Curriculum Basics - E/MS
Elementary and Middle School
Planning Time is one of the most important things we do at Schoolhouse to help children develop intrinsic motivation, executive functioning, and a feeling of ownership over their education. All of us need intrinsic motivation in life: we need to want to act, we need the autonomy to do so, and we need the skills and confidence to move forward. Planning Time is that philosophy in action – and it begins in kindergarten.
Autonomy: At the start of a day, teachers give students an outline of the day's teaching schedule and expectations for independent work in each subject area and on projects. Students then create their personal plans for how they want complete the independent work. They decide when during the day (or week, depending on grade level) they would like to do their work, how long they think they might need to work on each subject (with minimums set by teachers), and in what order. After writing out a plan, students confer with teachers for a sign-off, and then they’re ready to dive in!
Choice: Planning means choice. Kids get to decide with whom they want to work, (for example a best friend, or a small group), and where in the classroom – or even the Community Room – they feel they’ll be most focused and do their best work. They might choose to sit at a table or on the floor, curl up on a couch or a bean bag chair. Students also schedule an "Open Choice" break for themselves, perhaps when a friend is having their break, or as a "reset" between challenging subjects. They may also eat a snack whenever they’re hungry. Students design schedules and control their environment in ways that work for them as individual learners.
Differentiated Instruction: Each time students finish an academic item on their plan, they check in with teachers for a review of the work. Teachers may sign off, or they may ask the student to continue working in that subject area or consider a fuller or different approach. Every student is different! Thus, all day long, teachers are seeing the work kids are doing, seeing the progress and the challenges – seeing it as it happens in real-time. Both teachers and students have immediate feedback and guidance on next steps.
Guidance: The ebb and flow of Planning Time allows teachers to truly know their students. They connect with them throughout the day and give them the guidance and instruction that is most relevant and helpful. Students receive personalized feedback and focused support, and they're directly sharing the progress and challenges that inform our teachers' strategies. This freedom and scaffolding helps students naturally develop the skills they’ll need to be successful learners throughout their lives.
Year-Long Themes and Displays
Each year, Schoolhouse elementary and middle school students explore two broad academic themes, one scientific and one cultural. The curriculum is built around these broad themes; they permeate learning throughout the school year and are the basis of Displays and the annual play. In particular, the faculty choose cultural themes that explore cultures traditionally overlooked, marginalized, or left voiceless.
Displays are the culmination of weeks of research, work, and thought on a topic related to a theme, and chosen by each child according to their interests within the theme. All Displays incorporate written composition, visual arts and a three-dimensional representation. On the day of the Display, students set up stations in the gymnasium to share their knowledge with the whole school community.
Displays are an exciting time for students and families, and the air in the gym takes on an electric quality. Kids are brimming over with new knowledge – on topics they have a personal stake in and have worked hard to learn about – and they can’t wait to share it with everyone.
Hidden Worlds During a fun guided meditation, kids are invited to reach deep into their imaginations. Afterward they launch into an exploration of their imagined world, writing or dictating a story about it and creating a Display of the written or typed story, hand drawn illustrations, and 3-D models.
Science Display Students research a personally chosen topic from the year’s science theme and present what they’ve learned through writing, art work, dioramas, and working models.
Kwanzaa Display Students spend the final weeks of the fall semester focusing on the non-religious, non-heroic African American holiday of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a contemporary celebration that focuses on African American history and the contributions that African Americans have made and make to our country. Children also have the opportunity to define their own, unique family and explore their family’s heritage through asking questions, sharing family stories, writing, and art. Instead of individual Displays, students pour out libations to the ancestors, read poems, sing, play music, dance, perform skits, and take turns lighting the candles of the kinara. At the end of the celebration, everyone shares in the karamu, a community potluck feast.
Cultural Display Cultural Displays are related to the year-long cultural theme. The individual Display topics might range from forms of artistic expression – such as music, dance, or traditional garments – to customs, to what kind of pets people have or the foods they like to cook.
Art Display/Music Showcase Children decide what to create and how they want to create it. Artwork might be in any medium and related to any theme or personal interest. Student bands also showcase their creations, performing original music they have written, composed, and practiced throughout the year.
In addition to the academic knowledge children gain from preparing for the Displays, these school-wide events focus children’s awareness on relationships within larger contexts and give them opportunities to share knowledge and collaborate with one another. Displays also provide students with the practice necessary to gain confidence in public speaking.
Annual School Play
The annual school play is a major Schoolhouse event. Each year we alternate between a published play or one written by our Sophos students. The play ties into the annual cultural theme; while students are studying a culture, they are also learning about cultural respect, about how to make connections and be appreciative and celebratory without appropriating the cultures of others as their own. For every play, elementary and middle school students work with teachers to write original music, learn acting and stagecraft, master production skills, and improve their public speaking. Even our preschool Wild Grapes get in on the act and sing an opening song!
The major emphasis of the music program is to develop students' confidence in musical ability, through the exploration of Modern Band. We begin with hands-on experimentation, then gradually introduce children to the skills necessary to perform on electric and acoustic guitar, electric bass, electric ukulele, keyboard, drums, vocals, and technology.
Rather than starting by teaching kids how to read music, we first teach them how to make music. There’s nothing quite like banging on a drum or playing a very first guitar chord, to spur kids into wondering and asking questions about rhythm, chord sheets, song lyrics, and the fundamentals of music theory. Students learn how to write lyrics and music using a composition-based approach. With a focus on the music styles of today and the last 50 years, we intentionally foster peer-to-peer development in a band setting, encouraging each band to perform cohesively as a unit. The school year ends with The Schoolhouse Musical Showcase as part of the Art Display, where students perform for their friends, families, and teachers in a festive atmosphere.
Music at The Schoolhouse is accessible to every child, whether they find a strong interest in composing, playing, or performing music. We strive to help students find their niche – not everyone is a performer. In the past we have had student luthiers, musical journalists, graphic designers creating album covers, costume designers, and sound engineers. Everyone aids in the smooth running of the Showcase at the end of the year, whether or not they are in a band.
The Schoolhouse does not have a dedicated art teacher, however teachers integrate art into instruction throughout the year, and art is an important part of Displays and the annual school play. Children learn about art and artists, and they work with a variety of materials and media while gaining practical skills.
Schoolhouse offers dedicated foreign language instruction in its elementary and middle school programs. Foreign language offerings sometimes change from year to year. Over time we have offered Spanish, Italian, Latin, French, American Sign Language, and Abenaki. Our focus is on exposure to a foreign language, not necessarily fluency, to promote curiosity and encourage learning other languages in the future. We also see it as a great opportunity to introduce children to different cultures around the world, to think about what unites us and how we differ.
Farm Food Forest
Childhood is a perfect time to spend long hours exploring nature and directly experiencing our connections to every part of it. To provide these experiences, we offer the Farm Food Forest program in partnership with our closest farm neighbor, Bread and Butter Farm. Nearly every week of the school year, elementary students spend a dedicated half-day outside the classroom either on the farm, in the forestlands surrounding it, or in our campus kitchen with our school chef. In addition to the joys of connecting with the natural world, FFF incorporates the lessons of social and environmental justice: Whose land do we stand on? Where does our food come from? How is it produced? What is a sustainable practice? Who has access?
Activities are hands-on and change with the seasons. In the forest, we move from building fires in the January snow to seeking out the first wildflowers in April. In our own kitchen we begin the academic year with a bounty of apples, and throughout the year students enjoy cooking, trying new foods, and learning about different foods and cultures from around the world. Fall also brings the final harvesting of root vegetables, winter crop planting, and mulching of planting beds. In the spring we welcome the arrival of new calves on the farm.
The curriculum weaves together these activities with academic subjects, allowing students to develop an authentic appreciation for local food systems, sustainability, and the importance of caring for our environment. Throughout their time at Schoolhouse, children deepen their understanding of the links between food and the environment, and the relationships between food, health, culture, economics, and policy. They acquire useful life skills and come to understand the broader implications of everyday choices.
Preschool students and middle schoolers experience the Farm Food Forest curriculum in less structured ways, accessing the farm at different times from the elementary students and with a focus appropriate to their developmental levels or specific academic projects.
Schoolhouse has a large indoor gym space, and all students get to run and jump in the gymnasium and our outdoor spaces during dedicated Phys Ed class time. Classes are taught by one of our generalist teachers, with the goal of nurturing the enthusiasm and curiosity needed for children to engage in a lifetime of physical activity. Playfulness, empathy, and cooperation are a focus, as well as the development of gross motor skills and strength.
The Schoolhouse does not have sports teams, but with the freedom and encouragement of our generalized curriculum, several Schoolhouse alumni have gone on to become athletes as young adults, competing locally and nationally.
Short Courses are a Schoolhouse tradition carried forward from our time as a family-teacher cooperative. Every semester, we invite grown-ups – and our own teachers – to draw on their unique life skills and interests to offer special 5-week-long courses.
Short Courses are a fun way for grown-ups to share a wide range of subjects they themselves enjoy, and they can spend time getting to know their children's schoolmates and teachers better. For children it's an opportunity to have enriching experiences and learn about what interests the adults in their life. Even the Sophos class students like to plan and teach Short Courses of their own every spring.
Examples from previous years include: color chemistry, drama, chess, candle making, kite flying and construction, running, cooking, needlecrafts, woodworking, engineering, poetry, painting, skating, cross country skiing, fairy house building, and electronic music. Classes are multi-age and usually meet for about an hour per week. Teachers are happy to provide guidance and support for successful Short Course strategies.
In general, teachers don’t assign homework. Instead, they provide adequate time during the school week to complete all assignments. We believe students do best when they can work with a teacher or confer with a study partner to receive immediate feedback, rather than waiting until the next day. We also think family time is as important as school time. Whether you’re an adult coming home from a job or a child coming home from school, we all need time to relax, recharge, and connect with loved ones.