Supporting Enduring and Effective Learning in the Lower School
Barbara Shea, Lower School Principal 

All lower school teachers began the year developing routines in the classroom and creating interesting and engaging lessons and activities for their students. At the same time, the teachers are focused not only on their teaching strategies, but more important, on the learning that happens in their classrooms. How do students engage in their lessons and what are they absorbing? How do teachers assess that learning? These are questions that are addressed throughout the year. Teachers define and provide the skills for learning across the subject areas; they check that their students understand; they give them support as well as opportunities to demonstrate their learning; and they instill in them the importance of using those skills independently. The teachers engage the students in conversations to reflect on that learning, and ultimately the students hone their skills in preparation for the next level of learning.

At the end of this month, lower school teachers will be conferencing with families to share their students’ progress over the first trimester, the culmination of a process that began on September 8.  The teachers carefully evaluate the individual student data they have collected and reflect on the observations they have made over the twelve-week period. This information is then carefully considered in light of the specific skills and work habits outlined in the progress reports.

In the week prior to the opening of school, teachers met with their students’ previous teachers to ascertain each child’s learning profile. Assessments from the spring were shared, as well as anecdotes regarding the child’s learning style. In the first month, teachers and learning specialists were gauging the skill levels of all students, determining the amount of growth in reading and math that may have happened over the summer.  Informal and formal assessments were done in word study, reading comprehension, and math. Once these were completed, teachers and learning specialists ascertained how best to address the needs of each student. The conversations between the teacher, principal, learning specialist, and director of student support services began. On a regular basis, this team meets to monitor how the students are progressing or whether further resources should be made available to them. We also discuss when a student no longer needs the extra support and can be fully supported within the classroom.

Students develop at different rates, and in the Lower School, that rate varies tremendously. At the kindergarten level, students demonstrate a broad continuum of learning; but over the years, as their skills develop, that spectrum narrows. Teachers provide greater individualized attention to address the differing needs of the early readers and writers. Kindergartners are also developing their organizational skills and learning to be active listeners. Between the pre-kindergarten and fourth-grade years, there is a natural progression that leads to greater expectations for group work and whole-class lessons, as well as more highly developed executive function skills and an increase in pace and scope of learning.

Teachers are also very conscious to balance the educational needs of the individual child with the goals for the class. At the end of the year, students are expected to have reached specific benchmarks for each grade level. These benchmarks are clearly defined in the students’ reports. In order to keep the students challenged and moving forward, teachers are constantly teaching and assessing to determine the pace of the lessons, the re-teaching that must be done, and the extensions that can be incorporated. Assessments are critical teacher tools for moving the lessons from one concept to the next, from one skill to the next.

All students inherently want to be successful. I have never known a lower school student who did not want to learn, but a variety of challenges can get in the way of their success. Some students are not developmentally ready to absorb a concept at the same time as others, and teachers understand this. Their lessons spiral so that any one particular skill or concept will be covered/reviewed at a later point in time when some students are better prepared to grasp the lesson.

Throughout the year, the teachers assess the students’ reading comprehension levels using the Fountas and Pinnell assessment tools. All lower school teachers use this same evaluative tool so as to have a consistent method with which to monitor student progress. Students in Kindergarten through Grade 2 also have a regular phonics-based assessment, making sure that students are building on their foundational skills. Later in the year, students in Grades 2-4 participate in a writing assessment. The students are given a topic and asked to write within a limited period of time. Those writings are then collected to determine the level of writing skills that are demonstrated and to define our instructional goals.  On a regular basis, individual growth in math is assessed through both formal and informal methods. As these practices are used, teachers are also assessing student growth in executive functions, a key determinant in academic growth, as well as social skills. Teachers share this information with families during Lower School Conference Day, but on an informal basis, teachers are always ready and willing to discuss your child’s progress. My hope is that the conversations with your child’s teacher will further support the necessary relationship that paves the way for your child’s success this year.