Birches students’ passions and abilities help determine their curriculum as we strive to meet and support all children, wherever they are in their learning. Birches offers the best of the old, one-room schoolhouse model--a place where multi-age children can learn together and build relationships. It also offers the best of the new--a place where critical, creative problem solving occurs with the intelligent use of technology. What is timeless is the daily interaction with nature.
Mathematics is taught daily in flexible, small groups. Using the Common Core State Standards as our benchmarks, we teach each child according to his or her mathematical development. We emphasize reinforcing number sense, computational strategies, and problem solving. Oftentimes, the way in which we get an answer is just as important as the answer itself, so we provide many opportunities for collaborative work to share a variety of perspectives and approaches. Efficiency is important but not at the cost of deeper understanding. Each skill begins with hands-on experiences using manipulatives. Students are given time to explore and make their own connections, thereby strengthening their understanding and providing a solid framework for subsequent learning. Our goal is to enable children to be critical, flexible problem solvers who are able to contextualize their mathematical learning. We take every opportunity to translate the skills the students are learning to concepts in their own lives, whether through nature, outdoor play, or thematic projects.
We start every morning with Writing Workshop while minds are fresh. Our writing curriculum is highly individualized, focusing on each child’s abilities as a writer. The young child learns that words are connected to speech and ideas. In the early years, children are encouraged to write by dictating stories to accompany their own illustrations or by writing using inventive spelling. As they become developmentally ready, they are introduced to a more formal Writing Workshop, where writing with purpose, clarity and a sense of audience is emphasized. Each child works on his or her own piece of writing at an individual pace, receiving guidance from teachers on topics like grammar, spelling, and style through one-on-one conferences and group mini-lessons. Students move through the stages of writing (drafting, revising, editing, proofreading, and publishing) with the support of teachers and peers. Each unit, whether personal narratives, fiction writing, or poetry, lasts for several months to allow students to gain deeper understanding of that form and to experience growth as writers. At Birches, writing is done for real purposes and real audiences so there are many opportunities for sharing unfinished work to receive feedback and also for publishing celebrations.
Our aim in reading is to develop independent readers and critical thinkers and to encourage a passion for literature that lasts a lifetime. Birches students experience reading every day in a variety of ways. During Reading Workshop, children work on their own reading goals with “just right” books and supporting activities. The multi-age environment provides rich opportunities for shared reading between older and younger students and also makes readers feel comfortable working at their own paces. Early readers may be looking at picture books, listening to a book on tape, or doing phonics work with a teacher. Transitional readers are working on decoding strategies, gaining practice and exposure to new types of literature. Fluent readers are applying the strategies they know while also completing journals, book projects, and reader response logs. Throughout the week, all students are conferencing with teachers to check on strategies and goals. At Birches, teachers read to children every day. This is one of the important ways we develop appreciation for fine language and discover a variety of writing styles and genres. These Read Alouds are valuable for teaching comprehension strategies, bolstering vocabulary, and creating a shared experience among students.
One important aspect of Birches is immersion in Spanish twice a week, when students are introduced to Spanish in a playful, engaging way. Research has shown that learning a second language at an early age can have a powerful impact on the brain, improving cognitive skills not even necessarily related to language. Knowing two languages helps humans with their executive functioning because they have to learn how to ignore distractions, switch their attentions at will, and hold disparate information in their minds.
Music classes at Birches are founded on the premise that students are active participants. As they sing, move, dance, and play instruments, they are learning. Our students are given many opportunities to nurture their musical selves kinesthetically, aurally, and visually. Basic skills, such as keeping a steady beat and matching pitch, are introduced in the early years. Older students are taught the fundamentals of music theory, such as reading quarter notes, eighth notes, rests, and so on. In 3rd Grade, recorders are introduced. We frequently have “music shares” at school meeting. We also put on musicals, plays, and have an annual community folk dance.
YOGA AND MINDFULNESS
Birches offers yoga instruction for children as part of its Physical Education program. Short mindfulness practices are also incorporated into the school day, usually when transitioning from one activity to another; for example, when coming in from recess to begin a numeracy bloc. A wide range of research indicates that mindfulness provides an excellent starting point for learning and creativity. For further information, please see an article from the "Journal of Applied School Psychology" describing the beneficial effects of mindfulness training for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders.