Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
When Diane Trister Dodge began working with Head Start, she created her own learning materials with mimeographs and homemade filmstrips. That creative focus on training teachers helped Diane become founder of Teaching Strategies and now President of the Dodge Family Fund, promoting the early childhood profession and programs that help children in poverty to be successful.
Chris Riback: Diane, welcome to the studio.
Diane Trister Dodge: Thank you.
Chris Riback: Thank you for coming by.
Diane Trister Dodge: You’re very welcome.
Chris Riback: Now, I am sure that you would never characterize yourself this way, but if someone were to call you one of the drivers of early childhood education in America, what would they be referring to?
Diane Trister Dodge: I think they’d be referring to the creative curriculum and the assessment system, Teaching Strategies Gold that we developed and published.
Chris Riback: Just that? Just that little thing that you did.
Diane Trister Dodge: Just that little thing, yeah.
Chris Riback: I understand. I read where your goal when you started in education was, and I’m quoting you, was, “To become the best teacher possible.” You ended up in publishing. Did you ever feel like you moved away from your original goal?
Diane Trister Dodge: Well, in a way, I did. I did want to be the best teacher. I had wonderful preparation for that, majoring in child development under Urie Bronfenbrenner, and getting a masters from Bank Street while I was teaching at the 92nd Street Y.
Chris Riback: Great places.
Diane Trister Dodge: And then teaching kindergarten in New Haven. So, I did teach for a while, but then in 1966, I went to Mississippi. Head Start was just starting, and I applied for a job to be a teacher, and OEO [Office of Economic Opportunity] said, “Oh, no, you’re going to be the Ed Coordinator. You’re going to set up the education program. This program is going to serve 900 children, and you’re going to train teachers.” And that’s how I got into training teachers. And then there really wasn’t anything that I could call curriculums. So, I started developing my own materials on a mimeograph machine, very early-
Chris Riback: I remember those.
Diane Trister Dodge: … technology. And then, in the 70s, I lived in Washington DC working in childcare programs and Head Start programs. And I noticed that how teachers arrange the classroom was working against their goals for children. So, I started taking pictures before and after we would rearrange the classrooms. And I would use those slides in presentations I was giving, and other trainers would say, “I’ve got to have those slides.” So, I thought, “Okay, I’ll get somebody to publish a filmstrip.” And so, I wrote up what I wanted to publish. I couldn’t get any publishers to publish it, so I said, “I’m just going to publish it myself.” And that was the first effort to… And then from then on, I just …
Chris Riback: It was almost out of necessity. You were creating the materials for yourself, they became useful for others.
Diane Trister Dodge: Exactly.
Chris Riback: And all of a sudden, they became useful for tens, hundreds of thousands. You wrote that, “Education coordinators told us that the two questions they found the most challenging were, one, what should a preschool curriculum include? And two, What does it mean to individualize instruction?” Would you say the same questions are relevant and pertinent today?
Diane Trister Dodge: Well, they’re important questions, but we have the answers today. We didn’t have them in the ’80s when teachers were… And ed coordinators were saying, well, what do I mean by curriculum? NAEYC has defined what the components are of an appropriate and comprehensive curriculum for early childhood as has Head Start. And so, we know the answers to that question now.
Chris Riback: One of the slides that you created back in the 1980s were… Apparently, you wrote, “The aim of education is to help children become successful learners and socially competent.” Two things struck me. One is, that seems exactly true today-
Diane Trister Dodge: Absolutely.
Chris Riback: … as it did 30 years ago. And two, that means that any difference today perhaps is not in the what, but perhaps in the how. And maybe that ties back to what you were just discussing. What we’ve learned from the science can change the how, can change the way we get to those outcomes, is that right?
Diane Trister Dodge: Well, we know what high quality looks like. And so, if I were to go into a classroom, I would know by what was up on the wall. It was children’s work, it wasn’t just these pretty posters. That I would see a well-organized environment. Labels, so children know that everything has a place, and each area is engaging for them. I would see children working together, and collaborating, and playing together. I would see teachers asking interesting questions with children, working one-on-one or in small groups, being very intentional about how they were interacting with children and what they wanted to convey to children. So, we know what it looks like today, we just don’t always achieve it.
Chris Riback: No, we don’t. To that point, to be able to achieve it… And thinking back, you mentioned your work with Head Start, teaching in New Haven, studying at the Bank Street, and teaching at the 92nd Street Y. You have seen education in a lot of different formats and teaching in a lot of different formats. If you could today wave a magic wand and remove whatever you see as the major obstacle, the biggest change that can be made, what would that be?
Diane Trister Dodge: Well, it’d be a lot of things if I had a magic wand. But I think I would refer to NAEYC’s new position statement on equity and early childhood programs. I would want to see every child, especially children who are at risk, have access to a high quality program, and those are the children who often don’t have that access. I’d want to see teachers who work in early childhood program, whether they work with infants and toddlers or preschool children, get the respect and support that they need, the resources to be able to get an education, the support to be able to make that part of their life. There’s so much inequity right now for children and for teachers. We really need to implement that very excellent position paper. That would be my goal.
Chris Riback: That would be your goal. After creating Teaching Strategies, you now are focused on the Dodge Family Fund. What is the Dodge Family Fund, and what’s the focus of the fund itself?
Diane Trister Dodge: Well, from that little filmstrip, my first publication, I never envisioned that Teaching Strategies would become the successful company it became. And when I decided that I wanted to spend more time with my five grandchildren and do something different, and sold the company, it was phenomenal what the company was worth. And my husband, and three daughters, and I, decided that we wanted to use that money to give back, to continue the mission of Teaching Strategies, which was to promote programs that would help children in poverty to be successful, and to promote the early childhood profession.
Diane Trister Dodge: And so, we’ve been giving out maybe 40 grants by now, anything from children’s museums so that low income families would have access to it, and Head Start programs to professional development, to bringing the arts into early childhood programs. Just wonderful, exciting programs. And we get to visit many of them. It’s very rewarding.
Chris Riback: I’m sure it is. After having made the impact that you made through mimeographing, and then publishing at scale, this is a new, and I’m sure, very rewarding way.
Diane Trister Dodge: It is.
Chris Riback: Diane, thank you. Thank you for stopping by the studio, and thank you for the work that you’ve done for.
Diane Trister Dodge: Thank you, it was a pleasure.