Lesley Professor Ben Mardell helps revamp Boston Public Schools' early-education curriculum, inspires hands-on learning
Friday, July 11, 2014
The booklet, authored by Lesley early childhood graduate student Rocio Limas, recounts how Boni cares for the earth by cutting down on the amount of trash she produces. The book ends with tips for how kindergartens can take care of our planet.
Limas’ booklet is one of 40 that Lesley University students created this spring that were distributed to Boston Public School kindergartens. Each booklet recounts how a Boston-area resident contributes to making the city a more ecologically sustainable place to live.
The booklets are part of Boston’s new “Focus on K-2” curriculum that has been developed by Lesley education professor Ben Mardell and his Boston College colleague Megina Baker, in conjunction with Boston’s Department of Early Childhood. The hands-on, experience-based curriculum is taught through four thematic units of study: Our Community; Animals and Habitat; Construction; and Our Earth. It was rolled out at 50 elementary schools this year, and will be fully implemented in 78 schools next year, reaching over 4,000 children.
“‘Focus’ is based on what we know about childhood development and how children learn: through active engagement and asking questions,” says Dr. Mardell. “In the past 15 to 20 years, many kindergartens have devolved into places of direct instruction, passive learning, and children spending far too much time sitting individually at desks. We know this is not how young children learn best. In some ways, the new curriculum is back-to-the-future: good early childhood education that has children involved in hands-on, active learning, and uses children’s natural curiosity to engage them in deep inquiry.”
The impetus for the new curriculum was rooted in research showing that direct instruction doesn’t improve performance on standardized tests, explains Boni, the protagonist of the recycle booklet and program developer for Boston Public Schools’ Department of Early Childhood. Meanwhile, the new Common Core state standards, which are being adopted in Massachusetts, call for innovative and collaborative instruction.
“This is really helping teachers to shift their pedagogical thinking around how it is that children learn, and how they can articulate their ideas in different ways,” said Boni. “Having Ben Mardell collaborate with us has really inspired the way our department thinks about doing work with teachers, and it will have a long-lasting impact on the experience that our children are having in Boston.”
In Maggie Hennessy’s classroom at the Blackstone Innovation School, reading the book about Boni is part of the “Our Earth” unit. The unit concludes by asking children to identify a sustainable practice – such as recycling or community gardening – that they work to convince their community to embrace.
“We are providing them with role models, people who are taking action in everyday life for themselves and the community,” Mardell notes.
Hennessy sees her kindergarteners responding to the new “Focus on K-2” curriculum. She observes the children’s excitement as they read the Caretaker books, and the information resonates when they meet the people featured in the books and ask them questions.
“The new curriculum gives them a more meaningful context to engage in using language, and it’s also about fostering an independent sense of learning,” says Hennessy, a sheltered English immersion teacher who is also a PhD student at Lesley. “It gives children the opportunity to have ownership over their ideas and think for themselves. They’re not just regurgitating the information and hitting data points that are so relied upon in public education. This has students delve into the material and understand deeper concepts, like being a caretaker of our earth and what that means for people and communities.”
Mardell and Boni say the premise for writing the “Focus on K-2” curriculum was rooted in the belief that children as young as 5 and 6 are capable of profound inquiry and collaborative problem solving. The curriculum also imbues key tenets of civics at an early age, as well as the arts, science investigations, mathematics and literacy.
“It’s really important for children to have hands-on experience to develop creativity and critical-thinking skills,” said Boni. “It’s been exciting to see kids thinking about citizenship and responsibility in such exciting new ways that have not been part of what we have done in Boston before.”
Dr. Mardell, who has a wealth of experience in creating engaging and compelling early childhood curriculum, has also worked on early childhood policy.
“If we turn our schools into test prep factories, at the end of the day, they may do OK on the MCAS, but they won’t be the kind of citizens we want,” he says. “Since the outset, Lesley has been a leader in early childhood education, so I take those ideas from the incubator at Lesley and bring them out into the field to help Boston Public Schools and other teachers and organizations who are interested in the best practices in early childhood education.”
“I think Lesley University has had a huge impact, not just on the Blackstone school, but on our district at large,” Boni added.
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