39 Magical Years of Exploration: Wisdom from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Kindergarten Teacher

When I think about kindergarten, a number of images instantly come to mind: wooden blocks, the house corner, easels, smocks, water tables, the alphabet, and paper bag frog puppets. But, what I remember the most vividly is my teacher, Miss Spendly, and her wide, affirming smile and warm eyes. She made me fall in love with school.

Lin-Manuel Miranda remembers his kindergarten teacher fondly too. He tweeted a picture of the two of them in December. When Mrs. Liebov first came to see his Broadway show In the Heights, he proclaimed: “Mrs. Liebov, look what I made!”

Lin-Manuel Miranda hugging his kindergarten teach Amy Liebov

photo via @Lin_Manuel

Mrs. Liebov is an expert on kindergarten. She spent thirty-nine years guiding five-year-old students through a magical year of exploration, first at Hunter College Elementary School, a school for gifted children, and then as a founding faculty member at The School at Columbia University. I visited her classroom at Columbia before she retired and was amazed by her joyous, beautiful, and functional classroom. Mrs. Liebov easily guided students through lessons on symmetry and art projects modeled on Eric Carle’s books. Her young students made videos declaring their favorite parts of kindergarten, including memorable comments like: “I liked learning about Picasso’s blue period.” I recently interviewed Mrs. Liebov to capture her deep wisdom about the magical time of kindergarten and how it has changed in recent years.

Some researchers have argued that “kindergarten has become the new first grade,” and that accountability pressures have made kindergarten more about academic skills and less about opportunities to learn through playing. Do you agree with this assessment?

Amy Liebov: Yes. When I was a beginning teacher, the mantra was “play is the work of children.” My first year at Hunter College Elementary School, I taught kindergarten from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm. Although it is a school for gifted children, and academics were certainly a part of the curriculum, there was a lot of time for play. I have always set up my classroom in centers so that children have choices to make throughout the day. These choices included block building, dramatic play (we used to call it the housekeeping area — how old fashioned is that?), a math center, the library area, an art area, etc. As the years passed, I still kept much of my time for “independent activity time,” where the children could spend their time playing with materials, games, toys, etc., if they wanted. In those days there were no formal assessments in kindergarten. I think that may have changed in the last few years.

When I moved to Columbia, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on academic time — reading, writing and math — in a more formal way. I had to work hard to find time for “independent activities,” and some days there just wasn’t any time. Besides reading, writing, and math time, each day we had to fit in the “specialty” classes — music, art, physical education, dance, etc. For the first time in my teaching career, I had to administer formal assessments. For example, at Hunter we gave informal reading assessments to determine the reading levels of the children. Because it is a school for gifted children, it was a very special population, and the teachers were able to spend lots of time on creative projects. At Columbia I had to administer formal Diagnostic Reading Assessments (DRAs) and other tests to determine the reading, writing, and mathematical proficiency of the children. The one thing that has not changed over time is that the children had running around time built into each day, whether it was outdoors in the playground or inside in the gym. Thank goodness, that daily exercise time was sacred in both schools!

Did your expectations of your students change over the time period that you were teaching?

Amy Liebov: My expectations for my students have always been high. I think kindergartners are extremely capable. I have always said it was a magical year — they still need nurturing, but they are like sponges soaking up everything around them. This is the year of exploration and finding out about themselves in relation to the world around them.

There have been major advancements in neuroscience, psychology, and brain development in recent years, and as a result, changes in how people view early childhood education. Did these changes affect your teaching practice?  

Amy Liebov: Yes in some ways. For example, when I left Hunter and began my career at Columbia, I became much more aware of the linguistic needs of young children. I learned about how children process language — at Hunter the speech therapist was only used for articulation. At Columbia, the speech therapist worked with children on their expressive and receptive language. I became more knowledgeable about how to work with children with language deficiencies through the use of more pictures, more kinesthetic experiences, etc.

What do you believe is the ultimate goal of kindergarten?

Amy Liebov: For me the ultimate goal of kindergarten is two-fold: Cognitively, I want my children to love learning new things and be excited by their learning. It is a thrill to watch a young child have that “aha” moment. Emotionally, I want my children to become good citizens of the world. Sharing, being kind, standing up for and helping a friend, accepting that they are the same and different from each other, and celebrating those similarities and differences.

 What do you think all children should be able to do when they start kindergarten? 

Amy Liebov: They should have some basic academic skills, like familiarity with numbers, letters, colors, shapes, etc. These are just school readiness skills. I don’t need them to know the sounds of the letters or what the numbers mean, but it is easier if they can recognize some letters and numbers. They should be able to recognize the letters in their name. Children should have basic hygienic skills, like how to use the bathroom (you’d be surprised how many kids can’t wipe themselves and still need help — we get parents on board early in this department!)

What do you think all children should be able to do by the time they leave kindergarten?

Amy Liebov: They should be able to read and write their name and some basic words; be able to tell (and/or write) stories that make sense with a beginning, middle, and end; know all the letters and sounds of the alphabet; and have number sense up to 30 (think number of days in a month) — this includes the concepts of addition, tens and ones, maybe a beginning understanding of subtraction. They should know basic shapes and how to collect data on a simple level such as creating a concrete graph and interpreting the data collected. They should be familiar with basic art techniques — paint, collage, clay, etc. They should be able to put on their own coats, hats, gloves, etc. These are readiness skills for first grade.

What do you believe are the most important skills we should be fostering in the early grades?

Amy Liebov: The social-emotional skills are very important in the early years. Treating others as you would like to be treated (respect, empathy, etc.) I think these skills are as important as the academic ones in very young children. I think setting up a classroom environment that’s a kind and caring place where all children feel emotionally and physically safe is very important. Setting the tone for a fun, productive, and happy learning environment is important to me.

Based on your long tenure in the classroom and your years interacting and observing young children, what changes would you make to kindergarten and elementary school more generally?

Amy Liebov: I would certainly make time for “independent activities” each day (some teachers call it free time or choice time). I would make SEL (socio-emotional learning) mandatory in all grades beginning with the very young. I would continue to make the “arts” as important as the other academic subjects. Music, dance, and fine arts are important in a well-balanced curriculum.

What advice would you give to a new kindergarten teacher starting out today?

Amy Liebov: Wow. That is hard to put into words. I would probably say: Love your children and treat them with respect and kindness everyday. Try to make learning fun and exciting: be animated, be creative.  I know this may sound silly, but I would advise a new teacher to make sure s/he knows what s/he is teaching. I have seen demo lessons from young teachers where they are teaching the wrong things to the children. So if you are not sure, ask someone for help.

What do you think outsiders need to understand about the role of a kindergarten teacher?

Amy Liebov: We teach a “whole” child — not just a brain. We are developing young minds in both the cognitive and emotional domains. We are setting the stage for what is to come next. Children should have a joyous kindergarten experience. The best compliment I can get is if a parent says that her child really looks forward to coming to school!

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.