Teaching a New Curriculum in East Boston

(Boston K1DS at the East Boston YMCA #1)

The Birth through Third Grade Learning Hub

How does classroom practice change as a result of Birth-Third work? How do children, teachers, and leaders experience these changes? Having summarized the strategies of the first five Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships in Massachusetts (Boston, Lowell, Pittsfield, Somerville, and Springfield), I am now posting an occasional series of articles describing the on-the-ground experience of implementing these strategies. I began these profiles of direct service by describing teacher professional development in Lowell’s Communities of Practice for family child care and center-based preschool teachers. Future posts will cover home visits in Pittsfield and literacy coaching in Somerville. This week I begin a series of three posts that examine the experience of implementing a new preschool curriculum from the vantage point of two teachers and the program director at the East Boston YMCA.

The Boston Public Schools (BPS) has demonstrated some of the biggest impacts of a large-scale preschool program in the country, leading to much national and international attention. Boston K1DS is an initiative to implement the BPS preschool model, including a literacy- and numeracy-rich curriculum and associated coaching and professional development, in 14 community-based classrooms. The BPS Early Childhood department has integrated Opening the World of Learning (OWL) and the Building Blocks preschool math program to create the curriculum. While a formal research study will assess fidelity of implementation and impact, thus far BPS is generally pleased with the overall level of implementation across the 14 classrooms.

Boston K1DS raises a number of important questions, including:

  • How will community-based preschool teachers and directors respond to the BPS curriculum and coaching model?
  • What changes in teaching and learning does the model bring about?

What Changes When It Works?

To begin investigating these questions, I asked BPS coach Abby Morales to recommend a program that she thinks has adopted the curriculum more or less in full in order to capture the changes brought about by implementing the preschool model as intended. Abby recommended the East Boston YMCA in part because it is a program that began the Boston K1DS experience with some concerns and has had its normal share of challenges, and yet is now implementing the BPS curriculum and teaching practices with good fidelity. Thus, these three posts on the East Boston YMCA are an in-depth look at the largely positive experience of one preschool center; they are not intended to represent the experience of all 14 classrooms. The two teachers profiled had the normal growing pains at the beginning of the program and have had to put in extra work learning the curriculum and planning the activities it recommends. These posts focus on the changes in practice which resulted from their implementation experience in the eyes of the teachers, their director, and their coach. Future posts will highlight challenges and obstacles in Boston K1DS and/or other curriculum implementation initiatives. Further, Harvard researcher Monica Yudron is conducting a formal evaluation of BPS K1DS across the 14 participating classrooms.

Circle Time

After breakfast on one of my visits to the YMCA, Katie Jacobson (no relation) calls the “Lions” classroom of four-year olds to circle time. Katie goes over the jobs for the day and mentions that she has been to the library to check out a number of books on the solar system. Today they will start one of these books during circle time while Katie’s co-teacher, Gloria Contreras, is setting up small-group activities around the room. The children sing a song, count the marbles in a jar, and identify the day of the week. The “calendar” discussion emphasizes yesterday, today, and tomorrow on a simple chart rather than on a calendar grid, a practice the BPS Early Childhood Department recommends as more developmentally appropriate for four-year olds. Katie does a quick “time to test your knowledge” review of the day of the week, yesterday, and tomorrow, and then introduces today’s extra story about astronauts. “You may sit scrambled eggs,” she says, by which Katie means sit close together all jumbled up rather than sitting “fried eggs,” i.e., spaced apart.

As Katie reads the astronaut book, she interacts with the children through questions and comments: “Can you say the word, astronaut?” “What does it start with?” “Yes, you can be an astronaut.” The previous unit was on Things that Grow, and the astronauts in the book are growing plants. “Have you ever grown plants in here?” Katie makes a connection between the astronauts’ teamwork in the rocket ship and teamwork the children do in this class. Then she asks the children why the astronauts are flying in the ship, giving them five seconds to think about their answer. Many of the children answered “because there is no gravity,” and Katie references their discussion of this topic earlier in the unit. Katie then introduces the children to the small-group activities they will be doing that day. One group will be working with Katie on creating their own planets, another will be playing a space math game with Gloria, and three other groups will be working independently on space-themed activities that involve cutting shapes and coloring.

This circle time description will be familiar to early childhood educators, and yet it nonetheless bears marks of the influence of the BPS curriculum and coaching model. The circle time story, the songs and poems, and all the activities that day are part of a month-long Outer Space unit that Katie and Gloria have developed this summer after having taught the entire BPS curriculum during the academic year. These units are longer and more structured and use richer sets of materials than the units Katie and Gloria had taught previously. In their view, as discussed in next week’s post, these units have led to deeper learning for the children in their class this year.

Further, this circle time is taking place within an revamped daily schedule built around classroom routines and structures that have led to improved classroom management and child behavior. In addition to a dedicated time for math each afternoon, several brief number-related activities have been added to circle time and other moments of the day. For instance, during the circle time described above, Katie led the children in “blasting off” as rockets from a crouched position, slowly rising while counting from zero to ten to “blast off” (with all the appropriate body movements and sound effects) and then back down to the floor again counting down to zero. Note the important inclusion of zero in the children’s counting as recommended by the Building Blocks math curriculum Katie and Gloria are using.

Rockets preparing for landing.

Finally, Katie ends the circle time by introducing students to small-group activities—a new more guided 20-minute slot that is then followed by an independent center time in which students move freely between centers of their choosing.

The Big Changes

I had several conversations with Katie and Gloria in their classroom and on the playground and interviewed the preschool director of the East Boston YMCA, Karen Clauson, about the implementation of the BPS curriculum and coaching model over the past year and a half. The three all found the coaching component to be critical, and they converged on the same components in describing the major changes the new curriculum has brought about:

  • Deeper learning through longer units and multiple, multi-purpose read-alouds of stories
  • Better teacher understanding of the development of mathematical thinking in early childhood and better math learning for children
  • The addition of guided small groups activities and more “intentional” use of centers connected to stories and the unit theme
  • Broader, more diffuse changes in classroom management, teacher confidence, and higher-order discussion

While elements of these practices will be familiar to early childhood educators, it is important to note that as implemented here they are not common practice in many preschool classrooms. Often activities are not as carefully planned to create rich learning experiences for children. In fact, implementing these practices represented a departure for many BPS classrooms when originally implemented. BPS first developed its literacy- and numeracy-rich curriculum and coaching model after an external evaluation of district preschool classrooms identified significant quality concerns. BPS has found improvements in social-emotional and executive function skills in its district classrooms as well as in literacy and math skills as a result of this combination of curriculum, coaching, and professional development. Boston K1Ds is an attempt to extend these results to community-based classrooms through the same supports.

In the next two posts I describe the major changes in teaching and learning Gloria, Katie, and the children in their class have experienced through the East Boston YMCA’s participation in the Boston K1DS initiative.


I would like to thank Gloria Contreras, Katie Jacobson, Karen Clauson, and Abby Morales for generously sharing their thoughtful reflections and their time for this series of posts. Thanks to Sarah Fiarman, Brian Gold, and Katie Britton for their very helpful comments and suggestions. And to Jason Sachs, Jane Tewksbury, Michelle High-McKinnon, Abby Shapiro, and Corey Zimmerman for important background information.

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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