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11 10, 2017

Why We Camp

By |2018-12-17T11:32:12-06:00October 11th, 2017|Curriculum Connection, Experiential Learning|0 Comments

By Janet Gray-McKennis, 3rd and 4th Grade Head Teacher

There are many reasons we take our third and fourth graders to Camp Edwards. Each of the four trips they experience is different from the others, and they have different objectives. The academic focus this fall has included immersing ourselves in a year-long study of ecosystems, and we will soon launch our social studies unit on American Indians. In addition, we had three primary goals for this trip that had nothing to do with our academic agenda.

One purpose very close to my heart is to provide our students with an opportunity to begin or continue to develop a deep relationship with nature. We began the trip with making shelters from found natural materials. While this activity will connect to future work examining characteristic shelters made by various Indian nations, students primarily experienced building their shelter as an act of making in the context of the group. On the way to each activity, the children soaked it all up. They noticed flowers, trees, frogs, fungi, animal homes and trails, and more. Many of us were repeatedly struck by the beauty of the place. At night, the familiar trails became spooky and mysterious, and students had encounters with wild creatures, both real and imaginary. Under the open sky, we found the moon and a few stars from familiar constellations. In the morning there was Mars. While in the forest, students had the opportunity to feel intimately connected to the small things of nature.

Another important aim was to give children the chance to enhance their social development. The classrooms always come back from the fall camping trip more cohesive. There is a team-building aspect that is inherent in many of the everyday activities. Children work with a variety of other students as they set tables and clean up after meals, figure out how to construct a shelter together, practice their cabin skit, and cheer one another at the climbing wall. Our classroom community is enhanced by the challenges that we have overcome together.

Finally, our intention was to offer the students an opportunity to overcome difficulties.  Persistence is a trait that we believe will help our students to be successful in life as well as in school. At school, children might stop just at the moment they need to push themselves to try a little harder. Recognizing that a child is about to make a breakthrough, teachers can encourage students to resist the temptation to give up. But it’s much more effective for children to experience the rewards of perseverance themselves. How valuable for children to understand through experience, rather than being told, what will help them to overcome adversity. As they practiced aiming for the target in archery, found their way when they missed a turn on the path, or attempted to climb the wall, our students experienced some of life’s powerful metaphors. I wish for each of our students that they will aim carefully for their heart’s desire, find their path whenever they are lost, and climb dizzying heights to reach the summits for which they long. Experiencing the power of persistence is a key part of our curriculum.

I want to take this opportunity to recommend helping out as a parent chaperone, and to thank all of the parents who have helped us, both this fall, and over the years to help make this experience available to our students. Chaperones serve the entire community by ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our students. They make sure that students get to their activities, monitor hydration, remind them to wash, help friends work out problems, and take amazing photos for the folks back home.

15 09, 2016

Curriculum Connection: The Outdoor Learning Space

By |2018-12-17T11:32:40-06:00September 15th, 2016|Curriculum Connection, Experiential Learning, Families, Parent News|0 Comments

It takes a lot of people to build a garden. In fact, it will require the help of every man, woman, and child in the Ancona community for our new garden to bloom to life.

We called the first event in the garden’s life, held on Saturday, August 27, a “farm raising,” borrowing the iconic rural image of neighbors coming together to build a barn. It’s fitting we borrowed a metaphor, because we are literally borrowing everything else, too–including the time, talents, and tools of many generous people.

Over 30 parents and children came out in the rain and mud to lift, build, fence, and plant.

More than a few parents have since approached me and apologized for missing that event. “We’re so sad we couldn’t attend the farm raising,” they say.

“No worries,” I reassure them. “The farm raising isn’t over. The farm raising is now. The farm raising is always.”

There will never be a time when something isn’t being planned, built, or retrofitted for the garden. That’s the way it is with gardens and with agriculture in general. They are chronically improvised ventures requiring constant improvement.

Many community members have found other ways–other days–to share their time, talents, and tools. Parent Sarah Dunn, an architect by trade, has shepherded the garden from sketches toward reality. Kids in the summer eco camp built prototypes of raised beds. Haun Saussy, a new parent, donated a nifty, almost-new wheelbarrow. Radiah and Ben Smith-Donald donated stumps to serve as seats.

The next installment of the ongoing farm-raising is a harvest fete, set for Wednesday, October 19, 3:30-6:30 pm. All are welcome. We won’t have as many crops this year as in future ones. Still, we should celebrate the garden’s first harvest while continuing its construction.

As before, this event will be a collaborative effort. Faculty and families are loaning cider presses. The pre-primary students will pick apples for pressing. Ari is bringing a guitar (and expects you to bring instruments, too). Kathy Yates has offered daffodil bulbs. We need folks to put in next year’s garlic and spread mulch.

These kinds of pay-it-forward zeitgeist suggests how the garden will and should work, that is, as a joint venture of many hands. E pluribus unum hortum.

Students often ask me about the possibilities of raising live animals in the garden. When are the chickens coming? What about the pigs? They are eager, understandably so, for the garden to arrive, shiny and complete as a holiday package.

Yes, I explain, there will be animals, (though not pigs), but first there must be plants, more beds, tables and benches. Before they raise chickens, they must, like Thoreau, raise beans–and carrots, and tomatoes, and squash, and  . . . And before they raise beans, they have to help build a bean bed. The garden isn’t just a place; it’s a process.

So the building continues. Do you have benches or an old picnic table? A stack of old bricks or pavers? A trellis? Hand tools? Stumps? We can use them. We can use you. Whatever your skill or resource, it can find a place here in a former parking lot on South Kenwood Avenue.

Out of many, one garden.

Chris Weber

Outdoor Learning Specialist

1 09, 2016

Welcome Back Ancona!

By |2018-12-17T11:32:41-06:00September 1st, 2016|Curriculum Connection, Diversity and Social Justice, Experiential Learning, Genius Of Children, Love of Learning, Parent News|0 Comments

On August 27th I had the pleasure of participating in Ancona’s Farm Raising. From hauling lumber with a three year old, to shoveling soil into garden beds with grown-ups, I had the opportunity to speak with the entire spectrum of the Ancona community. While talking with a new parent at Ancona, I was struck by his enthusiasm and joy for our school. Even when the conversation led into other areas of our lives, he always brought the conversation back to Ancona and what an amazing connection his family felt with our community.

With so much stress in our lives, I am always happy to hear that Ancona brings joy into parent’s lives by providing an excellent education to our students. This education goes beyond the academic and brings the whole world to the classroom. An Ancona education intentionally fosters community, tackles issues of social justice head on, and brings student voice to the forefront of any discussion.  From day one, our teachers are educating our students to bridge the gaps that society has made. Where society separates, Ancona unites. As we start this school year,  I would like to take this opportunity to share how community, social justice and student voice are present at Ancona and why these hallmarks make us shine so brightly in Chicago.

This is a learning environment for children to learn who they are as individuals, who they are as a member of a group, and who we all are as a community. Children call their teachers and administrators by first names. They begin each day with a handshake as they enter the school and over the course of the year this tradition allows them to get to know all of our faculty. Advisors start each morning with a group conversation that establishes a sense of camaraderie that feeds into the learning for the rest of the day. This commitment to the joy and fellowship in learning is seen across the school. A long-time teacher once chided me for wearing a tie because the teachers here must always look ready to get on the floor and play with children on their level. While I’ve come to learn how to incorporate my tie into play, the sentiment from that conversation has stuck with me: educators at Ancona are fully present.

It is through this lens of community that our students understand social justice. Ancona educates children who will defend human rights in the face of a society that seems to revel in dismantling of them. Throughout my time here I have seen students march for equal access to healthy water, participate in reenactment scenes from the civil rights era, and research gun violence statistics. Last year, after researching water access for the Social Justice Data Fair, one of our eighth grade students became passionate about helping with the crisis in Flint, Michigan. With the help of family and friends, he created a campaign to help bring water to families in Flint. Classmates collaborated to design posters, family member drove the water out, and donations were secured from every quarter.  Parents at Ancona marvel at how their children’s learning is so often tied to illuminating greater problems in our society. Our student’s assign their imaginations to contemporary problems and their solutions fill us with admiration and hope.

Both community and social justice at Ancona are grounded in the elevation of student voice. When children choose their own work, they enact their best learning. The dignity of work is a Montessori principle: Children choose their work in a classroom according to what fulfills them. As they grow, they choose a balance of things that help them mature as learners. From engineering sound amplifiers, to building model bridges, to forming government policy recommendations, teachers provide complex sophisticated problems with multiple outcomes and students extend themselves to apply what they know to design solutions. Ancona students are innovators, collaborators, researchers, designers — they are problem solvers, they are “workers,” creating and fulfilling their own vision, then sharing that work and fulfillment with everyone around them.

What we want for our children is what we want for society – to feel supported by a community, to share in the work of equity and engage with life’s puzzles by leading solutions. Ancona is proud to be a space that fosters this hard work and acts as a “third place” — a place between home and work where your family learns and grows together. Thank you for becoming, being or remaining a member of the Ancona School! We are powered by the genius of children. We are powered by you. We can’t wait for this great year ahead!

Ari Frede 

Head of School

20 03, 2014

Oaxaca, Days 3-4

By |2018-12-17T11:37:39-06:00March 20th, 2014|Experiential Learning, Global Learning|6 Comments

Lucas said today that our first day had been really long, and now everything is going really fast.  Agreed! It’s too fast for this blogger to keep up with it, but on the other hand, we do so much every day, that Sunday seems light years away.
Chocolate1Mexico is the home of chocolate, but as Lucero explained Tuesday evening, Mexicans use chocolate primarily for drinking.  It was the Europeans who invented bonbons.  For celebrations like Dia de las Muertes or birthdays, Oaxacan families go to a mill to purchase freshly ground chocolate, which they take home to make their family’s special chocolate.  We visited a mill to see how the chocolate is ground with cinnamon and nuts and to taste a few samples. Then, with chocolate in hand, we returned to ICO to make our own.  Our two chocolate-averse students had a great conversation with Señora Christina while the rest of us literally got our hands dirty.



Chocolate3        Chocolate4Chocolate 6

IMG_0636Following classes on Wednesday, we visited the gorgeous display of pre-Colombian art at the Rufino Tomayo museum and then the Soledad Church where we came upon the curious juxtaposed celebrations of Saint Joseph’s Day and the inauguration of a new garbage truck for the city.  This is a city of surprises.   The resulting traffic jam meant a shortened lunch and siesta before taking off for the soccer field and, as the temperature soared into the low 90′s, a hot game of soccer with our intercambio friends. soccer

The heat and the exertion could mean only one thing:  ice cream!  We headed back to the Zocalo to enjoy a relaxing break in the cool of enormous old trees.  Sitting in the cafes, we attract many peddlers, and our Ancona students do a tremendous job of remembering Señora Christina’s admonition to see the humanity in everyone. From the very young to the very old, indigenous people from the pueblos spend their days in the zocalo selling crafts and trying to earn a living.  It can be tempting to feel annoyed by the constant solicitations, but treating everyone with respect is essential.  We’re proud that our students have learned this lesson well.  
Fortified by our ice creams, we headed back to ICO, doing a little shopping (and bargaining) along the way.

19 03, 2014

Oaxaca, Days 2-3

By |2018-12-17T11:37:39-06:00March 19th, 2014|Experiential Learning, Global Learning|4 Comments

Oaxaca = color.  Coquito and primavera blossoms.

Coquito and primavera blossoms.

Our days in Oaxaca have been so rich and full that it’s hard to believe there have only been two of them.  I looked around on a short bus ride we took this afternoon, and everyone was so happy, I actually felt a little lump in my throat.  Mexico es fabuloso, Caleb told Señora Christina.  And this morning:  It’s all going by too fast.

Our morning check-ins confirm that everyone is doing well.  Students are appreciating the home-cooked meals they’re having in their families; Dallas and Julian are especially excited, because their familia owns a restaurant!  One student pointed out that all of the food is fresh; nothing is processed.  And while breakfasts are different from what we’re used to at home, the beans, tortillas, eggs, cheese and fresh fruit – especially mangoes – are much appreciated.  Because lunches are late at around 2:00, the hearty breakfasts really make a difference.

Ancona students are acute observers.  Several boys noticed how much lower prices are in Mexico and wondered how do the shopkeepers make a profit? Or perhaps we should be asking why are prices so much higher at home?  Caleb was surprised that a man could get on a bus, sing and people would give him money – something he couldn’t imagine happening in the U.S.  And Aiesha, like many other students we’ve taken to Mexico, commented on how friendly people are.

Sarah gets a photography lesson en español.

Sarah gets a photography lesson en español.

Our days begin with Spanish classes at ICO; students are grouped according to their degree of Spanish

Una classe de español

Una classe de español

proficiency.  We’re not the only students at the Instituto; there are students from the U.S., Canada, Germany, Japan and New Zealand. Nemo met one of the Maori high school students who are here for six months – he speaks English, Spanish, French and Japanese in addition to Maori.  Really makes you think about our American educational system’s limited attention to world languages.  The director of their school, himself part-Maori, explained to Señora Christina and I that he chose Spanish as a world language in his school, because it is not a language associated with a race; it is a language spoken by people of many races and nationalities all over the world.  We teach the same idea at Ancona.  Interesante, ¿no?

Sharing conversation with Oaxacan students.

Sharing conversation with Oaxacan students.

Everyone returns to his/her familia for the main meal of the day in the afternoon and then a siesta.  At 4:00, we return to ICO for intercambio, which is a wonderful opportunity for Ancona students to get to know Oaxacan students who are learning English.  They talk about whatever they like, helping each other with the two languages.

After intercambio, it’s time for cultural activities.  Monday we had a salsa lesson outside in the spacious courtyard.  ICO is in the large, gracious hacienda-style home of Lucero’s grandmother — not quite Downton Abbey, but still reminiscent of a very different era.    There were a few reluctant dancers, but everyone was a good sport. It seemed to be great fun for most and maybe a little awkward for some. I am truly impressed with this group’s willingness to cooperate and try even when they might not be totally comfortable.  They are confident risk-takers!

Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca

Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca

Following the Tuesday morning classes, students toured the Cultural Museum of Oaxaca, but I can’t tell you anything about it, because Gilad and I were on a money-changing odyssey, waiting in line in four banks and two currency exchanges until we were finally able to change everyone’s dollars into pesos at a reasonable rate.  Because of the very long, slow immigration line in Mexico City, we didn’t have time exchange in the airport, and dealing with currency limits and getting enough small bills to distribute back to the students was no small feat!  Gilad was in desperate need of a gelato when our ordeal was done. Fortunately, in this beautiful city of outdoor living, that was easily accomplished.

p.s. Parents, we read your comments on the first post to the students, and they loved them.  Keep them coming!

In the zocalo.

In the zocalo.

Only in Oaxaca.

Only in Oaxaca.

19 03, 2014

Oaxaca, Day 1

By |2014-03-19T13:58:53-06:00March 19th, 2014|Experiential Learning, Global Learning|0 Comments

We take modern air travel for granted, but it still seems like a miracle  to leave Chicago in a late night snow storm and arrive a mere eight hours later in  tropical Oaxaca, Mexico.   Our 22 intrepid Ancona 8th graders flew through the night and then waited a sleepy 90 minutes in the Immigration line as dawn broke over Mexico City.

Boarding the flight for Oaxaca.
Boarding the flight for Oaxaca.

After the short second flight to Oaxaca, they tumbled out into the bright morning sunshine and walked confidently off with the Oaxacan parents who met us at the airport.  Our adventure had begun.

After settling in at their new homes, getting some much needed sleep and having their first meals with their families, the students gathered at a cafe on Oaxaca’s famous zocalo. It was time to become acquainted with the city that will be our home for a week.  Our students were gradually making the switch to Espanol.  Sarah reported that she had spoken Spanish accidentally, and even in the airport, Julian said it was fun to try to order food in Spanish.

At Cafe La Primavera
At Cafe La Primavera

Oaxaca is a riot of color, filled with myriad new sights, sounds, smells and tastes.  We learned from Lucero, the owner of Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca, that Oaxaca is a completely colonial city, founded by the Spanish, and filled with beautiful colonial architecture.

Cathedral on the Zocalo
Cathedral on the Zocalo

Lucero took us to the great Cathedral on the zocalo and then for a long, slow walk on the Alcala, Oaxaca’s pedestrian mall.  We paid a visit to the Santo Domingo Church where we’re going to return later this week to tour their botanical gardens.  We gradually made our way to El Llana, a wonderful park several blocks long with fountains and plazas where, along with many Oaxacan families out for a Sunday afternoon, we watched children drive small motorized cars, petted puppies and just enjoyed being out in the beautiful weather with each other.  Senora Christina remarked that with no money to spend (we hadn’t been to an exchange), everyone was able to be truly present instead of thinking about what to purchase. (Maybe we should never change money too quickly?)  And we saw nary a cell phone as we settled into being in Oaxaca.

As if to prove the point, Olive asked if she could buy an elote with her change from an airport snack.  For the uninitiated, which included yours truly, elote is roasted sweet corn sprinkled with lime juice, spread with mayonnaise and dipped in parmesan cheese.  As Lucero walked us to her favorite elote stand, Senora Christina spontaneously decided on elotes for all.  It was a fitting cultural cherry on the top of quite an amazing day.  Elotes in hand, we trooped to ICO, the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca, and as the kids went off for evening with their madres y padres, a stunning, deep orange full moon rose in the East .

Trying out a new treat.
Trying out a new treat.
Dona Angelina's Elotes
Dona Angelina’s Elotes
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3 10, 2013

Buck Mountain

By |2018-12-17T11:37:42-06:00October 3rd, 2013|Experiential Learning|0 Comments

My office is unusually quiet today, because the 3rd/4th graders who live on the 2nd floor above me are off at Camp Edwards. Listening to the rain on my window, I am wondering if it’s raining in East Troy, but, even if it is, I know they’re having the time of their lives.

Camp is one of Ancona’s oldest and most beloved traditions. Every spring, when I do an exit interview with each graduate, I learn again how much Ancona’s experiential education program means to them. Camps dominate their fondest memories of their Ancona educations, and I myself have numerous powerful memories of being at various camps and outdoor learning programs with kids from third through eighth grades.

In 2008, I accompanied our 7th/8th graders on our first trip to Camp Chingachgook on Lake George in the Adirondacks. We chose Camp Ching (as I like to call it), because we wanted our uber-urban children not to leave Ancona without at least a taste of wilderness in a non-Midwestern environment. The mountains were aflame with the breathtaking brilliance of a perfect New England fall, and every day was beautifully warm and sunny – until the day of the final challenge, making the three-mile hike to the top of Buck Mountain. It was drizzling, and the rocky path was sometimes slippery. Not one of our students had climbed a mountain before. Many lacked the right kind of boots or rain gear. The camp had estimated three hours for the round trip; it took us five or six. There was plenty of complaining as we slogged our way through the woods and climbed hand over foot up the rocks at the end.

But the reward was awesome. Wet, muddy and hungry, with a scrape from a slip here and there, we perched on a rocky outcropping more than 2,400 feet above Lake George. We devoured our sandwiches and took in the 360° bird’s eye view of the lake and its islands and the many peaks of the Adirondacks surrounding us. It can be difficult to impress some of our tuned-in city kids with something as incredible as a mountain range, but even the dubious and the complainers were proud that they had “made it.” Many grads later recounted conquering Buck Mountain as one of the highlights of their years at Ancona.

Every camp offers our students developmentally appropriate learning challenges that are both physical and mental. There’s much talk nowadays about the importance of grit as a capacity we want to cultivate in children. Educational researchers are looking at how and whether grit can be taught. Well, it takes grit to hike up a mountain in the rain or to overcome your fear to get to the top of a climbing wall or to keep going in your canoe when you’ve never done it before and for some reason, you’re going in circles. From these experiences, children learn not only that their bodies can accomplish more than they imagined, but that perseverance, determination, grit – call it what you will – pays off in accomplishments and satisfaction. They learn that one doesn’t have to be completely comfortable or happy while learning something to feel great once it’s achieved, and because these lessons take place in authentic settings away from the comforts of home, they make a particularly powerful, emotional impact on the brain. These are fundamentally crucial lessons our students can apply to their lives, their work in the classrooms and their later educations.

Our kids return from each trip a little prouder, a little more self-confident, a little more mature – and full of great memories.

19 09, 2013


By |2018-12-17T11:37:43-06:00September 19th, 2013|Experiential Learning, Parenting|0 Comments

Not too long ago, I visited with some friends who had just adopted a 20-month old daughter from Korea. We went to the local playground, where the girl squatted down, as only a flexible toddler can, to examine a pile of pebbles on the ground. She picked one up, held it between thumb and forefinger, and, staring intently, she slowly turned it round and round to view it from different angles. She carefully replaced the pebble, scanned the remaining pebbles most deliberately, and then picked up another, which she proceeded to examine with equal scrutiny.

Ever an observer of children, I was fascinated by the child’s sense of wonder and sheer pleasure at the shape, look and feel of the pebbles. Totally engrossed in her observations, this little girl was in that state of intense concentration that Mihaly Cskikszentmihalyi calls flow, that focussed, don’t-know-time-is-passing state when we do our most creative and productive work. Left to her own devices, I believe she might have studied those pebbles for a quite a long time. But her new parents, eager to interact and to show her all the great things in the playground, lacked patience for her explorations. She knew very little English, so Dad took her hand and led her off to the swings.

This story could now go in many directions. I could point out something we all know — that children are fascinated with pebbles and sand and water and sticks and cardboard boxes — and they do not need most of the toys that we purchase for them. Just this week, a group of boys in After Ancona was having a grand imaginative time tucked under the bushes in the playground collaborating on what they could build with the sticks they found there.

Or I could point out that Montessori teachers believe in following the child, letting him choose his activities and giving him the the time to become engrossed. Maria Montessori called that intense focus absorption. Rather than draw a child away from what he’s interested in to pursue an adult agenda, why not help him to embellish or extend his own? When children select the right materials for themselves, they become absorbed in serious exploration for long periods of time. From those experiences grow concentration and problem-solving — critical faculties for learning. And locked in a pebble or a pile of sticks is a world of scientific studies.

IMG_1238Concentration, absorption, fascination with everyday materials – these are not only for preschoolers. Around the country, educators are rediscovering what progressive educators have always known: that authentic, hands-on, child-centered investigations are critical for building creative capacities in our kids. All were at play — along with creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and cooperation – when our 3rd/4th graders began the Global Cardboard Challenge (http://www.imagination.is/cardboard_challenge) last Friday. The projects spilled out of the classrooms and into the corridors as our eight and nine-year-olds worked non-stop for five hours designing, building and decorating arcade games and other constructions. On Flex Days to come, they will critique, refine and field test their products, and this is just the first of many such design challenges to come at Ancona.

There’s nothing wrong with leading a child to the swings, but in our fast-paced and material world, it’s critical that we provide him the time and the places for wonder and flow.

2 05, 2013

Moving the World

By |2018-12-17T11:37:45-06:00May 2nd, 2013|Diversity and Social Justice, Experiential Learning, Global Learning|1 Comment

The Ancona School Mexico Trip 2013Our annual 8th grade trip to Mexico is a transformative experience for our students. It is an amazing, multifaceted opportunity for language and cultural immersion, and having accompanied the trip several times, I cannot begin to tell you how gratifying it is to see how well our students handle themselves in challenging environs and to literally watch them mature before our eyes. In this final act of our Spanish program, we see our years of cultivating independence and confident risk-taking truly come to fruition.

These trips are rich. Along with Spanish classes, explorations in the Mercado, a tour of pre-Colombian ruins and an outing to unique geological formations, this year’s trip to the city of Oaxaca included a visit to the Fondación en Vía, a microfinancing organization that is affiliated with the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca where our students studied. This beautiful photo shows Joushua, Maria, Amir, Jaylen and Chad with Gloria, a tamale maker in the tiny village of Teotitlán del Valle outside of Oaxaca. She received a $100 grant from the Fondación to finance her tamale business. Gloria invited our students into her home where they witnessed the tamale-making process from start to finish, including, of course, sampling her delicious products.

This trip is the culmination of the experiential, authentic education we offer children for eleven years of their young lives. As they understood the impact microfinancing could have on one woman and her family, Chad suggested that the 7th/8th graders earmark the proceeds from their final Sandwich Shop of the year for the Fondación, and that it what the kids decided to do. I couldn’t be more proud.

Every day, we are teaching our students to translate the wonder of their educations into actions that will move the world. Could there be a more perfect of example of students using the lessons of their Ancona years to impact the lives of others?

15 11, 2012


By |2018-12-17T11:37:48-06:00November 15th, 2012|Experiential Learning, Learning to Read, Parenting|0 Comments

Prelude:  It turns out that writing a blog, even just one entry, is more fun than I ever imagined.  My humble thanks to everyone who has read the blog and/or offered a comment.

Walking through the Ancona Library the other day, I heard Miss Marsha, our Librarian, buzzing like a bee and growling like bear, so I thought I’d stop and see what was going on.  She was reading a Big Book — a book big enough for everyone to see easily — to a group of three and four-year-olds in her most animated storyteller voice.  She paused and pointed to a picture, asking the children what it was.  Several children called out fly; some called out bug; and one young voice said dragonfly, which it was.

The child who knew she was looking at a dragonfly possesses a valuable form of learning capital:  background knowledge.  Because she already recognizes a dragonfly, she has a head start on understanding the story and on recognizing the word when she comes across it in print.  A recent New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/nyregion/specialized-high-school-admissions-test-is-racially-discriminatory-complaint-says.html?_r=1 examined the link between vocabulary development and possible bias in high school admissions testing.   The author quoted the education theorist E. D. Hirsch saying there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.

What does it take to give a child a great head start with background knowledge?  Things that are both free and precious:  time, patience and experience.  Real conversations with children build their vocabularies and their understandings of the world.  They bring those rich vocabularies to their early reading experiences.  Montessori and Progressive schools emphasize experience to create these authentic learning connections for children, but parents play a critical role, too.

Just think about a trip to the gas station.  What is a pump? How does it work?  Where does the gas come from? What is gas, anyway? Why does the car need it?  What is fuel?  What’s a gauge?  What other things need fuel?

Or think about making pancakes.  How do we get eggs and milk?  What are the parts of an egg?  How is wheat turned into flour?  What is maple syrup?  Why do we beat the eggs? Why do we measure the ingredients? The possibilities are endless.  Such conversations not only develop a child’s vocabulary, they develop her curiosity, her competence and her sense of wonder about the world.

We know from brain science that emotional connections facilitate learning, so learning with one’s parent is powerful.  On a hike in a Wisconsin nature reserve a few weeks ago, I saw a mother wade deep into the prairie flowers to carefully examine a bug with her preprimary-aged child.  They looked at its markings, talked about its wings and antennae, discussed what it was doing on its leaf and looked around to find more.  There is no workbook page or app that can substitute for that kind of experience (although, a mobile device could be very useful for identifying the bug if you don’t know what it is.).

There are no limits to these kinds of conversations, either.  I had a high school friend who is now an M.I.T. physicist.  His father was also a scientist, and I can remember him telling me as I struggled with physics that he simply grew up understanding the 1st Law of Thermodynamics.  Now that’s some background knowledge!


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