Lynn Peterson: Several years ago, when the country was looking at Common Core and where that would stem from, E. D. Hirsch created this Core Knowledge curriculum. It’s really a knowledge base that’s sequential and coherent. It’s a vast continuum of knowledge that kids need to know in order to be literate in today’s world.
While the pendulum [in education] was swinging towards phonics and getting everyone to phonetically read, once they were able to read fluently what they were lacking was vocabulary. So they could say the word revolution, but they had no context as to what that word meant. By exposing students to a rich vocabulary in kindergarten and first grade, even though they can’t read some of those words, we can talk about the concepts. Kids are sponges, right? You can share stories about great presidents or ancient Pompeii, high interest things with words that they might not recognize in print but can comprehend and relate back to you.
A Core Knowledge school gives kids information through oral telling, through experience, and we add on to their knowledge all the time. What E. D. Hirsch would say is knowledge is what makes you smarter. Intellectual ability is great, but intellectual ability does change with the more you know. We teach science and history starting in kindergarten. That’s part of our core content along with math and reading. Then in addition, arts and music are core content areas. So every day students have those content areas, and then we embed those themes in art and music through the grade levels.
Andrew: Tell me more about your school’s values and virtues. How do they play into building a positive learning culture at your school?
Lynn: So as part of our mission as a charter school, we strive to build students of character. One way we do that is explicitly teaching about a core virtue each month. What we’ve found is that these virtues are very lofty ideas for elementary students, so we have one of our staff members teach a lesson and have students do some work with the virtue, to understand what it means and how that can apply to them as a student and just developmentally where they’re at. So, if you’re a seven-year-old, how can you practice [the virtue of] diligence as a seven-year-old?
Each month we also highlight that virtue at our student assemblies and talk about it quite frequently, even as staff members in our interactions with each other and conversations with our students, just to continually come back to it. It’s not that we can display diligence in every moment of our day, but we want to create an awareness for that virtue. Sometimes we’ll build service projects around a virtue, like with a food drive on Veteran’s Day, so kids can know what it feels like to be generous.
Andrew: How important is parent involvement for the success of individual students at your school?
Lynn: When we have parents who offer different experiences it just helps build our school culture. As a charter school we are serving many communities, so it helps bring parents and families together and make connections that they might not be making if they were going to school with the student who lives right next door to them. Our parent organization does a lot to organize events. We have a read-a-thon coming up tomorrow that they’ve helped organize, get supplies for, and fundraise for.
Andrew: What do you look for in hiring teachers?
Lynn: A growth mindset, a willingness to take feedback. I have a belief that I hire for attitude and can teach the skill. It’s not easy work. We ask a lot of questions. I’m not going to say it’s a perfect strategy. But I have a new teacher this year (she’s worked six years at another school) who just said to me today, “I think I had become a little cynical about not ever being able to be heard.” I had sent out a survey and just said, “Hey, what would be your ideal position? What would you love to do if that was a possibility?” It wasn’t a big ask, but she wants to specialize in a teaching area, so we were able to accommodate that. She said, “I’ve never been heard like I’ve been heard here. I didn’t know that you could love coming to work.”
Andrew: How do you celebrate National School Choice Week?
Lynn: The teachers and the staff wear the yellow scarves all week, and then on Thursday we have “The Extraordinary Expo.” It’s really an open house at the school where we showcase our specials. Our middle school does their science fair projects. We have a history fair and we have an art show. All the grade levels have art on display throughout the whole school. Our Spanish students at different grade levels either do a Spanish performance or Spanish game or PowerPoints on different countries.
I get a little crazy about it and the yellow scarves. I collect them and it is a source of pride. Every year the kids get a little more excited about it. – Lynn Peterson
We open the school up for three hours at night and we just invite community and our kids and their parents to come and celebrate all the different things that we do. Then on Friday, we have OSAs—outstanding student assemblies. They’re really pep fests. We have a school chant that we cheer at the top of our lungs and then we celebrate whatever the core virtue is, and then the whole school does the [School Choice Week] dance. We practice it all month. Eighth graders, when they leave, get to take a scarf. As long as I keep on getting 50 new ones every year, I’m good.
Andrew Campanella is President of National School Choice Week.
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