PreK teacher David Robinson joined the Nueva community in 2019. In this Q&A, David shares the benefits of emergent curriculum, how he consulted on an Emmy-award winning show, and his approach to anti-bias education in the pre-kindergarten setting. Don't miss the recipe for a South African milk tart written by David and his husband and featured at the end of the interview.
Jim Morrison: An emergent curriculum is one aspect of our preK program that feels like it is the seed that blooms into all that will come later in the lives of learners at Nueva. What are some of the content areas you have found yourself teaching in the past few years that came from the questions and interests of your team and preK students? What are the challenges and benefits of adopting this approach to curriculum creation?
DR: One of my favorite aspects of teaching preK is that the curriculum is always fresh. I’m excited to discover the questions and interests that children have about their world. Although we learn from, and enjoy, common activities such as finger painting, gardening, or observing cake batter as it chemically changes from a liquid to a solid, I also integrate the wider experiences of the children into any topic of study. Last year the students were interested in learning about skin and towards the end of the year, each child built their own creature by using their knowledge of human, plant, and animal skin to make a new life form with super skin powers. One animal could shoot snowballs from their sweat glands and another had superhuman arrector pili muscles.
One benefit from having an emergent curriculum is that teachers learn alongside the children. I now know a lot about skin. As a teacher, it’s exciting to have new topics to teach, it's thrilling to observe how the children construct knowledge, and I love the challenge of figuring out how to provide activities that scaffold their learning. One challenge of teaching this way is that it requires a lot of planning because we are not using pre-programmed lessons.
JM: What are some formative experiences in your life that put you on a path and/or affirmed your commitment to early childhood education?
DR: I know people often have a clear answer for this kind of question, but I don’t. I had friends in college who were studying education and I enjoyed listening to their conversations about teaching. The more courses I took and the more I learned about child development, the more fascinated I became with how young children construct knowledge. I’ve always enjoyed combining learning and play in my own education, so I often joke that I have a career that allows me to play every day!
JM: Over the years, your work has extended beyond the walls of your classroom. For folks who are not aware, can you describe your experience working on the Emmy Award-winning show Tumble Leaf? How did you contribute to that program’s content?
DR: Tumble Leaf is a play-based preschool science television series. My work involved educating the scriptwriters about how preschoolers understand specific scientific concepts and how the characters should talk about these concepts so that preschoolers can understand them. The process would start with me being provided a list of objects, such as a bucket, rain boots, or a straw. I would then develop science concepts that could be taught by using these items. While the script was in draft form, I would help write the dialogue that explained the science. I primarily focused on teaching physics because most science curricula for young children focus on natural science. I wanted viewers to be inspired to try some of the experiments at home and find their own discoveries by using common materials found around their home.
JM: What are some ways that your research on anti-bias education have influenced the current preK studies?
DR: Anti-bias education (ABE) has always been at the core of my teaching philosophy because it’s about paying attention to the reality of children’s lives and providing them with the tools to identify and respond to bias. I’ve had a lot of fun this year creating backstories for three “persona dolls” introduced to the children. Phoebe, Jamal, and Adin are dolls that provide mirrors to the children’s experiences, as well as windows into a world in which they can develop a positive attitude towards difference.
All three dolls have rich, complex stories, but the foundations of each doll’s story are as follows:
- Phoebe is a biracial child whose parents are divorced
- Jamal lives with his grandparents and emigrated to the Bay Area from the Dominican Republic after the devastating Hurricane Maria destroyed their family home
- Adin lives with her two moms and is very proud of her Jewish heritage
Using the dolls in the classroom helps create a safe space to discuss fairness and unfairness that engages the children in problem solving. The pre-kindergarteners’ innate capacity for empathy and instinct for justice is strengthened and validated by each doll’s visit. One example of a problem-solving discussion was when Phoebe visited and asked the children for help when a peer at her school told her she couldn’t pretend to be a firefighter because she is a girl. The preK students shared their strategies to solve this problem and wrote letters to Phoebe to encourage her to advocate for herself.
JM: Are there resources you would recommend to our community to reach or watch?
DR: Debbie LeeKeenan, John Nimmo, and Feliz Efe McKinney’s recent film, Reflecting on Anti-Bias Education in Action: The Early Years, is a wonderful starting point for anyone interested in learning about what ABE looks like in early childhood. One terrific teacher resource is Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Second Edition by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olson Edwards. As for children’s books, if you apply an anti-bias lens to most stories, you’ll discover a topic of conversation about difference or perspective-taking to have with children.
JM: What are some of your interests outside of the school? Are you able to bring them into your classroom over the course of the year?
DR: I love knitting, skateboarding (I mainly use my longboard), reading, running, baking, and exploring the Bay Area. I’ve demonstrated knitting and have taught the children to finger knit. It’s always a joy to hike and run with the children on our amazing campus. I love cooking and baking with the children at least once a week for our Tuesday afternoon tea.
Cooking is the perfect way to integrate all subject areas: math, science, literacy, art, SEL, social studies, and fine motor skills into one activity. The activity includes dividing and weighing ingredients; observing changes produced by heat; reading the recipe; shaping and decorating food; collaborating while baking, then sharing the product; learning about how people used to steam food instead of baking it when they didn’t have an oven; and manipulating kitchen tools. We recently practiced knife cutting skills with Chef Jaime in the Nueva café.
JM: I heard you love to bake. Do you have a favorite recipe you could share with our readers?
DR: From the age of nine, I worked in the family business. My parents owned a Dunkin’ Donuts in Connecticut, which was unlike any current Dunkin’. Our shop was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was a full-service diner, and we made all the donuts, muffins, cookies, croissants and more by hand on site. I developed my love of baking during these years. My husband is South African and he introduced me to the milk tart. It’s not a custard pie and not a flan; it’s a comfort food almost like a pudding, but not quite. It’s unique and here is the recipe we wrote.
SOUTH AFRICAN MILK TART
Yield: one 9-inch tart
Time: 90 min
12 Tennis or Maria biscuits (about ½ a packet)
2 extra large eggs, yolks and whites separated
3 cups whole milk, separated [2½ + ½]
½ cup [one stick] butter
½ cup sugar, separated [¼ + ¼]
4 TBS flour
3 TBS corn starch
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 TBS unsweetened coconut - only if using Maria biscuits
cinnamon-sugar, to taste
- Grease a 9-inch pie plate & set it on a large cookie sheet
- In a ziplock bag, using a rolling pin, crumble biscuits into fine crumbs
- Place crumbs in pie plate & spread to coat bottom & sides (Not an actual crust, just crumbs)
- Separate the egg yolks into a small bowl and whites into another small bowl
- In a large saucepan, place 2½ cups milk, butter & ¼ cup sugar
- Over medium-high heat bring to a boil, stirring often with wooden spoon
- Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk remaining ¼ cup sugar with flour, corn starch & salt
- Preheat oven to 360 ℉
- With electric mixer, beat the remaining ½ cup milk into egg yolks
- With another wooden spoon, stir egg-milk mixture into flour mixture
- Reduce heat to low; Stir a little of the boiling milk mixture into flour-egg mixture
- Whisking well with wire whisk, add flour mixture to remaining milk mixture
- Over medium-low heat, whisking almost constantly, slowly return to a boil
- Remove from stove & whisk in vanilla
- With clean electric mixer blades, starting on low & gradually increasing to high, beat egg whites until soft peaks form
- With flat wooden spoon, lightly but thoroughly fold egg whites into custard
- Pour filling evenly into pie crust
- If using Maria biscuits, sprinkle coconut evenly on top
- Bake 35–40 min, ’til it evenly rises & lightly browns (Rotate halfway through, if needed)
- Sprinkle a little cinnamon-sugar on top
- Cool in pie plate on wire rack for two hours, then serve at room temp