Tasha Jolivette-Jones Louisiana’s 2019 Elementary State Teacher of the Year
Tasha Jolivette-Jones, kindergarten teacher in Iberia Parish, is Louisiana’s 2019 Elementary State Teacher of the Year, as well as the Louisiana’s 2019 Public Interest Fellowship winner. Launched by the Department of Education in 2018, the Fellowship allows one educator, chosen from the previous year’s list of Louisiana Teacher of the Year finalists, to spend a school year advocating for an education initiative of their choosing. An activist for developmentally appropriate practice, Jolivette-Jones is dedicating her fellowship year to promoting active, student-centered learning in kindergarten. Better known as play, this practice allows children to make choices, improve physical dexterity, explore interests, and experiment safely while developing the social-emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life. “Play is essential to early education and I would like to be its ambassador,” Jolivette-Jones said. In August, she implemented the Kindergarten PLAYS initiative to establish a framework for child-centered learning that supports rigorous standards in kindergarten without sacrificing developmentally appropriate practice. She is working with a network of teachers in Iberia parish to create five model classrooms representing diverse student populations, socioeconomic concerns, and teaching styles. Based on their experiences in the pilot program, the cohort is building a comprehensive guide to make Kindergarten PLAYS easy to use and affordable for any classroom. “We’re trying to show what a playful learning approach might look like anywhere, even if you don’t have an ideal classroom,” Jolivette-Jones said. She hopes to give every teacher enough support to get started. “A simple cardboard box can be a firetruck to teach fire safety or it can be a tractor to learn about farms. We’re hoping to help teachers use what they already have, but in a playful way,” she explained. The guide will also include resources for finding funding, physical materials, and community support.
Jolivette-Jones’ goal through this work is to showcase playful learning as the best strategy for achieving rigorous state standards. “When children play,” she explains, “they use their whole bodies to explore the world around them. They are naturally driven to experiment and then to reason in order to make sense of their experiences. Once a truth is discovered, play provides opportunities for children to apply what they have learned to new situations.” Jolivette-Jones explains that play benefits physical and emotional wellbeing as well. Whether children are climbing or cutting, drawing or dancing, play builds muscles that are necessary for a healthy and productive life. And, playful experiences allow children to process their emotions in a healthy way. They face their fears by defeating monsters, minimize anxiety by magically solving problems, and roar like bears until their anger subsides. Play is an ideal approach to early education because it builds on children’s natural learning ability without hampering their curiosity. Artificial tasks, like worksheets and scripted activities, are less meaningful. Children have trouble focusing on and remembering material presented that way.
“Play is not just fun. It is purposeful. Kindergarten may look like chaos, but every single thing that the students are doing is guiding them toward an academic goal.” Jolivette-Jones maintains that, in a playful kindergarten, a teacher’s job is to structure the classroom environment and to provide experiences that pique children’s curiosity about the big ideas addressed in the curriculum. After that, teachers may provide guidance and support, but learners will be driven by their natural need to know everything about everything.
Jolivette-Jones invites her students to play purposefully throughout the day. For each area of academic content, the children partake in a mini lesson and then they play with their ideas in learning labs. These dedicated play areas focus on a variety of skills, such as using money at the Farmer’s Market or retelling stories at the Puppet Theater. The labs include a broad assortment of interest areas, each designed to deepen the children’s understanding of the concepts addressed in class. Learners have freedom of choice and of movement. They are in charge of their own learning paths. “The children are so captivated by their activities, they don’t even know that they’re learning,” she said.
Jolivette-Jones observes the children closely as they play. She uses the Desired Results Developmental Profile for Kindergarten (DRDP-K) and the district report card to monitor each child’s progress toward the Louisiana Student Standards for kindergarten. “I’ve always had a playful classroom,” she said, “but this year my students are spending half of each day engaged in play. I know what the research says, but I didn’t expect to see so much growth this soon. I am astounded by the progress they’ve made so far!”
Jolivette –Jones has taught kindergarten in Iberia Parish for fifteen years. She is an alumna of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education and a master’s degree in Special Education.