Examples of best practices in teaching and learning, as well as an album of daily life at an exceptional elementary school
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.
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.