Examples of best practices in teaching and learning, as well as an album of daily life at an exceptional elementary school
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.
There are as many answers to that question as there are great schools. One of our answers is that great schools happen when teachers have opportunities to work together and share their ideas with each other.
Sharing ideas sounds like an easy, commonplace activity. However those of us who work in schools know how difficult it can be to find time outside our own classrooms to watch our colleagues, to seek advice, or to offer support and suggestions. We don't know about the terrific lessons that happened down the hall or across town or in another far-off location, and we don't have a forum to communicate our own good work.
In an effort to open one small window on the great teaching that happens in our school, the "Best Practices" column was born. Each week, we present a brief snapshot of a lesson or unit of study that demonstrates excellence in teaching. Examples come from every grade level as well as from our specialist teachers. Every year, we identify one academic strand as our focus. In 2008-2009, we followed our literacy program. In 2009-2010, we are highlighting the social studies curriculum.
We invite you to join us. Read our stories, add your comments, and be a part of the Institute for Excellence in Teaching.
We are committed to sharing and highlighting best practices in our own classrooms as well as those of our participating schools. Each "Best Practices" column presents a brief story of great teaching and learning.
Our School: Belmont Day School (www.belmontday.org) is an elementary and middle school for students in pre-kindergarten to grade eight. The school was founded in 1927 by a group of parents committed to providing children with a strong academic foundation and many opportunities for creative expression. Today, as then, the school's program guides and challenges the intellectual, social, emotional, moral, artistic, and physical growth of each child. Belmont Day School strives to be a diverse community dedicated to academic excellence and intellectual discipline where students feel secure, experience the joys of learning, and know their accomplishments are valued.