Curriculum Connection

Home » Curriculum Connection
4 12, 2014

More Arts @ Ancona: The Fine Arts Program

By | December 4th, 2014|Curriculum Connection|1 Comment


We are always looking for ways to incorporate and integrate art into the student experience at Ancona.  Our art teachers, Angela Ford in the primary grades and Janet Musich in the Middle School, couldn’t agree more that art is an essential part of educating the whole child. This is apparent in their overview of the art program:

“Our art program develops visual literacy in our students and empowers them to be both creators and appreciators of visual art in all of its fluid and ever-changing manifestations. We accomplish this in a balanced and sequential program that is pedagogically consistent throughout all eight grades. Self-assessment and critical thinking skills are emphasized, and our instruction proceeds in an interrogative format with the active participation of students in discussion. Students are encouraged to bring their own objects, ideas, experiences and inspirations to share in class with teachers and students alike and to recognize that everyone brings expertise and knowledge to the table.”

Like other subjects at Ancona, art education is child-centered. By basing both their appreciation and their developing skills on their personal experiences of the world, and by using high quality tools and the best practices in the discipline of art, Ancona students engage as authentic artists in exploring and expressing the world around them.  They express their own ideas and imaginings in a wide variety of media and to authentic audiences whenever possible.


Artistic Experimentation

When the mind and the hand are both applied to an exploration of the world, things can be unpredictable, but it is often by experiencing the unexpected that children construct an understanding of their world. Finding the right color, creating the right line, and capturing the right contour to recreate the subtleties of a leaf, feather, or a butterfly wing — the “feel” of those natural surfaces–all require iterative attempts and fine adjustments. The Color Experimentation unit in 1st and 2nd grades allows students to try out many variations of pattern, contour, and color to create their own renditions of specimens they gather in their environment. As Angela says, “Autumn provides a nice backdrop for exploring nature’s treasures and transformations through observation and documentation. We notice the brilliant and unique color patterns on autumn leaves, the diaphanous nature of butterfly wings, the smooth skin of apples, the ribbed surface of pumpkins, the softness of feathers, and the intricate design of an osage orange. We discover ways to capture the characteristics of these objects through continued colored pencil experimentation.”

This year, Angela added a new component to the color experimentation unit and was very pleased with the results. After creating rubbings of leaves (more than one so that they could choose to work with a favorite or with a variety) and then coloring them in with pencils as in years past, students also tried using paints to capture the subtle hues they observed in the original leaves. The result was very satisfying, both because the paints blended beautifully to reproduce the transitions between colors and also because the tendency for the paints (watercolors) to overflow boundaries seemed to capture the authentic nature of fall leaves with their overlapping of color and contour in their natural environment.  It was felt liberating to the students who did not feel compelled to “color inside the lines.”


Art as Seeing

What does a marching band look like from above? What does my house look like on Google Earth? These kinds of inquiries get students thinking about the world from a bird’s-eye view and other unusual, seldom-experienced perspectives. Looking at things from unfamiliar perspectives not only expands our view of the world, but also prompts more abstract inquiries into our assumptions about it. Exploring objects this way can increase students’ understanding of the way they perceive and represent objects. In the two-dimensional composition unit, students “consider the phenomenon of the horizon line, the place where the sky meets the Earth. They think about the horizon line in different environments, such as a beach, downtown with tall buildings, in a neighborhood and at a park or playground. They explore the mechanics of vision and prove that people and objects diminish in size and clarity with distance.” But the experience of perspective goes beyond simple observation, as “Each child takes a turn on the playground running away from the group while the other students observe the runner decreasing in size the farther away s/he runs.” Making such real-world connections helps students grasp abstract concepts more securely.


The Science of Art

One of the goals of Ancona’s art program is to equip students with the tools, techniques and strategies artists use to manipulate the materials and media of artistic production. In the 7th/8th grade Linear Perspective unit, students explorate one and two-point perspective, which they study both as a historical development in art and a method for rendering space and geometrical objects. perspectiveJanet describes this middle school art unit as a confluence of these approaches: “Linear perspective was a major development in artistic and mathematical expression in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance in Europe. The representation of built environments and architectural drawing are heavily dependent on a firm grasp of this concept, and students are introduced to this mechanical drawing technique through the geometric solids. Lessons are built on the intuitive knowledge that things seem to get smaller when they are more distant. Drawings of multiple receding shapes are followed by patterned surfaces on polygons. Students also consider the use of linear perspective in compositions by Edward Hopper, Di Chirico, Da Vinci and others. Works of art are evaluated to yield information about whether lines of perspective are mechanical and incidental or deliberate and adding to the information or content of the work.”

Just as in the primary grades, it is the actual production of art juxtaposed with the historical and conceptual context that makes true understanding and effective skill-development possible. “As part of their exploration of linear perspective, students accomplish a drawing of a single building in a landscape in proper perspective. Many students go on to draw multiple buildings and points of view and add details such as streets, sidewalks and interior space. Weather and time permitting, the students go outside to observe and record visible perspective in the built environment.” Understanding single and two-point perspectives empowers students to enhance the realism of theirs drawings and to further their ability to interpret and appreciate other works of art. It also serves as a foundation for future artistic endeavors, such as the 3-D Construction Project, in which “students consider the relative stability of triangles and squares as a basis for construction. Beginning with a rectilinear shape for the base, students add layers constructed out of toothpicks and glue determining configurations that have the maximum stability as the structure progresses.” There are many potential applications of the geometric and mechanical understandings students construct in this project, such as in the design of earthquake-proof building in their 7th/8th grade science unit on seismology.


The Art of Science

During one of our fire drills this fall, some of our younger students happened upon a recently deceased yellow-bellied sapsucker. The bird was almost perfectly intact, with only the eyes eaten out by the first round of scavengers. The bright red nape and mottled black and white wings were brilliant in the autumn light, and Janet could not let this specimen go to waste, so she gathered it up gently and preserved the bird’s carcass in her collection in the freezer near the art room. This bird, like the other specimens she and Angela have collected over the years, children:hummingbirdwill serve our students (and teachers) to engage in close, careful observation of the world, helping them to understand through concepts like proportion, shape, coloring, and even weight (density) how the world and its creatures function. As Janet writes in one of her unit overviews, “The concept that form follows function is beautifully demonstrated in the anatomy of birds, providing an excellent introduction into the mechanics and aerodynamics of man-made flying machines.”

The relationship between form and function has been linked to a science unit on the invention of flight in years past to offer insights into how flight is accomplished, both by birds and by aeronautical engineers such as the Wright Brothers.bird drawing The study of science and social studies at Ancona involve the arts extensively, both in terms of technique, such as when students use scientific illustration to heighten their powers of observation, and in terms of appreciation and understanding, as when students examine the cultural artifacts of other peoples and periods of history to better grasp their values and their social and political institutions. This year,when 5th and 6th graders will be studying the Middle Ages, they will explore the roots of some of the cultural and economic forces that shaped European society by examining, well, a root vegetable with a very interesting history: the carrot. The introduction of the domesticated carrot from Afghanistan during the 15th Century is just one way–in this case, a very colorful one–to explore how an exchange of ideas and goods can transform societies. Stay tuned . . .



Arts Electives

7-8 mosaicAs one way to offer student choice at Ancona, 7th and 8th grade students are able to choose among three electives throughout the year. Each series of workshops, called Creative Expression Lab (CEL), runs for about 12 sessions, during which students can explore an area of the arts they find interesting. The workshops offerings usually include options mosaic2in the fine and performing arts, and occasionally in digital media; recent examples include mosaic tile design, Rhythm and Blues, Hip Hop Theater and A Capella Choir. Many of the electives allow students to produce or perform something for the school community. For example, the Mosaic Tile workshop completed a mosaic map of Spain last year and is busy creating a similar map of this year’s curricular focus in the Spanish program: Mexico, Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. These maps–four of them eventually–will adorn the hallway in the old building, contributing to the beauty of our school. Performances are also offered by workshop groups; some of these will be featured in our next Curriculum Connection on Performance and Process at Ancona.


20 11, 2014

My Classrooms – A Video Tutorial

By | November 20th, 2014|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

The Place to Go to be in the Know!

Director of Teaching and Learning Balazs Dibuz takes you on a guided tour of the My Classrooms web site.


My Classrooms 1 from Ancona School on Vimeo.

13 11, 2014

Support for Every Child

By | November 13th, 2014|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments


Counselor Tony Gleason creates opportunities for children to improve their cooperation and friendship skills. Here, 1st/2nd graders collaborate on designing an inclusive birthday invitation. To succeed, each child has to contribute.

One of the great insights of Montessori education is that while children may learn and develop in broadly predictable patterns, each child is an individual learner traveling on a path and at a pace that is uniquely her own. Our hands-on classrooms and many experiential activities offer learning opportunities to children at varying stages of development. As educators, we combine our observations of children and their work with our knowledge of common developmental patterns to understand how each child is learning and growing.

As they explore classroom activities, participate in small and large group instruction and receive individual guidance from teachers, most children progress through the typical pattern of development within a reasonable time frame. At any given moment, however, we recognize that a small number of children need additional support either to overcome a roadblock or to participate at a level consonant with that of their peers.invite 2


For these children, Ancona provides the Student Support Team (SST) consisting of two learning specialists (Jacki Bober and Kathy Yates) and a school counselor (Tony Gleason). Our learning specialists are specially trained teachers who evaluate and assist children with learning differences to develop successful strategies for learning. Our counselor works with classrooms and small groups of children to promote good friendships and a healthy school climate. He also assists children in overcoming social/emotional barriers to learning. Because learning and social/emotional problems can be related, the SST works together as a team to pool their expertise and ensure that each child receives the best consideration we can give.  Our team approach includes collaboration with outside professionals – occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, psychotherapists, tutors, etc. — whom parents enlist to address needs that we cannot meet in the school.

When a student is having difficulty learning a skill or mastering a concept, or if a child is demonstrating a social or emotional difficulty, Ancona teachers try varying methods, materials and explanations as they look for a successful strategy for that particular child to get the most out of school. When a child continues to struggle despite the alternatives the teacher has tried, the teacher will make a referral to the SST. Following observations, assessments and some initial work with a child, the SST will determine what, if any, services would be appropriate, and a member of the team will write a brief Student Support Plan to outline the services that will be implemented.

Short-Term Services

Short term services address a specific learning goal (i.e.understanding place value or improving a child’s relations with other students) and last for a stated period of time (i.e. 8 sessions of 30 minutes each). When the plan is complete, the SST makes one of three decisions:

  • The intervention was a success, and the child continues in the classroom program.
  • The student is making progress, and the intervention will be extended for another set period.
  • The student is not making progress, and further diagnostic information is needed.

Diagnostic Information

When neither classroom alternatives nor short-term intervention are successful and the student is still struggling, we need additional diagnostic information to determine whether learning differences are present and to know how best to support the child. We keep lists of recommended diagnosticians available for parents.

Identifying learning differences is usually a great boon to understanding the child and helping her. Some parents fear that obtaining and disclosing diagnostic information will result in negative “labeling” of their child, but nothing could be further from the truth. Obtaining high quality diagnostic information allows us to tailor our interventions to the child’s specific learning needs, to teach self-advocacy and to optimize her learning.

Long-Term Support

When a neuropsychological or other professional diagnostic evaluation outlines specific learning needs that can be addressed by our SST, we will put in place a long-term plan that includes ongoing support in and outside of the classroom, coordination with any outside providers and regular monitoring and review of the support plan. On occasion, learning needs are so complex that a one-to-one aide is required to assist the child in navigating the demands of the classroom. In these cases, the SST provides coordination and supervision for the aide provided by the parents..

Parent Partnership

Of course, we work in close partnership with all parents whose children are receiving student support services. Parents who wonder whether their children need student support services should begin by discussing their concerns with their classroom teacher or advisor.




30 10, 2014

Las Ofrendas de Ancona

By | October 30th, 2014|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

First:  A Field Experience

The World Language and Cultural Studies program at Ancona integrates language study with explorations of the rich Spanish-speaking cultures of the world in a four-year cycle: 1) Spain; 2) Mexico, Central-America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean; 3) South America; and 4) Latinos in the USA. As part of this year’s cultural focus on México, Ancona School student at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, ChicagoAmérica Central y el Caribe Hispanohablante, students of all ages got to spend a day in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago immersing themselves in authentic experiences.  They visited sites ranging from a supermercado and a panadería (bakery) to the National Museum of Mexican Art, where they viewed and learned about a variety of art traditions including the annual display of “ofrendas” in preparation for Día de los Muertos.

Ofrendas are objects displayed on “altares” (altars) that are traditionally composed of four “levels” representing air, water, earth and sky. They are used to honor, celebrate, commemorate, or reflect the personality of a deceased relative. Contemporary altars and their ofrendas can be much more creative and flexible.  Some ofrendas honor or focus on social justice or environmental issues, such as cruelty to animals or the struggles of various groups of underserved or oppressed peoples. This year at Ancona, students in grades 1 through 8 are engaged in ofrendas projects of their own, culminating in a display and activities this Friday.

In their letter home about the Ofrendas project, Spanish teachers Christina Kuszewski-Rouches and Christiane Westhelle describe Día de los Muertos as

A fusion of Spanish cultural traditions and an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, this festival is a time for friends and families to gather together and remember deceased loved ones. Traditions associated with this holiday include building altars decorated with marigold flowers, candles, papel picado (colored tissue paper), photos and calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls). Families typically visit the graves of the departed, bearing gifts and praying for their souls.

In most regions of Mexico, November 1st is a day to honor children and infants, and is known as both Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) and Día de los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”). November 2nd typically honors adults who have died, and is known as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (“Day of the Dead”). Although it occurs at roughly the same time as Halloween in the United States, the traditions are quite different; the Day of the Dead being a tradition that celebrates the lives of those who have died (rather than death itself).”

Ancona students at Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art viewing the ofrenda to Gabriel Garcia MarquezWhile at the Museum of Mexican Art, students viewed a number of altars but were especially enthralled by the one celebrating the life and work of Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who passed away this year in April. The elaborate altar was constructed in the shape of a book–which immediately appealed to our bibliophile students, of course–and displayed ofrendas honoring and commemorating the famous author. Staff at the museum explained the significance of various items on the altar, the types of materials used, and how the artist honored this important figure through the display.


Second:  Making Our Own Ofrendas

Back at Ancona, our students were invited to choose from a list of possible topics or someone or something with personal significance as the subject of their own ofrendas. Each grade level approached making ofrendas in a developmentally appropriate way.  Kindergarten students discussed an altar dedicated to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in their Spanish classroom.  Each 1st/2nd grade class is displaying its ofrendas in one large group altar for each classroom in the main hallway.   3rd/4th graders are constructing their altars out of boxes, which they decorate and fill or cover with ofrendas.  5th and 6th graders created mini retablos—another form of remembrance through visual display—with Janet Musich in Art class; and 7th and 8th graders are working in groups to construct larger altars—using desks, tables, large boxes, and other materials. The boxes and larger altars will be displayed in Room 104.

Third:  Display, Present and Reflect

Parents, you are welcome to take a look at all the ofrendas tomorrow, Friday, Oct 31, from 11:30 to 1:30, and, while here, you are invited to honor anyone that has passed away by writing a few words about him/her (or about an issue that is of concern to you, i.e., homelessness, violence in our communities, etc.) on our “Community Ofrenda.”

Ofrenda plans by students at the progressive Ancona School in Chicago

Planning and design are essential parts in the process of constructing an altar.

The work of planning, researching/reflecting on, constructing, and decorating the altars has offered students a whole range of design challenges and technical problems to solve. “How do we attach this heavy piece to our box?” “What colors go well with the marigolds we made?” “How can I best express how sad these animals are when they are locked up in cages?” are just some of the questions students posed to themselves and each other as they created their altars. And students used everything from glue and paper to legos and potting soil, but especially their imaginations, to realize the ideas and feelings they were hoping to express.

Fourth:  Special Guest Artist

When the projects are finished, the learning will continue, as students display their work and tell parents and peers about the person or issue they are honoring and the process for creating their altars. We are very fortunate that  Señora Rita Arias Jirasek, the artist who made the ofrenda in honor of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, will speak about her own ofrenda as well as the diversity of honorings practiced in Mexico when she visits the school on Friday.

The Ofrendas Project is a wonderful example not only of how Mexican and other Spanish-speaking cultures are explored in-depth in our World Languages program, but how project-based learning allows students to develop a deeper understanding of cultural and social justice issues. By engaging their heads, hearts, and hands in the creation of a visual display based on research and thoughtful reflection on an issue or a person they find interesting or meaningful, students stretch themselves to both understand the topic and to express their own feelings about it while learning about a rich cultural tradition.

3rd and 4th graders constructing their altars.

Señora Christiane and 4th grade students discussing how to include an explicación on their ofrenda displays:

23 10, 2014

Beds, Boxes, Beads, and Buses: Tools for the Young Mathematician

By | October 23rd, 2014|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

This week’s Curriculum Connection is a video in which Director of Teaching and Learning Balazs Dibuz shares some of the tools and activities our preprimary students use to develop early number sense.


The units of study described in this video were developed by the Math in the City Program, City Colleges of New York.

15 10, 2014

Introducing . . . The Arts @ Ancona

By | October 15th, 2014|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

quiltsAncona has a three-dimensional commitment to arts education: we provide a strong academic foundation by developing visual and musical literacy, equipping students with the skills to produce and appreciate art as well as to apply in other disciplines; we support students in finding the power in their own voices, expressing their ideas and feelings through a variety of modalities and media; and, finally, we enable students to nourish their inner lives by providing multiple entry points into the realm of personal expression and cultural exchange. Because of this commitment, the visual and performing arts are integral and integrated parts of the Ancona experience for every child.

Students engaging in art in our Montessori PrePrimary early education programChildren begin to engage in art as an essential component of our Montessori program. The classroom art area offers children opportunities for exploring and experimenting with a variety of media. As in other areas of the classroom, children are free to choose to work in the art area on projects of their own imagining. Such open-ended art activities provide young children with means for exploring and expressing their creativity. At the same time, teachers introduce a progression of art exercises that help the child to develop the fine motor skills (coloring, cutting, gluing, painting, drawing, weaving and tracing) that empower the child to create art independently. This year, Angela Ford, our Primary School art teacher, is spending three hours every morning in the preprimary classrooms to enhance the children’s experience with materials in the art area. The prepared environment is always full of seasonal natural materials and the staples of any art studio–paints, pencils, paper, and more.

Primary students at the Ancona School playing recorderOur preprimary children also begin to learn about music from the very youngest age. They explore rhythm, tone, melody, and other fundamentals of musical structure through fun, movement-based activities, and they even get to sing for an audience together in our school assemblies. One of the challenges for our 1st and 2nd graders comes when they begin playing recorders and have to practice every day. It soon becomes apparent (to both students and their parents) that while practice may not make perfect, it teaches children patience and perseverance–allowing them to become competent players of the pipes in no time at all. When primary students perform as a group, they experience the power of playing in unison and harmony, and they soon set their sights on the more complex ensembles they will join in their middle school years.

Because Ancona is committed to helping students develop their own voices and to exploring areas that inspire or interest them, we are now offering a broader range of music education in the Middle School. Every 5th and 6th grade student learns both a band instrument with Mr. Baldwin and keyboards, with some vocal work, with Elizabeth Hamlett. After these two years of exposure to a variety of instruments and modalities, students choose to continue their musical careers in Advanced Band or Integrated Performing Arts in 7th and 8th grades. Band is a place for our students to rise to the next level of practice and performance on the musical instrument of their choice, while IPA allows students to engage in a variety of performing arts, including singing, dancing, acting or even playing accompaniment on an instrument when appropriate. This new class is being developed this year by a team of Ancona teachers–Elizabeth Hamlett, Rebecca Kotler, Allen Makere, and Kristy Mosbey, who our students know from her work the after school program.

The addition of this new dimension to the middle school music program means that students can better find a point of entry into the performing arts–potentially expanding their repertoire of self-expression and certainly their appreciation for the arts. Many of our student singers and musicians will be sharing what they have learned at upcoming assemblies, and the Band, Keyboard/Choral, and Performing Arts programs will have quite a lot to showcase at the Winter Concert, and will have opportunities to perform to wider audiences at local venues, such as nursing homes, local theaters, and other schools as well.

The Integrated Performing Arts class rehearsing for their first show–at the Halloween assembly.



Art Connections:

Arts are integrated into the general curriculum at the Ancona School in ChicagoThroughout the school year, there are many interdisciplinary units of study that incorporate the arts into other subjects, such as science, social studies, and even math. Whether the arts are included explicitly, as in the quilting for Colonial Day, the study of the Dust Bowl through folk songs, or the practice of scientific illustration, or implicitly, as in the attention to the aesthetic dimension of project displays or the performance skills involved in presenting to an audience, visual and musical literacy are often leveraged to enhance students understanding, skills, and experience. We will explore some of these in Curriculum Connections to come!

To see what students are learning in all our arts programming at Ancona, as well as how these connect with other areas of study, please visit our Landscape of Learning where you can look up Music and Art for every level.

2 10, 2014

Constructing Knowledge: Learning to Spell

By | October 2nd, 2014|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

One year, a Room 102 Kindergartener named Bessie wrote these observations about the newly hatched chicks in her classroom:



Translation: The chicks ran and the chicks went on the edge of the box and the chicks sleep.


She wrote in the language we call Invented Spelling.

The words invented spelling sound as if children are simply making up their spelling from their imaginations, but nothing could be further from the truth. From birth, children are amazing scientists, working to make sense of and produce the language(s) they hear and see all around them. Without ever hearing the words subject and verb, they somehow learn the structure of sentences within a couple of years.

Similarly, young children bring to bear everything they are learning about letters, words and print when they write in invented spelling. If you look closely, you can see that Bessie already knows how to spell some simple words (ran, the and box), and she has a good idea of the consonants and some vowels of more challenging words like chick and sleep. She can hear the sounds in edge and of, but she isn’t familiar with their irregular spellings.

IMG_1801Ancona’s pedagogy is based in the idea of constructivism, a theory of knowledge that says we all learn by making meaning (knowledge) through our interactions with the environment. Bessie’s environment included adults who read to her, many opportunities to write notes and stories, the sound and letter works in her Montessori classroom, picture books she would read to herself and print on signs, labels and products all around her. From those experiences and others, she was constructing her understanding of the system of English orthography. She invented it. As she reads more and writes more, not only will her writing become more complex, but her knowledge of spelling conventions will grow and develop.

This, by the way, is hard thinking work for a young writer, and we look at her sentence above as an achievement worth celebrating, regardless of what may appear to be conventionally “right” or “wrong.” Decades of research have taught us that children’s spelling develops in predictable stages, so it doesn’t make much sense to tell Bessie that her spelling is “wrong” or to make her write out corrections that bear no relation to her current level of understanding. And if we insist that children spell correctly, we run the risk of curbing their creativity and dampening their enthusiasm for expressing complex ideas in writing. They may decide to write only what they can spell, and you can’t say much with the, ran and box. What we can do is determine Bessie’s level of understanding and give her word study work that supports her development.IMG_1800

We often talk about whether curriculum is developmentally appropriate or whether a particular child is ready for a given activity or kind of instruction. The great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky identified the zone of proximal development as the sweet spot where a child has just the right amount of challenge to promote learning. She is able to learn the next new thing, because s/he has already learned the foundation to which that new learning will be added. When a child reads at her just right level, s/he is reading in the zone of proximal development.

To return to Bessie, it wouldn’t make much sense to give her a spelling list where she had to write ran, the and box ten times each, because she already knows those words (boring). And it doesn’t make much sense to ask her memorize the spelling of words like incubator or embryo, because she is not ready for them — they are outside of her zone of proximal development (frustrating). What makes sense is giving her word study work with words like chick and sleep, because she’s already using them, but not yet correctly or completely. She’s ready to learn more about the sound-symbol relationships in these and similar words.image20

Ancona teachers analyze children’s invented spelling in just this way to assess what children do and do not yet know about words. And in the primary grades, teachers use additional spelling inventories to determine what stage of spelling instruction is right for each child.

Ancona learning is active learning, learning that engages the body and the mind. The Montessori classroom has many opportunities for word study at a child’s just right level. Preprimary children build their knowledge of words with lots of hands-on sound and letter matching activities of increasing complexity and by building words with the moveable alphabet.

In the 1st through 4th grades, Ancona teachers use Words Their Way (WTW), a research-based word study program that furthers children’s natural spelling development, increases their growing cache of recognizable words and deepens their understandings of our language. WTW is very different from spelling programs that rely on memorization, drill, rules and testing, because it requires that the child analyze, think about and make sense of the work.

At the beginning of each year, and then again during the year, teachers assess each child’s level of spelling development. Children then work with specific sets of words targeted at their level. Children play games and manipulate sets of words, looking for patterns, discriminating amongst words that are similar or different, discovering commonalities and learning to generalize and articulate consistencies within our language. Along with lots of regular reading and writing, this moves them from one stage of spelling to the next.

When Ancona teachers look at children’s writing, they do not think about whether it is  good or bad, or right or wrong, they think about what it tells us about the child’s knowledge and the developmentally appropriate level of instruction. Try it!



17 09, 2014

Life-long Learning: The Summer Professional Development Experiences of Ancona Teachers

By | September 17th, 2014|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

Ancona teachers are life-long learners. Some of their learning experiences are scheduled, planned, and even involve homework, while some are casual, creative, and even unexpected. Just like their students, Ancona teachers take classes, go to camp, read books, and explore their world over the summer break, giving them a myriad new ideas and skills to share in their classrooms when we begin school in the fall. This summer was no exception; Ancona teachers traveled far and wide to engage in a variety of professional development opportunities.

As recipients of this year’s Reepmeyer professional development grant, our Maestras de Espanol, Christiane Westhelle and Christina Kuszewski Rouches, traveled together to Cuba, where they researched health and educational policy and learned about the rich Cuban culture and the impact of the U.S. embargo on Cuban life. They also met with Cuban academics, students, political leaders, soccubaial activists, and representatives from the U.S. Interest Section, toured public schools, medical centers, NGOs, religious centers, and even the homes of Cuban citizens. Visiting artists workshops, enjoying live jazz, theater and dance performances, and tasting typical Cuban cuisine in privately-owned restaurants made the trip as fun as it was educational. Our Spanish teachers are certain that this experience will re-energize their teaching about the Spanish-speaking Caribbean this year.


Senora Christiane extended her travels in Latin America this summer to visit Guatemala, where, she says, the native people and their Maya culture enriched her spirit in a way no other country has. While there, she reconnected to “Caminos Seguros/Safe Passage,” an organization that works with the children of at-risk families that live and work around the big garbage dump in the capital. Their work tries to bring hope, education and opportunities to these children living in extreme poverty. Christiane visited this garbage dump area and school and would like to connect Ancona students to the students there and establish a relationship between them, to learn from each other and to further develop a sense of empathy towards people and places suffering from “life in the dumps.”

In a very different part of the world, librarian Marsha Stewart and 3rd/4th grade teacher Janet Gray-McKennis were engaged in some very different modes of learning. According to Marsha, Constructing Modern Knowledge is “the ultimate hands-on maker incubator.” Educators from all disciplines get together in New Hampshire each summer to make, play and be true learners. At the institute, participants brainstorm together about projects they are interested in pursuing. They form teams and affinity groups and then “go to play.” Planning, collaborating, failing, and troubleshooting, they pool their knowledge and eventually triumph, because they learn a ton, and have so… much… FUN. The end result this year was an extravaganza of presentations from wearable art and robotics to an interactive tree house and sound garden.


Watch a video of Janet working with her team at CMK.

Marsha was joined by our 7th/8th grade math & science teacher, Katrina Pommerening, in Boston for the Building Learning Communities, the “ultimate learn tank.” At BLC, learners from all disciplines get together to share, connect, and collaborate with an incredibly diverse group of educators discussing all things related to the children in our worlds: how to connect them globally, how to help them to be heard, how to support their passions, how to inspire them to move from consuming to creating, how to expose them to and protect them from the world, and, perhaps most of all, how to help them prepare for an inconceivable future. Like CMK, according to Marsha, this conference has mind-blowing keynote speakers.

John Zurbrigg (1st/2nd grade teacher) enrolled in a Responsive Classroom Workshop this summer  and learned many strategies for helping children to learn in the content areas and build community relations for better curricular involvement. As a result of his learning at the workshop, John plans to use RC strategies for building classroom relationships and establishing routines as as well as making school a fun place to be by providing active breaks (Energizers) and game-like activities at the Morning Meeting and the Closing Circle at the day’s end. Based on the experiences of John and two other teachers at Ancona, we invited Responsive Classroom to present a one-day workshop to the entire faculty during planning days this year and benefitted both from the practical pedagogical strategies and the camaraderie of all learning and preparing for the school year together.

Every summer Ancona sends at least three or four teachers to Teachers College (at Columbia University) for institutes in Reading and Writing Workshops (see last week’s Curriculum Connection for more on how we use these workshops in the language arts program at Ancona). At TC, as we affectionaltely call it, Bill Singerman, who is our 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher, took courses on deepening students’ skills in writing about their reading and on the use of mentor texts in the classroom. He reports that he was able to connect with teachers from around the world and compare and contrast our schools’ curricula with what they are doing. Elizabeth Bruner, who teaches 5th and 6th grade reading an writing, attended a session on raising the level of instruction in book clubs, which she says was extremely relevant in helping her consider the teaching moves that will leverage more progress for her students. She also learned about using technology tools in reading instruction and focused a lot on digital and alternative texts.

Our middle school art teacher, Janet Musich, also traveled to Boston this summer, where she attended the week-long Future of Learning Institute (at the Harvard Graduate School of Education), which invites educators to explore three core developments that are shaping the nature of learning in today’s and tomorrow’s societies: globalization, the digital revolution, and our growing understanding of the mind/brain. Janet had ample opportunity to reflect about the ways in which these changes call on us to rethink the nature of learning, adapt our educational practices, or reconsider our roles as professionals working in education. She also recognized that what we do at Ancona is “light years ahead of what is happening in the average school in this country.” Perhaps this is because Ancona teachers are engaged in professional development and are always renewing their practice as educators, whether that be through conferences and workshops or simply by keeping their eyes and minds open as they travel through, explore, and interact with their worlds each summer.

11 09, 2014

Reading Workshop – A Research-Based Approach

By | September 11th, 2014|Curriculum Connection, Learning to Read|1 Comment

by Bonnie L. Wishne, Head of School

cms_file_28945617_medAs we ease back into school every September, Ancona’s language arts teachers are laying the foundation for a year of minds-on reading by launching the Reading Workshop. The product of over twenty-five years of literacy research, the Reading Workshop (like its twin, the Writing Workshop) is a robust classroom architecture that develops engaged, thoughtful readers who are ready for high-performance learning.

The single factor most strongly associated with reading achievement–more than socioeconomic status or any instructional approach–is independent reading, according to Stephen Krashen, linguist and educational researcher. (The Power of Reading)

Independent Reading

To cultivate the habit of independent reading, Reading Workshops give our students important reading time during their school day. Teachers begin the workshop with a brief and carefully crafted mini-lesson, one idea for the children to learn to use as they read. Teachers capture the important points of the mini-lesson on the anchor charts one sees hanging in the classrooms to remind children of the good reading habits we want them to practice.  IMG_0574

Then, each child finds a comfortable spot for reading his/her book, and while the children read, the teacher moves about the class, conferring with individual students to assess their comprehension and application of the lesson and to offer guidance and reading strategies. S/he gains valuable insight into each child’s tastes, perspectives and ways of knowing that helps her to guide their reading and tailor her mini-lessons.


Reading is Communal


Studies show that children read more when they see other people reading, says Kashen. In the classroom workshop, Ancona students not only see others read, they learn to converse about their reading with partners, and, beginning in 3rd/4th grades, in small book clubs. Ancona students are fortunate to have teachers who are great readers, and researchers have long known that children who love to read come from homes where adults are readers. Partnering with parents, we make thinking and talking about books a habit.


Mini-lessons teach the myriad habits of good readers. They apply to readers at varying levels of proficiency, including those who are reading mostly pictures. Young readers might learn about the parts of a non-fiction book or how to figure out words they don’t know while later readers may discuss character, setting, inference, figurative language or the characteristics of a particular genre. Some mini-lessons give ideas for how to talk about our book or be a good listener for our partner. Above all, they teach that good readers think about and interpret the meaning of the text.

Just Right Choices

photoVarious studies have shown that allowing students to choose their own texts fosters engagement and increases reading motivation and interest and that to progress in their reading, children need to choose and read lots of books at their just right level; in other words, books where they know 95-99% of the words. Every classroom (and the school library) has many books at every level so that each child has many books from which to choose. By reading many books at a comfortable level, children will enjoy reading, develop reading stamina and progress to more challenging texts.

Units of Study

To ensure a rich and varied diet of reading experiences for our students,  teachers at every level follow a curriculum of study units in Readers Workshop.  Study units may focus on a genre — biography, non-fiction or poetry –or they may focus on an aspect of being a great reader — Building a Reading Life or Close Reading and Interpretation.  Some units of study are integrated with social studies or science units — Narrative Non-Fiction of Colonial America or Mythical Creatures: Fact or Fiction?  Parents can find descriptions of the current year’s units on their classroom websites.

Assessing Reading

Working together with our Learning Specialists, our teachers assess each student’s reading in September to determine the child’s just right level. Assessments take word knowledge, word recognition strategies and comprehension into account in setting the correct level. Children will bring home books to read; parents can look for books of similar difficulty outside of school. Teachers will let parents know their child’s just right level when they come for conferences. Regular conferencing with children provides teachers with ongoing monitoring of each child’s progress, and they assess again periodically during the school year to track each child’s reading progress.

Reading Support

What if a child isn’t yet reading at an appropriate level or isn’t making the progress we would expect? Our learning specialists are available to further diagnose children experiencing difficulty and to provide specialized, supplementary instruction for children they identify as needing additional support. The learning specialist will notify the parents of children she is assisting.

Read Alouds

Read alouds are an important complement to the Reading Workshop. Using a carefully chosen text, the teacher models the internal thinking of a good reader as s/he reads a story to the class. Each read aloud has a teaching point–making predictions, for example–that the children can then apply in their own reading. Read alouds teach children to think about their own thinking as they read.

Balanced Literacy

The Reading Workshop is only one component of Ancona’s balanced literacy program. Word study, Writing Workshop, listening to read-alouds, conversing about reading and reading and writing for content all contribute to each student’s growing literacy.

Through the Reading Workshop, each child authors his/her own dynamic reading life.

Passionate Teachers

Teaching great Reading Workshops is an art and a skill that develops over years, and we are fortunate to have passionate teachers who make reflection and refinement part of their daily practice.. We’ve been sending our language arts teachers to New York City for summer workshops at Teachers College at Columbia University for over ten years. All of our teachers of reading have been to at least one training, and most have been back many times for advanced work, to renew relationships and to learn the latest research and practices.



4 09, 2014

Making Learning Visible: My Classrooms

By | September 4th, 2014|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

There exists a wonderful new window into your child’s world at Ancona. Actually, it is many windows: My Classrooms is a password-protected section of Ancona’s new web site where teachers can communicate with parents and students in a dynamic way about the many facets of learning going on at school (on field trips and at camp, too!). The site allows you to see into all the classrooms that are part of your child’s learning experience at Ancona in a clear and convenient format. It also offers extra pages for sharing information about the curriculum, advisory activities, and special programming. The visit to My Classrooms is customized for you and your child to make it as useful as possible.

My Classrooms allows you to stay abreast of what’s happening and what’s coming up. Your landing page in the site pulls together information from all your child’s classes and includes a calendar that integrates all relevant events. For middle school students this means that they will see all their homework assignments listed in one place and can even submit their homework online (when that protocol has been established). When you visit the site, you can sign up to receive various kinds of notifications from your child’s teachers.

Many of the features of the web pages will be familiar from previous year. For example, you will be able to see pictures and videos of special projects and events or of the day-to-day work you child is engaged in. The library page will have many of the same resources that you found on teh library portal of the past. Some features are new and improved. Every main classroom page, for example, will have links to the family directory where you can not only see your child’s classmates, but where you can conveniently contact their parents as well. Teachers will have the option of creating sub-pages in their subject areas, allowing them to customize the experience for their classes while still maintaining a consistent experience overall.

The site also offers a new feature: a bird’s eye view of the curriculum. The Landscape of Learning page displays a curriculum map that lays out the units of study at each level and in every subject area. The unit overviews describe investigations of interrelated concepts, as well as the skills and strategies students develop as a result of these investigations. Units vary in length and complexity depending on a number of factors, including developmental level, subject, and topic. They are like maps of the various learning landscapes that student traverse throughout the year. Units are listed choronologically but without specific dates, as their duration is often influenced by student interest and side-trips that present themselves along the way. When there are interdisciplinary connections between subject areas, these are linked between the unit overviews.

These same unit overviews can be linked to or posted by teachers on their classroom pages, sharing with you the current unit your child is studying. Teachers will be regularly sharing this information, as well as explanations of the curriculum and programming, like Math Investigations or I-Math projects, online resources, and even suggestions for exploring topics further at home. When it is time for History Fair or Civil Rights play preparation, or other long-term projects, the calendar feature will be invaluable in keeping students organized and up to date. Students will also learn over time how to save, organize, and relfect on their work with a powerful e-portfolio feature offered by the site. This format for saving work can also facilitate student-teacher dialogue about growth and goals.

The goal of the My Classrooms web pages is to make learning visible to everyone involved: teachers, parents, and students. The site allows us to articulate the curriculum, to coordinate our work with colleagues and students, and to communicate effectively, making life easier and learning more dynamic at Ancona. You can visit My Classrooms right now to explore, and you can always find it linked on the Ancona School web site under the “My Ancona” tab.