Sections: Art | Assessment | Curriculum Conferences | Common Core Standards | Conflict Resolution | Family Fridays | Handwriting | Library | Math | Music | Reading | Science | Service |Social Studies | Word Study | Writing
Art (Visual Arts)
All classes in grades K-2 have art weekly as part of their cluster/specialty program. For grades 3-5, we have a PTA funded teaching artist. Grades 3-5 have the teaching artist one hour a week for a cycle (generally 12 weeks). In grades 3-5, since this is an enrichment not a cluster class, the teacher stays with the class. Although the teaching artist develops the curriculum and leads the class, it is expected that the classroom teacher is fully engaged in assisting her and addressing discipline issues.
Children are assessed frequently as teachers sit side by side with them in a reading conference, a writing conference, a math conference, choice time. This informal assessment is critical. Students are also assessed more formally three times a year in Reading (grades 1-5) and twice a year (K). Assessments are given in math after each unit. Using assessment to guide instruction in both literacy and math is a priority for our school. In addition to these very important ongoing assessments, children in P.S. 321, like in all public schools in New York City and State, take a series of standardized tests in grades 3,4, and 5. We believe that the best preparation for these tests is great teaching every day, and we are not a school that emphasizes test prep to the detriment of instruction in a wide range of subjects. We provide children with many varied experiences in the arts as well as in the tested subjects and we teach children to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. We do some explicit test prep in the two weeks before each statewide test so that children are prepared for the format and type of questions. All third, fourth, and fifth graders have state math and ELA tests in the spring; 4th grade has a state science test; ELL students take an additional test.
Curriculum Conferences are held in late September. These conferences take place in the classroom and are an opportunity for each teacher to talk about the highlights and expectations for the school year. They are also a time for parents to learn about volunteer opportunities. We provide child care for school age children during curriculum conferences.
In the summer of 2010, New York State became one of many states to adopt the Common Core Standards in Math and in Literacy. These are “college ready” standards that begin with what students need to know in college and then map backwards. The standards are a move toward having clear and concise national standards. We have been working with the CCS for 4 years. It is important to note that these are standards, not a curriculum. The math standards are brief and elegant, and overall are quite consistent with what we believe in terms of teaching mathematics.. They do lift the expectations in each grade, with children being asked to do more than they were in the old standards. The math standards go for depth rather than breadth and note the major focuses for each grade. They also include “Standards for Mathematical Practice” that are habits of mind that are extremely important. The literacy standards are longer and a bit more complicated, but overall incorporate much of what we already did before the CCS. A shift in these standards is to more informational reading and writing and less story/narrative. There is also an emphasis on text complexity that uses a different leveling system than the one (Fountas and Pinnell) that we have found so useful. For more information on the Common Core Standards, go to the NYSED website.
Students involved in conflicts are encouraged to “talk it through” so they can articulate their issues and arrive at a peaceable solution. This approach is part of 321’s Respect Initiative, a school-wide system aimed at teaching children to take responsibility for their actions and the solutions to conflicts. Classroom teachers or adults on the playground serve as facilitators for these discussions. If a problem can’t be resolved at the classroom or playground level, our Guidance Counselors may be called on for their expertise.
On the first Friday of every month (beginning in October), all parents are invited into classrooms. Teachers decide on the focus, and parents may reading with and to children, playing math games, studying current events, doing art together, or participating in another curricular areas. Family Friday is for 40 minutes, 8:30-9:10. It is a time when parents are free to bring younger siblings, and families with more than one child at PS 321 sometimes have both children together in each room for part of the time. Following Family Friday, parents are invited to join the principal and PTA officers in the lobby for coffee and informal conversation. We generally have our school store open as well so parents can buy T-shirts and other items. There is no Family Friday in September or January.
We believe that it is important for students to learn how to form letters correctly and to write neatly. In kindergarten we provide many fine motor activities that help students develop muscle control that they use in writing, including painting at the easel, clay, peg boards, etc. Beginning in kindergarten, we teach students the correct pencil grip and begin to talk about and have children practice correct letter formation. All kindergartens teach correct letter formation and use a combination of “Handwriting Without Tears” approaches and paper with dotted lines that is more consistent with how we teach in first grade. For the past couple of years, our very skilled Occupational Therapists have offered an RTI push-in program that helps children develop the skills that they need to succeed in doing handwriting. We hope to continue this program this fall. In first grade we have handwriting (printing) instruction using a consistent program in all classrooms called PAF (Preventing Academic Failure). As a school we have agreed that there is a need to continue handwriting instruction and practice in all grades. We purchased primary lined notebooks for first and second graders to facilitate this, as well as handwriting workbooks for most grades. In third grade, students learn cursive. In the spring all third graders are expected to write many of their assignments in cursive. Students in fourth and fifth grade are expected to write most of their assignments in cursive. Our occupational therapists are excellent resources for helping us figure out how to meet the needs of children who have difficulty with handwriting.
Miriam Pope is our full time library teacher. She manages our rich school library collection. Children in grades 1, 2, and 3 (for ½ year) have library class. Children in grades 4 and 5 can go to take out/return books during a circulation period, and sometimes visit the library as a class to do research.
Our Math program has evolved over the years, but continues to be a “Balanced Mathematics” approach. That means that we are strongly committed to a concept-based, problem-solving, hands-on approach to mathematics. We believe children need to be involved in constructing meaning in math, deciding on which strategies to use as they solve complex problems. But, we also know that children need to learn and practice basic math facts so that they can calculate quickly and efficiently, and so we do that as well. We have 2-3 math leaders per grade who have worked hard to develop and revise common core aligned math pacing calendars that reflect the multiple resources we use, including TERC investigations, Math in Context replacement units, units developed by Metamorphosis, and more. Math is taught daily in every class, ideally for more than a period. We differentiate mathematics teaching to make sure we meet the diverse needs of the learners in our classes. We are committed to differentiating both for the lower performing math students and the higher performing. The Common Core Standards outline end of year expectations in math on each grade, and our pacing calendars are designed with that in mind. More information on NYS Common Core Math Standards can be found here on NYSED’s website.
We have three Department of Education music teachers. Joe Phillips teaches a music cluster program for Kindergarten twice a week; Frank McGarry is the first and second grade music teacher, and Adam Lane is the music cluster teacher for grades three (half a year for each class) four, and five.
The band program, which we run in collaboration with the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, is for fourth and fifth graders. (The fifth graders will be the students who participated last year.) Fourth grade parents will get information about this early in the school year. Our Fourth/Fifth Grade Chorus is directed by Adam Lane and meets after school. Fifth grade meets for the first half of the year; fourth grade for the second half. As with all of our afterschool programs, no child will be turned down for lack of ability to pay. Heidi Sauberg, our after school coordinator, coordinates the band and chorus programs
P.S. 321 is known as a model literacy school, and our approach to teaching reading is heavily influenced by our work with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). We are a model literacy school committed to hosting visitors and sharing our expertise with other educators, and we also benefit from being part of a team of schools that learns together. Our standards-based balanced literacy approach to teaching reading has evolved and continues to evolve as teachers and administrators participate in ongoing professional development and do our own classroom-based research. For many years we have developed long-term plans and have mapped out the year in reading and writing. In recent years, we have also modified our curriculum in accordance with the Common Core Learning Standards for English Language Arts. At 321, the expectations for teaching reading include the following:
- In all classrooms, teachers read aloud daily from chapter books and/or picture books. The read aloud time is an important teaching time when different reading strategies are modeled. During read aloud, the expectation is that children are not passive listeners, but rather are actively engaged in listening and responding to the text and practicing strategies that will help them in their independent or partner reading.
- Shared reading (with an enlarged text such as a big book, a poem on chart paper, a section of text on an overhead) happens daily in Prekindergarten, kindergarten, and early first grade. It is used frequently in the rest of the grades as well.
- Readers Workshop happens daily in our kindergarten to fifth grade classrooms, although in kindergarten it may be brief on some days and longer on some days. The usual format for Reading Workshop is a mini-lesson; a time when children are reading (either independently, with partners, in reading centers, in book clubs, or in guided reading groups) and teachers are conferring or meeting with small groups; and a share time. The heart of the Readers Workshop is the time when children are engaged in reading. Both the mini-lesson and the share time should be brief, focused teaching times. Except in special cases, Readers workshop happens in the morning in grades 1-5.
- Independent and partner reading are an essential part of our Readers Workshop. From prekindergarten on, children have time to read (or, in prekindergarten and kindergarten, look at) books on their own and with another student. This reading time is an important instructional time, and the teacher is doing a great deal of direct teaching through her/his conferring with students.
- Teachers come prepared to reading conferences with notes on children and their needs, and at times they may group children with similar needs in conferences.
- In kindergarten, it is appropriate for children to be looking at and talking about books that they cannot actually read, although once we get to January of kindergarten, we expect that children will also have “working on the words” books on their appropriate book level to read. Once children get to first grade, almost all of their independent and/or partner reading time is spent working on books that are at an appropriate level for them to read. In kindergarten and first grade (and sometimes in the upper grades), children have book bins, boxes, or bags where they keep 3-8 books they are working on. Children in grades 2 and up who do not have book boxes or bags should always have an independent reading book that they are working on that they keep in their desk or cubby.
- We use a “units of study” approach in teaching reading. Our goal is to have consistency across a grade and a logical sequence from grade to grade.
- In our classrooms, we have a portion of our library in leveled books, with grades K, 1 and 2 having more leveled baskets than other grades. When we talk about leveling books, we mean assigning books a level based on difficulty. We use the system created by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell and described in several of their books including Guided Reading and Matching Books to Readers.
- Our interim assessments in literacy include running records in leveled texts and parents are informed of their children’s’ book level in the report cards. Book levels are not absolute measures. For example, a child with a great deal of prior knowledge about snakes may read higher level books about snakes than about electricity if s/he knows little about electricity. A first grader reading at a high level may be able to decode a T level book and even understand parts of it, but the subject matter might well be inappropriate. Book levels are, however, an essential guide and they help us to get children reading in appropriate books so that we can move them forward. Our color coding book leveling system is as follows:
- Level A–Blue Dot
- Level B–Red Dot
- Level C–Yellow Dot
- Level D–Green Dot
- Level E–FLORESCENT Orange Dot
- Level F–FLORESCENT Green Dot
- Level G–Double Blue Dot
- Level H–Double Red Dot
- Level I–Double Yellow Dot
- Level J–Double Green Dot
- Level K–Double FLORESCENT Orange Dot
In all of our classrooms from first to fifth grade, there are some opportunities for small group reading instruction that includes talking about books. This may take the form of reading centers, guided reading groups, and/or book clubs. Depending on the grade and the particular class, these structures may be in place the whole year or periodically. It is particularly important that struggling readers have ongoing, intensive teacher-directed instruction.
Reading is all about making meaning, and students who do not comprehend what they read are not reading, but simply decoding. Our TC Leveled Book Assessments include comprehension questions, so that children who can decode but not comprehend at a particular level cannot be considered to be reading at that level. We teach comprehension skills beginning in kindergarten; children learn a variety of comprehension strategies through directed book talk. As they move up in the grades, they also use writing to help make meaning and to be held accountable for what they read.
- By the end of kindergarten, children are expected to be able to read level B-C books. Examples of B books are The Tree House (Story Box); Have You Seen My Cat by Eric Carle; Climbing (PM Starters); examples of C books are Brown Bear Brown Bear by Bill Martin; The Farm Concert (Storybox)
- By the end of first grade, children are expected to be able to read with understanding level I books. Examples of level I books are Grizzwold by Syd Hoff; Hattie and the Fox by Mem Fox; Jim’s Dog Muffins by Miriam Cohen, and Yum and Yuk (Story Box).
- By the end of second grade, children are expected to be able to read with understanding level L books. Examples of level L books are Cam Jansen books by David Adler; Pee Wee Scouts books by Judy Delton; Horrible Harry books by Suzy Kine; Amelia Bedelia books by Peggy Parish.
- By the end of third grade, children are expected to be able to read with understanding level O books. Examples of level O books included Aldo books by Joanna Hurwitz; Boxcar Children books by Gertrude Chandler Warner; Ramona books by Beverly Cleary.
- By the end of fourth grade, children are expected to be able to read with understanding level Q books such as All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, Anastasia Krupnick by Lois Lowry, and James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.
- By the end of fifth grade, children are expected to be able to read with understanding level T books such as Abel’s Island by William Steig, The Great Brain by John Fitzgerald, and the Sammy Keyes mysteries.
In the early childhood grades, phonics is an important part of our reading instruction. All first and second grades have used an Orton Gillingham based program, Wilson Fundations, to teach phonics for several years. We use a condensed version of the program that has been planned by teacher leaders on each grade and consists of 20-30 minutes of phonics/spelling instruction four to five times a week. In addition, we use some of the techniques and activities in Patricia Cunningham’s Month by Month Phonics books. Our older children who need extra explicit phonics instruction also benefit from an Orton Gillingham based program such as PAF (Preventing Academic Failure), Wilson, or Recipe for Reading, and intervention teachers use these programs with small groups of children where appropriate.
Most of the lower grade classes in the school have an upper grade reading buddy class with whom they meet weekly or every other week. With buddy classes, individuals are paired up so that when the kids meet they always meet with the same buddy (or buddies). Teachers do the matching to make sure that there are good matches. In some cases buddy classes do projects beyond reading, such as art projects, author studies, writing projects, and/or trips.
We know that science skills can be taught through a variety of science content, and we want our students to have a broad range of science experiences. Many of our whole-class studies integrate science, and students also have dedicated science instruction. We have three science teachers. Kindergarten and 1st grades have a push-in science cluster teacher, once a week 3rd, 4th and 5th graders go to science lab twice a week in two science rooms, M-8 and M9 in the mini school. The rooms are equipped with an array of kits, materials and supplies (some reptilian in nature), for a host of hands-on experimentation and investigation.
In the 2009-10 school year, we started a Fifth Grade Service Corps, which we are continuing, with the idea of giving every fifth grader an opportunity to “give back” to the school. Fifth graders have an opportunity to sign up for a particular service project (such as kindergarten lunch and play pals; PS 321 Beautification Committee; peer mediators; library squad; etc.). Every fifth chooses a way to make a difference in our school. The application and selection process takes place in the fall, and different faculty members supervise different service projects.
Although it is now more than 15 years old, we like the comments about social studies in the NYC Board of Education Curriculum Frameworks from 1995 that state, “an effective social studies program provides the foundation for a democratic society by developing the skills necessary for students to participate as informed, responsible citizens in an era of rapidly changing technology. Among these skills, social studies instruction develops critical thinking by enabling students to make decisions about issues confronting themselves, society, and the interdependent world.” The framework goes on to say that “social studies instruction fosters multicultural education by promoting respect, intergroup cooperation, and appreciation for cultures of diverse groups.” Our respect initiative and conflict resolution approach are clearly one aspect of our social studies curriculum.
At P.S. 321, we believe that doing a few studies in depth is the most effective approach to teaching social studies. We also touch on current events as part of our social studies curriculum, particularly in the upper grades. In presidential election years, the fourth and fifth grades add an election study to their curriculum. Another essential component of our social studies curriculum is geography, which is taught in every grade, with particular grades being responsible for particular geography skills.
Over the last several years, the specific content through which we teach social studies skills has been evolving. The general topics we teach by grade include:
- Kindergarten–Family and Community (Shared Studies–All About Us and Things in Our World; School Study. Most classes do at least one more study such as Bridges, Transportation, or Post Office)
- First Grade–The Neighborhood (Shared Study: Prospect Park; all classes do one other study such as pizza stores, bakeries, food coop, a block)
- Second Grade–New York City (Shared Studies: Early New York—Native Americans and Dutch; all classes do one contemporary New York study, such as Jazz, Brooklyn Bridge, or Subways)
- Third Grade–Cultures Around the World—all classes do an Amazon Rain Forest study; all do at least one other study, such as China, the Arctic/Inuit, Ghana, or Tibet)
- Fourth Grade- American History from Native Americans to the American Revolution; Current Events (Shared Studies: The Iroquois/Explorers; Colonia America/Plimoth; the American Revolution)
- Fifth Grade–U.S. History–Civil War to the Present (Shared Studies: Introduction to Government; Civil War; Immigration; First half of Twentieth Century with emphasis on the Depression and the New Deal; the Civil Rights Movement).
Word Study/Phonics/Spelling is taught explicitly both within and outside of the Writing Workshop in a variety of age-appropriate ways in all grades. Part of our word study time is devoted to vocabulary development, and teachers have developed a variety of successful approaches to teaching vocabulary which are shared with grade colleagues. In teaching vocabulary, repetition is key. So, for example, if a teacher focuses on a particular word from a read aloud the word is used many times by teacher and children, children sometimes act out the word, and they “sign up” when they use the word in talk or writing. In general we do not feel that it is effective to combine vocabulary and spelling instruction as the words that children need to learn to spell correctly automatically are words that they already know the meaning of.
Walk into any classroom in our school, whether it be a kindergarten or fifth grade, and you’re guaranteed to see our children writing. Our walls are plastered with their words, and throughout the year they celebrate their many publications, sharing work with classmates and parents. Over twenty five years ago, Lucy Calkins of Teachers College, Columbia University, brought writing process to our teachers who were inspired by the power of words to help children make sense of the world. They began transforming our school into a community of writers. Teachers continue to learn new approaches to the teaching of writing through our ongoing affiliation with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Teachers attend week-long summer institutes, all-day workshops, and work side-by-side with Teachers College staff developers in their classrooms. And, through meeting together in school, teachers support each other and share their best practices.
At the heart of our writing program is the idea that children have a tremendous amount to communicate, and that they can often write even before they can read. If we encourage and delight in their ability, and use that as the starting point for our teaching, we will nourish them and help them to grow as writers. By building on strengths, providing meaningful opportunities to write, and actively teaching the skills that writers need, we guide children to experience success. Reading wonderful literature provides models for our children’s writing. Our children are encouraged to write throughout the day. They write in a variety of curricular areas, keeping reading journals and science logs, labeling block buildings, making shopping lists in the pretend area, writing notes to friends and teachers. They are also provided with the opportunity to develop their writing during a Writers Workshop.
During Writers Workshop, the children put their ideas on paper. For many children in kindergarten this means a lot of drawing. Children are encouraged to tell stories through their drawings. Gradually, drawings become labeled, and then more traditional forms of writing emerge. Children develop at different rates, in different ways, and their efforts are valued. Children choose their own topics most of the time, and they are encouraged to write about issues that are personally meaningful to them. At times the whole class studies a genre (such as nonfiction, poetry, mystery, or memoir), and the children learn how to write in that particular genre. Each grade has a “pacing calendar” in writing that outlines genres and topics to be studied as well as conventions to be taught.
From kindergarten through fifth grade, writers workshop occurs four to five times a week. It begins with a five to ten minute teacher led mini-lesson, succinct but explicit instruction intended to help move children forward in their writing. Subjects for mini-lessons might include topic choice; stretching out the important part; how writers know when they’re finished with a piece; finding a “seed idea” from writers notebook entries; strategies for making characters come alive; and conventions such as spelling, punctuation, or capitalization.
After the mini-lesson, children spend 30 to 40 minutes writing (which in the early grades includes drawing). They often have choices about writing materials. In grades two to five, they learn how to use writers notebooks as places for reflecting and developing ideas. These notebooks go between home and school, and in them children can write a variety of observations, experiences, memories, and ideas. Students are guided through a process of rereading and selecting themes that emerge in the notebooks and then turning these ideas into published pieces. We teach children about “Writing Territories,” topics that are productive to come back to many times throughout the year. Children have many opportunities to revise, edit, and publish their work. In all grades, children are encouraged to quietly discuss their work with each other, to share insights, and to give feedback. They learn to trust and respect each other, coming to see themselves not only as writers, but as writing teachers as well.
In kindergarten, children are initially encouraged to use “invented” or “temporary” spelling. They put down the sounds that they hear in words they don’t know how to spell. Early in kindergarten, this often means writing one or more consonants to stand for a word. Part of the theory behind supporting this approximation of written language comes from research on how children learn to talk, something that most do with great success. When a baby says, “ba” for bottle, parents delight in the accomplishment, never worrying that the child will grow up thinking that the correct word for bottle is “ba.” Researchers have found that children learn to write in a similar way. If we encourage them in their approximations, they feel good about their writing and want to take risks and use precise language. If they have to spell everything correctly, they will avoid words they cannot spell. Yet, learning to spell correctly is an integral part of the writing process. It is necessary because it makes what is written easier to read and understand, and also because a writer is often judged by his or her knowledge of conventional spelling. And so, in all grades, children are given strategies for finding the correct spelling of frequently used words. This happens during Writers Workshop and also in a separate spelling or word study time. As first grade progresses, children are expected to spell simple, frequently used words conventionally, even in first drafts.
Central to the writing process is the writing conference. While the class is engaged in writing, the teacher confers with individuals or small groups of students. Based on reading the child’s writing and/or talking to her or him, the teacher identifies a skill that needs to be taught and focuses on that in the conference. The content of the conference varies from child to child and changes over the course of the year.
As students grow older, expectations change. The state standards emphasize that form, style, content, and conventions are all essential aspects of writing instruction. Writers learn to revise their work to make it clearer and more interesting to read. Students are taught appropriate skills in grammar, punctuation, paragraphing, editing, and proofreading. From first to fifth grade, we end each writers workshop with a five-minute “re-read and edit” time. Especially as children move up through the grades, we emphasize the importance of correctly spelling high frequency words in notebooks and first drafts. The issue in a writing process classroom is not whether to teach these basic skills, but how to do so most effectively. Writing workshop is a rigorous, well-organized instructional time.
In a writing process classroom, children think of themselves as writers and write for an audience–their classroom community and beyond. Writing sessions end with whole class, partner, or small group share meetings. Children read or discuss their work while their peers listen, give feedback, and ask questions. The teacher often facilitates the sharing, modeling productive questions and responses. These share sessions are one of the ways in which children learn about qualities of good writing. Children publish and celebrate their writing in a variety of ways throughout the school year. Through our parent-supported poetry magazine, Pandamonium, our students have an opportunity to write for a wider audience and have the pleasure of seeing their work appear in a beautiful publication annually.
Writers Workshop is an exciting time in our school. The children are invested in their writing and work very hard. Most are enthusiastic about writing and discussing their pieces. They get ideas for writing from their home and school experiences, from teachers’ lessons, from books, and from other writers in our school community. Our “Meet the Writers” program brings published children’s book authors to P.S. 321, and these writers become mentors for students to emulate. Writers Workshop helps our children become reflective thinkers and problem solvers.
We invite you to participate in our writing community. Most important, be supportive of and enthusiastic about your child’s writing. Encourage your second to fifth grader to write in her/his writers notebook. If you have trouble reading the words of your younger child, ask the writer to read it to you. Keep writing supplies available at home for your child to use. Research has shown how important it is for your child to see you writing–shopping lists, letters, notes, etc. Since reading and writing are so closely related, reading aloud to your child will have a very positive impact on both reading and writing. Thank you for supporting our efforts to strengthen our community of writers.