Despite the fact that Seedlings takes place the week or even DAY after school gets out for the summer, teachers often leave the workshop saying that they wished school was starting the next week. They are eager to put plans into action and try out some of the new ideas they developed. Erin Berthold is one of those teachers who felt the need to immediately get things in motion. Because students would not return for many more weeks, she started with the classroom library. She created her own account on Libib, the website Seedlings uses for cataloguing our book list, and entered all her books so that she could tag them and connect them to her curriculum more efficiently. While this was one small act, Erin says that cataloguing and tagging her books has changed her teaching.

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All one needs to do is spend one hour in Erin’s 1st grade classroom at Cook Hill School in Wallingford to see many other ways in which Seedlings has impacted her teaching.

Developing Curriculum

During my visit to her classroom, Erin worked with two small groups on an activity that connected math, literacy, art, and engineering. In preparation for honoring Dr. Seuss’ 113th birthday for Read Across America Day, Erin invited the students to use pattern blocks to make Dr. Seuss related art. Both groups began with a discussion about their favorite Dr. Seuss books and characters and were given an opportunity to look through a selection of his books. Next, Erin introduced a simulation that drew the students into the learning and increased their enthusiasm. One group was asked to imagine that they were illustrators for Dr. Seuss and had been asked to create a new character. As they worked with their pattern blocks to create elaborate characters, the children talked about the things their character was doing (i.e. juggling) and the kind of personality their character would have. One could imagine the students wanting to write their own Dr. Seuss stories inspired by this math work, and a whole writing unit emerging from there.

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The other group was asked to imagine they were artists hired to create a mosaic floor for the Dr. Seuss museum. After viewing pictures of mosaics that Erin had curated, they were told that as a group, they needed to select the book they wanted to represent in their mosaic, decide in what way they would represent it, negotiate sharing materials and space, and figure out who would do what. I was struck by the joy and competence the children exhibited in collaborating: When problems arose, they spoke to each other with patience and respect, listened to what others had to say, and found a way forward.

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In the coming days, both groups will extend their work mathematically by tallying the number of pieces and the kinds of shapes they used.

This short visit was a good illustration of some of the primary ways in which Erin says that Seedlings impacted her approach to developing curriculum. Since her week at Seedlings, Erin says that her curriculum has become both more “playful” and “real.” In presenting this Dr. Seuss activity as a simulation in which the children were pretending to try on the work of real artists, Erin drew upon children’s imaginations and their desire to participate in the real work of the adult world. The effect of this playful approach with an authentic purpose was that the students were motivated to do careful, thoughtful work. They were focused throughout and clearly had fun in the process.

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Role of the Teacher

Erin also shared with me that after her Seedlings experience, she has come to think of her role as a teacher to “facilitate rather than tell.” It was notable that during her mini-lessons with her students, Erin did more asking than directing or telling. In viewing the slides of the mosaics, for example, she began by asking the students, “What do you see?”, accepted their responses, and facilitated a conversation about how different viewers may not all see the same thing when they interact with art. When introducing the collaboration piece of the project, Erin asked, “How are you going to work together to choose a book? To decide what to make?”, rather than telling the students the steps they would need to take to work together. This understanding of the teacher as informed facilitator rather than the keeper of information is at the heart of the Seedlings workshop.

 

Community Resources

One of the ways in which a teacher can serve as a facilitator is by connecting with local resources to enrich children’s learning. Having experienced the power of going out into the community and being exposed to experts in the field through Seedlings, Erin wanted her students to have access to these valuable experiences, too. As is the case in so many schools, however, Erin does not have the resources necessary to take multiple field trips per year. She has worked hard to find a way around this obstacle. One solution she has developed is to do “virtual field trips” with her students. If she can’t get her students out for multiple field trips, she aims to bring the resource in to the classroom virtually. In the Dr. Seuss activity, for example, she would have loved to be able to take her students to Storm King Art Center, especially for one of the groups she would be working with in subsequent days, who would be challenged to make a 3-dimensional sculpture. Since that is not a possibility, she will be using a book of photos taken during her many trips there.

Additionally, after learning about Long Wharf Theater’s ED LAB, Erin reached out to establish a connection with the program. An educator from ED LAB’s Partnering Artist in Residence (PAIR) program has since visited her classroom several times to engage students in fun, drama-based activities that connect with the curriculum. On one visit, the educator taught students a game called “Zip, Zap, Zop,” in which children read nonsense phrases using different expressions based on punctuation. During another visit, students worked on reading poems with expression. Erin then filmed them reading the poem in front of a green screen.

 

Integration and STEAM work

It doesn’t require an expert’s eye to see how Erin’s Dr. Seuss activity drew upon connections across the disciplines from art to math to literacy to engineering. Using an integrated approach to teaching and learning made sense to Erin, and after Seedlings, she was especially eager to fit more STEAM-based work into her curriculum. Shifting from a traditional curriculum to one that is more project-based and integrated takes time and practice, but Erin found one simple step she could take toward including more STEAM by adding a “Construction Zone” to her math centers. It’s like her own mini version of a Tinkerlab. In this center, children are offered various STEAM-related materials to explore and engineer with during their math block. While Erin worked with some of her students in small groups on the day I visited, others enjoyed building rockets and robots in the Construction Zone.

 

Collaboration

All of the ways in which Seedlings has shaped Erin’s school year are a strong testament to her hard work and dedication, but we all know how much easier it is to enact change when we are doing it alongside others with a common goal. This was yet another of Erin’s take-aways from Seedlings. She and her Cook Hill School colleague who also attended the summer workshop, Brittany OConnell, knew they wanted to continue their collaboration and thinking through the school year. The question was how they were going to be able to do that – they teach different grades. Using their common passion for math as a foundation, they decided that one step they could take would be to start a morning math club at their school. The Crazy 8’s Club, as it’s called, is a product of Bedtime Math. Erin and her colleague run the club on Friday mornings. While only sixteen children are able to participate at a time, over seventy Cook Hill students were interested, so they have had to add another group!

 

Many thanks to Erin for sharing her work with us – we hope that getting a glimpse into her classroom nourishes your teacher soul just a bit and inspires you to continue doing the wonderful work you are doing. In the interest of sharing any sort of information that can positively impact our teaching, we leave you with a few extra tidbits from Erin:

  • Erin has been able to build in some cushion time to help alleviate some of the pressure around getting it all in by creating “Free Choice Friday,” when students may be engaged in a range of activities.
  • During the math block, some students were using a website on their iPads called Zearn – you may want to check it out and see if it would be appropriate for your students.
  • Children were documenting their thinking and work on an app called SeeSaw. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s essentially a digital portfolio for student work, but it also enables the teacher to check in on students who are working independently while the teacher is leading a small group lesson.
  • To support student independence, Erin makes use of an app called Aurasma: Students can scan a card with a word problem on it using their iPads and hear Erin reading the card aloud.
  • Two of Erin’s favorite materials for the Construction Zone are: IO Blocks and Interlox. Do you have any favorites of your own? Share them in the comments section.