“The concept of intellectual risk-taking applies not just to the students but to the teachers. We want the kids to do the work, but we need to be doing it ourselves.” Head of Preschool Maura Eden was explaining the deep process by which she and the teachers conceive and carry out curricular changes in the Preschool. “How do teachers come up with new ideas?” Maura asked. “Ideally it’s a parallel creative process for both teachers and students.” Collaboration is key, not just among the teachers, but between teachers and students.
Specifically, our Preschool educators have been expanding and updating the wildly popular annual museum project, a BFS tradition begun by Maura and her colleague Jane Morrissey some 20 years ago, in which each Fours classroom researches a topic, turns the classroom into a museum devoted to that topic, and invites parents to attend an open house.
“Kids like becoming experts at something and telling their families about it,” said Maura. “You get to sit there and tell these visitors what you’ve learned.” She again gave a nod to collaboration. “It works to do this in teams and share the joy of learning with family and friends. This is true for teachers and students.”
In the past, the museums were held on the same date at the same time for all three Fours classrooms. As of last year, Maura and the teachers updated this element so that they happen on different days. “This way, students can visit each others’ classrooms to allow for cross-pollination,” she said. Museum topics and presentation styles vary greatly, allowing teachers and students to learn from each other.
It all begins at the proverbial drawing board in Maura’s office. First, the teachers look at what four-year-olds generally like, based on wisdom handed down through decades of pedagogy, as well as their own direct observations of their current students. “Where are kids’ hearts at this point, what’s in their minds? Any teacher will tell you this is the age when during lunch they stick up their hands and ask, who likes bananas? Who doesn’t like bananas? Are you my friend? Are you not my friend?” From this soap opera of emotions about friendship and categorizing the world immediately around them they gradually form a unique classroom community during the first weeks of the school year.
Like teenagers, they also encounter their first identity crises. “They’re obsessed with, how I’m the same and how I’m different,” Maura said. “They’re taking surveys all the time. Who’s like me? Who’s not like me? Who’s a good guy? Who’s a bad guy? They’re super-interested in birth, in death, in injury. That’s what the whole superhero thing is about. If you ask, ‘can’t we make a place where bad guys learn to be good?’ The answer is usually no.”
In keeping with the teenager parallel, four-year-olds tend to be concerned about gender, and about who’s powerful and who’s not. “They feel very powerful but at the same time they still cling to their parents,” said Maura. “Fours are the adolescents of early childhood. They’re very interested also in separating fantasy from reality. They like fantasy but they also like things that are real and powerful,” she said. “For instance, wild cats are powerful and can do amazing things, almost like a real-life version of a dinosaur.”
Bottom line, she continues, “When we go and develop something, we do something that we know is exciting for four-year-olds. I start by saying to the teachers, ‘Talk to me, what are your kids talking about right now?’ Their students had a lot of people in jail,” she laughed. “Also superheroes, their friends, and acting out folk tales.”
Next, she and the teachers brainstorm about potential museum topics and then finally they get cooking, sometimes literally. “The kids are bringing ideas in, too, and we want them to own the museum. They don’t develop the curriculum directly but we listen and learn from them.”
Maura guides this entire process using a philosophy culled from the Bank Street Approach to early childhood education. A creation of the renowned Bank Street College of Education, the theory emphasizes “meeting” children on their own terms and understanding that individual kids learn at different paces. The approach is also thematic, linking many areas of the curriculum together under a common theme. For instance, when studying astronaut training and space, students used art time to make celestial bodies while gym time was used for astronaut-specific training exercises. “It’s a thematic approach, with elements of constructivism or discovery learning,” said Maura.
Refreshingly, Maura encourages creative, not just intellectual, risk-taking among the teachers, which isn’t just a feel-good effort. It’s based on the latest research which shows that accomplished innovators in any field are also highly creative in hobbies and interests outside of their careers. Thus, Maura urges teachers to bring their own passions to the table when mapping out class projects.
Last spring’s culmination of this group work included an astronaut training program in the Green Room and bread making in the Purple Room. “There was a lot of collaborative effort and energy going on,” said Maura. “With astronaut training there was the athletic part, art, science, and teachers shooting a video and doing voiceover work. When parents were seated in the classroom, the kids marched in and each got a diploma and a necklace for completing the astronaut training. Then the parents sat and watched the video.”
Green Room Teacher Lisa Ventry elaborated on the educational components. “We began on Earth by talking about day and night, then blasted off into the clouds and discussed three cloud types. Our next stop was the moon,” she said, “followed by the sun and stars and finally the planets. Threaded throughout the unit was a focus on how to prepare to travel in space as green room astronauts.”
She and Associate Teacher Laura Harris were fortunate to have a guest expert visit the students, a stargazing BFS parent who brought along several telescopes and a set of binoculars. “We learned how astronomers use these tools to study the sky and went to the roof to try them out,” said Lisa. “In the classroom we read books, looked at photographs, and watched videos. We did a lot of projects to make the abstract more tangible: we made a cloud, the sun, and the moon phases. We also transformed our dress-up area into a space center with a rocket and NASA ground control, and led the children through exercises that replicated astronaut training.”
Just like with real space travel, not everything went off without a hitch. “This was our first time doing this unit together and on such a grand scale,” she said, “so it was all very new and we weren’t always sure what to expect. We wanted to see what kinds of things would spark the children’s interest, so planning was sometimes very day-to-day depending on where conversations lead.”
In the end, the project felt like a resounding success that they will surely repeat. “It was very gratifying to see how proud the children were to share all that they had learned with their families, to notice that they were identifying themselves as ‘space experts’ and really owning their knowledge,” said Lisa. “The work they produced was beautiful and spoke to their individuality, but they also collaborated and came together as a group when preparing for their families to visit at the study’s conclusion.”
Laura Obuobi and Danielle Clarke in the Purple Room were “a big impetus for the curriculum revision,” said Maura. “They were bursting with new ideas to take things in a new direction. They did a bread unit, an intersection of culture and science. Almost every family came in and shared a bread from their culture: flatbreads, fry breads, yeast breads. Students got to choose which breadmaking group to join. Their expert was chef Zachary Golper, owner of the top-rated Bien Cuit French bakery on Smith Street. “He brought in all kinds of yeasts and they did science experiments into what yeast does.” Liam’s family, Bryant Rahaman and Vernessa Felix, were also bread-making experts, teaching the children how to bake Trinidadian bread and delicacies.
As with the astronaut project, the presence of an expert and related activities linked classroom learning to authentic, practical, real-world experience. As part of the thematic approach, students also created art projects that incorporated elements of bread. At their museum opening, all the kids had made chef’s hats to wear, and showed parents a slideshow of all their baking experiments. At the end, every family was presented with a cookbook of the students’ recipes.”
“It was interactive, hands on, child centered, and fun,” said Laura. “Bread is universal. Everybody eats bread or has eaten some kind of bread at least once in their lifetime. In this unit we looked at how bread is made in different parts of the world. We looked at maps of the various countries, learned about how and when each particular bread is eaten.”
The teaching duo, Dani and Laura, brought their own knowledge, cultures, passions and creativity to the project in a way that connects us all. They used West African Anansi stories the students were studying, and when they moved into a study of bread it was more organic. The students saw themselves as bread makers.”
As for the science component, the teachers began by looking at the typical ingredients of bread, and “how yeast works for example, with a yeast balloon experiment,” said Laura. “We looked how mold happens on bread and had a piece of bread molding on our science table for about a month…Within the yeast bread group, the children studied bagels and brioche. Within the fry bread group the children studied doughnuts and Native American fry bread. Within the flat bread group the children studied injera (from Ethiopia), tortilla, and pizza.”
Parents were invited to either come to help bake bread or to donate a bread snack for the class. As the completed classroom chart showed at the end of the project, the students tried roughly 20 varieties of bread from around the country and the world. Although presenting such a complex curriculum for the first time was a challenge at times, “seeing how well the children took ownership of it and enjoyed it, and how well the parents enjoyed it,” were the rewards for everyone.
Each of the elements Maura spoke about earlier figured into the upcoming Orange Room curriculum and museum on Big Cats. To begin, teachers Niamh Dolan and Zoe Goldberg-Stewart noticed that their students were playing games about lions, cheetahs, and what the children called “palace cats” during their outdoor roof time. “Their play had a good guys/bad guys aspect that tilted to the side of the predator,” Niamh said. In a music lesson with teacher Nancy Tanney, there was a song about cats getting lost in trees, and Zoe (who had lived for several years in Uganda) told the class about the tree-climbing lions in Uganda. Then, Niamh saw a National Geographic TV program about the history of cats and their domestication, which had a segment on “pallas cats.” She made the connection to her students’ games and their “palace cats,” and the Big Cats curriculum was born.
Like a proud parent, Maura was nothing short of effusive and boastful of her teachers and their dedication. “Early childhood education doesn’t just happen,” she said, “where kids go out and play and that’s it. It takes a lot of work and pedagogy.” She was especially proud to be part of a growing trend in which early childhood educators around the country are on the cutting edge of new learning methods. “Only now are teachers also thinking this way for older students in terms of how kids learn developmentally. A lot of older grades are drawing from early childhood pedagogy.”