The Center School

RIGOROUS EDUCATION FOR DEEP THINKERS AND CREATIVE SPIRITS. PRESCHOOL-8TH GRADE. EST. 1981

Academic Overview

Literature and the English Language at the Center School

Center School’s approach to Literature and the English Language (LEL) centers on the notion that reading—whether reading a text, reading a person, or reading the world—is about making meaning. There is a cyclical relationship between the reader and what is being read. Readers are exposed to ideas and perspectives that broaden and challenge their own. In responding, they explore what they believe and who they are becoming, create meaning by adding their own interpretation to the dialogue, and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work they are responding to.

Through the lens of making meaning, students learn phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills in a text-rich environment. In the early grades, in addition to the texts they are exposed to through read-aloud, poems, songs, and other books, students read high-quality phonics-based books with engaging storylines. They are exposed to phonics concepts in a structured, sequential program that allows them to connect phonology and orthography. They are encouraged to solve words using three sources of information: visual (the letters), structural (whether the word sounds right grammatically), and meaning (whether the word makes sense in the context). Reading aloud with fluency and expression is practiced through repeated readings of favorite books, choral reading, reading of texts created through shared and interactive writing, and “reader’s theatre” plays.

To broaden and increase vocabulary, in each literature class from Primes to Uppers, students learn connections between new words and words they already know. Students are also encouraged to use strategies such as the meanings of common affixes and Latin and Greek roots, using context clues, and using a dictionary to find meanings for new words they encounter. Guided reading and close reading enhance students’ comprehension skills as they explore text structure, genre, and figurative language, and make connections to themselves, to other texts, to other areas of study (such as theme, social studies, science, and math), and to their broader world.

Ultimately, the Center School believes that reading is a social experience; social in many senses. In the earlier grades, students explore language arts by developing their own narrative skills, as a way to practice organizing and linking their thoughts. Emphasis is placed on storytelling—either imaginative storytelling or a retelling of an event—because students’ oral language narrative skills are linked to their reading comprehension and writing skills. When students act out each other’s narratives through “Paley Plays” (based on the work of Vivian Paley), for example, they take on another’s perspective (practicing empathy), and develop an understanding that the stories they read and hear contain meaning that they can interpret. In addition to creating written responses to text they read, students collaborate to create artistic representations, dramatic plays, and to respond to texts. As students progress (grades 2-5), they deepen this social and cognitive interaction through literature discussion groups and spelling/vocabulary groups.

Critical thinking is developed from beginning to end of the Center School LEL program by putting forward meaty questions and ideas, providing access to acclaimed literature, and embarking on reflection via diverse modalities that are both challenging and engaging to the Center School student. Throughout the literature program, students read and respond to novels, short stories, plays, poems and articles that depict emotionally rich situations and/or social justice contexts, such as wealth and power, bullying, racism, gender equity, environmental stewardship, homelessness, as well as complex family relationships, or historical events. In the upper grades (6-8), reflections on literature primarily consist of class discussions, essays, and projects. Through writing and discussion, learners practice empathy and perspective taking as they explore the characters, the issues they face, and the contexts in which they face them. Students learn to question and/or affirm their own perspectives as they do research and write persuasive essays on complex topics meant to provoke insightful internal and external conversations.

The Center School believes that each child, whether four or fourteen, is capable of creating meaning and offering new knowledge to our world. The LEL curriculum fosters students’ empathy, passion, critical thinking, analysis, imagination, and expression by inviting them to read books, and through books, read themselves, read others, read their world.

Mathematics at the Center School

“Mathematics is a highly creative activity. Mathematicians solve problems but they also pose problems. They inquire. They explore relations, investigate interesting patterns, and craft proofs. They present their ideas to the mathematics community and those ideas hold up only when the logic of the argument is accepted. Real mathematicians don’t line up before a wise one who checks their answers with a red pen!”  ~  Cathy Twomey Fosnot

Math at the Center School is a rich and diverse experience, incorporating a variety of methods and materials. Offering a balance of joyful play and focused work, the Center School math program initiates in-depth conversations alongside hands-on projects.  When entering a Center School math class you might witness: children developing questions and surveying others for data collection; first graders reading Twelve Ways to Get to Eleven; children creating and playing math board games; students excitedly completing a “Mad Minute” multiplication challenge for fluency; math notebooks utilized during direct instruction of prime factorization with exponential notation; partner groups discussing and puzzling over the complicated quadratic equation; children standing in a group at the board, attempting to explain their efficient method for computing tax and total on a food order.

  • Do students use workbooks, do worksheets, and study textbooks?  Yes.
  • Do teachers stand at the board and demonstrate algorithmic methods for solving problems?  Yes.
  • Do students attempt to find their own ways to solve mathematical problems?  Yes.
  • Are they asking questions and answering their own inquiries?  Absolutely.
  • Are students always seated at a table or desk, with an open textbook and pencil in hand?  Not at all.
  • Do they move around the classroom, using a variety of manipulatives, building materials, art supplies, scales, rulers, and so on to help understand mathematical concepts?  Definitely.
  • Are they engaged, curious, and excited about their mathematical learning?  Yes.

Center School math classes function with the child at the center, bringing the curriculum to the developmental level, and finding appropriate materials to assist and support learning.

The Center School operates from the understanding that children can (sometimes) recite facts, but the danger is that they might not truly understand the mathematical concepts behind the algorithms and rote operations. True grasp of concepts and ownership of skills comes through authentic problem-solving experiences with mathematics and in-depth examinations of mathematical reasoning.

Center School classrooms use Young Mathematicians at Work (Fosnot), Investigations (TERC), Connected Math, and Holt Algebra I as foundational programs and then move outward from there. Teachers supplement the curriculum with computational practice, usually in the form of homework worksheets, timed practice (modified for students with processing issues), flash card drills, and math games.  Teachers also extend the learning into real-life situations through extended projects and interdisciplinary studies (e.g. School Store, Data Project, Math Fair).  In summary, the Center School utilizes a hybrid curriculum, combining a published math program with original material.  This model provides the students with the best of both worlds: a solid fluency with math facts and skills rooted in a deep and interactive understanding of mathematical concepts.

Thematic Studies at the Center School

Center School classes explore science, social studies, geography, and social justice in a rotating series of units called “themes.”  In grades K-5, children spend two years in each classroom and, accordingly, the themes that repeat (some are emergent) typically run on a two-year cycle.  In grades 6-8 different themes are taught in different groupings, sometimes to one grade and sometimes to more than one so that by the end of their middle school experience students have covered all the thematic bases.

In the entire thematic studies program, it is our goal for students themselves to construct the knowledge with which they emerge.  This process generally begins with direct experiences, the construction of immersive worlds, students’ existing knowledge, or detailed student research.  For example, direct experiences may include Kindergarteners and 1st graders spending hours playing with the components necessary to create an electric circuit, 2nd and 3rd grade classes visiting factories, restaurants, and other businesses in Greenfield, 4th and 5th grade classes doing hands-on, open-ended experiments with simple machines, and 6th-8th graders observing their own culture like anthropologists.

If it is not possible to get direct experience with a particular subject, because, for example, it happened in the past or it is too small to see, classes can construct a detailed, interactive model to simulate the world of that subject.  Immersive worlds created by Center Schoolers have included the colorful bear habitat “sets” made by K-1 students for a bear movie, the classroom sized model of the circulatory and respiratory systems built by 2-3 students, and the elaborately detailed models of American late-colonial and Native American settlements created by the 4-5 class, and the Uppers becoming absorbed in the experience of an Appalachian mining town, or immersing themselves in the stories of child laborers in an Indian rug factory. Students dive into these worlds, explore, engage in simulations, act out stories, and interact with each other.  The social justice component is ever present as children and teachers look at equity in every study and see themselves as crucial agents of change.  Middle schoolers might write letters-to-the-editor to address coal top removal, a 6th grader might look for ways to prove that wind turbines could be a valid substitute for coal-based energy, by actually building a model turbine and measuring the energy it would generate.

Often, Center School theme units find ways to draw on students’ individual lives or interests, so they can act as experts in the classroom.  Teachers have the freedom to modify or invent a theme to address the interests of a particular year’s cohort of students, as long as the Center School criteria and format of thematic study is maintained. Meaning that it needs to provide opportunities for children to formulate questions, make predictions, do research, simulations or experiments, go deep; in short, it must be an interactive and engaging exploration. For instance, one year the Mups class was very interested in ancient Egypt, which neatly coincided with the timing of the Arab Spring.  The teachers and students jumped at this “bird in the window” chance to make meaning out of these connected worlds. Finally, as students get older and reach Uppers, individual research becomes an increasingly important component of theme curricula.  Students’ research takes many different, often independent paths, from debates on current events, to country studies, to investigations into social causes, movements, and the leaders of those social movements.

There is, of course, always a social dimension to theme units at the Center School.  In addition to the group discussions that accompany most activities, kids may be asked, for instance, to explore a topic or artifact as partners, working together to record findings.  Students may do daily “museum” walks to observe and comment on the progress of each other’s model building.  Groups of four or five students may work on final projects together.  The whole class may work together to act out day-to-day life in their constructed, immersive world. In later grades, interviews with community members or pen pal exchanges can play an important role in theme units.

As students explore each theme, teachers act as co-learners and co-explorers; encouraging students to notice and record the particulars of their experiences, to reflect on them afterward through discussion, writing, artwork, math, etc. and to generate authentic questions about them.  A 2nd grader visiting a restaurant kitchen might record one of her noticings by using a classroom camera to take a photo of a prep cook chopping red peppers.  She might then write about how much she would love to eat all those red peppers and how impressed she was by the speed and skill the cook showed.  Finally, she might ask questions about where he learned to chop like that, which dishes the peppers are used in, and where the restaurant gets its peppers in the first place.

Once students have generated authentic questions, they are encouraged to pursue authentic answers.  The process of answering may take the form of a series of scientific experiments to prove or disprove a hypothesis, a research project to find the answer in writing, or a creative addition to an immersive world.  For example, the 2nd grader who photographed the prep cook might be grouped with kids who had similar questions about restaurant supplies. Together, they might create a poster, model, or play representing where the different supplies a restaurant uses come from.  The focus is always on this child’s-eye-view process of exploring, asking questions, trying for answers, and sometimes failing, but always trying again, and thus building their muscles as critical thinkers and problem solvers.  When answers are found, they are shared, reflected upon, and, of course, they lead to new exciting questions!

Spanish at the Center School

Studies on brain development and bilingualism show that people who learn a second language demonstrate greater cognitive ability in general, stronger memory and executive functioning skills, more creativity, increased listening abilities and better multitasking. A June 2014 study in Annals of Neurology even concludes that learning a second language can reduce brain ageing, and symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Furthermore, according to Humberto López Morales, the general secretary of the Association of Spanish Language Academies, by 2050, the U.S. will be the largest Spanish speaking country in the world.  Therefore, in order to provide Center School students with an entree into the wonderfully diverse world at large, and to promote language and brain development using 21st Century research, Spanish is taught at every developmental level.

Spanish at the Center School aims to provide children with positive experiences that will help them to be intellectually curious learners, and per our mission, “students emerge from our program with the skills and self-possession to be reflective, empathetic, and engaged citizens of our world.”  To that end, we teach Spanish as a language and as an issue of Social Justice.

Spanish at the Center School is taught 90% of the time in Spanish. This immersion method, coupled with a variety of learning modalities, is designed to allow students to feel at home and relaxed in an immersive Spanish-speaking environment. Honoring cultural diversity drives the program. In Spanish classes at all levels, children are exposed to the richness and diversity of the cultures of Spanish speaking countries.  They do research and culture-related projects; they learn authentic songs and play traditional games from Spanish speaking countries around the world.  The focus is always on connection and communication. When it is developmentally appropriate, students begin to explore language as a system, to analyze and understand grammatical forms, to read culturally relevant texts, and to write creatively.

Music at the Center School

I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water.
~Ray Charles

“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!”
~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The Center School music program is at once a joyful, layered, and community experience.  Our music teacher, Ann Percival, is also a professional, gigging musician and a member of world-renowned band, Wild Asparagus.   In addition to her work with the school, each class has at least one homeroom teacher who is a musician.  Music is often integrated into other studies, such as Theme or Lit.  Social Justice songs are a huge part of the Center School musical canon.

Many of our students are talented musicians, singers and dancers, and thus have rich and accomplished musical lives in and out of school.  For this reason, Center School projects often contain musical elements, with students writing or performing songs and dances related to areas of study.  For example, a student exploring mountaintop removal recently studied a related song by John Prine, called “Paradise.”

The final “assessment” or “representation” of our musical learning each year is the Center School Variety Show, where every child and teacher performs.  This is an experience that focuses not just on the blessings of process, but also gives children the opportunity to polish their work to performance level and then to feel the accomplishment only an audience and much rehearsal can provide.

Skill areas covered:

-establishing a musical community

-listening, identifying, and appreciating different types of musical genres and instruments within these genres;  learning social justice songs from around the country and the world

-singing in a group/harmony singing

-community dancing- cooperation/musicality/team building

-exploration of time and meter using various clapping and foot rhythm patterns

-song research- what is fun to sing and why, who is our audience?