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.