loss. And in the same week Maya Angelou. I actually was going to ask you that as a question. It’s a somber moment in that we’re meeting the day after Maxine’s passing, and the two of them in the same week. What do you think about when you think about those two remarkable women?

CELIA GENISHI

Well, it’s really sad to lose them. I read this little blurb about Maya Angelou, or maybe it was on the radio, and it said that people thought more highly of her prose than of her poetry, and I thought, “Is that true?” Because the few poems that I’ve read have just been spectacular. I don’t know whether it’s ironic, but it gives you pause that they died so close to each other in time.

You know, I was talking to my husband about Maxine because he had met her a number of times. I thought she was always very kind to him and I thought that was remarkable because she meets thousands of people, so we were trying to remember how it was that we went to her apartment and were part of a small dinner party. It was almost as if she knew everyone well. Once she took you in, you were never going to be out of her circle, even if she got very busy or ill. She touched so many people. It makes me weepy (wiping her tears away). Those really close to her must be very sad.

TRAN TEMPLETON

[As are we all.] Well, thank you so much.

CELIA GENISHI

You’re welcome. This was really enjoyable. I knew I would enjoy it!

TRAN TEMPLETON

I’m glad that we were able to talk about you as a person. Anybody that I talk to about you, their immediate response is “ah” [puts hands to heart and smiles]. They don’t even have words.

CELIA GENISHI

Oh, that can’t be true [laughs].

TRAN TEMPLETON

You would think it can’t be, but it actually is true…How long have you been at TC?

CELIA GENISHI

24 years, and I’ve loved all my time here at Teachers College. I’ve been here a lot longer than I’d been anywhere else, but I’d been teaching for fifteen years before that.

TRAN TEMPLETON

In early childhood?

CELIA GENISHI

In higher ed. Well, I was just talking to a recent doctoral graduate who has accepted her first faculty position. We were part of a farewell lunch for students, and she was saying that she’s nervous about [a particular course]. I said, “You know, most people will tell you the first job you get in higher ed, you will be asked to teach things you’ve never taught before and you will be able to do it.” So she said, “Really? Why are you so confident?” So I started telling her about my first semester at the University of Texas, and she said, “Well, we would never think that our experts have those experiences.”

I’ll just tell you one little story. I won’t tell you about how I was still working on my dissertation and that was a big mistake, but I’m in Austin, right? It’s blazing hot because it’s August. I’d moved from California where it wasn’t blazing hot. I rent a car and I’m going home from the rental agency, and because I’m not used to renting cars I don’t look at the gas gauge, and I find out after I stall that there’s no more gas in the tank. So somehow somebody pushed me to the gas station because I was in a Ford Pinto, which was this big (shows how small it is with her hand). At the time they were blowing up all over the place. I will never forget. I was at the gas station. I have the window down and this man peers in and says, “What country are you from?” I’m sure he thought I was going to say China! So I said, “Well, I grew up in New Jersey.” (laughs) That was one of my really stupid mistakes that turned into a funny story.

Tran Templeton

Tran Templeton

Tran Templeton (Contributing Editor) is currently a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. She holds a Bachelors in Human Development from The University of Texas at Austin and a Masters in Teaching and Learning from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Tran has previously been a special education teacher, and prior to Teachers College, she served for four years as the Program Director of Colegio Monarch Guatemala, a school for children with neurobehavioral disabilities. Her interests include childhood agency, photographic practices in school, and visual sociology/image-based research.

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