Teaching and Learning
in the Lower School
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
– John Dewey
What we believe about teaching and learning
The Lower School program positions each student as a meaning-maker and supports them to actively make sense of our world. It is through this process that students learn the key concepts and skills that will be most relevant to their lives right now and long into the future. As you will see in the sections below, our students are young mathematicians, authors, activists, and more. Our classrooms are much more than classrooms: they are workshops, communities, and studios. Our faculty are experts in connecting research-based approaches with the individual learners in their classes. In each subject area, we believe students must practice skills with understanding, develop strong content knowledge, and exercise the skills needed for effective learning and work, such as clear communication, flexible thinking, and finding wonder in the world around them. We take children’s work seriously, including one of its most important forms: play.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Justice (DEIJ) curriculum
For people of all ages, the ability to create and contribute to diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just communities in our current world requires an understanding of specific skills and concepts. With the help of the Social Justice Standards from the organization Learning for Justice, we have identified a set of competencies that are age-appropriate and essential for Elementary-age students to learn. Each day, our students take on the very real responsibility of co-constructing healthy communities with one another; it is our responsibility as educators and parents to support them with the practical tools and understandings that they will need.
In the Lower School, the DEIJ curriculum has been designed as its own subject area and as an integrated part of other academic subjects. Students need specific time set aside to explore the body of knowledge associated with DEIJ. They also need opportunities to apply that knowledge in many other contexts, since equitable, inclusive, and just practices become effective when they infuse all that we do.
DEIJ as a subject area. DEIJ lessons are carefully sequenced from September to June, and from Kindergarten to Grade 5, so that students build on prior knowledge and explore topics at increasing levels of sophistication appropriate to their age-group. Since DEIJ covers a multifaceted body of knowledge, these lessons have been drawn from four sources: a racial literacy curriculum, an anti-bias curriculum, a social justice curriculum, and additional units of study developed by Milton faculty and administrators. The lessons are woven together into a cohesive whole that addresses all 20 of the Social Justice Standards, in an age-appropriate way, at each grade level.
DEIJ as integrated curriculum. The Lower School faculty and administration work together to augment content-specific learning objectives–in writing, reading, social studies, mathematics, Spanish, and each of our Specials–with complimentary DEIJ-related learning objectives. Experience and research both demonstrate that the DEIJ-related learning objectives enhance the depth of learning in the content area. Our work on integrating DEIJ curriculum is ongoing and sustained.
We understand mathematics to be the study of relationships and science of patterns. It is a thinking and sense-making activity. The role of mathematicians of any age, then, is to actively puzzle and think about those relationships and patterns in order to develop their own understanding and that of others. We believe that math should be fundamentally challenging because real problems are always challenging – and that these challenges should be engaging, appropriate, and joyful. We believe in giving children problems that they do not know how to solve right away because learning transpires in the space between interpreting a problem and solving it. Lower school students are young mathematicians, and their classes are communities of mathematicians where dialogue, reflection, debate, collaboration, and proof are central. We believe that the practice of skills is imperative – and that skills should always be practiced with understanding. Young mathematicians should always be invited to learn how and why a fact or procedure works. Not only do children have an innate drive to know, but it also results in deeper, longer lasting learning and more accurate application to genuine problems.
Our approach to each child’s reading development is multi-faceted and strategic. In our reading workshop, students learn about genre conventions and the habits of effective readers, which they apply during lessons, read alouds, independent reading, and one-on-one conferences with teachers. Students also meet with teachers in guided reading groups; in these small group settings, teachers use research-based techniques to identify individualized goals for each student, work closely with each student on those goals during the act of reading, and ultimately support the development of strategic actions that they can use anytime that they read and analyze a text. In our lower elementary classrooms, our program reflects significant research that demonstrates the importance of explicit phonics instruction for all students in the early years of elementary school, as a clear indicator of later reading success. In our upper elementary classrooms, students continue their studies on the individual word level by analyzing the spelling patterns of more complex vocabulary words.
Our writing workshop is characterized by a studio-like atmosphere and a hum of activity as students work to apply writing strategies from lessons, as well as feedback from teachers and peers, into their authentic writing. We believe that students should write pieces that feel personally meaningful and relevant to them and their communities. When children have a cherished idea to express to an audience that they care about, they challenge themselves to communicate with as much clarity and rhetorical power as possible. They are also far more likely to consider the craft and grammar options available to them, select them strategically, and apply them accurately. In the writing workshop, students learn from the craft and grammar choices of their peers, in authentic model texts created by their teachers, and in literature. As writers, students often apprentice with authors whose books they already love. The result is a community of writers made up of friends in the next desk as well as writers around the world – and a space of risk-taking and growth.
In many ways Social Studies is the crossroad of the K–5 curriculum. It is both a site and source of subject integration: Social Studies classes draw upon learning objectives from many other subject areas, including DEIJ, reading, writing, and math; Specials classes often provide new perspectives on themes that students are exploring in Social Studies; and our art and design teachers often co-teach Social Studies classes with classroom teachers, supporting students to attend carefully and meaningfully to the visual dimension of their projects. Social Studies classes are highly project-based, and students’ projects serve as both an expression of, and important vehicle for, learning. The themes in our K–5 Social Studies curriculum generally ripple outwards from “self and immediate community” for our youngest learners to “long ago and far away” for our oldest students. Even as our older students explore themes on a historical and global scale, they also are always guided to connect them back to self and their most immediate communities. The exploration of identity and identity development are key to Social Studies in every grade level. As well, each year students examine their communities through new lenses, such as how communities function, the roles that people serve in communities, how communities organize for equity and justice, and more.
We believe that bilingualism or multilingualism is an important goal for all people. Most lower school students are newly entering the process of acquiring Spanish as a second or third language, while some students already command fluency in Spanish. Our program is designed to be flexible and individualized, meeting students where they are on the continuum of Spanish acquisition. Particularly for students at an entering level of proficiency, the curriculum focuses on key vocabulary words, phrases, and idioms, and supports them towards a foundational level of conversational Spanish. In addition, the program is designed to support all students towards becoming beginning readers of Spanish texts through lessons that focus on Spanish phonics, comparing and contrasting phonemes across languages, and interactive read alouds and shared reading of great children’s literature in Spanish. Spanish classes also focus on the many diverse cultures within the Spanish speaking world and, with increasing depth as students become older, on the histories of colonialism, resistance, and post-colonialism reflected there. These histories are examined critically through lenses of equity and justice, and connected to the language practices of Spanish speaking communities.