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.