Who am I as a citizen of my community, of California, and of my world? How have the histories of my ancestors, my community, and California formed me, and what are my responsibilities to my community, my environment, and my world?
Language arts (Reading, writing, speaking, and listening): The lower grades in elementary school strive to teach children how to read and write so that they can absorb and express information through the English language. These grades also teach children to be members of a community of learners where people create, communicate, and question information through a process of reading, writing, oral presentation, and discussion. In such a community, students learn to be producers as well as receivers of information, participating in what the Common Core Language Arts Standards call “collaborative conversations”. These standards provide guidance for our work, and are reflected in the Columbia Reading and Writing project, which we use as a curriculum guide.
Students read books at their own reading level, and are given a choice of topics at this level to stimulate motivation to read. They are tested individually on a frequent basis, and progress is carefully monitored using national standards.
Students are encouraged to write expressively, yet challenged to pay attention to detail, to back up opinions, and to try new things in their written work. They experience writing both fiction and nonfiction in a variety of genres. Spelling is explored through an active, group process which emphasizes word families and the roots of words, so that students come to understand common patterns in the English language.
Mathematics: Mathematics, like language arts, is extremely developmental, meaning that students vary in when they are ready to understand and apply mathematical concepts. We attempt to meet the needs of each student through a constant process of teaching, monitoring, and assessment. Small group instruction is central to our work, since different students are ready for different skills.
Our goal is to develop in children a passion for mathematics as a process of inquiry and as a way to solve problems in our world. Grades 1 and 2 focus on number sense, manipulating numbers fluently, addition, subtraction, and place value, as well as applied concepts of money, time and measurement. We attempt to balance three aspects of teaching mathematics: conceptual understanding, practice (algorithms and skills), and application. Singapore Common Core books form the backbone of our program, but real world objects are used to help students understand new concepts. Applied math such as time, money, and measurement can be taught in part through our integrated studies in science and social studies, and we constantly look for ways in which students see how mathematics interfaces with their daily life.
As in all subjects, our goal in math is to teach students the “habits of mind” of mathematicians, a major goal of the Common Core Standards. This means that understanding why math works is fundamental, and must always come before learning algorithms to solve problems. Our first goal is to help students develop a deep understanding of early math concepts that will make problem solving easy as they learn more complex math in the future. When a concept is understood, however, students can use workbooks and other tools to practice these concepts until they can solve problems easily and accurately.
Children learn the importance of math applications in solving problems central to our projects in science and other subjects. For example, when students made a “community” in our native area, they used measuring skills to build tent houses, and created “businesses” in which they exchanged money. Likewise, when we were creating our wildlife habitat garden, students put on square foot shaped cardboard “shoes” to measure how many square feet there were in the garden.
Social studies and science (Inquiry): At Peregrine School, our goal is to incorporate and go beyond state standards to provide young children with a deep understanding of the natural and social systems that surround them. We begin with responsible citizenship in their own community, which we believe must come before an understanding of state or national issues. Students form an intentional community with each other in a physical place, such as our native area, where they must “buy” and share resources such as fabric, bamboo, garden seeds, and crafts materials to create a community which can govern itself. At first many students choose oligarchy or even authoritarianism, but they soon learn that such systems are inequitable, and eventually vote in democracy. Students then write their own constitutions, having gained an understanding of why government really matters.
Since standards can be covered in different ways, the exact projects pursued vary year to year. In 2016-2017, first and second graders have focused on an exchange project with Brazilian children their own age, who are attempting to learn English in their own classroom. Our students produce weekly videos, each of which focuses on some aspect of English as acted out creatively by students. Fifth and sixth grade students are the camera-people and film editors who facilitate this project. Besides making videos, this project involved students in questioning how children their age live in a situation which is both culturally rich and dramatically less affluent than their own.
Students have accompanied the Brazil English project (social studies) with a science study of the Amazon rainforest and the environmental issues it faces. The culmination of this project included the creation of a 3-D Amazon jungle with life-sized animals and giant vines in the school lobby, and finally led to the creation of a play in which students became these animals and spoke for their survival to an audience of parents and other classes.
Students practiced their first and second grade language arts and math skills through this inquiry project. They wrote both fictional stories and factual science articles about their animal, learned to read the script of a play, and practiced math through fundraising for the Brazil project. They also were supported in this work by visual and performing artists who work as experts at our school.
Over the course of two years, first and second graders also explore the early history of our place through studying California history and the Native American experience in California. This work complements ongoing student maintenance of our Wildlife Habitat garden, a partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, through which students learn to develop and sustain a native plant wildlife area in our school yard. Many plants in this garden sustained Native Americans, so science and social studies mesh naturally in this project.
A major pedagogical goal for early elementary students is to help them to develop study and inquiry habits. Instead of just presenting information, teachers place great emphasis on students learning to pose questions, to answer their own questions through careful study of images and text, to persevere in answering their questions, and to communicate their ideas orally and through visual and written displays. These skills prepare students for the in-depth research skills required in the upper grades.
Socio-emotional development: First and second grade students develop a great deal as individuals and as members of a classroom community. Students are encouraged to learn to identify their emotions, to manage them, and to express them constructively.
A related set of social skills involves accurately assessing their own abilities and interests, then learning to build on strengths and to address weaknesses. Learning to work with others collaboratively, and to use others as resources, is a key skill in maximizing personal growth.
In the early elementary years, self worth is closely tied to gaining competence and to accessing the independence which competence makes possible. Families play an important role in supporting this work.