Deeper Learning

(Boston K1DS at the East Boston YMCA #2)

The Birth through Third Grade Learning Hub

In last week’s post, I began describing the East Boston YMCA’s experience implementing the Boston Public School’s prekindergarten classroom, introducing the range of changes that the new curriculum has brought about. This week I discuss the impact of longer, more structured units that emphasize multiple and multi-purpose read-alouds of stories and a robust math curriculum aligned to the developmental learning trajectories of 4-year olds.

The circle time I described last week was part of a unit in which circle time, small-group activities, and centers all had explicit connections to the Outer Space theme, a unit that Katie and Gloria were developing themselves with support from their BPS coach, Abby Morales. In my conversations at the East Boston YMCA preschool with Katie and Gloria about the BPS curriculum, one of the first comments they each made was about the length of the units. On the playground on my first visit, Gloria, who has been teaching at the YMCA for over five years, stressed that the longer units led to significantly improved student mastery of material in comparison to previous years. In the past, Gloria and Katie taught using themes but each theme would only last one week. They were “always moving to the next theme.” Moving to the longer units of the BPS curriculum has meant that Katie and Gloria now need to do more preparation and planning than they had in the past. According to Gloria, “The program has more structure, so we have to plan those parts. We have to plan the schedule and be more organized. We plan each activity and how we will do the transitions.”

Within these longer, more structured units, Gloria emphasizes, the children have much more time to master the concepts and vocabulary of the unit, and thus the children are able to do much more independent thinking about the books and topics they are talking about in class. Katie says the children have been able to “absorb” much more knowledge about the theme this year than in the past. As an example, she cites the Things That Grow unit from the Opening the World of Learning (OWL) unit they had recently completed, in which the children mastered the sequence of steps they had followed planting bean plants and learned the parts of plants and words like “above ground,” “below ground,” and “transplant.”

Of course, many early childhood classrooms use thematic units (as had the YMCA). As with all curricular improvement efforts, it is the quality of the materials, the associated professional development, and the implementation details that determine effectiveness. Gloria and Katie say that in this regard the guidance they have received from BPS coach Abby Morales during her twice-a-month visits has been critical. One example of an important implementation detail in the OWL curriculum that Abby has supported is found in the structure the curriculum provides around storybook reading.

Multiple and Multi-Purpose Read-Through’s of Stories

According to the guidance that BPS supplies teachers of the OWL curriculum, “Engaging children in cognitively challenging book talk includes …

  • Past and future events
  • Cause and effect relationships
  • Prediction of upcoming events
  • Deep thinking about issues or themes
  • Analysis of characters’ feelings, personality traits, and motivations
  • Direct discussion of words and word meanings
  • Talk about print”

In Katie and Gloria’s eyes, working hand-in-hand with the longer, more structured units is the way in which they conduct multiple reads of stories within the OWL program. Katie and Gloria’s director, Karen Clauson, emphasizes that each read has different purposes. In the first read teachers engage the children in the fun of the story while helping out with vocabulary to ensure comprehension. Questions focus on understanding. Each read thereafter becomes more interactive, moving from questions about the sequence of events to participatory chiming-in and analysis and finally to having children say parts of the story and analyze the character’s feelings and motivations. Through the multiple reads children’s knowledge of vocabulary and subject matter grows.

How Children Learn Math

The Building Blocks math curriculum has also had a big impact on Katie and Gloria’s classroom practice. Developed by early childhood math researchers Doug Clements and Julie Sarama, Building Blocks is intended to support the developmental math learning trajectories that 4-year olds typically follow.

The BPS math department provided professional development for the Boston K1DS teachers at the beginning of the project. As the project progressed, the BPS Early Childhood Department identified a need for additional math professional development for the Boston K1DS teachers. Similar to Lowell’s experience obtaining funding for math professional development, BPS used the institutional platform they have built through the EEC-funded Birth-Third Alignment Partnership to win funding to provide a math course for the participating Boston K1DS teachers. Katie and Gloria emphasize how this training changed their understanding of how children learn math. Katie, for instance, says she now has a much better sense of how 4-year olds learn 1-to-1 correspondence, shapes, angles, adding and subtracting, and other math concepts and skills. This understanding has had a big impact on how she and Gloria facilitate math learning in their class.

The Lions classroom daily schedule includes a math slot in the afternoon as well as brief math activities incorporated throughout the day. Katie and Gloria think that this year’s children have learned much more math over the course of the year than children in previous years, as does YMCA preschool director Karen Clauson. Karen sees the children having “lots of fun” doing counting games during transitions and agrees that the children’s counting, understanding of relative size and quantity (“more” and “less”) and identification of patterns is at a higher level than in the past.

Scuba diving for animal cards and sorting them into ocean and land groupings

More “How,” Less “What”

Initially Karen had serious concerns about the use of a formalized curriculum in her program, fearing that it might limit children’s free play. The initial draw of Boston K1DS for her was increasing collaboration with BPS in order to ease her parents’ transition concerns. Her regional YMCA office was interested in participation as well. Based on Gloria and Katie’s experience in the Lions classroom with the new curriculum, Karen has become a strong proponent of the curriculum, and a chief reason has been the curriculum’s tools and resources. Karen Clausen credits the BPS curriculum with providing the materials that have allowed Katie and Gloria to extend a unit for 4 to 6 weeks.

In Karen’s view, now that the Lions teachers are using the new curricular materials, they are spending much less time on the “what” of developing themes and activities, freeing up much more time and energy for planning the “how”—how stories will be read, how teachers lead activities in small groups, how centers will be introduced, and how transitions will be managed. This shift toward more detailed planning has led to more thinking about the purpose of different activities and more “intentional” teaching. Karen sees the results of this higher level of planning and intentionality in her classroom observations and hears it in the comments Katie and Gloria make in staff meetings, peer-to-peer conversations that in Karen’s view have encouraged all of her teachers to plan activities more intentionally.

Now the “What”

The activities that I observed were part of units that Katie and Gloria developed after having taught the six units provided in the OWL/Building Blocks units provided to them by BPS. The BPS curriculum was designed with the traditional BPS calendar and school day in mind, whereas community-based preschools have year-round programs and much longer days. From the onset of the Boston K1DS initiative the BPS Early Childhood department has known that it would need to support community-based programs in applying the principles and practices of the OWL/Building Blocks units to teacher-developed units while acknowledging that teachers would not have the same resources at their fingertips. Katie and Gloria choose the space and ocean units I observed in response to their children’s interests. These units required additional planning, and Katie and Gloria were not able to assemble as many resources as they had used in the OWL/Building Blocks units, but they are proud of their work and pleased with the positive way the students responded to the units.

BPS coach Abby Morales is also excited about the unit development that Katie and Gloria and other community-based teachers are doing within the Boston K1DS initiative. As it turns out, through these development activities the community-based preschool teachers may be leading the way towards work district teachers may end up doing as well. The Early Childhood department is currently considering its next steps with its prekindergarten model in district classrooms. The OWL curriculum has recently come out in a new revised version, which the BPS Early Childhood department has reviewed and chosen not to adopt. One option moving forward is to work with teachers in developing home-grown units over time much in the way that Katie and Gloria and other Boston K1DS teachers are doing.

Longer units, multiple and multi-purpose read-alouds, and a new math curriculum represent significant improvements for Katie and Gloria. In the next post I discuss changes in small-group activities and a range of other changes in Katie and Gloria’s teaching practice.

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID.

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