Why project based learning?
Children's work is play. Collaborative play, the business of school, is an important part of children's intellectual and social development. This kind of play is enhanced by two things: 1) a rich environment, designed to provide stimulation, challenges, and open-ended spaces for creative exploration; and 2) the mentoring of expert teachers who interact with children and model the process of problem solving as well as skills in the various intelligence areas.
Howard Gardner has defined eight types of intelligence that human beings need to develop: linguistic, mathematical, visual, musical, kinesthetic, inter-personal, intra-personal, and recently added, naturalistic. While Gardner's theory has flaws, the basic idea can serve as a useful guide. It has been applied to the classroom in an approach often called an "integrated thematic curriculum", which is what we plan to employ. In this approach, themes are chosen by the week or month, and a series of experiences in all domains are planned to fit these themes. This approach enables children to integrate what they are learning in, for example, science lessons, stories, music and dance experiences relating to harvest or the phases of the moon.
Young children are open to learning in every domain. Our goal is to create as balanced a set of opportunities for learning in all domains as we can, rather than to focus only on language and mathematics, as many school programs do. This goal is guided by the school in Reggio Emilia, Italy, directed by Loris Malaquzzi (See The Hundred Languages of Children: the Reggio Emilia Approachby Carolyn Edwards for more information) which has illustrated to the world that very young children can be expressive in a variety of art forms with proper guidance. The key is to create an ever-changing, creative learning environment in which children can guide their own projects, and to provide knowledgeable adults who are experts in various areas to provide direction and models. Our school will have one open room that will become the atalier, or art studio, in which various activities such as preschool yoga, Education Through Music (ETM), Orff Schulwerk music training, and theatre games can occur. Essential to this model is the idea that children do best when guided by experts. Children at Peregrine School will experience a variety of artists as well as their preschool teachers during the school day.
It is well documented that early childhood is the best time for children
to acquire language in a natural, oral setting. Children's minds are like sponges that absorb language, since one of their most important cognitive tasks is to listen to and imitate their home language. If a second language is added early, this language is painless for a child to learn and will not only become more natural to that child than if it was learned later, but will also cause the child to learn other languages more easily than a non-bilingual child. There is also much research evidence that speaking two or more languages increases a child's level of general intelligence.
Spanish is the most important second language in California. Spanish fluency has immediate applications to daily life here. Ideally, we will balance our student population over time to include many native Spanish speakers. Our main teachers are native Spanish speakers who will model Spanish, "sheltering" it for accessibility to the children through the use of visuals, music, and the like. Fantastic Friday science and art activities and music and yoga classes will be taught in English and supplemented in Spanish.
At Peregrine School, lessons and routines will be delivered in Spanish by the teachers. Since the emphasis of the preschool will be on oral rather than written language, children will not be required to read in a language that is not their first. Peregrine School's Primaria class (prek/Kindergarten) is a project based learning program, with Spanish language taught through ongoing projects, but reading and math taught in English. This will ensure that children can learn to read in their own language, then transfer their skills to literacy in a second language. A third language will also be offered in early elementary school, while children are still more open to language acquisition than they will be as they get older.
Why a family school?
Peregrine School is based on the idea that families are children's first and most important teachers, and that the entire community of families and teachers can best guide our children by sharing the "funds of knowledge" which various people in the community hold. Our concept of parent involvement is not custodial, although we hope that everyone will pitch in to make and keep our environment clean and attractive. But our main purposes in asking parents to participate in school are two: 1) to build a caring community of families who support all of our children, and 2) to share the many talents we bring with this community. To accomplish the first goal, we will provide many enrichments such as yoga for adults, pot luck dinners, discussion groups, family outings, Spanish classes, and the like, to provide options for community building. To accomplish the second, we will provide opportunities for parents to share their special skills and interests in the classroom, especially when themes come up which correspond to these interests. One goal of parent meetings is to determine upcoming themes, and plan together ways to address them. Another benefit of parent time in the classroom is that parents will get to know each other's children, which will increase our sense of community.
Parent involvement can take many forms. Working in the classroom is required, but there is a buyout option since many parents work. Working parents contribute to the school community by performing a family task. We will work with parents to create the right approach to involvement for each family.
How do we prepare our children for success?
by Lorie Hammond, Acadamic Director
These days, concerns about academic success are everywhere. Public policy links teachers' salaries and schools' well being to test scores, and college admission is ever more competitive. Even parents of young children can't help but wonder: am I doing the most that I can to prepare my child for school and for success in life?
My first impulse is to encourage Peregrine parents to relax. Having seen many populations of children over the past 40 years, I can say definitively that the Peregrine students are extremely intelligent and confident. They are deeply cared for at home, where parents spend a lot of time communicating with them (a key to success), reading to them, and taking them to enriching events. Many have travel opportunities. Most are protected from too much media, and from media which is not age appropriate and can make them afraid. Most eat extremely healthy foods, and have balanced lives, with rest and exercise built in. Many have ongoing and enriching experiences with grandparents and other extended family members. In short, these are lucky kids.
But what role does Peregrine School play in this picture? What are our intentions as educators? Upon what are these intentions based?
Our conscious desire at Peregrine is to expose children to things that lead to both traditional academic success and a broad, creative education. When planning a curriculum for young children, aged 2-6, it is most important to look at developmental guidelines. We use the guidelines called Desired Results, which are used by the state First Five organization to measure learning in young children because they are based on developmental research. These guidelines form the basis for our portfolio standards in escuelita, and are combined with kindergarten standards from the State Department of Education in primaria portfolios.
Most parents are surprised if they look at developmental guidelines, because they go deeper and are much broader than the usual things which people look at to see if kids are ready for school, such as knowing the alphabet or counting. For example, while knowing the alphabet is part of the package, a much bigger and more difficult aspect of literacy development for preschoolers is developing oral language skills through listening to stories and retelling stories through drama. Likewise, in mathematics, young children need to spend endless hours pouring water on the water table, forming castles in the sand, and the like in order to understand how quantities and measurement work. These kinds of experiences give kids a base from which numbers and counting will follow logically.
There is no need to choose between play-based learning and academic learning. Play-based learning, done well, IS the most effective sort of academic learning for young children. In play-based learning, toys and materials are presented to kids to enable them to experience things in the world first hand, in a simulated way, in interaction with each other and their teachers. For example, in a play store, students experience what they have seen their parents do in a store, buying groceries and other items, and what they have seen clerks doing, accepting money and making change. They can engage in a complex social behavior which mimics the adult world, but provides creative opportunities for improvisation and problem solving.
What are our intentions as teachers in a play environment? Our intentions as teachers are to show the links between the play which children engage in naturally, and the academic things they need to know as they grow and develop. Often we serve as "newscasters", narrating what the children are doing so that they link their activities with increasingly complex language. A couple of conversations which I observed in primaria at circle times, and one which I observed in escuelita, illustrate this point.
The first of these conversations was about submarines, which we have been studying in primaria as a way to access the depths of the ocean. I asked the students what they thought the word "sub" might mean, since we were talking about both submarines and submersibles as equipment used in the ocean. One of the students responded that it must be like the SUBway, which she took on a recent trip to New York City. The subway went underground. Another student then added that he had been on BART, which went under the bay. He said that BART should be called a subway, and everyone figured out that SUB must have to do with being under something. In this case, it was children's life experiences outside of school which enriched the discussion, but the discussion pulled together things we are studying and things they had experienced, creating a generalization- the idea that syllables like "sub" can become parts of words which convey a certain concept. This is a generalization that can be applied to other new words the children encounter, and that will help them to build an academic vocabulary.
The second conversation was led by Mischa, and involved the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Mischa has been teaching the children about things that happened in different historical periods on the same day we are experiencing on the calendar. The Leaning Tower of Pisa had become so slanted that it could no longer be inhabited a few years ago, on January 7. This made people in Pisa think about how to stand it up again. The children were challenged to think of ways the tower might be straightened. Several children suggested that the foundation should be dug out and made stronger. This is something they had just experienced in the sandbox, where they have been standing boards up to make a fort, and had learned by trial and error that they have to dig the boards deep in the sand and to tamp the sand around them to get them to stand.
Another child brought up the idea of using a shovel or board to lean against the tower, to prop it up. This is also something that the children have been doing—using shovels stuck in the stand to stabilize the walls of their fort.
Finally, a child came up with the whimsical solution of tying many balloons to the top of the tower, and pulling it upwards. This might have been drawn from the movie UP, but also comes from Teacher Tony, on Science Friday, showing the kids that a lot of balloons tied together can lift things off the ground.
I was fascinated to see that the children could apply their experience in the sandbox and in other arenas to the Tower of Pisa, and were able to generate ideas which are parallel to those which engineers would apply. In short, their hands-on experience was giving them the tools to solve real world problems. Equally importantly, they were learning the intellectually challenging skill of transferring ideas from one arena to another.
Educators refer to this kind of transfer as "higher level thinking", which is more advanced than recalling a fact or symbol, such as an alphabet letter. One criticism of schools in this time of test pressure is that kids are failing to develop the higher level thinking skills that they will need in the long run for academic success.
The third example comes from a discussion in escuelita. Gabby was talking with a group of about twelve three to four year olds about what animals need to live in the arctic, using her fuzzy coat as a starting example to talk about the fur on polar bears. She used a large poster which showed pictures of arctic animals in their environment as a prop, and used both Spanish and English in the discussion.
At age three or four, kids are very self-centered, and want to talk about what is in their heads. Running a coherent discussion is a bit like herding cats, but Gabby was going at it very creatively. When a child went off track and began to talk about Santa living at the North Pole, in the arctic, Gabby pointed out what a warm coat he needs to wear.
Our intention in this case was to enable young children to pursue an intellectual topic-- living in the arctic--in a logical manner, so that kids could learn to carry on a coherent conversation. This is a complex skill. One of our intentions for circle time is to build specific vocabulary, such as learning the names of colors and animals in Spanish, and this goal was pursued in the same circle conversation.
But we also have the intention of building academic discourse skills in young children which will help them later in school. Being able to discuss a topic coherently is an important and complex skill which correlates strongly with academic success. It is not an easy skill to teach or learn, so it requires many practice sessions.
What is the punch line? At Peregrine School, children learn concrete skills, such as the alphabet and numbers, at a developmentally appropriate time, when they can absorb them easily. For example, the pre-kindergarten class in primaria is making an alphabet book and learning to identify alphabet sounds, and the kindergarten class is working on phonics. Every Peregrine kindergartener can now sound out words, and could do so almost immediately when the idea was introduced.
However, what is special about Peregrine is that children are exposed to a broad range of experiences and discussions which teach them a context in which specific academic skills will eventually fit. These experiences are enriched by the many "languages"—including but not limited to Spanish, music, art, dance, yoga, clay, and more—which children experience on a daily basis, and by their constant conversations with educated teachers, who encourage them to think and question what they experience.
It is important that children spend most of their time learning about the world, both social and natural, exploring the arts, and playing with each other during the preschool years, rather than doing paper and pencil activities which mimic what older children do. In the long run, they will be more successful at reading and writing if they have learned to manage their fingers by stringing beads, by molding clay, and by experiencing the endless sensory activities which young children do naturally. That is why Peregrine School is extremely academic. Its activities are based on research understandings about developmentally appropriate activities which help children to learn best at each stage of early childhood, so that they will be ready to pursue more specific academic activities when they are older.