“In my mind, the ideal learning environment is one that is so immersive that the boundary between the classroom and the world outside is so blurred that students step through it without knowing. It is an environment in which students can’t help but formulate their own connections between what they are studying and what they observe in their world.”
— Sam Modest
The mind of an elementary teacher is a strange place, packed full of legions of children, all the same age or thereabouts, their triumphs and tragedies, their quirks and talents, their whims and passions. It isn’t, can’t be, a linear mind: it thinks in arcs, and in webs of interconnectedness. If one were able to secretly listen in when a teacher thinks and plans, much of it would sound to you like non sequiturs, the misfirings of random synapses. But to the teacher, thinking about the journey of a year with a particular group of children, those thoughts are more like zodiacal constellations, connected patterns within the arc of the ecliptic, within which live the sun, moon, planets, and tales of the stars.
As an example, consider the second-grade curriculum. The first grade theme is Community, third grade is Ancient Egypt, and those would seem to be unrelated, but the second-grade teachers see Immigration as the bridge between them.
According to Sam,
Ancient Egypt is a big jump, in both time and geographic space. So, in order to bridge the geographic space, we decided to expand the circle of awareness from Nueva to the entire Bay Area (our larger community), with questions of “Who is in our community here in the Bay Area?” And then, in order to prepare our students to jump back in time thousands of years when they study ancient Egypt, we refined that question to “Who all has come to help build our community here in the Bay Area?” This led to our three guiding questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? And how did we get here?
The historiography strand of our curriculum also came from needing to prepare our students to be ready to conceptualize “a time long ago.” Given that our second graders have not studied history before, we saw this as an opportunity to ensure that they learn how to do history right from the start. So, our second-grade historians learn that history is a discipline of evidence collection and storytelling, and that the stories we tell about the past are constantly being revised as new evidence emerges and old evidence is re-examined. They learn to ask questions and pose hypotheses, to search for evidence to answer their questions and hypotheses by analyzing primary and secondary sources, and to formulate their own arguments for what happened by finding patterns within the evidence they have collected. They also learn to use evidence to analyze other historians’ hypotheses, and to engage them in debate and discourse with evidence to support their agreements and disagreements.
Just this semester they wrote letters to a historian who had written about the Spanish Missions in California, expressing their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with her argument that the Native Californians who came to live on the Missions were like immigrants in a new land. They also analyzed the covers of children’s books about the Gold Rush for biases, and created their own book covers that highlight the stories that these books are not telling — namely, the stories of nonwhite miners.
The theme for the year is Immigration, yet somehow that also involves human rights and social justice, Mona Halaby, ethnobotany, ancient number systems, archaeomusicology, physics of sound, the Oholone, history and historiography, word study, and much more.
Here are just a few of the seemingly disparate pieces that Sam and Damon weave together to create the arc of the year.
The democratic classroom: Though respect and love for every child’s spirit, voice, and individuality are deeply embedded in the fabric of Nueva’s culture, it is certainly not a Free School. But Sam and Damon have drawn on the ideas of Mona Halaby's Belonging to create democratic classrooms, in which decisions about how the classroom should run and how the students should work together are decided in weekly classroom meetings, avenues for student agency that make a clear and immediate difference in their education, social interactions, and environment. Students set the agenda for these meetings by writing their ideas and concerns in a book throughout the week, and then discussing and coming to agreement on these ideas during their meetings. The teachers want their students to feel ownership of their own experiences and the empowerment that comes from being agents in their world, not just acted upon by adults.
Children’s and human rights: The concepts of rights and responsibilities are the biggest tie between immigration and democratic meetings: students learn about and discuss what are human, children’s, and student rights, and these then come up in class meetings in each discussion, framing the issues in common concepts and vocabulary. For example, if the issue of being excluded on the playground comes up, students ask what rights are involved, in this case the right to have friends or to play with others. Framing it in those terms helps all to see not just why it’s not ok, but also how to solve it, putting the focus on what they can build together rather than on restriction (not, for instance, imposing a rule of no excluding, but instead asking what can they do to actively build friendships). In addition to exclusion, other issues the students have raised so far this year include classroom systems, groaning when not called on, gender segregation, and lots more.
Immigration: When looking at the experiences of immigrants in the Bay Area, students can see specific rights violations, not just generalized unfairness, and the rights act as an intellectual lens, allowing the students to focus on the real issues involved. Of course, they have been told often and recognize that things can’t always be fair, but that shouldn’t be the only message: children at this age have a strong sense of justice, and they learn that some things can be changed, if one has the language to speak about it clearly and eloquently, and the tools to frame and solve the issues. As part of this study, students identify “upstanders” and “changemakers:” they keep a separate class journal of examples of students who stand up for the rights of themselves and others, and they look at them both in class and school, and in the immigrant communities they study. This feeds into idea of empowerment for both communities, not just seeing them as victims, but also seeing their resilience; not just their oppressors, but the allies who helped improve their lives, and by extension the life of the nation.
Interrelationships: In science, Elena weaves in ethnobotany for the Ohlone tribe that the students learn about in history, focusing on the ways that people interact with their environment. In music classes, Maggie parallels the immigrant communities they study by diving into the music of the immigrant cultures (Chinese music, for example), and then Elena can relate that to the physics of sound in science by having the children make stringed instruments, which originally came from China. The math curriculum in fall compares different number systems — Chinese, ancient Egyptian, base three — to better understand our own system, which parallels the way learning about other people helps the children better understand themselves and their own community.
These are just a few strands of the vast, interconnected web that makes up the program for a school year in an elementary grade, a few of the pieces that go into the thinking of the second-grade team. As the year progresses, different aspects will grow, change, or fall away based on the interests and passions of this particular group of students. But whatever the elements and connections at any grade level within that yearlong arc of the ecliptic, as important and meaningful as they are in the lives of the students, what matters most is the light — of knowledge, understanding, and compassion — that they give and that grows within the heart of each child.
If we are going to be introducing the study of history to our students, I feel that we must strive to highlight that there are many narratives that can be told about the past, and that certain narratives are more commonly upheld than others. As historians, it is our responsibility to look beyond the dominant narratives of the past and honor the narratives of those people who have less power, who did not have a voice then and who may continue to be invisible in our stories now.
— Sam Modest
January 17, 2018