Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Homes and Habitats

Citizens of the World

Students in Pre-kindergarten and 3rd grade have been thinking about natural habitats and caring for the world in ways both large and small. The investigations in these two classrooms emerged from very different learning goals, but they share a number of elements that illustrate the ways in which curriculum and skills build from year to year in our school.

In Pre-K, the children have been studying sculpture as an art form. They spent an exciting day at the DeCordova Museum’s outdoor sculpture park, where they had the opportunity to see a collection of large works of art made from a wide variety of materials. At school, they watched part of a film about the artwork of Andy Goldsworthy, who makes beautiful creations from natural materials. Before Thanksgiving, the class read A House for Hermit Crab by Eric Carle. In the story, Hermit Crab has outgrown his home and must find a larger place to live. The shell he chooses is the right fit, but it is quite austere. Fortunately, Hermit Crab’s friends and neighbors provide colorful decoration, protection and adornment for the new home. After reading the book, the teachers presented the children with Styrofoam bowls and decorating items to build their own houses for Hermit Crab. Sitting around the classroom tables, the children built doors, balconies, and windows. They shared ideas, elaborated on their designs and, as Mrs. Zamore said, “learned about real things through fantasy.”

At the other end of the school, our third graders are immersed in a study of biomes—ecologically similar regions of the world characterized by climate, soil type, animals and plants. Each student chose one biome for a research project that involved note-taking, oral presentation, and teaching a lesson to the rest of the class. For one component of the unit, the children composed riddles and challenged their classmates to figure out which biome was being described. The students also created “biomes in a box” using shoeboxes to construct three-dimensional representations of their biomes, including at least three plants and three animals, as well as other details to illustrate the scenes. Just as their younger counterparts had done, these students helped each other with design concepts (multi-story rainforests and animals with moving parts were admired and adapted in several models), and made use of a variety of materials to show what they had learned. Ms. Twarog described this unit as a wonderful opportunity to emphasize the concept of global citizenship, and of our responsibility to care for and understand the diversity of plant and animal life on the planet. From his home in the marine biome, Hermit Crab can feel comforted by the stewardship of our students.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Over the River

Over the River

“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated,” wrote T.S. Eliot in the second of his Four Quartets, “East Coker.” Although the poem is not a testament to the importance of learning geography, this line provides an insight into the way children develop a sense of place. At Belmont Day, geography begins with the local and the familiar, gradually increasing children’s knowledge of the places, features, and people of the world.

We approach social studies by emphasizing respect for the locations and cultures that comprise our program, starting with locations that the students know best. A wonderful example of this practice is just reaching completion in second grade, where the students have worked carefully to describe their favorite places. This writing exercise encourages the children to provide rich detail about a spot in their world that is most special to them and to explain why. The purpose of the project is not to generate a list of exotic destinations but to develop a deeper understanding of what makes a place special. As we enter the winter holiday season, many of us are looking forward to spending time in places such as these—places that are important because of memories we hold, or people who live there, or celebrations that occur in those spots.

Thinking about special places gives us an opportunity to reflect on the human element of the world. We can know a place in terms of pure geography: where it is, what it looks like, how far away it is (and if you’re driving to Grandma’s, this may lead to the age-old question, "Are we there yet?"). We can also define a place in terms of time: what happened in this spot in our personal memories, family legacies, and traditions, or, as the 3rd graders' trip to Plimoth Plantation illustrates, we can learn about a place in terms of its broader historic significance. We may, in addition, consider a place in terms of anthropology: who lives here, what do they do, and what is the central nature of their culture? Each of these categories of geography receives its due attention in the course of our curriculum, as our students grow and gain a deeper understanding about what it means to locate a place in the world.

Incidentally, T.S. Eliot’s poem, “East Coker,” is named for a village in Somerset, England, near his family’s ancestral home. Near the end of the final poem in the Quartets, “Little Gidding,” the poet returns to the idea of knowing the world:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Life and Times

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was teaching 3rd grade that year, and I remember engaging in long conversations with my colleagues about how to talk with our students about the context and significance of the events taking place in Europe. As I watched images from 1989 on television this week, I was reminded of those discussions, and of the complexities of teaching history to young children.

In his landmark work The Process of Education (1960), noted psychologist Jerome Bruner advanced the idea that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” People are often skeptical about this claim: Any subject? At any stage of development? Bruner went on to explain that a good curriculum introduces children to concepts in small, manageable ways, building upon those concepts each year through a process called spiraling. Our approach to teaching history reflects a great deal of Bruner’s philosophy, beginning with a deep understanding of cognitive development.

What does it mean to teach about the past to primary school students, whose sense of time is not fully developed? Pre-Kindergarteners, for example, have only a vague understanding of elapsed time, or of the precise meaning of time-related words such as weeks, months, or years. When we teach about things that happened long ago, we don’t expect these children to remember dates or sequences. We focus on gradually building their awareness of the passage of time in large and small ways. During a read-aloud, a teacher might pause and ask, “what are some clues that show us this story happened a long time ago?”

When the first graders embarked on their study of inventions and inventors, they were introduced to history through compelling stories about individuals whose contributions improved life or added new ideas to the world. The teachers and students discussed history through small important moments, examining innovations that spanned the past several hundred years. As they learned about Benjamin Franklin, or about how and when blue jeans were invented, the children expanded their knowledge about what the world was like in those times.

Following Bruner’s idea of spiraling, our history curriculum builds each year upon the skills and stories presented earlier, becoming more complex and detailed. As our students get older, they are better able to grasp the idea of time in a historic sense. They gain a greater ability to appreciate the context for people’s actions and the significance of events at particular times in history.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Interdisciplinary Explorations

What is “culture?” How is an understanding of culture related to an understanding of what it means to be human? Is culture a concept reserved exclusively for human communities, or is there a broader definition that might encompass other species? What does it mean to be “modern” in a cultural sense, and what is the place of cultures that exist outside the “modern” world?

These questions and many related others form the core of our 7th grade social studies and humanities program. Mrs. Sher’s approach ensures that the students see “social studies” as a broad term that encompasses many fields, including philosophy, anthropology, history, geography, economics, and ecology. Their studies this year have begun with an intensive exploration of two African environments and the challenges confronted by the inhabitants of those locations.

Last week, the students were introduced to the work of primatologist Dian Fossey and her efforts to gain acceptance for the idea that animals, and in particular, primates, could be studied from a cultural perspective. The class is now immersed in a study of the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park in the Western Rift Valley of Africa, one of only two remaining habitats for this endangered species. The students are considering the possibility that animal cultures might teach us about the roots of human culture. They are learning about the ways in which gorillas form relationships, care for and teach their young, and establish levels of status within their groups. The core concepts of this unit will help the students over the course of the year as they examine the factors that shape societies.

On Friday, a group of visitors joined the 7th and 8th grade classes to raise awareness about a human society at risk in another part of Africa. Philanthropist Teri Gabrielson and filmmakers Joe Dietsch and Kristin Jordan shared their documentary “Maasai at the Crossroads,” about the Maasai people of Kenya. Later this winter the 7th graders will study the Maasai in depth, as the 8th graders did last year, making the presentation especially relevant for both classes. The film’s narrator is Dr. Calestous Juma, father of 6th grader Eric and director of Science, Technology, and Globalization Project.at Harvard. It provides a close-up view of conditions such as drought, lack of education, disease, and the encroachment of modern society that threaten the fragile way of life of this nomadic society.

After the screening, everyone participated in a discussion about the issues raised in the film. Later, the filmmakers praised our students for their sensitivity and attentiveness as well as their respectful, reflective comments and questions. These characteristics are essential for a truly engaged study of culture and society, and they reflect our efforts to teach habits of mind as well as important content.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Clues from the Past

Making History Relevant

Historians of the Mediterranean may be breathing a sigh of relief after the recent announcement that our 4th grade class has joined an investigation that has puzzled experts around the world. The case involves the whereabouts and most recent activities of “Sarah Jane,” an archaeologist whose last known location was in the vicinity of the ancient city of Pompeii. Last week, authorities from Sarah Jane’s university met with our own Mrs. Holman. They shared their concerns about Sarah Jane’s peculiar behavior before she was last seen, as well as the disappearance of several artifacts from the research site. University officials also provided Mrs. Holman with a copy of Sarah Jane’s video diary, which includes notes and images from her discoveries.

Our students have examined the video entries and the photographs and resources included in Sarah Jane’s journals, and they are applying all of their skills-- in careful observation and historical research, as well as their own knowledge about the site that Sarah Jane was studying. The video diary presents countless clues about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79. Since the ruins of the city of Pompeii were first discovered, archaeologists have viewed it as a priceless “moment in time,” capturing details of daily life nearly 2000 years ago. Despite the wealth of information in the diary, Sarah Jane omitted curious details that our students are working to decipher.

It comes as no surprise that our fourth grade would be selected as investigative partners on this endeavor. The fourth grade social studies curriculum emphasizes exactly the skills that are required for such a careful analysis. Students learn to observe an artifact closely, considering all possible aspects of the item such as workmanship, materials and tools that may have been used to form the object, and possible uses it might have served in the culture. They learn to conduct research using multiple sources, and to compare the information presented in these resources. They develop theories and test their own analytical evaluations, looking for evidence to support or contradict their ideas. Finally, they work in teams to collaborate and build knowledge together, sharing what they have found and coming to a deeper understanding of people from long ago.

Sarah Jane’s diary included many images of architectural details and decorative items from the city of Pompeii, Is it possible that she had come upon a new discovery that would expand our understanding of the once-buried Roman city before she disappeared? Our fourth grade may soon be able to provide an exciting update to this mystery.

Do the students know that they are involved in a clever simulation, or do they believe that Sarah Jane is real? Although there were some questions about the truth behind Mrs. Holman's story, this detail didn't really matter. Nine- and ten-year olds are at a wonderful age for such a project, in which they can combine imagination with intellectual skills to devise intricate scenarios, make connections among different categories of information, and enjoy the experience for the sheer fun of the narrative.

Regardless of age, I believe that role-playing experiences build children's confidence and interdisciplinary skills. In later grades, these tasks can become more grounded in reality, in which students tackle engineering challenges, debate social issues, or participate in research and data collection. When students can envision themselves doing the job of an expert in a particular field, the content area becomes more interesting, more useful, more purposeful. It is our job as educators to create situations that are meaningful and appropriate opportunities to apply the skills they need to solve problems and think critically.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Religion and Social History

Theologians All

When the 6th graders began their investigations of world religions last week, Mr. Spencer did not tell them what they would be learning. Instead, he challenged the students to generate their own research assignment by thinking about the concept of religion in a broad sense, and then identifying categories of information that would expand their knowledge about the topic. The list of questions that emerged from the students’ response to this challenge is remarkable for its insightfulness, sensitivity, detail, and breadth.

In the days following their introductory conversation, the students worked in small groups, each team focusing on the specifics of one of the major religions of the world. They delved into metaphysical questions such as ideas about life after death, the value of tradition and ritual in life-cycle celebrations, the nature of people’s relationships with deities, and the meaning of sacred texts. They investigated the lives of individuals who had shaped or popularized religious practices, considered the influence of arts and decorative objects, and looked for common themes that transcended a single faith.

As they gathered their data, students found that they were balancing abstract concepts alongside seemingly basic aspects of daily life such as dietary practices, clothing, and the responsibilities of people within families. These more practical elements were viewed in the context of gender roles, definitions of sin and virtue, and the place of religious belief in a secular world. Larger questions also loomed--one category of questions involves points of contact between and among the religions of the world: “how has this tradition interacted with others? Have there been wars or persecution? Has there been cooperation?”

Students pored over descriptions and looked carefully at illustrations. Everyone found information that was new, even in religions that were widely practiced within the class. One student commented that she had not really understood the significance of some holidays of her own religion, but that they made more sense to her now that she had read about them carefully. Another student eagerly described how the placement of Buddha’s limbs in statues and drawings can have different meanings, and explained that the lotus flower, which blooms for such a short period, represents the idea that all good things must come to an end.

Inherent in each discussion was a deep sense of respect, and an understanding that religion is a central aspect of many of the world’s cultures. Through their research and their ongoing discussions, our 6th graders are well-poised to consider a question not on their original list: How have people’s beliefs shaped history?

What is "Schooling?"

“Schooling “ and Learning

If you could create an “ideal” school, what would it look like? Imagine having no constraints in terms of money, space, or program. Where would you build your school? Who would lead it? How many students would be enrolled? What types of learning moments would you want to incorporate? What skills would be at the core of your curriculum?

These questions were posed by Dr. Stephen Brand, an entrepreneurial consultant, as part of a seminar hosted by our Institute for Excellence in Teaching on October 13. The event, which is part of a core course for the associate teachers, was also attended by several administrators and faculty members. The topic for the day was “Schooling in America: Theoretical and Social Context.” Dr. Brand’s questions came toward the end of the day, after we had examined the contributions of many thinkers who have shaped the format and structure of schools in the United States.

We began our seminar with a compelling keynote presentation by Professor William Stokes, interim Dean of the Lesley Graduate School of Education. Dr. Stokes framed his remarks about the nature of educational theory as an ongoing series of debates between “traditional” and “progressive” ideas. He traced several of these debates back more than 500 years, noting that throughout history, schools have been seen as social institutions from which political, philosophical, and even moral principles have emerged. He pointed out the similarities in arguments that have been raised for centuries about the role of schools to train citizens and to shape the thinking of future generations.

Both of our speakers addressed aspects of schooling that are central to the mission of Belmont Day School: the nature of community, the importance of values, and the necessity of presenting curriculum in multiple forms to serve the needs of all learners. Dr. Brand showed a brief video clip, which used dramatic statistics about the almost incomprehensible growth of information in our society. At its core was the message that we are training children for jobs that don’t exist yet. “How do we prepare children for these jobs?” Dr. Brand asked. In our discussion about these challenges, we focused on the critical need for educators to guide students in the process of learning; teaching them how to learn, and how to develop skills to respond to the changing needs of our world. The curricular stories that we present in this column each week are our responses to some of Dr. Brand’s questions. They are examples of teaching methods that address advanced thinking skills, and which provide opportunities for our students to engage in the type of learning that will serve them well in the future.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Of Local Interest

“Long ago and far away” might be the opening line in a fairy tale, but it might also be the beginning of a story of real people in a time in the distant past. Closer to home, “long ago and right down the street” could open a history lesson in (and out of ) Mrs. Moriarty’s classroom this year. As they began their social studies curriculum, the third graders considered examples of incidents and people from the past, and shared their thoughts about what it means to study events that happened long ago. After awhile, Mrs. Moriarty raised an interesting question: What is the difference between studying general history and local history? Her question was prompted by an exciting development in the 3rd grade social studies program, which entails a detailed study of the history of Massachusetts. A new textbook, new field labs, and new activities will be featured this year, providing our students with a wide range of learning opportunities.

Mrs. Moriarty introduced a list of terms related to the study of local history. Given the proximity of many historic sites, the children can look forward to visits to nearby locations where important events occurred. They will also investigate the biographies of individuals who made significant contributions to our state. One interesting heroine was Deborah Samson, a woman who fought in the Revolutionary War (disguised as a man!). After the war, her friend Paul Revere made sure that Ms. Samson received an army pension to pay her for her service to the country.

A few weeks ago, when the 5th graders visited the Minuteman Trail and the Battle Road, I wrote about the access we have here in Massachusetts to so many locations where the children can be told “something important happened right here.” The immediacy of such an experience is, of course, quite powerful, but I don’t think it’s limited to just those of us who live in the northeast. The bigger idea that emerges from Mrs. Moriarty’s lesson is really about defining history in a way that children can begin to think about their own neighborhoods and communities as places in constant flux. Wherever you are, something happened many years ago. Finding ways of bringing local history alive is the challenge and the fun for us as teachers.

Museums are additional sources of information in a study of local history, and they house vast collections of artifacts—items left behind from years ago. By investigating these objects, we can learn about jobs, customs, interests, skills, and the details of everyday life. To demonstrate the kind of thinking and analysis required to examine a historic artifact, Mrs. Moriarty supplied one of her own. From a beautifully polished box, she brought out a wooden tool that resembled a pair of tongs. What could it be? The children suggested many possibilities: it could be used for picking up small items, as a pair of chopsticks, or a clip to hold objects together. Next, Mrs. Moriarty removed several pairs of elegant kid-leather gloves from the box. These, she explained, would have been worn by ladies of a previous generation. She then described the careful way that these gloves needed to be cleaned, and explained how the leather would shrink and wrinkle as it dried. The wooden tool is a finger stretcher, a necessary item for re-shaping the gloves and smoothing them to be worn again. Back in the time that it was used regularly, it was not seen as a treasured relic; it was a daily tool like a fork or a knitting needle.

Could a knitting needle become a tool for teaching history? In 50 years, I wonder if people will still knit by hand. This summer we rented a vacation house that had a rotary phone. My 11-year-old had never seen one “in person,” and he was stymied when it came time for him to place a call. In our lifetimes, commonplace objects become so outmoded as to seem quaint. Mrs. Moriarty’s glove stretcher made me think about the items from my childhood that would seem strange to my child—my “close-and-play” record player that spun 45 rpm records, my pogo stick, and even my brother’s LEGO™ bricks, which I recently heard my son describing as “old-fashioned.”

Much of history is really about the daily life of people in the past, not about battles and famous people. The third graders’ foray into local history is a great reminder of this approach to the subject…No doubt our students will encounter many other curious and useful items as they learn about what happened long ago and quite nearby.

Monday, October 5, 2009

We the People

There is always so much to teach. How do we decide what to teach, and how much of it to teach, and how to present the material?

I'm not talking about the content requirements of the state curriculum, although those standards certainly give us a checklist of topics to "cover." What I'm talking about is deciding what's truly important for our students to know and be able to do.

I always come back to Jerome Bruner, who said that you can teach anything, in an age-appropriate way, to students of any age. The emphasis, of course, is on the "age-appropriateness" of the lesson.

Finding the entry point is always my favorite part of a lesson--what story will hook the kids? What question will prompt their curiosity enough to dive into a new area of content? What do they already know that will create a knowledge bridge for their shared interest in the topic?

The most recent example of this challenge is a school-wide exploration of social contracts. Although every grade had been working on their classroom rules, it was the 8th grade lesson that provided the focus:

We all know the story: in 1620, a small group of individuals set sail from England and landed on the rocky coast of North America. Before they stepped off their ship, the colonists signed a pact, agreeing to “combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.” The Mayflower Compact, as the document came to be known, established a foundation for laws and a government, to which all the signatories pledged their submission.

Why would these people, who had left behind everything familiar and staked their futures on the hope of beginning a new life in a new land, find it necessary to bind themselves together in this way? What value did they see in obeying laws that would be established “for the general Good of the Colony?” How did those early colonists, and the thinkers who came before and after them, shape the way we think of government and citizenship today?

Mr. Sigward’s 8th grade humanities class has been discussing the nature of government and the role of citizens in a governed society. The questions at the core of the lessons this week aim at the essence of human nature: How do people get their natural rights? Where does government get the right to govern? The writings of philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau prompted students to consider the concepts of natural rights, the ‘state of nature,’ and the underlying ideas of the social contract. Some students argued that without laws, people would only look out for themselves. Others believed that people need each other to survive, and therefore would give up some of their own liberties for the common good. As the year progresses, our 8th graders will reflect on these complex issues from many perspectives and points in history.

Although the younger students in our school might not be familiar with the term ‘social contract,’ they all have recent experience participating in such agreements. Every classroom in our school features a set of agreed-upon rules or “ways we want our class to be.” Each of these documents is the result of a group conversation in which the children and teachers identified important behaviors and personal responsibilities for themselves. They are written in crayon and marker, but the classroom contracts bear a striking similarity to the Mayflower Compact: they acknowledge the need for shared responsibility to help the whole class function well, and they feature the signatures of all the citizens of the community.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What Makes A Community?

So much about what makes a good school is intangible. I think about this challenge a great deal as I work with pre-service teachers in their graduate coursework and in their classroom placements. It's relatively easy to provide the resources and guidelines for curriculum content ("relatively" is the operative word there...), but how do you teach someone to be a good colleague? How do you explain the importance of connecting with parents, or of establishing traditions and shared experiences to build a sense of belonging?

What factors and constituencies contribute to a successful school community? This was the central question for a daylong educators’ seminar held on Monday as part of the associate teacher program and the Institute for Excellence in Teaching. The program included discussions by faculty members, parents, and students, all of whom shared their perspectives and observations about participating in, and contributing to, a community-oriented culture in school. While the comments of our panelists and presenters were focused almost exclusively on positive experiences here at BDS, many of the attributes they described are appropriate to any strong school community.

Mrs. Cirillo, the longest-serving member of our faculty, was the first speaker of the day. She recounted many examples of her own experiences as a teacher and administrator, highlighting the power of respectful relationships among colleagues and the importance of meaningful connections between teachers and students. Throughout the day, all of the speakers emphasized themes of knowing and being known, respect for individuals, and a deliberate attention to building and sustaining community.

A group of parents discussed their ideas and expectations of school communities for their children and themselves. They described the ways their families were welcomed, the events and traditions that their children remember and anticipate from year to year, and the connections they have established with teachers and other parents. One parent spoke warmly about the ways in which teachers made strong connections between home and school, incorporating children’s interests into the life of the classroom.

Mrs. Armstrong, Mr. Spencer, and Mrs. Holman joined the group throughout the day and presented specific strategies and approaches to building community, an effort that each of them described as a necessary part of their curriculum. Each of them mentioned the importance of trust among the members of the community, and Mr. Spencer pointed out that a school community is a bigger network than just the people in the classroom—“it is all the people who affect my class, even if they’re not there,” he said.

Mrs. Friborg facilitated a presentation by a panel of 7th graders, who shared their own impressions of school community. Each student talked about the importance of teachers care about and identify with their students. The students also appreciated opportunities for independence, creativity, and leadership. They talked about the size of a community, and how much they valued relationships with people from different areas of the school. One student commented with a smile, “you can’t get away without knowing each other here.”

The program ended with a final discussion led by Dr. Place and Mrs. Leana, who reviewed the presentations and identified common themes for participants to consider as they think about creating their own classroom and school communities.

We have planned a series of these one-day, theme-oriented programs this fall; during the next one (October 13) we will consider the relevance of foundational educational theories in a 21st century context. Our guest speakers bring wonderful expertise and perspective to our discussions: one is the interim Dean of the Lesley University School of Education, and the other is the CEO of an entrepreneurial consulting firm.

On November 10, we will discuss what it means to be "at risk" in a 21st century school. Panelists will include parents of children with special needs, children's services staff from a homeless shelter, and other educators dealing with risk and resilience in schools. On December 10, we will consider the wide range of educational options for children and families in a program entitled "All Kinds of Schools." Details about speakers are still in the works, but the program is coming together very well! We are looking forward to welcoming educators from other schools to these programs.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Global Positioning

This week I've been thinking about the many meanings of "distance," both as a measurement of length and as a means of separating events in time. I am fascinated by the ways children envision both space and time; which places seem like a long way from here, or which events feel far away in time. We need to be mindful of the students' developing sense of these measurements, and this awareness leads me once again to the power of narrative and storytelling in helping learners find "anchor points" for their expanding knowledge of time and place. There were some exciting activities in the middle school this week that helped illustrate this idea...

The next time you are outside, pause for a moment and take a look around. In your mind, construct a picture of your location 1.8 million years ago. What plants or animals might you see? What type of climate would you experience? What landscape details would you notice? What features would orient you to the place where you are standing?

On Wednesday, our fifth graders pondered these questions as part of a field lab experience at the Minuteman National Park in Lincoln. With the students gathered in the woods near an enormous boulder, Mr. Downing challenged them to sketch the site as if they had traveled nearly two million years into the past. After some of the sketches and ideas had been shared, Mr. Downing gave a vivid description of how the land would have appeared, deep beneath the ice sheet that covered much of North America. He explained that the boulder, properly called a glacial erratic, had been dropped when the glacier melted at the end of the Ice Age.

Earlier that morning, the children had attended a multimedia presentation at the park’s visitor center, where they learned about the events of the night of April 18, 1775. As the group walked along the Battle Road, Mr. Sucich pointed out several Revolutionary War sites, then stopped to tell the story of Paul Revere’s capture at the exact spot where it had occurred, just a short walk from the 2 million year-old boulder. Farther along the trail, the students searched eagerly for a small plastic box that marked a precise location on a special kind of treasure hunt known as letterboxing. The class engaged in their own letterboxing expedition last week, using compass directions and landmark clues to find a series of similar boxes on the grounds of the Habitat conservation land.

Obviously, the specifics of this lesson were linked to a field lab location that is only realistic for schools in eastern Massachusetts, but the natural history elements are relevant everywhere. Taking the Revolutionary War out of the equation, most schools are located near some historically significant site. I love the idea of simply taking the class outside and saying "Right here, right where we're standing, this fascinating story took place."

What are the essential components of a geography curriculum? How do we come to know about places in the world—large expanses of the globe as well as spaces that are small and familiar? Our students learn the basic skills of geography (in fact, the fifth graders have world maps in their binders right now, which they are studying to memorize the names and locations of the seas, oceans, and continents), but learning geography is more than locating and labeling the proper spot on a map. For our students and teachers, geography involves knowing how to orient themselves in space. Their tools are maps, compasses, observational skills, and an appreciation of the stories, events, and forces that have shaped the world.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

This is the place

You Are Here

This year, in celebration of our newly reviewed social studies curriculum, the “Best Practices” column will focus on learning and teaching related to place, time, citizenship, and culture.

In these first days of school, it’s difficult to separate the four concepts that underlie our social studies program, because they are all so deeply connected to a sense of belonging. This notion was never more evident than during Tuesday’s visiting day. New and returning students arrived with a combination of excitement, curiosity, trepidation, and self-consciousness. “Where is my cubby?” and “Where is my spot?” were operative questions, as each person located his or her vantage point in the hallways and the classrooms. “Who will sit near me?” and “Which is my group?” were frequent follow-up questions, as people looked at the names of classmates in adjacent chairs and cubby spots.

In 4th grade, Mrs. Holman gave the new students (who came in earlier in the day for their private visits) the option of choosing their spots. One child said she didn't care where she sat, as long as it could be near "the only person I know." Another student walked around the entire room thinking about what would be a good place to sit. The concept of place, in microcosm, was powerful for these two children.

I spent a long time observing the older students in this process, and I started thinking about vantage points. If you're sitting in the back of the room, you have a view of everyone in front of you, but they don't see you unless they turn around. If your cubby is right near the door to the classroom, or if it's in the middle of the row, your experience is different from other people--you're either on the edge of the crowd, or you're right in the middle of it. What does that feel like to a 12- or 13-year old who is trying to internalize her own identity as an individual or as a member of the class?

In pre-K, the teachers led tours and introduced each area in their spaces. They shared the names for various items, including the climbing structure and the light table, which Ms. Andrick demonstrated to the delight of one enthusiastic child. “Now it’s a dark table!” he exclaimed when she pulled out the plug. In other grades, other classroom components were presented—the cozy couches in 3rd grade, the skeletons in 5th grade, the mural on the 4th grade wall, the expanse of the kiva—all of these will become essential elements in our children’s places this year. In so many ways, a child's classroom becomes an element of his comfort zone--almost a home away from home to the extent that they spend so much time there.

Ensuring that our students feel a true sense of their place at Belmont Day School is a reflection of our school culture, especially our values of care and respect. Being known—being identified and affiliated with a community—is even more important than simply having an assigned chair or a location to hang a coat. Our teachers have prepared thoughtfully to be sure that their classroom environments reflect these goals. Throughout the school on Tuesday, students found evidence that they were expected. Their names were printed on tags, cubbies, desks, or tabletops. Their teachers spoke to them in familiar ways. Their families were greeted and welcomed as extended members of the group. New students had individual time to become acquainted with the spaces of our school, and almost all of us met someone we hadn’t known before.

It is in the context of this last experience, of making a new acquaintance, that we can all think about place, time, citizenship, and culture. In working and learning with one another, we expand our knowledge of the world and our place within it. I am starting this school year thinking deeply about school as a place to belong, both physically and metaphorically.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Independence and the Joy of Reading

Beyond any technical skill or exercise in inferential comprehension, our literacy program strives to bring a sense of joy and wonder to the process of reading. We hope that our students will nurture an appreciation for a story well told, for a powerfully engaging depiction of history, for an evocative verse, for an eloquently presented memoir, for a legend that captures the essence of a cultural value, and for all the other gifts that reading brings.

December 12: Loving the Words

On Tuesday morning, a group of second grade children gathered around the world rug in the library’s story room, engaged in a lively conversation about Cinderella with Mrs. Cirillo. They have heard several variations of this fairytale from different times and places, and Mrs. Cirillo asked the children what they expected to hear in the new book she was holding. Their informal discussion touched on many of the elements of the archetypal story of an outcast who is saved from a life of hardship through magic and a lost shoe. As Mrs. Cirillo began to read, the children noticed that this story was unusual because it featured a boy as its main character. A few pages later, one of the children called out, “Oh! He won’t lose a glass slipper; it’s a boot!”

Story time in the library is a singular form of literacy instruction for our primary school children. Every week, children in Pre-K through 2nd grade spend time listening to wonderful books read with joy by our librarian. While there is certainly conversation about the stories, and while the books often include new vocabulary words or interesting ideas, story time is not about formal instruction. When asked to describe her approach, Mrs. Cirillo is quick to point out that for her, these times with the children are about a love of literature, a love of story, a love of illustration, and a love of words.

Picture books occupy a special place in children’s reading lives. Most of these books are not mean to be read by children; the size of the type, the complexity of the words, the sentence structure, and the form of writing are often beyond early readers’ abilities. Instead, these books are designed to be read to and with children. Although Mrs. Cirillo does not follow a specific plan, her choices for each grade provide wonderful guidelines for sharing books with children.

As you consider gift ideas for the children in your lives (from our Book Fair or elsewhere), consider these suggestions:

In Pre-K and K, Mrs. Cirillo looks for books that feature fun and engaging topics. She’s found that Pre-K children love stories about babies!
In K and 1st, she focuses on early literacy skills such as rhymes and repetition so that children can participate and anticipate the words in the stories.
In 2nd grade, she reads folk tales and fairy tales to expose children to universal themes and classic works.

December 19: The Moment of Excellence

Of all the books and stories you have read, which ones truly drew you in? Which ones presented a moral dilemma or a difficult choice that left you pondering the alternatives long after the last page was turned? Which ones created such a vivid image in your mind that you felt that you had visited a real place? Books like these are not only a pleasure to read, they are also a tool for learning and for expanding our thinking about challenging issues. In every grade, our teachers make literature selections to encourage this type of critical thinking and connection. Often, book choices are made specifically because they will lead to conversations about choices or “big ideas.”

Our 7th graders have just completed such a book: The Giver, Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning novel about an adolescent boy living in a tightly controlled “perfect” society. One of the central themes that the 7th graders are examining this year is that of the individual versus the group, and The Giver’s plot focuses on this theme. The ending is deliberately unclear, prompting deep discussions about what really happened. The level of connection to the text within the class and the compelling issues raised by the story created an ideal environment for reflection and creativity.

Ms. Jorgensen and Mrs. Sher arranged an exhibition for the students to demonstrate their understanding of the themes raised by the book. Some chose to create a three-dimensional map of the setting; they did not just build a model of a place, they made careful choices about color, texture, and their use of three dimensions to express their interpretation of the insider/outsider tension in the story. Other students wrote and performed scenes to expand on pivotal events, emphasizing the significance of the theme to the dialogue they presented. Some students chose a third option and wrote epilogues, matching the style and tone of the author and carrying the theme forward into a “what happened next” chapter. After Mrs. Sher instructed them to look for the moment of excellence in the presentations, students evaluated their own work and that of their classmates, using a detailed rubric to assess both their process and their product. Perhaps the most remarkable moments of excellence occurred in the discussions after each presentation; the students discussed concepts such as acceptance versus rejection, the need for love, and how societies operate.

April 3: It’s a Family Thing

“Dear Parents…Once again, you have homework,” began the letters that went home to 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade families last month, announcing the 6th annual Literary Tea program, the brainchild of Mrs. Listfield and a tradition beloved by everyone. For each grade, Mrs. Listfield and the teachers have selected a book for adults and students to read together at home. This week and next week, Coolidge Hall is the setting for a series of gatherings where parents and children have been coming together to share their questions and thoughts about the books. Accompanied by a treat of tea and cookies, families meet around our lunch tables to discuss small details and large issues raised by the stories.

For our third graders, Wednesday morning was their first experience with a Literary Tea, although their novice status was not at all obvious. The group had read Pam Munoz Ryan’s book Riding Freedom, a historical novel about a woman who becomes a stagecoach driver in the American West. Discussions ranged from the challenges of being a woman during this time to definitions of freedom, to questions about perseverance and true happiness. “I think this book is bittersweet,” commented one child. “She was happy that she could do some stuff, but sad that she couldn’t be herself.”

The fourth grade class read Walking to the Bus Rider Blues by Harriet Gillem Robinet. This story takes place in the segregated South during the bus boycott. It centers around a young African-American boy and his family dealing with difficult circumstances. Although a work of fiction, the book includes authentic details about acts of racism during the time period. Parents shared their own thoughts about discrimination and recollections of the civil rights movement. Many conversations centered on the concept of courage: what sort of bravery it would take for a white person to participate in the boycott on behalf of black people, and the kind of confidence required to stand up for yourself in the face of a racist system.

The fifth graders read Lauren St. John’s novel The White Giraffe, in which an 11-year-old girl moves to Africa to live with her grandmother on a game preserve. The book raises questions about the idea of “home,” and what it means to protect vulnerable creatures. Sixth grade families read Roland Smith’s novel Elephant Run, World War II, when a boy moves from his home in England to his family’s teak plantation in Burma (now Myanmar). The book raises questions about courage, adventure, and a respect for the environment. Though the issues raised by all these books are not easy, our students and their parents approach them with respect, interest, and an appreciation for good stories.

May 22: Metamorphosis

“Silent reading and butterflies: two signs that the school year is almost over,” said Mrs. Chait the other day. She glanced at the large net holding the cocoons for the Painted Lady butterflies that will be emerging soon, and then her gaze traveled around the room to observe the students, each of whom was settled into an independent reading book. “They couldn’t have done this at the beginning of the year,” she added, with a note of pride in her voice.

How do you measure growth when it happens in tiny steps? When we are with children every day, the small changes are not always noticeable, but every now and then we are struck by the transformations that are occurring in their minds and bodies. At home, many of us have a door frame, or a spot on the kitchen wall, or a chart mounted inside a closet to mark our children’s height; how many times have you suddenly discovered that your child is an inch taller than the last time you measured?

Progress in reading happens in a similar incremental way. As the first grade year unrolls, inch by inch, new skills are developed. More complex words are introduced, longer texts are mastered, more words become recognized automatically, oral reading becomes smoother and more fluent, and suddenly, like the marks on the kitchen wall, we find that children are reading with significantly greater mastery than they could months before.

On this day, the first graders spill into the classroom from recess, ready for silent reading time. They find quiet spots at the tables, or sit cross-legged on the big rug, or sprawl on the pillows and carpets in the classroom nook, their books spread out on the floor in front of them. The literature choices are as varied as the children themselves: picture books, chapter books, early readers, classic stories, non-fiction selections, and popular series. One boy flips through a plastic bin, looking for something new. “Read it already; read it; read it; read it,” he says, ticking off each title. He moves to the next bin and grins as he finds a story that he hasn’t read yet. Twenty minutes later, when Mrs. Chait softly asks the children to put away their books, one student exclaims, “That’s the most I’ve ever read in DEAR time!”

Deep into the month of May, we look back over the school year and realize how much learning has occurred, and how much that learning will serve as the foundation for future growth. The butterflies about to hatch out of their cocoons, metaphorically as well as in reality.

May 29: What’s In Your Pile?

When asked about her summer reading plans, Mrs. Zamore laughed. “I can tell that we’re almost finished with the year when the pile of books that I’ve been saving topples over.”

For the past few weeks, this column has described many signs that the end of the year is fast approaching. We now release the results of an informal survey conducted among a cross-section of faculty and staff. The survey consisted of a single question: “What books are you most looking forward to reading this summer?” The results of our survey reveal evidence of many piles of books, and a vast range of interests, humor, talents, content knowledge, curiosity, hobbies, and personalities. The common thread among everyone surveyed was the sense of relaxation and pure joy of reading— how, what, and whenever we choose. Mrs. Zamore reflected on the luxury of time to read a long book, and Mr. Chaves quipped that he loves summer reading because he can read at a time of day when he won’t fall asleep.

Some respondents fall into a broad category best summed up by Mr. Chaves, who said, “I’ll read anything that’s good.” He likes to share his favorites, and Mr. O’Neill is the happy recipient of a whole stack of Chaves-approved selections. Ms. Rochford said that she reads whatever grabs her interest, and Mrs. Holman also described herself as a generalist. Mrs. Beaudoin, certainly speaking on behalf of all the associates, said, “I can’t wait to read something besides textbooks!” On the other hand, Mrs. Brissenden noted that she saves her summer reading time to focus on educational theory and philosophy.

Other people prefer specific categories and genres—Mr. Spencer likes myths and folktales, Mr. Sucich seeks out the sports section of the bookstore, and many people (including Mrs. Leana, Mrs. Zamore, and Mrs. Cirillo) named mysteries among the titles on their summer reading lists. Ms. Atwood alternates fiction and non-fiction. Ms. Isler, Mrs. Fell, Mr. Downing, Ms. Moriarty, and Mrs. Scholes talked about historical fiction. Mrs. Listfield loves to read children’s books, and she subscribes to many magazines. Some of us read about hobbies or interests: I love to read cookbooks as well as biographies and non-fiction history books, and Ms. Atwood is engaged in a book about doubles tennis strategy.

The survey’s timing was deliberate: summer reading lists are included in this week’s Friday Folders, and our spring book fair will take place next week. While it is important that students read the recommended books for their grade levels, it is even more important to find time to heed Mrs. Cirillo’s advice to “read a lot, read for pleasure, and read what you like.”

Genre Studies

Our curriculum places a strong emphasis on literature—our students read widely and deeply from many types of texts. Our reading classes make rich use of the wide spectrum of literary styles, and our other disciplines often include readings and examinations of relevant literature. We emphasize many ways of communicating a message—through story, narrative, poem, or other forms. We examine the structure and form of different works, and we encourage students to write in multiple styles.

March 6: Talking History

How did people learn about their history before there were history books? The fourth graders have been grappling with this question as they embark on a hallmark experience of the Belmont Day School curriculum: the study of ancient Greece. Last week, Mrs. Holman introduced Homer and the ancient tradition of epic storytelling. She has been reading Blackships Before Troy, a version of the Iliad, to build the students’ historical knowledge of the cultures of the Mediterranean and immerse them in the real and apocryphal events of the Trojan War.

The students are completely absorbed by the action-packed epic, which one of them described as “40 days when Achilles was pouting and the Trojans were winning the war.” Some students are excited by the engaging battles and war scenes. Another student commented on the amazing way that the whole story fits together. “There are no random things popping up,” she noted admiringly.

One of Mrs. Holman’s goals in this project is for the students to learn about the memorization strategies and performance methods used by the bards of the age. She compares the process to a game of “telephone,” in which each storyteller learns the main events of the story, then adds his own embellishments and individual flair. The students have learned about the importance of rhyme, the use of music to keep a melody and pattern in the performance, and the “power of three,” which refers to the technique of repeating significant actions three times.

As they listen, the students take notes to track the sequence of events of the story. They debate which events could have been real and which have probably been exaggerated over time. When they have heard all of the stories in the collection, they will become the storytellers themselves. In small groups, the children will choose their favorite episode from the epic, prepare their own retelling, and share their story with the class. Usually, Mrs. Holman says, the groups distribute themselves in such a way that the class ends up telling the entire Iliad from beginning to end. The challenge will be for them to find a way of using only their narrative skills to engage the audience—no acting or props are allowed. For the past few years, Mrs. Holman has used a video camera to record the final performances. This year, however, she and Mrs. Brooks are planning to produce a webcast of the adventures, creating a 21st century version of an ancient language art.

April 10: Feeling the Words

April is National Poetry Month, and our first and second graders are in the midst of reading, hearing, studying, and especially, writing poems. Although the lessons and activities in each class are different, both grades has been engaged in an ongoing conversation about what makes poetry different from regular writing.

Investigating words through poetry creates many opportunities for language study. In first grade, the children have been reading daily “chart poems” all year, attending to rhymes, patterns, images, or silly ideas. Sometimes, interesting words from these poems appear in other selections, expanding the children’s vocabulary. Recently, a student noticed the word “wailed” in a story. “I know that word! It was in our poem. It means to cry loudly!” she exclaimed. This week, the first graders are taking their poetic study to a new level: they have begun a two-week poetry unit in their reading groups, which focuses on writing their own poetry. The children are noticing that in poetry, the “just right” word or combination of words is important. Mrs. Chait explained that the students’ first efforts are based on structural guidelines, such as self-descriptive “I” poems. As they gain confidence with this new writing style, they will move onto more abstract forms. Selections of their work will appear in the Lambs’ Gambol later this spring.

Second graders are also focusing on both structure and word choice in their study of poetry. Mrs. Fell says that a goal is for the children to get a sense of poetry as a different kind of writing, one that emphasizes the expressive power of language. The children are observing that poetry has a rhythm or a beat that you can sometimes actually feel. In a good poem, the “right” words are in the right order; the sounds and the flow of the words are sometimes exciting, or silly, or serious. The teachers have chosen certain structural poems for the children to compose: this week, each child wrote a cinquain (5-line poem) describing a classmate. The exercise reinforced the children’s knowledge of parts of speech, while also giving them a chance to think about self-descriptions and compliments for themselves and others. Mrs. Fell says that the entire class has been gripped by this unit, which has allowed so many children to show their language skills in a new way. “The enthusiasm is infectious!” she said.

The teachers are enjoying this study as much as the children. In both grades, they have brought favorite poems, shared their own examples, and delighted in the results that the children have produced.

May 15: Enchanted Reading

Do you believe in magic? Our third graders (and the characters in the books they are reading) are asking themselves the same question. This week, the teachers and children have immersed themselves in a collection of fantasy stories that have led to conversations about make-believe and the incredible power of imagination. These books comprise one of several genre studies that the class has pursued over the course of the year.

Mrs. Moriarty and Mrs. Listfield offered three choices to the students: James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt, and Half Magic by Edward Eager. The children ranked the books according to their own preference and were assigned either their first or second choice for the unit. Although the plot and setting of each book are unique, all of them include main characters who come face-to-face with fantastic situations or creatures. These books demonstrate the importance of making the right text selections to meet our learning goals, which balance fluency, comprehension, and literary analysis. The fantasy unit provides countless opportunities for the students to practice oral reading, hone their inferential skills, and reflect on the uses of language to convey an image or a scene.

Visualization is an important skill in comprehension, and it was in full evidence this week. At the beginning of Half Magic, odd events happen whenever someone makes a wish out loud. “I wonder,” Mrs. Moriarty mused, “What possible explanation might there be for this?” Several hands shot up as children eagerly suggested ideas. In James and the Giant Peach, James and his aunts are astonished when a peach suddenly grows to enormous proportions right before their eyes. The children delighted in the humorous portrayal of James’ horrid aunts. Ms. Milligan stopped the reading for a moment and encouraged the children to envision the scene in their imaginations. In Mrs. Listfield’s group, the main character in The Search for Delicious is taken to the top of the forest by a magical creature. Mrs. Listfield paused thoughtfully and asked, “could you see that in your minds?” She re-read the passage, emphasizing the descriptive language and the details in the text.

Conversations abounded as the teachers and students discussed the possibility of a real peach growing to that size, or of conjuring half of what you want by wishing on a coin, or of a creature to be visible only to those who believe in him. Along with the literacy skills they demonstrated, children also found themselves entranced by the wonderful stories—an equally important goal of our reading program.

Media Literacy and Content Area Instruction

A great many language arts skills are taught and reinforced outside of our reading classes. Comprehension is critical when students are reading texts, locating resources for research, and analyzing the validity of statements they read. Interpreting data, finding cultural references, appreciating the language of other disciplines, and an ability to engage with text in a critical way are all necessary for becoming truly literate.

October 17: Decision 2008: A Matter of Critical Literacy

Although they’re not old enough to vote, our 8th graders are participating in the upcoming election. For the past several weeks, their Literature Study Group classes have been focused on the issues at stake in the campaign. Ms. Gerner has enrolled the class in a wiki (an interactive website whose content is created as a collaborative effort). The site was originally conceived by a teacher at the Noble and Greenough School and involves students from many other schools.

Our students’ involvement in this web community is an excellent example of learning about media literacy. Ms. Gerner described the interdisciplinary activity as a combination of social studies, humanities, critical thinking, and writing. The students are researching a variety of topics (global warming, the privatization of social security, energy policy, and education, are among the ideas being discussed this week). As they read articles about these issues, the students are alert for areas of bias, misleading information, reliability, and accuracy.

As a component of their research, the students completed an on-line survey to find out how their own views compared with those of the presidential candidates. The multiple-choice options prompted questions, reactions, and further investigations about such issues as the mortgage crisis, the death penalty, and ethanol subsidies.

After gathering and reading their source material, the students will prepare their own explanations of the topics to add to the entries on the wiki site. Their challenges are to keep their writing balanced, to avoid inflammatory statements, and to enrich the site for readers. These sophisticated literacy skills involve careful analysis, strong comprehension, and an understanding of the subtleties of language.

Thomas Jefferson believed that a democracy could not exist without an educated populace. "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” he noted in a 1789 letter. In 2008, his words still ring true, and our teachers and students are doing their best to be both well-informed and respectful.

December 12: Reading for Livestock

An exciting community service project has turned our fourth grade students into agricultural experts, avid readers, adept researchers, and committed humanitarians. Guided by Ms. Rochford, Mrs. Holman, and Mrs. Deoras, the class has embarked on an educational and philanthropic mission to help children around the world through Heifer International. The program provides sheep, goats, chickens, cows, and other animals to needy families as a way of increasing their income potential as well as their nutritional resources. The children were introduced to the program through a book about a young girl in Uganda whose family fortunes are improved when they receive a goat from the organization. The class discussed the ways in which a single animal could make such a difference to a struggling family.

Each fourth grader selected one of Heifer’s animals for further research. Ms. Rochford helped them navigate the web site and a collection of books and print materials to gather information. To demonstrate what they have learned, the students will choose among several options for final projects. Some children will create picture books about the animals. Others will write their own informational books, and some will prepare simulated interviews with children who have received animals. They are also building their vocabularies and spelling skills with relevant terminology from their studies; this week’s spelling list included the words agriculture, international, heifer and adaptation.

A final component of the project is the class’ participation in Heifer’s Read to Feed program. Last week, the students brought home pledge forms to raise funds for Heifer International. Donors can choose to pledge a certain dollar amount for every book, chapter, or page that a participating child reads over the winter break. The children keep a log of their reading, and earn money with each book they complete. When we return to school in January, the class will decide how best to allocate the resources raised and will buy a selection of animals from Heifer’s catalog. Ms. Rochford emphasizes that a major goal of this effort is to raise awareness of micro-finance projects such as Heifer, and that the children’s Read to Feed efforts are part of an important lesson in global citizenship.

January 23: The Stories We Tell

“If you tell stories during the daytime, your cattle could die.” This Maasai adage was the subject of a lively conversation in Mrs. Sher’s 7th grade class on Wednesday.

“What does this mean? Why would cattle die if their herders tell stories while they work?” The students suggested a variety of explanations to answer the questions Mrs. Sher posed. It soon became clear that the Maasai prohibition on daytime storytelling was not related to a superstition, but rather as a means of preventing distraction from the vigilance of herding. The conversation then turned toward the inherent value of storytelling, both in the nomadic culture that the class has been studying and as a more universal element of human nature.

The 7th grade has been analyzing both the content and structure of Maasai legends as part of a larger study of animal and human societies. One of the focal points of Wednesday’s lesson focused on the importance of storytelling as a form of cultural transmission—the values, rituals, and customs of a people, and the methods by which these elements are passed on from one generation to the next. The students observed that the Maasai stories are relatively simple in terms of plot and characters, making them easy for a child to comprehend and retell. These qualities are essential in a society that depends on oral tradition and on a set of core images and natural resources.

Four images that are core to Maasai culture are the snake, the river, a stool, and the calabash (a type of gourd). These concepts are central to a set of riddles told among children in the society: “What can move freely without legs?” “What can flow freely without legs?” “What has legs but cannot walk?” and “What holds its milk without drinking it?” Mrs. Sher reminded the students of these riddles, which they had learned in an earlier class, and then returned to the question that had begun the discussion: “If you tell stories during the daytime, your cattle could die.”

Why, Mrs. Sher asked, are Maasai dissuaded from telling stories, but encouraged to share riddles while they work? The students spoke about the intense focus of both the storyteller and the listener in contrast to the quick and humorous exchange of a riddle. The distinction between these two types of oral language and their different social contexts became a rich topic of discussion about the pleasures and benefits of language as a source of entertainment, keeping the mind facile, and participation in society.

January 30: Listen, My Children…

Patriots Day is still nearly three months away, but our fifth graders are immersed in the history, science, and excitement of the first days of the American Revolution. How can a discipline like history, with its emphasis on dates, names, and battles, be presented as a lively and compelling pursuit for middle school students? One answer to this question was demonstrated this week, when Mr. Downing and Mr. Sucich teamed up, using elements of theater, astronomy, live flames, literature, and modern technology to enhance their teaching.

At the heart of the lesson was good storytelling. Although much of the information presented was new to the class, the teachers were impressed with the level of prior knowledge that the students brought. Some of their knowledge came from the award-winning novel Johnny Tremain, written in 1943 by historian Esther Forbes. This work of realistic fiction incorporates countless accurate details about Boston in the 1770s. Real-life events can be just as dramatic, if not more so, than fiction, and the events of those days and nights in April 1775 are an ideal example of high drama, which the teachers maximized throughout their lessons.

An interactive map on Mr. Sucich’s SmartBoard created the backdrop for the presentation, which began with a retelling of the famous story of Paul Revere’s ride. As the narrative progressed, Mr. Sucich used different colors to represent the routes taken by Paul Revere, Billy Dawes, the Minutemen, and the British troops. Along the way, he stopped to share points of trivia and clarify common misconceptions. The students were completely engrossed in the tale, listening and watching intently.

Mr. Downing provided a scientific perspective, illustrating and expanding on the story. To highlight the tense moments while Revere rowed across the harbor, trying to avoid being spotted by the British, Mr. Downing explained that the full moon that night was shining at an angle, keeping Mr. Revere’s boat in the shadows. Later, after Mr. Sucich described the weapons used by the soldiers and Minutemen, Mr. Downing demonstrated the use of flint to start a flame burning.

As the discussion turned to the exact moment of the “Shot Heard Round the World,” Mr. Sucich posed the question, “who do you think fired the first shot?” One of the students responded, “no one knows.” Mr. Sucich agreed, but pressed the point further. Based on the information they had, and their own ideas and interpretations, he encouraged them to consider the question again, “Who do you think did it, and why do you think so?” The students paused, took possession of the story—and history came alive.

March 13: How Big is a Queen Sized Bed?

Rubber bands, colorful footprints, picture books, and lots of words have been at the heart of kindergarten and first grade math classes this week, a sure indication our students are engaged in a study of geometry. Perhaps a bit of explanation is necessary. In the earliest grades, abstract mathematics concepts are introduced through experience, hands-on manipulation, stories, and observation, giving students a meaningful context and a narrative basis for the skills they are learning.

Our kindergarteners are exploring measurements and the tools that we use to measure objects. Last week, they traced their own feet, then cut out and decorated the shapes to use as their own personal measuring units. On Monday, Ms. Chu read Rolf Myller’s book How Big is a Foot? which tells the story of a king who wants a bed made for the queen, and sends his royal orders based on the size of his very large feet. Confusion ensues when the carpenter’s apprentice uses his own tiny feet to construct the bed. The students eagerly followed the events of the story, making predictions and calling out their reactions when a tiny bed is delivered to the queen. They explained the problem and offered solutions for making a “queen-sized” bed. In the course of their discussion, the children demonstrated their understanding of concepts such as relative size, standardized measurements, and the importance of clear language in describing quantities, distances, and lengths.

The first graders have been examining polygons—shapes that have straight sides, corners, and no “crossovers.” The math/language connections in this unit involve labels such as quadrilateral, hexagon, and octagon, as well as conversations that involve different ways of describing these shapes. The children are exploring geometry through a hands-on, individualized experience using geoboards—specially designed pegboards on which the students stretch rubber bands to construct a variety of multi-sided figures. Making and copying shapes on the geoboards is both fun and challenging, as the children have discovered. To reinforce the concepts further, Mrs. Chait read the book The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns, in which a deep-thinking triangle visits a shape-shifter to escape his recurring sense of ennui. When the shape gains an angle and a side, new opportunities present themselves for him, but he soon finds himself bored with his circumstances and returns to the shape-shifter for more. The story presents many examples of polygons in everyday life and encourages the children to search their environments for triangles, squares, and other common shapes.

Comprehension and Vocabulary Building

Comprehension and Vocabulary Building

True reading requires a reader to understand the meaning of the text being encountered. Comprehension, therefore, is an absolute and ultimate goal of our reading program at every level. It is not sufficient for readers to be able to pronounce the words they are decoding; they must be able to extract the message from the passage as well. Our teachers and students build word knowledge together, adding vocabulary words and meanings, dissecting parts and origins of words, and finding multiple ways of defining and describing new and known concepts.

September 19: Mono-. Di-. Tri-.

Ask a BDS 6th grader what these prefixes mean, and you’re in for a lesson in Greek. This week, the 6th grade class began a yearlong study of etymology, the study of word origins. Their first unit is an investigation of the Greek roots related to numbers (mono is one; di is two, and tri is three). Mr. Spencer and the students reviewed a list of words that include numeric roots from one to ten. Familiar and unfamiliar words gained new significance as students learned the root words (oct means eight, and pous means foot in Greek, so an octopus is, quite literally, an eight-footed creature). The students analyzed meanings, made connections, and discussed word-based mysteries: If oct means eight, then why is October the 10th month? Ask a 6th grader!

On the same day that the 6th graders were learning about decathlons and heptameter, the Kindergarten class conducted an in-depth investigation of alphabet books. Ms. Isler, Ms. Chu, and the children looked carefully at the different shapes of the letters, shared words that they know using those letters, and learned some new words that begin with the letters (do you know what a kohlrabi is?).

These two lessons represent critical points on the continuum of literacy. From the earliest stages of letter recognition to the ability to decode and define the word decahedron, reading involves the process of connecting symbols, sounds, and words to make meaning. The Belmont Day School literacy curriculum is an excellent model of best practices in reading and language arts instruction. As the year progresses, we will share continued highlights and examples from our Road to Reading.

October 10: Reading to Learn

There is an adage in elementary schools that until third grade, children “learn to read,” and after third grade, they “read to learn.” The implication is that reading is primarily about correctly pronouncing words in print. However, true reading is more than connecting letters and sounds. A good example of this distinction is the experience many of us have encountered in “reading” a language we don’t speak. We may be able to pronounce the items on the menu, but we’re not sure what we’re ordering.

Our third graders are expanding their true reading skills to make meaning from text. They are reading Stone Fox, a story about a boy who decides to enter a sled-dog race. Mrs. Moriarty’s and Mrs. Listfield’s classes provide a powerful illustration of what reading instruction looks like after children have learned to decode most words.

In Mrs. Moriarty’s group, a child read a passage that included a conversation between the main character and the mayor. He didn’t miss a word. “Wait a minute,” Mrs. Moriarty said. “Let’s go back and notice how many people were talking. How can you use your voice to show the differences between Willy and the mayor?” When the child re-read the passage, attending to the quotation marks, the meaning of the text was much clearer. In Mrs. Listfield’s class, a child paused after reading the phrase “hair tonic.” “What’s that?” she asked. This type of self-monitoring is a critical skill in true reading. A few minutes later, another student encountered the word “amateur.” Many of the students had heard the word, but its precise meaning was not clear. As they discussed the word and re-read the paragraph, the children became more engaged in the story and in their own ability to make sense of the text, demonstrating the balance between learning and reading.

October 24: What Am I?

What looks like orange flat circles, sounds quiet, smells like something sweet, feels squishy and sticky, and tastes sweet and good?

This is a riddle written by a group of pre-K students for their classmates to solve. For the past several weeks, the children have been learning about the five senses. More recently, they have begun an investigation of riddles, specifically the kind of riddles that give clues about the identity of a person or thing.

What is that orange, quiet, sweet thing? Maybe it’s an orange, suggested one child. No, it couldn’t be an orange; oranges aren’t flat, said someone else. What about a pancake? A pancake is flat, but it’s not orange. Could it be a lollipop? Perhaps, but lollipops aren’t squishy. After much deliberation, the children decided that they needed more clues.

The children’s conversations and the experiences surrounding these riddles provide a marvelous example of the power of language as a tool for precise communication. The ability to interpret and to generate descriptive language is a critical literacy skill, and the size of a person’s vocabulary is an excellent indicator of success in reading. Throughout their lives, children’s receptive vocabulary (the words they recognize and understand) and their expressive vocabulary (the words they use in their own communication) expand through experiences, exposure to literature, and direct instruction. Our pre-kindergarteners’ riddles are an exercise in expressive language.

So what is that mysterious object? Here’s a clue. Every morning, Pre-K children and adults are welcomed with an activity that encourages them to explore the classroom, learn about each another, and practice new skills. Last week, people arriving in the room found plates of dried apricots, bowls of pretzels, apple slices, kashi cereal, raisins, and sliced radishes. The children were asked to describe how each food looked, sounded, smelled, felt, and tasted. One of the sample foods is the answer to the riddle.

October 31: Reading Between the Lines

Have you ever found yourself connecting with a character in a book whose life is entirely different from yours? What sort of thinking is involved when you analyze the plot or consider the world from that character’s point of view? Our fifth graders are reading Esperanza Rising, a novel about a young Mexican girl in the 1930s. After a family tragedy, she and her family are forced to leave their country to find work in the farms of California during the Depression. The teachers are using this deeply emotional book to encourage the students to think beyond the basic elements of the plot. After the class re-read a passage where Esperanza and her mother talk about the life they’ve left behind, the students tried to determine what Esperanza missed the most. Since the text does not provide this information directly, the students relied on their inferential skills to form their answers.

Children begin making inferences early in their literacy experiences. In the primary grades, they use contextual clues to deduce a character’s mood or intentions. Good questions are at the heart of this type of comprehension. In a second-grade reading class, students have been writing their own questions about the book that they’ve just finished. We have introduced the idea of a “thinking question,” which is aimed at inferential comprehension. When asked to describe what a thinking question is, one child explained, “It’s when you can’t find the answer right there in the book, but if you read that part again, you can figure it out.”

As they get older, children’s inferential comprehension expands to include metaphors, symbolism, and broad themes. In fifth grade this week, both Mrs. Listfield’s group and Mr. Sucich’s group have been discussing the concept of imagery in the text. The teachers are guiding the students to discoveries about the characters as well as the author’s purpose in including certain recurring images. Achieving this level of comprehension is a long process, and it is an important component in a lifelong love of reading.

January 16: Martin’s Words

A comprehensive literacy curriculum addresses skills in four key areas: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. As our school has prepared for the sharing assembly to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it seems particularly relevant to consider the meaning and power of words and spoken language.

Among the words and concepts that have been addressed this week are fairness, power, discrimination, status, and civil rights. In eighth grade, where the class has been immersed in a study of the civil rights movement, students watched the film Warriors Don’t Cry, about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. After watching news footage and listening to the personal accounts of people who lived through the events in 1957, the students talked about the nuances of language, and the way certain words can be construed. Governor Faubus sent the National Guard to Central High to “preserve the peace and avoid violence,” but students wanted to know, what was his true intention?

The sixth grade has been reading the classic novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which takes place in a racially charged community in Mississippi in the 1930s. As the class reviewed a particularly tense episode in the book, students read aloud passages that they found especially meaningful. A central theme in their discussion was the importance of standing up for what is right. This theme was echoed by the second grade, who have examined the idea of “standing up” in the context of bullying and unfairness.

In third grade, words and labels took on a technical as well as a whimsical nature, as the children learned about melanin, the chemical that gives each of us our unique pigmentation. After reading a book called All the Colors We Are, Mrs. Moriarty brought out an assortment of colored spices from her kitchen so that the children could concoct customized mixture to match, and then name, their own skin colors.

In many grades, Dr. King’s speeches and his call for nonviolent protest have been focal points of lessons and conversations. The fourth grade has been reading a book of brief biographies of individuals who have changed the world through the power of their words. These profiles have led to discussions about what it means to be a hero, and how a peaceful protest can have a profound impact. First graders watched a video of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and read many books about Dr. King. Mrs. Chait shared an observation that resonated throughout the school this week: our classrooms are a safe place to discuss difficult words, events, and issues. The power of language is palpable here.


Literacy involves skills in both decoding and encoding printed language. As children learn to connect letter symbols with the sounds that those letters make, they also begin to create their own printed messages. In our language arts program, early writing emphasizes the ability to hear and record the sounds of the words that the writer wants to record; conventional spelling is taught and reinforced gradually as children become more and more fluent in their reading and writing. As their skills develop, our students' writing becomes richer and more complex, reflecting not only their knowledge of spelling and grammar, but also their deep understanding of the structure of written form.

November 7: Wild Chipmunks and Cinderella’s Belly

“I vodid this morning with my mom and the lien was so loing,” wrote a first grader during Writer’s Workshop on Tuesday.

There is great power in this statement, aside from the obvious excitement of participation in the election. This seven-year-old and her classmates have reached a level of early literacy where they can record their thoughts and describe events in a form that is readable (albeit with a bit of effort) by others.

Emergent spelling can be varied and occasionally entertaining at this stage. Our first graders’ writing includes high-frequency words that are spelled accurately, as well as other words that are spelled phonetically. Sometimes these efforts are known as “invented spelling,” but this label is misleading; the children’s messages reflect their growing knowledge about sounds and symbols. Because many reading and writing skills are developing simultaneously, we want to see how the children hear and encode words, and we encourage them to write as much as possible. As their spelling skills expand, we see them including first sounds, last sounds, vowel sounds, consonant blends, and irregular letter combinations.

The children write about everything in their lives, from the mundane to the thrilling. They are not inhibited by doubts about accurate spelling; if you read carefully, you’ll find all the sounds you need to get the message. Tooth loss is a big topic: “I lost my tooth! I lost anutther. It was my 6 on eating tumatose,” wrote one child. Another noted, “Wen I was in the car going to Mane I was eating a cracr. I loost my tooth. I cudint fiend it.” They write about unexpected guests: “I have a wiyeld chimuck in my howse. It can bit. My sister screemd.” They write about playdates and outings: “On Sunday I went to see Cidarella the Belly, ” someone else reported, most certainly referring to the ballet, not the princess’ abdomen.

Literacy is one of the most fundamental areas of education, and the independence of writing is a cornerstone of this foundation. Our first graders are well on their way to becoming full participants in a literate world.

February 13: What Do You Know?

How many steps are involved in feeding a dog? How do you describe the looping process for tying shoes? How do you fold a paper boat? Are there instructions for defending yourself against an annoying little cousin?

Our second graders have been carefully preparing the answers to these and many more questions. During Writers Workshop this month, the class has been learning about a very specific literary genre: the “How-To” book. In the words of one student, a how-to book is “when you become the teacher and you tell people how to make something or how to do something.”

Before they began writing, Mrs. Fell and the children looked at cookbooks, sewing manuals, and origami instructions to gather ideas about how a “how-to” is written. Next, they generated a list of possible subjects for their individual projects, based on their own skills and interests. Who knew that we have experts in “Madden ’08” for DS, making box rockets, holding falcons, designing word search puzzles, and making chocolate birds’ nests? As they discussed their own abilities, the children realized that being good at something doesn’t always mean that you can teach it easily. For example, one student noted, “I’m good at reading, but that would be hard to teach someone.”

Theories of teaching often divide knowledge into two general categories: procedural (the ability to do something) and declarative (the ability to recall facts or information about a topic). Writing a how-to book involves both of these cognitive domains as well as important higher-order thinking skills such as sequencing, attention to detail, and precision of language. As the students discovered, it is a great linguistic challenge to describe an action in words in a way that someone else can understand.

Mrs. Fell described this style of writing as “taking a big thing and breaking it into steps.” The students agreed, and emphasized the importance of putting the steps in chronological order, providing clear illustrations, being specific, and checking with someone else to make sure that the directions make sense. The next time you make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or glide onto the ice in your skates, think about how you might describe your own procedural knowledge. Explaining what you know may be harder than you think!

February 27: A Thousand Words

The pre-kindergartners’ study of sculptures has taken them inside the adventures of sledding penguins, and the third graders’ author studies have opened up a curious portfolio of drawings. Odd as it might appear, both of these projects focus on a form of storytelling, and when Mrs. Moriarty and Ms. Andrick ran into each other in the hallway earlier this week, they were amazed at the similarities in their students’ activities.

The pre-K students were literally and figuratively drawn into composing their own stories as a result of their investigation of the flowing lines in wire sculptures. Mrs. Zamore and Ms. Andrick began reading the Harold and the Purple Crayon stories, encouraging the children to draw their own line-based adventures. This unit was so successful that the teachers expanded it with Three Topsy Turvy Tales by Anne Brouillard. The children eagerly engaged with the whimsical illustrations in the wordless book, generating their own storylines for the animals depicted on its pages. One of the stories, “Snowfall Downfall” was such a favorite that the teachers reproduced the pictures and created a challenge: choose any four images, put them in any order so that they tell a story, and then dictate the story to a teacher.

Meanwhile, the third grade class has been absorbed in an author study of Chris Van Allsburg. The students have read a wide collection of Mr. Van Allsburg’s books and have developed an understanding of his particular style. As a culminating project, Mrs. Moriarty brought out The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a strangely compelling set of illustrations, each of which is accompanied only by a short caption. With just the picture and the caption as prompts, the students wrote their own stories to explain the images.

The results of these endeavors are extraordinary, demonstrating the children’s creativity and joy, as well as their understanding of how stories are constructed. Writing a good story requires knowledge of the “deep structure” of narrative. Elements of character, tension, setting, and sequencing are essential, as is a mastery of language. Third graders demonstrated a flair for phrasing with openings like “It all started on a sunny Sunday,” and “Well, it was just one of those days.” The pre-K authors dictated familiar phrases such as “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after,” but they also ended their stories with such comforting conclusions as “It started snowing so they dug a hole,” and “they all went home for hot chocolate.” Stop by the hallways and classrooms of these storytellers to see their wonderful narratives.

May 8: The Presses are Rolling

A sure sign of the approaching end of the school year is the process of selecting student work to publish in Lamb’s Gambol and Clips. These two publications represent both tradition and innovation at Belmont Day School, and collectively, they are a wonderful showcase for our students’ writing and creative expression throughout the grades.

Just how long has Lamb’s Gambol been a part of BDS? A bit of investigation around the school turned up some interesting information. Heather Atwood, our Lower School Reading Specialist, who has served as the coordinator of the flagship journal for her 13-year tenure, said that the Gambol had been around for years before she arrived. Next stop was the library, where Carol Cirillo pointed out a collection of bound editions dating back to 1965. Finally, this reporter arrived at the office of Susan Smart (’61), Assistant to the Head, who has fond memories of the days when the submissions to Lambs’ Gambol were chosen as the result of a student writing contest (and she herself won the 6th grade poetry contest with an entry called “Over the Sea”). These days, the magazine includes work from every student in pre-K through 6th grade. “It’s wonderful that each child has a piece now,” Ms. Smart commented.

Two years ago, the middle school team introduced Clips, the 7th and 8th grade literary magazine. The decision to start this new publication came in response to the length and sophistication of our oldest students’ writing, and in recognition of their independence in choosing and editing their work to share with a wider audience. During the next two weeks, students will submit their work to the teachers for review, and then revise, format, and prepare their work for final publication. This year’s edition of Clips may include stories, poetry, descriptive writing, and student artwork.

Submissions to both magazines vary from grade to grade; in some of our younger classes, the teachers determine the genre or category of work. Often, the choices reflect a language arts theme or an area of content, and may include poetry, stories, non-fiction pieces, or captioned drawings. Ms. Atwood remarked that the Lambs’ Gambol provides many children with the opportunity to think of themselves as authors. Look for your copy of Lambs’ Gambol or Clips in your end-of-year materials!