Here’s the disclaimer: If you dare to embark on this long winded draft, remember this is what Grad school can do to a person! Good-luck getting through this long hard slog. And feel free to deliver my grade in the comment section!
A sure way to reassure the developmental and unique needs of each child is being met in the classroom, is to experiment with the curriculum. To have autonomy over the decisions of curriculum we must forgo any prescribed curriculums from a top down approach, while experimenting with a more caring and practical curriculum, to suite the needs of children. What atomism therefore fails to do is address the needs of children. Furthermore, atomism fragmentizes subjects into separate units, rendering learning meaningless an impersonal (Miller, 2007). John Dewey in The Child and the Curriculum speaks to the problem of interpreting learning through an atomistic lens. Dewey notes the destructiveness of the classifying and separation of curriculum into parts, rather than an integrative whole. “The source of whatever is dead, mechanical, and formal in schools is found precisely in the subordination of the life and experience of the child to the curriculum (Dewey, 2001). ” Our job as educators as I discover early in my career is too revitalize and experiment with any curriculum that deadens or debilitates the natural development and growth of a child.
Through out models of progressive education there have been numerous situations where teachers decided to replace prescribed textbook curriculum, with a democratically, caring, and more personalized experimental curriculum. Shifting from a domineering structure to a more partnership or democratic approach to the curriculum, does not occur without a degree of personal risk. Riane Eisler addresses the first goal of a partnership model: “The first goal is to help children grow into healthy, caring, competent, self-realized adults (Eisler, 2001).” And this takes a degree of courage for any teacher within a learning environment that holds steadfast to an ideology around standardized test assessments, prescribed curriculums and bureaucratic policies that under serve the needs of children in schools. It is through the course of reforming conventional curriculum that we can then begin to address different needs and meet various learning styles. The aim of this paper is to provide samples of meeting those developmental needs of children in the classroom, personally as a teacher and through my research.
An example of the ability of a teacher to experiment with the curriculum and to take a gamble with what she perceived as conscionable and reasonable way to introduce learning, is in Freedom to Learn by Carl R. Rogers. Barbara J. Shriel a sixth grade teacher, who is described and quoted in Freedom to Learn, announces to her sixth grade class one day an “experimental plan.” The students did not have to do anything with the implementation of the new plan. Shriel notes some of the mixed bag of emotions that came with this proposal in the first day, as some students felt “confused,” others thought it was “great,” and others chose to “goof off.” However, through process of experimenting, Shriel began to modify the plan as the curriculum became more solidified in serving the needs of all the students. By day two Shriel implemented a “work contract” for each student to put into writing a plan for each subject area, while checking off the list as they accomplished self-assigned projects. To deal with the subject of grading, Shriel simply asked each student, what he or she thought they earned. Some of the challenges she faces with the major adjustment within the curriculum is watching those sit in idle doing “nothing,” while another group dove into a research project on automobiles, for example. And another challenge Shriel encountered, was a small group of students who did not know what to do, without being told or instructed. However, the majority of the class appeared excited about learning and appreciated the change. Shriel had this to say about her optimism and doubting of her curriculum experiment, as a teacher: “that one must be secure in his own self concept to undertake such a program (Rogers, 1986).” Shriel did more remedial facilitating with the group that exhibited resistance to the new program, but after some time they found a better sense of security in defining their own pace and directing their own learning. In others words what Shriel did is offer only enough structure to bridge the gap to doing more focused independent, cooperate, and more self-directed class work. Shriel also recognizes that it is important to have the backing of an administrator when experimenting in the classroom, as she did with the superintendent and principal of the school. Shriel goes on to comment that she did not “teach; the children taught themselves and each other (Rogers).”
At the community school I teach at we also have the freedom to implement concepts within the setting up of the curriculum. For example in the beginning of the last school year we separated into two groups, in order to work on more focused academic like activities. The smallest size group consisted of the kindergarteners and the larger group was the first and second graders. We did not refer to these two groups by grade level, but by a name that was voted on by each group. The kindergartners chose the Earthworms and the first and second graders became chose the Tigers. In the morning we would begin class with news they would share, calendar, yoga, a song, or a short activity to start the day. After the “morning meeting” the to groups would split up for Math. In the first couple of months of the year I worked with the Earthworms, doing mainly manipulate based curriculum. The Tigers did less hands on with manipulates and more focused academic work, as developmentally at about the age of six and seven, they were ready for the transition into more concentrated work. This initial morning routine would shift as we began to experiment with the curriculum.
However, we we’re noticing that the students arrived at school enthusiastic about their day, and appeared to be more cued in on socializing with their peers or wanting to launch into journaling or playing, as opposed to a casually organized morning meeting. Especially the kindergarten children had some difficulty controlling their natural wiggles and no matter how inventive or slightly authoritarian we became as teachers, the group showed little interest in coming in and sitting together first in the morning, even for a short amount of time.
The other teacher and I communicated some of these issues, as we both agreed something needed to swiftly change. Our plan was to introduce “stations” as a means for them to launch right into doing engaging work at a variety of tables set with an appropriation of tools and materials for them to solve sections within their books. By this time we have also observed the kindergartners expressing more interest in the books that the Tigers (first and second graders) were involved in, as at the time I was doing more hands on work with the kindergarteners in a separate space. But ordinarily it is not appropriate to expect kindergarteners to sit for too long of a period of time doing academic work. However, appropriately developmentally if we ever detect that the kindergarteners are loosing their concentration or wiggling out of their seats, then we invite them to do more manipulates, such as connecting pattern blocks, sorting, aligning geometric shapes, piecing together puzzles, etc. But at this juncture about three to four months into the school years they exhibited signs that they were ready for doing more book related, academic like work. And now we would be bringing them all together with into one large room for stations. When the idea was pitched to the class they were overwhelmed with joy to hear about the new change. Aware of the national standards of assessment for primary ages, as teachers we recognized the importance of preparing most of them for the transition into public schools, as our school tops off at second grade. It was also important to help ease some of those anxieties among certain parents of the second graders, concerned with the possibilities of their child coping with the potential academic load in public schools. The kindergarten through second program is relatively still new, but as teachers we felt confident about our approach to education. Our new approach was to set-up an environment that would therefore integrate all subjects with more fluidity. To quote a kindergartener, when referring back to his time doing manipulates and other hands on activities, he said, “I didn’t know we were doing math.”
Our curriculum also has some Dewey aspects with a center for sewing, typing, and an area we meet for cooking. In a practical sense never has the thought of slicing up the curriculum in separate subjects has crossed our minds. We want the experiences to be organic and personalized for each child. “Subdivide each topic into studies; each study into lessons; each lesson into specific facts and formulae. Let the child proceed step by step to master each one of these separate parts, and at last he will have covered the entire ground (Dewey).”
In our classroom there was the Game table, Math table, Explode the Code (a workbook series) table, and Math table. The Math table has a container in the center with a measuring tape, rulers, dice, counting sticks, ten blocks, a analog play clock, coins, a calculator, a geometric stencil, etc. Each section in their math books is a different activity and may for example require a measuring device of calculator. Kindergartners may be pacing back and forth on the floor, for example, to get a read on how many steps long the room is or measuring their how tall a friend is. Or a first grade may have to measure the amount of centimeters their pencil is or have to figure out a simple word problem using coins. We chose Mathematics Everyday, a more hands on approach to math, because it makes math more applicable to life, engaging, and interactive for the students.
At the Explode the Code table they work on various activities in reading and writing. In the first few books in the Explode the Code series (as the series continues into upper grades) they trace letters, practice writing letters, draw lines to pictures that begin with a certain letter, color in objects that begin with a letter, write the letter under the picture that begins with that letter, and other listening activities oriented around letter recognition in which we creatively facilitate. The first three books focus on letter development as the next volume of books centers on using letters to construct words. There is a rather natural progression to Explode the Code through the repetition of exercises that still tends to stimulate and excite the learning process, rather than dull their interest. I was skeptical at first, but the students take interest in doing the work, and I have observed the overall progress they have made. A first grader at our school summed up the effectiveness of Explode the Code after his mom caught him reading in his bedroom aloud to him self, he said: “ I owe it all to Explode the Code!”
At our Journal table students draw characters, pictures, write titles, and develop their own stories. I think the students take the longest learning strives at the Journal table for a number of reasons. The student’s journals are usually self-made, and each one is customized. They can personalize their own stories with illustrations. They get to invent their own language and spelling. They can engage with others, sharing their stories as they develop. This is where I find the magic happens, as students come up with their own characters, setting, plot, conflict, and climax in the story. In the beginning days of journaling in particular for the kindergartners they may simply apply the pen or pencil to paper, with scribbles, circles, lines, dots, etc., but this is a crucial stage towards the emergence of literacy. Even if they’re only able to write their name with backwards “s’s” and “d’s” we do not stand to correct this process, knowing, this is valuable experimentation with literacy. Instead, we advocate strongly for them to invent their own spelling, to spend the time sounding out letters, or to discuss their stories with peers. Often there is much of a busy buzz and chatter centered around the Journal table as stories take shape and they share newly discovered words and stories. Of course conversations will drift outside of the Journaling topic, and occasionally we need to remind them to focus on their journal, but mostly this is a space for a full spectrum of language development. There is a clear link of understanding that vocalized word is a gateway to reading and writing, as open communication among children centered around a teacher facilitated objective, in most cases lead to writing. Piaget observed the importance of children under the age of seven to express language as monologues or through conversation as a means of voicing a sense of power. During this age group youth in particular tend to be “egocentric” not by choice, but by where they are developmentally (Piaget, 1951). And this is a highly talkative time of their lives, as their verbal communication is paramount to how they interpret new concepts, ideas, and begin to piece logical reasoning, which becomes more apparent in adolescence. And their drawings and narrations within the pages of their journals reflect a sort of primordial relationship to animals. Many of their cast of characters in their stories stars a rabbit, a cat, a horse, or some other animalistic object that conveys meaning and enables them to confront complex questions popping up as young people discovering the world. Some pictures also depict warrior like scenarios with detailed battle scenes, with rows of soldiers, and various spacecraft. There is an interesting power dynamic that occurs on the pages of their journals, as they sometimes want to simulate a scene in one of their stories with another peer. For example, two will sit next to each other (mainly the boys) and take turns drawing out a scene, sometimes on each other’s books, where typically a ship is shot down and a gruesome end follows. Or maybe a “good guy” swoops and saves the day. The kindergarteners as they experiment with journaling will begin to dabble but there is much more elaboration and depth to their stories as they progress through their journals.
We also allow the time for children to present their journal stories during our “circle times.” Or when visiting Day Star a retirement community we visit twice a month, and walk to, as it is only a few blocks away from the school. This gives an added incentive at times for them to develop their story, as they get an opportunity to read their work in front of an audience. One student read a story called Paw Print or in her words: “The Po Print.” The goes like this: “I saw a po print. What is it frum. I am scard. Is it a goos? No. Is it fram a bog. No. is it a tiger? Yes it is a tiger. The End.” Notice the common mistake when children invent their own spelling of the “b” in “bog” which she intended for it to say “dog.” Also notice the missing vowel sounds that clearly we do not hear when speaking. Never do we correct their spelling, rather what I ordinary do when a student asks is to remind them to concentrate on sounding out the syllables out loud and to take an educated guess. Sometimes I will point them in the direction of the correctly spelled word on their worksheet or guide them to where they may have spelled it correctly before. Always grammar and punctuation is secondary to having children experiment with language. Our objective is to use a multitude of ways to approach reading and writing, for example, as not everyone learns phonetically or through a prescribed method. Broadening the scope of learning and experimenting with curriculum opens up a window of opportunity for reaching different learning styles and developmental needs. And not all of these ways can be found in a teachers guide or textbook, but often through a teacher’s intuitive and creative lead.
The Game table is certainly another table where problem solving, language, the concept of working cooperatively, and learning how to follow the rules can be engaging, but also challenging. If rules of a game have a competitive edge, I emphasis the importance that they work together, and refer to the game as “non-winning.” I find it inappropriate to introduce competitive games, until least into their later years. The game table tends to reflect games that are math oriented, but most games I’ve noticed reflect math is some shape of form. For example, we have several board games under the brand name Cooperative Games as these games also inspire sociodramatic play and lend an opportunity to really work with each other, then against. Plus, these games allow for children to stretch their imagination. We also have several games that call for rolling of dice either traditionally with dots or with color, math symbols (plus and minus) and numbers. One of the most popular as this game has been influential when learning about monetary counting has been Monopoly and the offshoots of this is Catopoly and since the school is in Seattle, there is Seattle In A Box. Our school has a plethora of games for stimulating cognitive development and social development. The games play as an extension to the manipulates and the constructiveness nature of the “stations.” We do not claim that the games are free of structure, as each game has a set of rules to follow, as this is a entry point into practicing taking turns, problem solving, patience, cooperation, and commitment. I have done most of the facilitation of the Game table, however as they learn to stick by the rules, my assistance is less needed. I do not pretend for a moment that these games are unstructured without adult educational objectives or strategies or based on the idea of “free play.”
The core of any curriculum in particular in early childhood education and in those primary age school years, is self led play, without adult interruption. There has been many theories and research revolving around play from Dewey, Piaget, Rousseau, Vygotsky, Montessori, Steiner, Erikson among other, however across colleges the word “play” rarely if ever appears in class descriptions or list under competencies (Klugman, 1991). Despite the research devoted to the benefit of play in meeting the developmental needs of children, play usually receives the least amount of attention in the school setting. However, there is still a rather large contingency of individuals and groups recognizing play as critical to the natural development of children, such as, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), David Elkind, Chris Mercogliano, Lisa Murphy, and a spectrum of alternative schools and educators across America strongly advocating for play-based curriculum. “Play is described as having self-curative or self development power the child would “normally” use with little adult direction needed (Klugman & Smilansky).” Erikson and Piaget, who both devoted a significant amount of theoretical and scientific efforts have concluded that children need to control their own play for the purpose of serving healthy cognitive and mental development (Klugman & Smilansky).
Play-based curriculum is certainly interwoven through our school and curriculum, but I think there is a distinctive line between doing “academic work” and “play.” And this is delineated by structuring our academic time to fall more in the morning, and for play to start in the afternoon. The idea of infusing play “to reinforce learning objectives,” by creating role like scenarios is a gray area and may distort the authenticity of relationships and actual learning. “Rather than blur the differences between work and play, between activity objectives and playing, perhaps it would be better to clarify them (Klugman & Smilansky).
Sociodramatic play, the concept of not relying too much on materials and more on imaginative play is quite prominent in our classroom, however it does often cross over to incorporating props such as other materials to highlight the dynamic in role playing. There sociodramatic play, I have observed, begins to have a set of concrete rules and there is more of a narrative going on with the play, instead of gesture and more body movement communication that occurs in younger stages. From sticks to stones or building blocks, all I have observed become important props for strategizing and reinforcing their dramatic roles. Sociodramatic play can start from about the age of two to eight, as the richness of role playing can increase as they become masters of make believing and pretend play (Klugman & Smilansky).
The primary age group typically ages 6, 7, and 8 is a period when the “concrete operational,” with continuous hands on experiences begins to promote logically and critically thinking (Jones & Reynolds, 1996) as the “sociodramatic play activities seem to serve different needs than those served by functional and constructive play and activate a larger spectrum of dispositions, understanding, and ability (Krugman & Smilansky).”
Ands it is during this time outside of doing stations, where children take the lead with great intention to self-guide their learning, explore, and experiment within their environment. As teacher’s we both agree that this is where most of the development and learning occurs. There is much at stake developmentally for a child when play all this theory about play, can really be put into practice. Play is timeless, ageless, and has deep meaning in the lives of children. After all the most crucial human developmental stages such as speaking, walking, reading, and cognitive reasoning, all commonly occur through self directed play. This is why play is not secondary to the integrative subject stations we have only started to introduce about a year ago.
The stations, like play, are also self-guided with some facilitation. The implementation of stations allows subjects areas to be presented in a less formalized fashion without moving into a different space, to the sound of a bell. The child is in charge of signing him or her self in at each station, as a way to learn how to tell time and to monitor they’re own progression. This is a new addition to the curriculum so that our students can learn more about how to tell time, managing their own time, and for us as teachers to assess what stations they’re spending more or less time at. Again, this is an experimental implementation as we’re not sure if we will continue to use this technique.
There are a few students in class who move at a slower pace through the stations and occasionally do not complete all stations. One student has asked on several occasions that he wanted to finish it later during “open” classroom and “studio” time. Open classroom and studio is a less structured period in the afternoon where students pick and chose each day from new materials being presented or help themselves to the material available on the shelves around the classroom and studio. But generally this is less structured, self-directed, and generally opens up three different spaces, including a side yard with a woodshop for them to build in. It was during this active time that he wanted me to remind him to complete his stations.
As teachers we do not require them to finish, but we do however encourage them to complete all that they can. But there is no requirement to finish the work or to if not finished by the end of the day, to do for homework. During multiple occasions I have watched a few students convene to sit down at a table in the middle of the busy commotion of the classroom during open classroom/studio time to work on their journal or in their Explode the Code book.
More important as teachers we remain aware of the lesson blunders, lost of interest, or grievances students may have as signs that something has gone astray, and needs to be adjusted. Instead of proposing to go the route of increasing our assumed authoritarian role when our lessen plans went a stray, we would evaluate and make the necessary changes to the environment and curriculum. For example, we took notice of the restless behavior and complaints coming from some of the students, who had trouble sitting down as a group first thing in the morning. Instead we decided to postpone our circle time to later in the morning and decided to try out workstations to start the school day. And the students have been much more receptive and appreciative of this new change in curriculum.
We take a logical and practical approach to curriculum, by focusing on what is developmentally appropriate, where their curiosities interests lie, and how each child is uniquely different. As I mentioned above, our afternoon open/studio time centers more on play. Play that is uninterrupted and unfettered by adult intervention is “when the balance of competence and helplessness is determined (Elkind, 1986).” In particular in early childhood and among the primary age group a child’s sense of self, ego, and personality is being developed. And the transpersonal self embodies a deeper more holistic connection, shedding more light on the relationship of a belonging to a collective conscience (Miller). Barbara Clark in Optimizing Learning quotes Carl Jung as we shift from the function of the ego into “something contrary to reason, but something outside the province of reason,” or our intuitive self (Clark, 1986). Play brings children closer to understanding, logic, reasoning, and to find their uniqueness through creative expressionism.
As so we approach this powerful time of play, with little interruption, as students explore and experiment with the materials purposefully placed on the tables, or as they romp about freely socializing with peers or engaging in dramatic play. It is through this play that much of their competence and sense of self-awareness blossoms. For just over two hours in the afternoon, the students seek out their interests and curiosities. For example, they can build in the block area, cuddle with the Guinea pigs, visit the science center table (aligned with aquariums filled with fish, stick bugs, an African millipede, a frog, a turtle, a more recently an un-hatched Luna moth), play with Play Mobil, work in the studio with Perler beads, sew a bag, sort and weigh minipulatives, read a book, listen to books on CD, etc. And each afternoon we swap out or add a different activity to the mix. However our science center, library of books, sewing station, building area, and outside wood shop are affixed throughout the school year. The materials are updated from time to time but these designated areas do not change location throughout the school year. We’ve noticed keeping it consistent with the layout of the classroom allows for a sense of comfort in familiarity and makes it much easier for young children to navigate their learning. In particular, a more consistently organized classroom enables students to effectively navigate their own learning and empowers them to be self- reliant.
Offering stations stimulates the learning environment offering up opportunities for those with various learning styles to construct their learning. There is no question that the in the broad context of supplying a rich program of resources and support, will different learning styles ever be underserved. Garner addresses what has been known as the Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory: “MI theory not only comports with their intuitions that children are smart in different kinds of ways; the theory also holds out hope that more students can be reached more effectively, if their favored ways of knowing are taken into account in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.” Furthermore Garner acknowledges that the MI theory is not to serve solely goal of education, but rather an additional tool. It is the intention of the teacher(s) to create the aim of education. In scope of our small class at an independent school, in addition we offer classes in music, dance, and cooking to serve up as nourishment for all faculties of intelligences. Generally when I approach a particular student, I have an indication of what tool or material to serve up, by tracing the implications of their pattern of interests. There is a one particular kindergartener, for example that has always been intrigued by music. Place a keyboard or other instrument within reach on a table and he will find his way with fingers on the keys. We also have quite a few who thrive in what Garner has coined as a “naturalist” intelligence, is the student content on swashing in puddles on a rainy day or shoveling in the sand all day or is the one close to the animals. This particular group I’ll often discover at our science center holding guinea pigs or caring for the animals.
However there are no boundaries or separations among the “centers” or “stations” through out the classroom, instead it is all integrated to suite the developmentally appropriate needs of primary-age children. All though most children in our class, in particular the older ages, may be able to sit and concentrate for a longer period of time, but this age group and younger need hands on objects that they can manipulate, as well as directly related experiences then longer periods of sitting and listening. Primary-age children also need to concrete experiences that favor more hands on activities in order for learning to engaging, meaningful, and more relevant (Bredekamp, 1986). This need for more experiential learning may wane a bit in later years as children approach adulthood and are able to rationalize and grasp new abstract concepts, but it would be wrongfully, inappropriate to expect children to sit for long periods of time behind a desk.
As teachers we remain vigilant to the latest transformations students undergo. For example, we have a second grader who is just now beginning to actually read and write. Between two different teachers and a few peers he is finally starting to recognize sounds, is inventing spelling, and is figuring out words. He’s not quite reading just yet, but he is made considerable amount of progress and shows strong determined to figure it out. One method for assessing progress overall throughout the year is through collecting data for their portfolios. A portfolio will contain completed Explode the Code and Every Day Math books, drawings, journals, or projects that they have spent a considerable amount of time working on. There are also tests at the end of each of the books they work in for Reading/Writing and Math, and I have never had a student complain about taking the test. Antithetically they rave about taking the test and often will move through the book at an accelerated rate just to get to the test page. The reward for them is to advance to the next book in the series as they pick it out for themselves right off the shelf. We keep them on the shelf within their reach, as they can visualize what is ahead. When we meet with the children’s parents, all the important content is presented through the portfolio along with a “narrative” we submit to the parents before the meeting to summarize their child’s progress with attention to cognitive, social, and emotional development. The narrative is a story or snapshot of the child that brings to light their growth through a school year. We do not issue grades, but rather keep accurate and intentional data collection, and since myself and the other teacher enjoy writing, we manage an online site where we also aim to document our days with pictures, articles, updates, and an occasion video. Our assessment of student progress is always deeply personal and never a standardized formula.
Another potential alternative for assessment is the Shared Responsibility Model (SRM), initially developed for elementary students from a low-income back ground in an urban school, by Saunda Sparling. The SRM relies less on teacher controlled assessment and places more responsibility into the hands of the students. The model is based off of seven activities. The first activity addresses five questions linked to student to teacher contract, in order to fulfill the student’s objective. The second component to SRM looks at the shared feelings among the teachers and students to evaluate and conclude what needs to be changed to further achieve each student’s goal. The third component to the SRM redefines what the goal of each student amounts to, as this determines the “ground rules.” The students set up the steps to achieve their goal in a basic fashion while including what self-discipline and appropriate behavior will lead them to the final result. And the last four components of SRM is for the teacher to assist the students to stay focused on their goals, to reassure that the teachers maintain control over their project goal, to share skills that will help each other achieve those goals, and lastly for the teacher to help facilitate the progress and keep students on track (Clark). It is the experimentation with alternatives to standardized curricula that can transform the curriculum and give students more accountability in assessing and asserting their own learning.
Deeply caring assessment that is not perverse, maintains a anti-biased policy, and comes mainly through an evaluation of observation over a period of time, appropriately serves the development and growth of children. Assessment that relies on solely one methodology or the results of just testing is not a comprehensive way to measure progress of children. “When a student is graded by others on criteria not set cooperatively, perceived control is lost, motivation diminishes, and achievement is far less satisfying and dependable (Clark).” The overall performance of children or the deciding factor for curriculum-based decisions should not, for example rely on standardized tests (Bredekamp).
“We can’t really force kids to do things in the classroom; instead we only attempt to provide an environment that meets their needs (Miller).” Children need to have a sense of real belonging, power, and meaning, in order to engage in the act of learning. A multidisplinary, integrative, caring curriculum where the teacher has the autonomy to experiment, can address the needs of all children. As, I have also seen it in action.
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Brendekamp, S. (1987). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8 (Naeyc). Washington, D.C: National Association For The Education Of You.Experimenting with Curriculum
Experimenting with Curriculum Meets the Needs of All Children