Wonder: The Hub of Interdisciplinary Learning in the Lower School

Hackley Review Winter 2019-20 By Lisa Oberstein, Director of the Lower School

With less than half a year’s tenure on the Hilltop and in my role as Hackley’s new Director of Lower School, I get to experience so many “firsts,” and so many discoveries, that I feel a special kinship with the Class of 2032, our kindergarteners who began their own Hackley journey in September. Meeting so many wonderful people and experiencing the invitation to “Enter here to be and find a friend” myself, I am reminded every day that the root of “wonderful” is “wonder.”

Our Lower School students are certainly full of wonder, and they wonder, actively, about the world around them in ways that challenge the traditional bounds of the classroom. Their limitless curiosity is exciting-- and one of my own sources of wonder in my early days at Hackley has been the discovery that the Lower School library and technology classrooms have forged a partnership dedicated to feeding this wonder.

I always loved the library, growing up. I was that kid who couldn’t wait to take out a new book, share it with my family at home, and rush to return it so I could bring home another. A good school librarian feeds this passion for reading and discovery, and Hackley’s Lower School librarian, Anna McKay, brings a sparkling, magical engagement to her work with our students, exuding excitement for books that equals that of the most voracious young reader. The Lower School library is a large, sunny, and beautiful space, and you can barely help yourself from reaching out to pick up a book. Anna can’t wait to help students find their next book! Asked recently for advice on books to recommend for a particular young reader, she lit up, expounded on the student’s positive, helpful attitude and love of reading, and looked up the child’s recent book choices, and came back with a list of eight additional books she thought the child would enjoy. This student, like every Lower School student, is KNOWN, personally, by Anna, who looks out for each of them as developing readers.

Right next door is the Lower School technology lab, where Mary Murray-Jones runs a rich, skills-based K-4 program. Now in her 27th year at Hackley, Mary has been teaching STEM to Lower School students since before “STEM” was even an acronym. She has long believed in teaching technology as an integral part of the Lower School program, making it relevant to everything students are doing in their other classes. It would seem only natural, then, that she would find ways to connect her curriculum with that of the library next door, and yet, the two programs remained surprisingly separate.

Making Time for Partnership
Mary and Anna explain that each Lower School class meets for “Library” one period a week, and also meets for “Technology” one period each week. Beginning in Kindergarten and building year by year, the Library class teaches students how to find books and how to use the online catalog. Students learn research skills that support their classroom projects. They learn how to cite sources. And, of course, they learn to understand the library as a personal resource as they develop as readers who read for pleasure. In Technology class, students begin in Kindergarten learning keyboard skills and, over the course of their Lower School experience, build confidence and increasingly complex programming skills.

Students literally need to walk through the library to get to the Technology classroom, and yet there was no programmatic intersection between the learning happening in the two spaces. And then, this changed. Mary and Anna attended a New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) session in May 2015 entitled “Librarians and Technology Integrators: a Collaborative Workshop.” The workshop description pitched it as a “day long ‘couples retreat’” dedicated to team building activities “focused on strengthening the connections between technology and library,’ creating opportunities for them to “brainstorm collaborative projects that highlight the natural partnerships between the two areas.” Mary and Anna immediately saw the opportunities this partnership presented, and set out to resolve a fundamental obstacle: the schedule. Student time in the library and in the technology lab was not coordinated in a way that could support collaborative efforts. “Mary might be teaching first graders in a certain period,” Anna observes, “while I’d be right next door teaching third graders.”

The potential synergies were immediately apparent, and where there is a will, there must be a way. The two teachers began working with the Lower School administration and the Registrar’s office (which designs student schedules) to see if their teaching periods with particular classes could be joined to create a single, longer period.

On the surface, this may seem a simple proposition. But think about it: every class in each grade level needs to be scheduled into not only their “homeroom” classes, but all their “specials” -- music, physical education, art, library, technology...not to mention recess and lunch! Moving library and technology classes would require the moving of an art class, which might bump a P.E. class, and so on, and so on, all with the awareness of the need to keep student schedules balanced and regular for student well-being. The entire Lower School faculty came together in support of the goal, however, helping to work through schedule challenges and find solutions so that beginning in September 2015, all Hackley fourth graders could meet for two back-to-back periods each week for a combined Library and Technology workshop.

Inspiring Collaboration
Only the fourth graders? Yes, and it turns out, that’s just perfect. The structure has allowed Mary and Anna to design the K-4 curriculum in such a way that it builds most effectively toward the collaborative fourth grade course by devoting time in each of the separate areas to skill building. Collectively, they understand their shared goals and can manage the program together even as they lead separate lessons.

Even more exciting, though, is the way in which this spirit of collaboration saturates the Lower School culture, inspiring more and more partnerships between teachers in other subject areas and the library and technology resources. Our first graders, for example develop research projects based in which they learn about animals native to Hackley’s campus and its immediate vicinity. The collaboration beings, actually, with the work of Hackley Upper School students who, in their environmental science work, identify native species. Each first grader then works to research one species, using the library to support collaborative work that unites both their science and literacy curricula. In their homeroom classrooms, students learn to understand “What is a fact?” During their library research time, they learn which resources best substantiate facts vs. fiction and opinion. Then, the students develop non-fiction narratives based on their research, which they type during their technology workshops. Finally, in an added layer of collaborative partnership, Hackley fourth graders read aloud the narratives the first graders have written, and their recorded words are linked to QR codes placed on signs around Hackley’s forest so all visitors can share in the learning.

Building Skills
The skills and mini-collaborations in which the students engage build year by year, and by fourth grade the two disciplines are firmly united, and the two teachers are a team. In one of their collaborative endeavors, for example, Anna guides students to write reviews of books they had read, coaching them to share the information that would engage potential readers. What kind of a “hook” will they use to get the reader interested? How might they tell enough of the story bring the reader in, without spoiling the ending? Then, Mary teaches students to create Google slide shows to present their reviews in a way that gets beyond mere summary of the text. Mary says, “Putting these two threads together, the students are able to take the same piece of writing into different media, and they come to understand that you need to change the way you present material depending on the medium. They learn to evaluate the balance of images and text, and to develop a visual way of understanding that ‘shows’ as much as it ‘tells.’”

These book reviews, by the way, become part of the Hackley Lower School catalog, creating a permanent and growing exchange of ideas from student to student across the years. It’s especially exciting when a student finds a review written by an older sibling or friend!

Presenting Mastery
At the end of the fourth grade year, the collaboration culminates in the creation of an iMovie based on a topic drawn from the students’ science studies of biodiversity. Lower School Science teacher Regina DiStefano assigns an article that outlines some impact -- either additive or subtracting-- on the ecosystem. Anna then guides them through analysis of the article, and Mary and Anna then support them through the creation of their videos, which opens the door to other lessons. What constitutes copyright infringement? How do you find copyright-free graphics? How do we properly cite sources at the end of our video? And because there are two teachers in the room, they can each devote that much more personal attention to each student throughout the process.
In their videos, Anna says, “They can choose to be a journalist -- on screen in a newsroom. They can be a scientist. Or they can be tour guides, taking viewers through the terrain while they explain the environmental challenges.” Most of the students decide to be journalists. “They like reporting the news.” Anna says. “They even dress up in jacket and tie like a news anchor.” This project, then, opens the door to yet another collaboration as students make use of Hackley’s MakerSpace to construct the “microphones” and other props they will use on screen. “Maker” learning has, through their partnership, also come to infuse the library itself, as Mary has created a mini-MakerSpace in an alcove where students are able to expand their learning with hands-on problem solving and discovery.
While Mary and Anna each still lead independent fourth grade projects during the course of the year -- Mary will do a unit on coding, for example, while Anna leads students in biography research -- the extra benefit of the partnership has been their discovery of how much they love working together. “We have learned from each other’s different styles, “Anna says. “It stretches you to get out of your silo and work with someone different.” They each laugh out loud, acknowledging points of difference that have become a source of inspiration, not stress. Mary says, “I learn from her every day.”

Wonder, it seems, isn’t just for the kids. These two teachers have forged an interdisciplinary partnership that expands and enhances both their programs, while opening doors for greater learning opportunities throughout the Lower School. That’s what I’d call “wonderful”!