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.

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