Thursday, June 3, 2010

As Busy As...

From May 28, 2010

A beehive is a finely orchestrated organic system in which every bee has a job that contributes to the overall sustainability of the entire community. Our pre-kindergarten class is also an organic system, in which all of the people have many responsibilities for taking care of themselves, each other, and the space they share. During their study of bees over the past two weeks, the children have found many ways of connecting their knowledge of communities with the information they have been learning about these fascinating insects.

“Bees are hard workers, and we are too!” exclaimed one student. During a recent morning meeting, the children sorted through a series of photo cards that Mrs. Zamore had made to illustrate many of their daily experiences. The teachers helped the children recognize the importance of following a specific sequence in their schedule, as well as the necessary tasks related to the activities. For each card, the children discussed the relevant “helper jobs” that contribute to that portion of the day. Taking attendance, putting away writing and drawing materials, distributing snack, storing clothes in their cubbies, and holding the door for classmates were some of the jobs they named. Earlier in the week, the class had learned about the jobs that bees have within the hive. Collecting nectar and pollen, feeding the queen, protecting the hive, and keeping the hive cool by beating their wings were some of the behaviors that the children investigated. Did you know that the buzzing you hear around a beehive is the sound of thousands of bees’ wings beating to reduce the temperature by fanning?

As the bee unit progresses, the idea of caring for the community has taken on a new look in the classroom. A large pocket chart lists the various responsibilities held by pre-K students. Photographs of the students, wearing special bee hats, are inserted into the pockets of the chart to show which person is assigned to each task. The children are very excited about the visual “hive” on their wall!

A final element of the class study of bees emphasizes the connection between bees and people. The children are finding out about ways that people can take care of bees by planting flowers and not hurting bees who fly near them. They are even learning about the jobs of beekeepers, who raise bees to produce honey and beeswax. The theme of working together is an idea that connects all of the lessons in this colorful and busy unit.

It Takes a Village... and a School

In a warm corner of Kindergarten, safely ensconced in a climate-controlled incubator, tiny beaks are poking their way out of shells. The children have been counting the days, waiting eagerly for this moment. And now, finally, the chicks are hatching. On the floor in front of the incubator is a masking tape line, marking a safe spot for watching and admiring the fluffy new inhabitants of the classroom. The Kindergarten chicks have been a tradition for many years, and it is remarkable how the news travels through the hallways. Older students, parents, and faculty members find their way into the room just to take a peek, and to marvel at the tiny creatures.

On the other side of the room, a row of plastic cups filled with soil stands along the sunny windowsill facing the new play structure. Small green sprouts are emerging from a few of the cups. Just as they have waited for the chicks to hatch, the children inspect their cups closely each day, hoping to see new growth. Although each of the seeds has received the same light, water, and attention from the children, Ms. Chu says, “it’s an experiment. Some seeds will sprout, and some won’t.”

At first glance, the chicks and the seedlings are a delightful demonstration of life science instruction in primary school. For visitors with the good fortune to spend a bit of time in the classroom with the children, chicks, and plants, however, it soon becomes evident that all of these living things are a testament to our social curriculum and an embodiment of our school values.

The sense of responsibility and the caring that the children demonstrate for “their” chicks and plants extend to their stewardship for the shared space they have occupied all year. The respect that they show for the newly hatched chicks is matched by their appreciation for other members of their community. Their diligence in tending to their seedlings, and their expectations for “the tallest plant of all,” in the words of one child, are echoes of their drive for excellence. Their recognition that not everyone can have the tallest plant, and their ability to accept this reality, while still maintaining that “it’s not fair” point to the challenges of embracing honesty.

But finally, it is the celebration of life--pure, simple, joy-- that powers us through this last week of the academic year. It takes a whole school to live these values, to create a shared purpose, and to make a community.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Care and Feeding

Where does your food come from? How is it made, and how does it get to your house?

The sixth graders have discovered that these seemingly simple questions can lead to complex and sometimes challenging answers, ranging from industrial processing of artificial ingredients to the work conditions of farm workers. Their studies about food have also uncovered connections to other topics and curriculum units from earlier in the year.

As part of a research project, the students are investigating the manufacturing of foods like Spam, Twinkies, and other snack products. In class, they are engaged in an exploration of the way food is made, distributed, and consumed in our country. Earlier this week, Ms. Kurlowecz introduced a book about migrant farm workers, Growing Season: The Life of A Migrant Community, by Gary Harwood and David Hassler. The book is a photo essay documenting the lives and experiences of a group of seasonal farm workers and the local residents of an agricultural community in northeastern Ohio.

In small groups, students read selections from the book, highlighting specific individuals, families, and services in the community. Ms. Kurlowecz and Mr. Spencer encouraged them to identify themes or situations that they had encountered in previous units of study. Conversations ranged from comparisons to the conditions experienced by farm laborers in California during the depression to the sharecroppers of the southern United States to the workers’ needs for medical care and social services. Many of the workers featured in the book are of Mexican descent, and they travel regularly between Texas and Ohio, following the agricultural harvest seasons. Mr. Spencer referred to a map of the United States, indicating the route and the distance traveled by the migrant workers each year. The students discussed the relatively low pay earned by these laborers, prompting a question from Mr. Spencer about our assumptions about income and quality of work.

Ms. Kurlowecz had written a question on the board: “How does this reading connect to your group’s food project?” For a few minutes, no one had an answer, until one student said, “This is like our project because it’s another way that our food gets to us.” The difference between potatoes being dug from the ground and potato chips in shiny packages on a supermarket shelf was dramatic in the context of this conversation.
The personal stories and vignettes about individuals and families generated thoughtful responses and questions as the students considered a hidden, and profoundly human aspect of food production.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Truth and Consequences

What is the role of an international court? Should any nation feel obligated to submit to the laws of another country? In what ways should the perpetrators of genocide be held accountable for their actions? What does it mean to commit a crime against humanity? Is it ever possible for justice to be served in such extreme situations?

These are not questions posed to the latest Supreme Court nominee; rather, they were the focus of a series of discussions in Mr. Sigward’s humanities classes this week. As they near the end of a comprehensive study of the Holocaust, the students are beginning an exploration of the significance of the Nuremberg trials, which were convened after the atrocities of World War II were revealed. In the course of the class conversations, recurring themes emerged: the role of bystanders, the importance of truth, and the challenges of confronting unjust people or institutions.

In their literature study class, the students are reading Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451. They were asked if they could identify any common themes between the book and the events of the Holocaust. Immediately, hands went up. “Definitely the theme of being a bystander, and feeling regret for not standing up when you should,” said one student. Her comment sparked many others, related to the self-protective tendency of people in Nazi-controlled Europe to report suspected Jews or to turn in their neighbors in order to remain safe themselves. The students considered each of the main characters in the book and found parallels between the behavior of those fictional individuals and the actual events in the 1930’s. They talked about the enormous courage required to take a stand against injustice.

The next morning in humanities class, the subject turned to the Nuremberg trials. Mr. Sigward aked, “Is there a greater good for society from holding a trial in these circumstances?” The class felt strongly that a trial provided an opportunity to defuse the need for vengeance by providing a more rational and reasoned approach to holding people accountable for their actions. Examples from history and literature abounded, including the present-day tragedy in Darfur, the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the role of the UN in protecting human rights. As the students considered various situations, events, and points of view, the importance of a trial for establishing a historical record arose as a central idea. What also emerged from the students’ articulate and sensitive responses was their ability to draw connections among a broad range of events, topics, and sources of information. This critical thinking skill of synthesis is an essential tool for our young adults as they build their own understanding of the world.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Passing the Torch

Mrs. Orchard doesn’t remember when the tradition of the Greek Lunch began at Belmont Day School, but she knows that she “inherited” the event from her predecessor when she began teaching 4th grade in the 1980s. Mr. Houghton has a vivid memory of the day (more than 15 years ago) when the 5th grade field lab to the Freedom Trail was transformed from a National Park Service tour to a student-led experience. Both the Greek lunch and the Freedom Trail trip allow the students to take on the role of teachers and guides. The endurance of these well-established highlights of the spring season is a testament to their strength in the curriculum. The evolution of these units over the years is a demonstration of the power of a strong curriculum to meet the interests and skills of the teachers and students and to reflect developments in technology and curriculum design.

The Greek lunch next Wednesday marks the culmination of the 4th graders’ intensive study of the ancient Mediterranean. Mrs. Orchard used to host the lunch in an alcove of her classroom, always hoping for a sunny day so that a portion of the festivities could take place outdoors. She credits former reading teacher Anne Smith with the idea of linking content from literature and social studies to enrich the unit. When Mrs. Holman took the reins of 4th grade 8 years ago, she added new elements, focusing on dramatic presentations and opportunities for the students to showcase their work in museum-style displays, video, songs, and handcrafts. She also worked closely with Mrs. Randall to produce “Hera’s Dinner Theater,” bringing the class play into the classroom in dramatic fashion. Six years ago, when the classroom was first transformed into a stage, the students worked with their art teachers to create permanent scenery in the form of the mural that we still enjoy today.

When the 5th graders visited the sites of the Freedom Trail this week, they took the stage in a very public way. At each landmark, a pair of students acted as the expert tour guides, presenting the results of their research projects about those locations. A full-color guidebook, written entirely by the students, accompanied the tour. The idea for this approach to the field lab arose out of necessity on that day in the 1990s when Mr. Houghton and 5th grade teacher Kevin Jordan arrived at Boston Common to find that there was no guide for their tour. In a moment of inspiration, they realized that the students knew all the necessary information to lead the trip. Ever since then, the field lab has proceeded in a similar manner. Mr. Jordan handed the project on to Ms. van der Hiel, who passed it along to Mr. Sucich. Each teacher has made adaptations, but has preserved the core idea of student ownership and empowerment.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Common Purpose

I started my spring vacation in an elementary school corridor, reading key values of the community while listening to a group of kindergarteners sharing weekend news in their morning meeting. I was 200 miles from Belmont Day School, but in many ways, I was right at home. Good schools feel the same, no matter where they are.

Honesty, Caring, Joy, Responsibility, Respect, and Excellence: these are Belmont Day School’s values. The words are featured prominently outside the school and in numerous locations throughout the building. They are the core of our social curriculum and the foundation for everything that we do.

Respect, Excellence, Attentiveness, Critical Thinking, and Heart: these are the values that underlie the teaching and learning experiences at the Community Partnership Charter School in Brooklyn, New York, where I spent Patriots Day. The words are painted in bright colors on the brick wall near the front door and on banners in the hallway. More importantly, the teachers and students refer to their values throughout the day. Our buildings may look different at first glance, but it’s what’s inside that counts.

Beyond the similar sense of community created by our values-driven programs, both of our schools include opportunities for students to build knowledge through exploration, rich discussion, and careful attention. Children are presented with real-world situations and challenges that empower them to ask questions. In a 3rd grade CPCS math class I observed, the teacher encouraged her students to analyze 3-dimensional objects. “How do you think mathematicians decide how many vertices there are?” she asked. “They explain their ideas and show proof.” The children eagerly investigated the wooden shapes, counting faces and corners and comparing their answers with one another. Down the hall in a 1st grade reading class, a small group of students sat on a colorful rug with their eyes closed while their teacher led them through a story visualization activity that she called “mind movies.” Listening to all of these children’s use of descriptive language and the ease with which they spoke to me and each other, I could create my own mind movie, easily imagining these same types of interactions at BDS.

The commonality of our core values and the similar focus of our curriculum were among the many reasons that a team of CPCS teachers and administrators joined our summer educators’ institute last June, and why they will be returning this summer to share some of their best practices with us.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

It's All Greek to Me.

It’s a Really Big Show

It dominates the wall outside the 4th grade classroom and brings color, history, geography, and references to some of the greatest stories ever told. It depicts places that are well known in the present day, some sites that are famous spots of the ancient world, and other locations that exist only in the epics of Homer. It has become a conversation piece for parents, students, and visitors in the 3rd and 4th grade hallway. It is...the Giganto-Map of Greece.

The annual Greek study is a highlight of our 4th grade program. A significant component of this unit is an intensive study of the geography of the Mediterranean region, with an emphasis on the Ionian peninsula. Most years, the students have engaged in individual mapping projects. This year, Mrs. Holman decided it was time to take an intriguing idea from concept to reality. “The Giganto-Map helps the students relate images to place in a physical way,” she said.

To start the project, the class met to discuss all the places they had learned about through their study of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as their investigations of Greek history and modern culture. They generated a long list of locations to mark on the map and divided the sites into three categories: Ancient, Modern, and Homeric. Each student then chose one of the places to research and illustrate for the large map. Mrs. Pace and Madame Brabo assembled the land and water images, and the whole class helped to locate the 25 spots.

Colorful index cards are now affixed to the map. The images and written descriptions on these cards are wonderful demonstrations of the students’ ability to combine information that they have gathered from research, class discussions, and their careful reading of the Homeric epics. Each location on the map is numbered to correspond to a longer description on the map key. “The map project really helped us tell the story [of the Odyssey] through pictures,” Mrs. Holman said. The children know the difference between the places that exist only in the epic poem and the sites that can still be found today. They also know that some real places transcend legend: there really are Minoan runs, but there most certainly was no real Minotaur; and Mount Olympus, though it is the tallest mountain in Greece, was not the home of living gods. The students are justifiably proud of this beautiful display of knowledge, and they will happily describe the map, the sites, and their work to any interested visitors.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Oh, the Places They’’ll Go...

April 9, 2010

World travel, landscape design, and architecture are just a few of the topics that have entered the social studies program for our pre-kindergartners in the past few weeks. One of the first indicators of these investigations is a large bulletin board in the classroom that has been covered in blue paper, with extra layers added to show the boundary between the sky above and the waves of the ocean below. Bursting off this background are elaborate paper sculptures of airplanes, boats, and spacecraft. The result of a spontaneous burst of creativity at the writing and drawing table, these constructions are exuberant illustrations of the way children’s ideas about locations and spatial relationships are translated into narrative and physical depictions.

“There’s the Titanic,” a student says, looking up from her colorful painting of flowers. “Do you see the tugboat pulling it?” Sure enough, the four distinctive smokestacks of the great ship are immediately apparent, as is the smaller boat pulling it along. A closer examination of the scene reveals a biplane, a sailboat, a submarine, and a spaceship, all traveling in the same direction. After calling attention to her classmates’ work, the artist happily describes the garden in her picture, explaining how her own backyard contains flowers like these.

Around the corner at the light table, a pair of students invite a visitor to see what they’ve built using translucent bricks. ‘It’s a library! Look, here are two places to check out books, and here’s the downstairs, and here’s where people can read stories,” one boy says, naming each feature of the structure. His partner nods proudly, then suggests that they add a roof to the building. The two boys discuss this possibility, ultimately deciding to leave the roof off, “because then nobody could see what’s inside.”

All of these visual displays are connected to real or imagined places or events, and they are enriched by the stories the children tell to establish context for their work. The variety of materials used, the attention and embellishments of classmates, the questions of adults, and the sense of celebration and empowerment that surround these children in their explorations are all factors that contribute to building knowledge about the world around them. The ability to transform ideas about locations into words, drawings, and models is a critical aspect in young children’s increasing ability to engage in symbolic representation and to expand their abstract thinking skills. The bulletin board, the garden painting, and the library design are all demonstrations of these emergent skills.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bringing the World Into the Classroom


Vibrant colors, glowing photographs, and joyful sounds from Africa have brought a welcome burst of sunshine to the lower school hallways during the recent rainy days. As part of a special cross-graded project, our first and second graders have been on a virtual trip to Kenya for the past two weeks. They have been working and studying with all of their teachers to learn about the land, the people, and the culture of this fascinating country.

The unit started with a theater-style presentation by Mrs. Scholes, who had assembled a virtual tour of the country to show images of verdant countryside, bustling cities, national parks, lakes, mountains, and scenes from daily life. The children learned about Lake Victoria, saw amazing pictures of wildlife, and referred to a series of maps to identify important locations. They were introduced to the many indigenous tribes of Kenya and looked at photographs of traditional homes as well as the modern cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. Their discussion incorporated basic geography and map-reading skills, careful observation and attention to detail, an introduction to the environmental challenge of pollution in Lake Victoria, sensitive comments about cultural differences, and excitement about elephants, cheetahs, and lions.

After their large-group lesson, the students were divided into five groups, which were named for prominent Kenyan tribes: the Turkana in the north, the Kikuyu at the foot of Mount Kenya, the Maasai of the west, the Samburu of central Kenya, and the Giriama of the south. The groups took turns meeting with each of the teachers to engage in a project. They strung beads for necklaces and bracelets with Mrs. Fox, painted watercolor renditions of scenes from Kenyan folk tales with Mrs. Chait, built clay models of traditional huts with Mrs. Scholes, and made percussion instruments to accompany storytelling with Ms. DiMartino and Ms. Craik. They heard the story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring trees back to Kenya after devastating deforestation. Mrs. Fell helped the students plant “golden sunshine” wheat seeds in response to the story.

A Kenyan flag hangs alongside Mrs. Scholes’ incredible handmade topographical map in the hallway outside the 2nd grade classroom. Both of these displays are sources of great pride for the students, who will gladly explain their significance to anyone walking by. With their play approaching next week and their excellent collaboration on this country study, these two classes have formed a wonderful and strong sense of community together.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Working Definition

What Does it Mean?

Have you ever wondered about the title of this column? How would you characterize a “best practice” in the classroom? Every now and again, someone will ask for an explanation of the phrase. While there are many possible definitions, the examples that are highlighted in this space usually incorporate three essential elements: content, critical thinking, and essential skills. Typically when teachers prepare lessons, they begin from one of these three vantage points. Students need to learn important information, they need to learn strategies and analytical approaches to thinking about that information, and they need to have basic skills in order to work with the information.

All of these components are necessary to good teaching, but any one of them is not usually sufficient to form a strong learning experience. A lesson focused entirely on content would most likely involve the teacher telling the students a list of facts. A lesson aimed only at teaching critical thinking skills might be too abstract to be relevant for the students, and a lesson grounded solely in fundamental skills would run the risk of being an exercise in rote memorization or repetition. While there are certainly situations in which students need basic practice or they need to learn terminology or thinking strategies, a good lesson usually combines at least two elements, and the most powerful lessons include aspects of all of these goals. In January, we highlighted a 6th grade lesson in which Mr. Spencer introduced the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, a significant event in American history (content). The lesson included a list of important legal vocabulary words that the students needed to know (basic skills). The students also engaged in a spirited interpretation of these terms in the context of the case (critical thinking). Lessons like this are examples of “best practices.”

Often, our teachers integrate the layers intuitively. They notice that the students need practice in a certain skill, and they find multiple ways of blending that skill into the curriculum, or they begin a new unit of study and discover that a particular analytical approach will raise the students’ understanding of the topic. Sometimes a “best practice” lesson emerges from a cross-disciplinary effort, such as the recent state reports in third grade, in which a project that had traditionally been grounded in social studies was enhanced when the teachers added an environmental science component to the students’ research.

The lessons described in this column do not achieve the label “best” due to the use of specialized equipment, flashy demonstrations, or large displays in the hallways and classrooms. Their superlative status is the result of deep thought, attention to the needs and interests of the students, and a consistent focus on excellence.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reading Freedom

March 19, 2010

There is a lot of serious reading going on in 5th grade. Earlier this week, Mr. Sucich’s windowsill was covered with books about the history of slavery and the African-American experience in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Students were given free choice to select one of the more than 30 titles on display. Some books are works of historical fiction; others are non-fiction. Topics include the underground railroad, buffalo soldiers, captured slaves, freed slaves, biographies, stories of escape, the efforts of abolitionists, and the roots of the civil rights movement. Over the next two weeks, the children will read at least one of these books as a way of expanding their knowledge about a challenging time in American history.

During their social studies classes, Mr. Sucich’s lessons focus on the historical details of slavery in the early United States. The slavery unit follows a comprehensive exploration of the colonial and revolutionary war periods and a unit about the Constitution. Mr. Sucich commented that the children have just learned the powerful phrase “all men are created equal;” now they are learning that the writers of that statement did not, in fact, count every person equally. “Who wasn’t created equal in the Constitution?” he asked the students.

Mr. Sucich began the unit by reading aloud from the first chapter of one of the books, Amos Fortune, Free Man, which tells the story of an African prince, At-Mun, who is captured along with many of the members of his village and transported to America to become a slave. The message that the prince whispers to his sister as he is dragged away is, “hold your head high, and remember who you are.” The dignity and sense of self displayed by At-Mun, who is re-named Amos, are important attributes for the students to consider as they embark on this study. Although many of our students bring some prior knowledge about slavery, this depiction of a boy, not much older than they are, makes the history more personal.

Details and perspectives from this and the other literature selections carry over into class discussions seamlessly. Spontaneous hallway conversations and quick exchanges about favorite passages add to the overall sense of learning through enjoyable reading. Mr. Sucich encourages the students to be alert to connections between the themes and events in the books they are reading and the topics raised in class. He finds that the students are eager to share their own knowledge and responses to the books, and that their comments broaden everyone’s understanding of the complex issues raised during this time period.

Friday, March 12, 2010

USA on Display

The Olympics has its Parade of Nations, New Year’s Day has the Parade of Roses, and now our own third grade announces… The Parade of States!

Many of our upper grades students have fond memories of their third grade “state reports,” which have been a perennial highlight of the year. This year, that longstanding tradition has assumed a broader significance due to the extensive study of Massachusetts that comprised much of the curriculum during the fall and winter. Mrs. Moriarty and Ms. Twarog blended geography, history, earth science, environmental and cultural studies to give students deep knowledge about our home state. In the process, they also emphasized research skills necessary for learning about other locations.

After February vacation, each student selected a state for an individual project. The criteria for their choices varied: “I love visiting my aunt and cousins there,” “My dad was born there,” “I love going to the beach there,” and “I’ve never been there, and I really wanted to learn about it” were some of the explanations given. Regardless of their reasoning, the students plunged eagerly into their investigations. They searched Internet sites in the computer lab, pored over reference books, and consulted atlases to gather information about famous people, significant locations and attractions, important facts, landforms, ecosystems, border states, natural resources, and unique details.

The culmination and celebration of the state project has been the production of a set of “floats,” which will form a grand display of knowledge about the United States. The students have built elaborate topographical maps of their states using molding dough. Each map, which has been painted to show waterways, mountains, deserts, forests, and shoreline, forms the top of a complex presentation box. Children referred frequently to images in their atlases, making sure to create the most accurate representations possible. Ms. Twarog commented that this was the first time many of the students had used visual reference guides in this way, and she was delighted with the care and attention to detail demonstrated during the map-making sessions. With similar focus, the students completed their floats by illustrating the rest of the boxes. The sides of the floats feature images and captions noting key facts. Inside, the children have included artifacts that represent important features about the states.

As they worked on their floats, the children shared their knowledge and discoveries with one another in informal, but informative ways. They talked about similar features among their states, described notable locations, and inspected their classmates’ maps with curiosity. This community spirit is a hallmark of our approach to learning, combining excellence with joy.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Truth or Consequences

March 5, 2010

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

This statement, written on Mr. Sigward’s white board, greeted the 8th grade humanities class earlier this week. As the class began a discussion about the insidiousness of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s, Mr. Sigward instructed the students to copy the quote into their notebooks and to take some time to decide whether or not they agreed with it. On another part of the board, he wrote a definition of the term propaganda: “ideas that are spread for the purpose of influencing opinion or behavior.” For the next hour, responses poured out, addressing issues of ethics, psychology, history, and the responsibilities of citizens when the truth is contradicted by the state.

Many students raised questions about the conditions under which a lie might be believable if repeated enough. It would need to be something difficult to disprove. It would be more plausible if delivered by an authority figure. It would need to be something that started small, so as not to appear outrageous at first. In response to these suggestions, Mr. Sigward wrote a name on the board: Josef Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and author of the Nazi campaign to eliminate “undesirable” people from the German state. It was Goebbels who made the claim that the students wrote in their notebooks. The statement ends, “It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

A recurring theme in the class discussion was that of “going along with the crowd.” Someone noted, “People just go with what the majority says because they don’t want to be troublemakers.” Another student added that there is a difference between accepting a lie and actually believing it. This comment brought nods of agreement from several classmates, along with a follow-up remark: “There’s always someone who can stop the lie, but it’s easier to go along.” In response to this thought, Mr. Sigward posed a question: How many people does it take to believe something before you go along with it yourself?

In an age when gossip mixes with news, when social media competes with traditional journalism, and when information flows from sources that are not always easy to identify, our students could point to clear examples of propaganda and of alternative interpretations of facts. As digital citizens, they easily found the contemporary connections that were woven into this history class.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Comida et Cafe Culture

February 26, 2010

There has recently been a great deal of discussion about fine dining in our middle school language classes. French students are engaged in conversations and small skits about eating in French cafés, and Spanish students have researched recipes and traditional foods in Spain and Argentina. All of this talk about food has occurred in the language of study, providing the students with authentic topics and building their vocabulary and grammar skills. Madame Friborg described the approach in broad terms, commenting “we are teaching cultural literacy.”

Throughout our language program, students are introduced to the daily lives and environments of people in other parts of the world. Most units of study present scenarios that would occur in France, Spain, Mexico, Sengal, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Argentina, and other places where French and Spanish are spoken. Our students’ sense of themselves as global citizens grows with each lesson. Madame Friborg noted that the point of learning language is to be able to put oneself into the shoes of another person; this emphasis on respect is an essential element in making meaningful connections with people of any culture.

Our curriculum addresses much more than food. In 6th and 7th grade Spanish classes, Señora Marinez begins the study of each new country with short research projects. Students investigate local customs, forms of entertainment, sports, clothing, architecture, and famous landmarks. They present their findings in a sharing session, practicing their new vocabulary and building their knowledge about the location. Last week, they mounted a display of posters in the hallway outside the media lab. Take a look at the recipes for paella, the description of flamenco, and the presentation about Antoni Gaudi’s architecture.

The 7th and 8th grade French classes exchange e-mails with pen pals in French-speaking countries. We have established a strong relationship with the Matenwa School in Haiti, and with a middle school outside Paris. Through their communications, students find many interesting differences as well as points of similarity. They were delighted to discover that the movie Avatar was as popular in France as it is in the United States. In their messages, students describe their school days, their social activities, and their hopes for the future, sharing their own lives and reading about the lives of their peers thousands of miles away. As they discussed the notes they received from the Parisian class, our BDS students wondered which attributes might be similar in middle schools everywhere, and which might be unique to France. Their curiosity and eagerness to use language as a means to connect with others is a critical step toward true cultural literacy.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What Color is History?

February 12, 2010

“I’m ready for you to write my memories,” a pre-K student announced to Ms. Kearney on Tuesday morning. He presented her with a large sheet of white paper that had been divided into quadrants, each labeled with the name of one of the seasons. Ms. Kearney listened carefully, transcribing his words into captions to accompany the colored slips of paper he had glued onto the sections of the page. “Blue is for when I go swimming in the pool,” he said, pointing to a teal rectangle. Around the room, groups of children sat at the work tables, arranging collages of colors to represent their own mental images of the seasons.

This scene provides a glimpse into a remarkable aspect of young children’s cognitive development; specifically, the structure of memory. To begin the activity, Ms. Kearney re-read a book that the children have come to love: Leo Leonni’s classic story Frederick, about a group of mice who work all year to store food and supplies for the winter. The hero of the story is the title character, who does not gather nuts and corn; rather, he collects words and images to share on cold nights. Frederick’s stories are rich in color and detail: “When he told them of the blue periwinkles, the red poppies in the yellow wheat, and the green leaves of the berry bush, they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their own minds,” says Leonni. The mice are cheered by the memories that Frederick calls forth, and his role as the historian is celebrated.

Our children also build memories by combining sensory experiences with language. Their season collages are filled with mental snapshots from their life stories, and the deceptively simple materials belie a complex symbolic process. As they get older, they will develop more and more sophisticated skills to organize their thoughts, but their work this week is an indicator of how much they already know about the formation of narrative. There is a story behind each slip of paper: “The yellow is my Grandpa’s dock,” mused one child. A blue strip on another collage represents “the bright blue sky on the way to New Hampshire.” A splash of purple is a reminder of the short-sleeved shirts of summer, and two gray stripes represent snow falling on a cloudy winter day.

The philosopher John Locke described memory as a power of the mind to revive past perceptions. As our youngest are learning, the ability to recall and retell details from the past is an important element in building the foundations of historical knowledge.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bringing the Ancient World to Life

The 4th grade classroom was briefly renamed the “Cairo Conference Center” on Tuesday afternoon as the students prepared to host the Egyptian Symposium, a highlight of their social studies program. This event marks the culmination of several months’ investigation into the history and influence of ancient Egypt. The room was transformed into a lecture hall, featuring a panelists’ table and plenty of room for a large and well-informed audience.

Throughout the winter, each student has engaged in an independent research effort about a particular aspect of Egyptian culture, consisting of a written paper and a visual project. Model pyramids, trading cards, a Sphinx, a variety of posters, and other displays were in full view during the symposium, and exhibited with great pride by their creators. Many students studied similar topics. During the afternoon, panel groups took their turns in the speakers’ chairs to share their knowledge. A question session followed each panel. If one member of the group was unsure about the answer to a question, the rest of the panelists filled in details from their own research.

The symposium is the 4th graders’ first significant oral presentation, and Mrs. Holman took the opportunity to teach the students about the importance of delivering their information effectively. Voice, eye contact, and confidence in the material are all essential. She challenged them to be creative and to find ways of explaining what they had learned so that they could engage the audience as much as possible. Simply reading their research papers was not sufficient; the children were required to identify key points and speak from memory or from brief notecards.

Topics ranged from religion to arts to home life to architecture and toys and games in ancient Egypt (did you know that children have been playing with marbles as far back as 5000 years?) to a description of modern Cairo. One student, speaking about religion, took on the role of an important goddess and explained how all the other goddesses were related. Another member of her panel pointed out that Egyptian magic was not at all the same as Harry Potter magic. During a discussion of the pyramids, a student spoke from the point of view of Khufu’s pyramid, explaining the various items in his interior. In a presentation on the arts, a student brought a CD of music from Ancient Egypt, providing an audio accompaniment to her research.

Many of the students’ visual projects are on display in the library. Come and tour our own museum of ancient culture and find out how much our 4th graders have learned.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Patriotic Tunes

January 29, 2010

On an Historic Note

Collaboration among colleagues is one of the hallmarks of a strong faculty. This week our third grade team, along with their associate teacher, a colleague from a neighboring town, and our own Mr. Toppa have all combined their knowledge and talents to enhance a teaching and learning experience for themselves and the students.

The third grade teachers have been leading an ongoing unit about the beginnings of the American Revolution. After a recent visit to observe a classroom at a nearby public school, associate teacher Ms. Morris brought back a brief play about the Boston Tea Party, which fit perfectly with our own students’ work. The skit includes many details about the Patriots’ protest against British control, introduces significant individuals, and supports the background reading, field labs, and research that the children conducted throughout the fall and early winter. The children eagerly seized upon the opportunity to incorporate drama into their social studies lessons, and the teachers used the script to reinforce many of the concepts and geographic locations that had been addressed earlier in the unit.

When Ms. Morris described the project to Mr. Toppa, he immediately lent his support by locating a song about the Boston Tea Party. In music class, he taught the children to sing the selection as well as how to play the melody on the recorder. Back in the classroom, the words to the song provided an additional opportunity for examining the context for the colonists’ rebellious act. Was it OK to dump the tea? Many students thought that the protestors had a right to show how angry they were about the British fees on tea. The children discussed the concept of a tax: A teacher asked, “Are there good taxes?” One child thought that yes, some taxes were good because they helped people who were homeless, and they helped raise money for schools and roads. Many children thought it wasn’t fair to have a tax on tea, because people drink it every day.

As they rehearsed the song and the play, the students brought a historic scene to life, accompanied by laughter, serious attention to detail, and camaraderie. They will perform the full production in the classroom on Monday, which will be a fitting tribute to Ms. Morris’ last day as their associate. As for the inimitable Mr. Toppa, his role as an honorary social studies teacher is a joyful demonstration of the value of integrating arts into the core curriculum, and a testament to the benefits of communication and integration across many areas of study.

Social Action Through Legal Protest

January 20, 2010

Legal Eaglets

What happens when a talented teacher has the autonomy and resources to choose his subject matter, organize and plan his lessons, decide how much time to devote to an area of study, provide the most appropriate materials for the students, and focus his passion for the topic into a curriculum unit? What if the topic in question is challenging and complicated?

The answer to these questions is unfolding right now in our 6th grade social studies classroom. Mr. Spencer and the students have embarked on an exploration of ”the ways that people changed segregation,” in Mr. Spencer’s words. This week, they have established a foundation for understanding the judicial process, a critical step in understanding how the people fighting for civil rights challenged laws and forced new interpretations of Constitutional amendments. One of the important concepts in this unit is the idea of legal precedent, and Mr. Spencer balances the lessons by introducing landmark cases as well as day-to-day examples.

Mr. Spencer organized Tuesday’s introductory discussion around technical definitions of legal terms, illustrated by situations that the students could easily imagine. He described arguments that the students might have with teachers or parents, making the idea of precedent approachable and tangible for the students.

“I could teach this all year, easily. And it wouldn’t even be hard to do,” said Mr. Spencer after Wednesday’s lesson, which included a discussion about the ambiguity of the idea of equal protection under the law, a right granted to all Americans through the 14th Amendment. For homework, the students had read a description of the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which established the “separate but equal” practices that defined segregation. In class, they watched a documentary film about the legal strategies that led to the desegregation mandate at the heart of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The film includes moving images from the segregated South, and the students were encouraged to share their responses to scenes that had affected them.

These lessons present significant information about a critical period in American history. More importantly, however, Mr. Spencer wants to make sure that the students think deeply and critically about how legal language can be interpreted in more than one way. In this case, the central question is, “How can you read the 14th amendment and still have segregation?”

Our 6th graders will be continuing their study of the civil rights movement for several weeks. As they build their knowledge about the events of that period, they will apply these higher order thinking skills to more and more questions about law, society, equality, justice, and fairness.

The Legacy of Dr. King

January 15, 2010

Content and Character

My sister was teaching kindergarten in New Hampshire in 1999, when that state first recognized Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. On the Friday before the long weekend, she presented a lesson about Dr. King and other leaders of the civil rights movement. The following Tuesday morning, a mother approached her at the beginning of the school day. “I understand you taught a lesson about Martin Luther King,” she said. “I thought you’d like to know what came home.” The mother then shared her daughter’s description of the lesson my sister had taught: “Mommy! We learned about Martha Luten King. She was a leader who wanted everyone to ride the bus.”

This story shows how a well-intentioned, but overly complicated lesson can be misinterpreted, and raises an interesting educational question about how to teach challenging material to very young children. Often, the challenge revolves around identifying a core theme or concept, and using that topic to build children’s understanding in a gradual way from year to year. During the past two weeks, our primary grades teachers have demonstrated great skill in doing just that.

All of our classes have participated in lessons and activities related to Dr. King’s life and teachings. In the primary grades, teachers have worked with special care to match their lessons with the children’s developmental level and prior knowledge. They have been attentive to possible misconceptions as they teach basic information about Dr. King and his ideas, and have developed creative approaches to help the children appreciate his legacy.

In Pre-K, children wanted to know what Dr. King looked like. The teachers immediately found a photograph to share. One child wanted to know, if he was a king, who was the queen? The teachers explained that King is a name, like Andrick or Zamore. Then they emphasized the message that people can be different from one another but still be friends. The children learned to conduct surveys to find out who shared, or did not share, their interests. In Kindergarten, the class learned a song about building a better world that used American Sign Language, prompting one child to ask if Dr. King wanted to teach everyone to sign. “No,” the teachers explained, “but he did want to make sure that all people could understand each other’s words.”

The first graders have been reading biographies about Martin Luther King for two weeks. They were stunned to learn that a good man could be sent to jail--16 times! Their beautiful mural depicts significant scenes from Dr. King’s life, drawn by children who can envision the world he dreamed.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Heroes Large and Small

With Power Comes Responsibility

Early in September, everyone in 2nd grade wrote “hopes and dreams” for the year. The children decorated their wish cards and posted them outside the classroom, where they served as a visual and linguistic representation of the excitement surrounding the school year ahead. Now, several months later, the class members are thinking about the beginning of the calendar year and the tradition of making resolutions. During their class meetings this week, Mrs. Fell and the students discussed the difference between hopes and resolutions. They decided that the biggest distinction is that a hope is a thought, while a resolution involves a plan of action.

With this idea in mind, Mrs. Fell gestured around the room to point out a number of books on display. There is a biography of Ruby Bridges, a book about Eleanor Roosevelt, one about Mahatma Gandhi, and another about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Since the beginning of the year, we have been talking about the power we have, and the responsibility to use it. We can use it to have a good day, or we can use it in a negative way,” Mrs. Fell commented. She explained that the biographies in the room are about some very powerful people who chose to use their power to make changes in the world, and then she shared a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Mrs. Roosevelt’s statement generated a flurry of responses from the children. “It means no one can change your mood,” said one boy. “And you can always say ‘no.’ People can’t make you do things,” added one of his classmates. Mrs. Fell agreed. The children continued talking about the power they had to influence others’ feelings, or to control their own thoughts and feelings. They also discussed how it is sometimes difficult to do the right thing. Again, Mrs. Fell referred to the people in the books. They were heroes, she pointed out, because they made the choice to do the right thing even when it was difficult. They had the power and they used it.

What are the qualities of a hero? The children know that a hero is not a character with super-powers, but rather, a human who chooses to do something difficult in the face of risk, or even a person who makes less dangerous everyday decisions that can influence others. One child brought the message home when she said, “I think our parents are heroes, too. They give us encouragement. They give us words to use, and they say you can do it.”

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Maps, Globes, and Stories

December 18, 2009

The Whole World in Their Hands

Our first grade students have recently been delighting in the exploits of Sam Krupnik, the main character in Lois Lowry’s book See You Around, Sam. After his mother bans his plastic vampire fangs from the house, Sam decides to run away to Alaska, where he can hang around with walruses, whose tusks seem very fang-like. Last week, after Mrs. Scholes had read a particularly Alaska-focused passage, some of the children asked where Alaska is. Mrs. Scholes immediately turned on the digital white board and opened a web-based atlas of North America to give the students a sense of the distance between Massachusetts (where Sam lives) and Alaska.

This teachable moment emphasizes a component of cultural literacy that is critical for children’s knowledge and familiarity with the world. In the same way that we expose children to written language and text to build their word recognition and reading abilities (known as “environmental print,”) we also present them with multiple opportunities to look at maps, globes, and atlases so that they can develop the visual and orientation skills to identify locations, understand the spatial relations between places, and build a sense of our global community.

Many of our classrooms feature maps of different areas of the world, some of which are displayed for specific lessons or units, while others remain as permanent elements of the visual array. A recent survey of the faculty produced a wonderful range of uses and types of maps: in one corner of fourth grade, a series of maps from Heifer International present information about the regions of the world where the charitable organization provides animals for families in need. In the world language classroom and in the hallway just outside that room, world maps highlight language centers. Mr. Sucich’s fifth grade classroom is full of maps, including a map of historic Boston, a direct connection to the geography and history lessons that punctuate the social studies curriculum. In 8th grade, Ms. Gerner’s room includes a satellite photo-mosaic of “the earth at night,” with lighted areas showing the regions of the world that are the most electrified.

After Mrs. Scholes showed the children where Alaska is, she left the image on the white board. Later in the morning, a small group of children became engrossed in the map, counting the number of hand spans between Boston and Alaska, and exclaiming over the places they touched along the way. Just as environmental print surrounds children and provides them with constant experience with the forms of written language, maps and geographic images give them the same basic vocabulary for visual representations of locations. Although they may not pore over the rivers and political boundaries of the maps every day, the shapes and positions of these places become familiar over time, and they can be quite engaging.

Building a Colony

December 11, 2009

Our Town

As part of their study of life in colonial North America, the 5th grade class is in the process of assembling a model village complete with houses, a town green, and public buildings. Each edifice in the three-dimensional display conforms to an accurate scale model, has been colored to match the hues that would have been used at the time, and includes details such as chimneys, porches, and sheds. Even more engaging than the technical and visual appeal of the village is the elaborate story that ties all the elements together. The paper houses were built by students to represent the homes of fictional colonists, and every colonist has a full biography. Earlier in the unit, Mr. Sucich presented a list of occupations that would have been practiced by the citzens of an 18th century New England town. Following the lesson, each student chose one of the professions as the basis for an alter-ego. The children investigated their jobs, learned about the possible daily activities of their characters, and began creating identities.

The town includes booksellers, blacksmiths, glassworkers, tavern owners, wigmakers, and other artisans and tradespeople. The housing styles vary to show the relative income of the inhabitants as well as the variation in architecture that would have existed at the time. Many of the homes include trade signs to indicate the work of their residents. Mr. Sucich noted that as the children expanded their biographies, they established connections with others. Neighborhoods and affinity groups have emerged as the town has grown. One student approached Mr. Sucich with a question about whether or not there would have been Jewish members in communities such as this one; upon finding out was that there were indeed Jews and people of other religions in the colonies, a few children decided to build their homes near one another and create their own congregation. This spontaneous choice ties in directly with the lessons the children have learned about why people chose to leave England and pursue religious freedom in North America.

Other housing locations were determined based on geography or natural resources: the blacksmith’s house is near the water, for example. The meeting house and other communal buildings will be centrally located along the town green and will be made by students whose houses are finished. As the town comes together and as the stories are completed, the students are literally building their knowledge of the details of colonial life as well as the ways in which a community grows and develops.