Building Great Learners, One Student at a Time
In this four part series, discover how the Berkeley Carroll Lower School is preparing students and helping them build a strong foundation for a lifetime of critical, ethical and global thinking in an increasingly complex world.
You notice it the moment you enter the Lower School. A sense of excitement, a joy for learning. In every classroom, a seriousness of purpose.
It makes for a learning environment where students feel comfortable asking questions, offering suggestions, and making mistakes; where three-year-olds are scientists and third graders are poets; and where all students are being prepared for success in Middle School, Upper School, and beyond.
“This is a community where we want everyone to feel they can bring their entire selves through the door,” says Lower School Director Amanda Pike. “Teachers and administrators do a lot of work to create classroom communities where students are known and expectations are clear and high.”
At the heart of this work is a curriculum designed with every student in mind and grounded in best practice.
Part 3: Social Studies & Spanish (to be published in January)
Part 4: Visual & Performing Arts (to be published in January)
Reading & Writing
Building a foundation for success in reading
Reading is not a one-size-fits-all program at Berkeley Carroll.
Every Lower School student, starting in Kindergarten, meets one-on-one with a teacher at multiple times throughout the year to evaluate their reading levels. These assessments help everyone, including teachers and parents, better evaluate progress and understand specific reading strengths and areas of growth for each student.
“Berkeley Carroll has always produced great readers and writers because of this kind of dedicated analysis,” says Amanda Pike, Director of the Lower School. “In all grades, students are going to get challenged and grow, solidifying their skills and becoming confident readers.”
All educators, from head teachers to associates, are trained in the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment system, considered the gold standard of early education reading evaluations. Teachers use the assessments to customize lessons for individual students, small groups, and the whole class. The approach is two pronged, ensuring that students have a varied toolkit that helps them decode challenging words while also building their comprehension skills.
“For those kids who are ready to move quickly, we do that, and for those who would benefit from support in a specific area we do that as well,” says Ellen Arana, Assistant Director of the Lower School. “Every child can grow and become the best reader they can be.”
To help oversee the entire scope and sequence of the reading program, Heather McKay became Language Arts Coordinator and Coach in 2018, a brand new position. Previously, McKay spent 12 years as a second grade head teacher. She says that the reading assessments provide a crucial roadmap for students, as well as parents and teachers.
“Kids are in a range of reading bands, always moving forward. This helps teachers know how to make reading groups. It also helps students pick out ‘just right’ books, and helps parents talk with their child about what makes a book ‘just right,’” says McKay.
The levels are not restrictive for students but rather help them choose books that are neither too challenging nor too easy. For instance, a child reading at “Level J” might be starting to read chapter books with more complex sentences while a child reading at “Level K” is working on decoding multisyllabic words and starting to make predictions about characters.
McKay also meets with teachers in the Lower School to review best practices, coordinate professional development, and help devise individualized support for students, all while guiding classrooms across grade levels towards shared goals.
In the library, a book for everyone
Reading happens in a variety of settings in the classroom, including small book groups to whole class read alouds, ensuring students get the skills they need, but the Lower School library makes sure students get the kind of reading experience that they want.
From graphic novels to the latest best sellers, the shelves of the library are stocked with something for fans of every genre.
“The library is very much in the camp of read whatever you want, and our librarians are fantastic at helping students find books they are excited about,” says Arana. “We want students to revel in the reading experience and not feel like they are only striving to get to the next level.”
“It’s about enjoyment,” says Briar Sauro, Director of Libraries and Research. “We take tons of student recommendations so they know their opinions are valued.”
Sauro has been at Berkeley Carroll for 15 years having first started as the librarian for grades two through four. Today, she oversees the entire research scope and sequence from preK-12th grade, maintaining the same standards in the Middle and Upper Schools as those that are established in the Lower School.
Sauro says that library studies are purposefully designed to build year upon year. From learning how to cite sources in second grade to building online research skills in fourth grade, students are well prepared to tackle research by the time they reach the Middle School.
While the library is a fun space for students, it is also designed to support the curriculum across the Lower School. Teachers frequent the library, where the librarians help them discover resources for units of study, seek out recommendations for book clubs, and learn about new books for classroom read alouds.
A focus on developing student writing skills
Berkeley Carroll has a long and celebrated tradition for producing brilliant writers, from the hundreds of students honored by the prestigious New York City Scholastic Awards over the years to the published poet who is only in fourth grade.
Helping students develop strong writing skills is a priority at BC, so it’s not a mystery where these great essayists, poets, and creative writers come from.
“Berkeley Carroll produces award winning writers, and building that foundation of strong writing skills starts in preK,” says Pike. “Our students see themselves as authors, and teachers work intensively with each student to help them improve their craft and communicate clearly and engagingly with their audience.”
Lower School writing units are shaped by Columbia University’s Teachers College Writers Workshop curriculum. Thematic units introduce new genres like persuasive writing and stretch students to incorporate more advanced techniques like dialogue in their writing, while reinforcing core skills like proper spelling and capitalization. Writing isn’t relegated to just one block of the day, either. Students write across disciplines, crafting a hypothesis in science class or detailing their strategies for solving a problem in math.
In preK, students share their ideas aloud while a teacher records their stories verbatim. By kindergarten, students are writing stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and in first grade they learn how to stretch a small moment to create personal narratives. In second grade, they practice their editing skills while also honing their typing in the STEAM Hub in preparation for third and fourth grades, where students are turning to research, writing essays based on their work in Social Studies.
“Just like we have a scope and sequence in math, we’re developing that for writing,” says McKay. “A first grade writer is expected to go back and add more details to their writing. In fourth grade, we introduce peer editing. Students learn and understand that they’re not just writing for themselves but for an audience.”
The hard work that goes into good writing is made clear to students through a serious editing process, as evidenced by the second grade publishing party, where students share with peers and parents the drafts of their work, not just a clean finished copy.
“They celebrate the revised, edited piece of writing,” McKay says. “That’s powerful. I tell students, this is what you should be proud of, this is what professional writers do: improve, improve, improve.”
“We want the kids to think more about the content of their work and how they got there rather than focusing on a perfect end product,” says Arana. “We want students to see behind the scenes of the writing process.”
That same mindset is shared by faculty. Teachers and administrators are always looking for ways to fine-tune curriculum. From grade level meetings to share and discuss sample lessons to internal professional development with McKay to design and implement new writing units, adapting best practices is an ongoing process.
“We think about writing every day. We always think about how to make it better,” Pike says. “We revisit what we do, going at it every single year. Teachers can bring new ideas to the table, but there’s a plan in place, a BC way of doing things.”
Learning the value of poetry with the third grade poet-in-residence
Professional writers aren’t just models for students. They work side by side with them. In third grade, students take part in an 8-week poetry unit, working with Lower School poet-in-residence, Susan Karwoska.
For decades, Ms. Karwoska has worked with Teachers and Writers Collaborative, a non-profit that brings professional artists and writers into the classroom. She says it’s a joy to come to Berkeley Carroll where learning about poetry is valued.
Each year the focus of the poetry changes based on what the students are studying and Karwoska says that is intentional because she likes to introduce poetry through topics students are familiar with and then explore those subjects in a new way.
Karwoska also uses complicated poems, from the likes of Wallace Stevens to Gwendolyn Brooks, to read and discuss with students. Rather than looking for one right answer, she asks students to share what they notice, which leads to some insightful discussions.
“I try to tell them everyone brings their own uncertainty to a poem, even poets, and that doesn’t have to be a scary thing,” Karwoska says. “One of my main goals is that poetry becomes something that is available to all students.”
Cultivating great readers and writers
From the library to the classroom, writing poetry to honing research skills, the Lower School’s Language Arts program helps students become confident in their skills and excited about reading and writing, and it’s no accident why.“Our goal in the Lower School is to cultivate great readers and writers,” Pike says. “This is not a cookie cutter curriculum. Every student gets what they need so they may reach their full potential.”
Science & Math
Learning to think like a scientist
It’s easy to get excited about the world when everything in it is brand new to you, but the Lower School science program goes further, exposing students to issues facing their community and the world and connecting those issues to their own learning.
Harnessing the natural curiosity of young students is one of the major strengths of the Lower School science curriculum. Teaching students to think like scientists begins in preK with students learning to use all their senses to make observations about the environment around them.
“Children are surrounded by science, in the classroom, in nature, and in the city,” says Amanda Pike, Director of the Lower School. “Our goal is to give them the tools and vocabulary to look at the world, ask questions, and solve problems.”
At every stage of the Lower School science program, students learn how to gather data, understand patterns, and make predictions. Conservation, sustainability, systems and cycles are all recurring themes as students develop their critical thinking skills and understand how all these fields are connected.
Students work with science teachers to learn through hands-on study and exploration of the natural and built world, from weather systems and simple machines in preK through second grade to more advanced topics like the systems of the human body and aquatic ecosystems in third and fourth grades.
That work is guided by Lower School science faculty Becky Blumenthal and Erin DiLeva, who teach third and fourth graders and preK through second graders, respectively, Both teachers hold degrees in the biological sciences and have a combined 25 years of experience at Berkeley Carroll. Over that time they have presented at many of the most prestigious science gatherings in the country, including the National Science Teachers Association conference.
Their curriculum is aligned with the national Next Generation Science Standards, which sets goals to ensure students are prepared for high school, college, and careers. DiLeva and Blumenthal say they work to ensure students are exposed to all fields of science so they can see how areas overlap and interact.
In preK through second grades, students develop knowledge and hands-on familiarity in basic science skills and tools, like magnifying glasses and pipettes, and build data charts, something they will use often in the Middle and Upper Schools.
“For the little ones, we want them to think like scientists, to make observations and then use those observations to make predictions,” DiLeva says. Second graders even begin keeping science notebooks. “It’s a great way for students to record and share different strategies with each other, and it provides a concrete way to more formally assess them.”
In Blumenthal’s classes, students are working on similar skills at a more sophisticated level while also building independence in preparation for Middle School science. Third and fourth grade students begin reading age appropriate scientific texts, learning how to pull out facts and read diagrams. Older students also begin to recognize the power of data, conducting individual experiments and then sharing results with the whole class to recognize larger patterns.
“We introduce the idea that the more data you have, the more helpful it is for drawing conclusions,” Blumenthal says. “When students see the whole class’s results, the data is much more powerful.”
Going beyond the classroom
Students use information and theories from the past to help them better understand today’s problems and begin to think about solutions for the future, and this work doesn’t just happen in the bubble of the classroom.
In second grade, students start to understand that what they are learning might one day lead to a career through “Science Changemakers,” where they study scientists like Jane Goodall, Galileo, and more modern scientists like astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, who visited Berkeley Carroll in 2018.
In fourth grade, students become citizen scientists, partnering with a local non-profit, the Billion Oyster Project, which works to restore the oyster population to NYC waterways. Twice a year, they travel to Brooklyn Bridge Park to measure oyster growth and water quality, and then send their results to real scientists who use that data to inform real life policy decisions.
Students also have a chance to interact with working scientists through a program called “Skype a Scientist,” interviewing professional scientists, virtually visiting their labs, and seeing classroom learning applied in the real world.
For all the students, one of the most important lessons to learn is that it is OK to make predictions and be wrong. Both DiLeva and Blumenthal say they model mistakes and show excitement at the new results since so often younger students are focused on being correct.
“We tell students that making mistakes is a great way for your brain to grow,” Blumenthal says. “If scientists knew all the answers, there wouldn’t be any fun in the experiment.”
Instruction backed by the latest research
In the Lower School, the approach to math looks a lot different than what most adults probably grew up learning. Two plus two still equals four, but the work starts with a story, thinking is shown out loud through visuals, and different problem solving strategies are celebrated.
It’s a far more visual and tactile way of learning, where mathematical concepts are understood intuitively, not simply memorized, and it starts laying a strong foundation for more advanced concepts that will come in Middle School and beyond.
“Rather than simply focusing on the algorithm to solve a problem immediately, students build models, use manipulatives, and develop a conceptual understanding of what they are really doing,” says Pike
The math program is based on the most recent research in the field of math education from institutions like Stanford University and Barnard College. That research, in particular around brain development, indicates that young brains show better growth through the development of mathematical sense and reasoning, not simply rote memorization.
The curriculum is a combination of TERC’s Investigations in Numbers, Data, and Space and the Contexts for Learning Math programs. TERC focuses on the basic units, like geometry and measurement, while Contexts for Learning incorporates stories and games. Through both curricula, students actively participate in mathematical discourse, sharing and defending their problem solving strategies.
In preK, students learn to count and develop the language around mathematics. In all the grades, each new lesson is anchored with a story to give context to what is being taught. Real world applications are also brought in, such as in third grade where students learn measurement by using their class playground to determine how much new fencing it would need.
This approach to math is based on the constructivist theory of education, which says that students begin to understand the world, or “construct” their knowledge of it, through experience and reflection. It’s a far cry from the traditional math memorization that was the norm in the past.
“The strength of the conceptual thinking is once the children have that, when they turn to use the algorithm they really understand it in a deeper way,” says Pike. “They really are poised to have a much richer relationship with numbers.”
This new approach to mathematics is guided by the two Lower School Math Coordinators. Anne Louise Ennis originated the role in 2014 and coordinates second through fourth grade math, while Jess Soodek coordinates preK through first grade.
“The basics are being taught but in a way that’s fun and that sticks with the kids,” Soodek says. “Often, something seems unapproachable, because numbers are bigger or problems are worded differently, but when students hear an aspect that is familiar, they can more easily envision what’s happening.”
Part of the coordinator job is ensuring a strong sequence of lessons through the year, introducing new curriculum, and helping teachers differentiate units for their students. Ennis and Soodek also run parent workshops, since the new way of teaching math can be challenging for adults.
The two are also coaches, helping teachers feel confident in their instruction. This might mean working with them before a class to prepare for how students will receive a lesson, or debriefing after a class to talk about ways to improve in the future.
Multiple paths to successThe philosophy of the Lower School math curriculum is to focus not just on the correct answer but to get students to think about how they got there. This means activating several different areas of the brain and defending their thinking, both orally and written, much in the way real mathematicians prove their theorems.
“Our students develop the ability to clearly articulate their understanding and to listen critically and thoughtfully to the ideas of others,” says Ennis. “We want them to develop confidence and independence in their ability to reason.”
It’s not just what is being instructed that has changed, either. The way math instruction is delivered has also shifted. The traditional teaching of math resulted in rewarding those who could call out an answer the quickest. This new model of teaching emphasizes that everyone can be a mathematician.
“When teachers shift the focus onto the thinking behind the answers, research has shown that students of color and students of all genders are able to learn and perform at higher levels,” says Ennis.
While the methods may appear different from the way parents and teachers learned mathematics themselves, adults recognize the success. Middle School teachers appreciate students who are strong, flexible, and creative thinkers with a good foundation of mathematical concepts and skills. Parents see how happy their child’s attitude is towards math because it is less of a struggle.
“One of the things that I think can be hardest for adults to understand is that when we say "We don't teach children to memorize" we don't mean that they won't be able to quickly solve problems,” says Ennis. “We expect our students to leave the Lower School with fluency and number sense, the result of which looks like memorization but is actually a deep understanding of what’s behind the numbers.”