By Lauren Goldberg, Curriculum Coordinator
Fourth graders are in the midst of a unit about a very important topic: themselves.
Denise Quinn offers a broad description: "This unit is about who they are, and what's happening to them. We talk about friendships, gender and overall health."
For the past week, Denise, Toby Welch and John Climie have been leading "class chats" with their students about the ways that their bodies and brains are beginning to change. Sometimes the children meet in single-gender groups; other times they gather as homerooms. The unit is an essential component of the curriculum, connecting science, social studies and community values. The teachers collaborate with members of our health team, the physical education department, and school counselor Kossouth Bradford to ensure that the material they present is accurate, responsive and relevant to the age of the students.
"When we teach about puberty, some of the information is, of course, about anatomy, hormones and body parts," says Toby. "But more than that, we're talking about social and emotional development."
"The curriculum is set, but we have the flexibility to teach it in a wide-open way," Denise says, "The first day, we sometimes hear giggles, but very quickly the kids settle into the conversation when they see where we're going with it. We make sure that we keep the focus on what's developmentally appropriate now—what is happening to you as a fourth grader." Toby adds, "Staying grounded in the 'here and now' creates a level of comfort for the kids. Many of them have known each other for a long time, and they can relax as they ask questions. One of the best parts of this unit is that we can give them space to explore the topics."
"Some of the questions expand boundaries for our kids," says John. "We know that they can get information in a whole host of ways, and from many sources, but they need to know what's accurate, and who they can ask to get answers." The teaching team has collected an impressive selection of resources to support their instruction, using materials that include expert books, videos, posters, illustrations and websites.
The openness of the class discussions, and the developmental focus of the unit, demonstrate the importance of faculty-parent partnerships. Before the lessons began, a letter went home to families explaining the content and goals of the study. Denise says that although the forum is open for students to ask about any topic, there are situations when she will respond by reminding the children that they are focusing on what it's like to be a fourth-grader. She will ask, "Is this something that is happening to you now?" If the answer is 'no," she will suggest that the child bring the question home for further discussion with parents. When a child raises a complicated idea, the teachers call home to let parents know. "Our families may be in different places with these conversations, and we need to include parents in their children's learning about these issues," Toby comments.
"We feel a big responsibility to teach about physical and emotional development," Toby says. Denise picks up on her teammate's language. "Responsibility is something we discuss with the kids. We make sure that they know these changes are great and exciting, and also, they have more responsibilities to take care of themselves and to be good friends to each other."
In addition to specific biological changes, the classes discuss hygiene, fitness, nutrition and appearance. "We encourage the kids to notice all the different body forms that exist, and to think about how our society labels people," Denise says. John notes that the range of material and the matter-of-fact nature of the classes means that they can "normalize" information that may have previously felt awkward for students.
The sensitivity of our faculty, the thoroughness of their preparation, and their responsiveness to student needs are hallmarks of a truly developmental school. Under their guidance, our fourth graders have the opportunity to learn about themselves while observing role models of thoughtful adults.