Brooklyn private independent school

Social Studies & Spanish

Mirrors and windows on history

Before students learn about the world around them in Social Studies, they begin by learning about themselves.

The spiraling curriculum starts with students at the center of learning, thinking about their place in their family and in their classroom. Then they move outwards. First graders learn about their place in the history of Berkeley Carroll. Second graders study different Brooklyn neighborhoods and learn about the five boroughs of New York City.

“Students understand the world as circles that expand out, first about themselves, then thinking about the needs of their classroom, then thinking about systems and rules that exist in their community,” says Pike. “Students come to understand the importance of multiple perspectives.”

By third and fourth grades, students begin to place the context of the communities they have studied in terms of history, studying Native American groups in New York City before colonial times and culminating in migration and the founding of the United States.

The biggest change to the Lower School Social Studies curriculum in the past few years is the focus on providing multiple perspectives, providing students both windows and mirrors during their learning, opportunities to see themselves reflected in their studies as well as learning about others.

“We wanted students to see themselves reflected in their curriculum,” says Brandie Melendez, Director of Community and Inclusion. “We asked ourselves, how do we make sure we’re showing lots of different perspectives, learning about other people that’s positive and affirming?”

Those changes are now reflected in the curriculum. In third and fourth grade, students used to study migration simply through the lens of European immigration through Ellis Island. Now a wider narrative is included, recognizing the forced migration of enslaved people to this country, as well as how those enslaved people fought for justice and equal rights. That leads into a more generalized study of activism.

“You have to tell the story of the nation and enslavement, but it’s not the only way we want students to think about the experience of Black people in the United States,” Melendez says, citing the use of resources like Caldecott Medal winning author Kadir Nelson’s book “Heart and Soul,” which tells the story of America and African Americans through both slavery as well as the Great Migration and the fight for civil rights.

When constructing the new curriculum, the Lower School turned to an anti-bias framework from the social justice education program, Teaching Tolerance. In addition to acquiring traditional skills like using sources for research, the curriculum also focuses on areas of culture, social justice, and how systems function in communities, providing students the means to develop positive social identities, recognize bias, and express empathy with others.


Lower School students don’t just read about the people that made history. They are taking action now to address some of the most critical issues facing society today.

The thread of “Changemakers” had been running through the Social Studies program for many years when Matt Budd became Director of Community Action at Berkeley Carroll two years ago. But he saw a chance to make the program more expansive while also finding organic ways to connect to units of study.

“The language of Changemakers is the idea of innovation and creativity to address a problem,” Budd says. “We talk about historical change makers and current change makers, and it’s an opportunity for us to make sure we’re touching on multiple identities to make sure throughout a young person’s experience in the Lower School they see themselves reflected as well as learning about others.”

Budd says one of the biggest changes for students is being more aware of the place identity has in their own learning, such as reading a book in class and recognizing that it lacks a female protagonist.

“Where most students might just go through the motions, now they have become more aware about the importance of identity.”

Changemakers looks different throughout all the grades. In Kindergarten, students learning about their community ended up creating their own newspaper. Students in first grade learning about recycling visited the Sims Sunset Park Materials Recovery facility to learn more about their carbon footprint and then created new, more kid-friendly signs, for the trash and recycling bins in the Lower Schools.

For students in second through fourth grade, the Changemakers Club offers students an opportunity to take action. In fourth grade, students discuss different forms of activism, from boycotts to marches, which provides the tools for them to think about action around such issues as climate change and social justice.

“We want students to see themselves as individuals who can and should make a difference in the world,” says Pike.

Learning in Spanish

On any given day, wander past a Lower School classroom and you won’t just hear English being spoken.

A first grader needs to use the restroom? “Puedo ir al baño?” Time to start a writing activity in third grade? “Dónde está tu lápiz?”

“Spanish in the Lower School is based on an acquisition model and students learn the language related to what’s happening in the classroom,” says Lower School Director Amanda Pike. “Routines like washing hands or getting snack or lining up happen in Spanish.”

To develop the Berkeley Carroll Spanish program, administrators worked closely with educators and researchers from Bank Street College of Education and the CUNY Graduate Center, experts in the bilingual education world.

Jennifer Abbate, the Lower School Spanish Coordinator, oversees the scope of the curriculum, and regularly meets with Middle School World Language Department Chair Elizabeth Luscombe to make sure the Lower and Middle School Spanish programs are aligned.

Abbate, who completed her masters in bilingual education and received a Fulbright grant to create professional development programs for teachers in Argentina, says the main goal of the program is for students to see the purpose of Spanish in their everyday lives.

“The students are so much more interested and motivated to learn Spanish now that they see how useful it is,” Abbate says. “In the past, they really didn’t feel like they could walk down the street and use that knowledge. Now, students will see me in the hallways and be itching to speak Spanish.”

The Spanish curriculum is built on the Total Physical Response program. Through the use of storytelling, visual modeling, and physically acting out vocabulary, students grasp meaning through tangible examples. So, while a student might not know what “lápiz” is on first hearing it, a teacher picking up a pencil and repeating the word provides context.

In PreK and Kindergarten, Spanish is a partial immersion program, with students working with associate teachers who are fluent in Spanish and who help head teachers incorporate Spanish into routine classroom activities. In first through fourth grades, Spanish is still incorporated throughout daily activities, like Morning Meeting, but there are also designated class periods for Spanish instruction.

Students play games, sing songs, and learn dances from Hispanic cultures. They speak, listen, write and read in Spanish. In first and second grade, students learn vocabulary related to their classroom and the units they are studying in their other subjects. In third and fourth grades, students expand their working knowledge of the language and cultures through projects like planning a trip to a Spanish speaking country.

“We don’t say, ‘this is a verb, this is an adjective,’” says Fabricia Calcavecchia, third and fourth grade Spanish teacher. “Eventually students will have more formal lessons in Middle and Upper School, but now is the time to learn to not fear speaking a different language and to play with the words.”

Calcavecchia and Sandra Lopez Iraeta, who works with first and second graders, teach students exclusively in Spanish. It may be confusing for some at first, but both teachers say that students gain deeper meaning of the language, similar to the way a first language is learned.

A world of Spanish

As much as language acquisition is the goal of the Spanish curriculum, learning about Spanish culture, in all its forms, is equally important.

Spanish is the official language of 21 countries around the world and students in the Lower School celebrate all those different variations and absorb the importance of learning about different cultures.

“Part of Berkeley Carroll’s mission is global learning, and we want to show that Spanish is more than just one dialect or culture,” Lopez says. “It is really important to us to build a community welcoming all cultures and languages.”

Berkeley Carroll students connect with that wide world in a variety of ways. There’s a pen pal program with students in Argentina. Calcavecchia and Iraeta work to bring authentic experiences into the classroom from their own experiences growing up in South America and Spain, respectively. As often as possible, parents and faculty members visit the classroom to share their varied Hispanic heritages.

“The mission is to give students a strong foundation of Spanish in Lower School so that it sparks interest in being citizens of the world,” says Abbate. “If we want students to become global thinkers, we need to give students a way to engage the world on a global scale through language and appreciation for cultures different from their own.”

(The next article in this series on the Lower School’s visual and performing arts curriculum will be published in february 2019)