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.

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