We met Peg Griffin when Elena had just arrived from Russia to work at my college, and we were beginning to apply Vygotsky’s ideas to the early childhood classroom in the late 1990s. Peg came to visit classrooms in Denver to see what we were developing—we were at the stage when we had several activities but had not created what would eventually become Tools of the Mind. Over many dinners and meetings that followed, she became an intellectual sounding board for our ideas, lending her expertise in shaping activities like Scaffolded Writing, Play Planning, and the Sound Map. We leaned heavily on her expertise in linguistics and knowledge about the development of reading and writing to help us fashion a unique Vygotskian approach to ECE that developed into Tools of the Mind, eventually even creating Vygotskian-based apps to scaffold reading and writing. She reveled in our early success and held our hands through the difficult period in 2010 when several disappointing RCTs showed that our children did not do better than the controls. With her support, as well as the support of many others, we made changes to Tools that led to recent strong results showing we closed the achievement gap and improved growth in executive functions—while still sticking to Vygotskian principles of learning and development, the importance of make-believe play and making teachers the center of our work.
We both felt a deep connection with Peg on many levels. First, she had a rare combination of knowledge of the Vygotskian approach and an understanding of how it would work in the classroom. At the time when these applications were not that common, Peg was able to immediately see the link between the concepts that might have sounded too abstract to most educators and the very concrete actions of a kindergartner or her teacher. With Peg’s support, we felt more confident in our innovations even when these were not always understood by others. Also, Peg had such a “rebel streak” in her that drove her to question some commonly held educational beliefs. We can say now that this quality of hers had probably rubbed off on us and allowed us to come up with truly unusual but effective solutions to teaching challenges.
What we have always admired the most was Peg’s ability to co-construct with others and be an enabling partner to those she worked with. She invariably improved the ideas we worked on without imposing a specific opinion—but allowing the ideas to ebb and flow until they came to fruition for all involved. Her incredible memory for every research study she ever read, in addition to her ability to articulate the implications of all of that to what you were working on, was amazing. An example of this is how we co-constructed the Sound Map. We noticed that when children were starting to write words in PreK and Kindergarten, and they couldn’t remember a sound, children would look at the classroom alphabet chart and start singing the alphabet song to find the letter they wanted. However, they couldn’t stop on the letter they wanted and would sing all the way through the song. Unless the teacher was there to tell the children where to look, they would use the song as a mediator and become lost. Often the whole class would start singing and become sidetracked. We had the idea to create a map of sounds; much like you would use a map to find an address, the map would have “neighborhoods” of like sounds. We used Peg’s knowledge of linguistics, such as which sounds children might confuse with each other depending on their dialects of English, to develop the Sound Map. The map is based on the articulation of sounds with groupings that made intuitive sense to children. Peg helped us develop and test the Sound Map as a more effective mediator for letter-sound relationships than the traditional alphabet chart. The Sound Map has been key in our ability to support developmentally appropriate literacy development.
There are not many people with whom one can co-construct new ways to apply teaching and learning in the classroom that are grounded in theory and research.
Peg became more than a colleague to share ideas with, she became a great friend. We enjoyed so many family dinners as well as fancy dining in D.C. Many bottles of wine and wonderful meals. She became friends with our families and was someone our children remember so fondly.
We will miss Peg so very much!
Deborah Leong & Elena Bodrova
Tools of the Mind