Global Studies – A Special Education at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School

Global Studies – A Special Education at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School

Foran, Molly

The commitment to global understanding is a hallmark of Montcssori education. At Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, students from preschool through eighth grade not only research, but experience and “live out” global cultures in age-appropriate, hands-on ways. In March, the school was honored with a National Association of Independent Schools “Leading Edge” Award for Curriculum Innovation, in recognition of a particular program within the school, The Little Room. Funded by the New York State Department of Education, The Little Room serves 37 children with special learning needs in preschool through second grade. Little Room Big Kids, the K-2 classroom serving the oldest children in The Little Room program, has developed a curricular unit on Egypt as one way to introduce global understanding to this very special group of learners.

Little Room Big Kids at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School utilizes a modified Montessori environment tailored specifically to the needs and learning styles of 10 children with special learning needs. Children in The Little Room present with difficulties in language and other areas, including emotional and social health, which may impact their ability to learn in a typical fashion and/or to relate and socialize in the classroom and other environments. In addition to classroom activities, the children in The Little Room also receive speech and language, occupational, and physical therapies as well as psychological counseling services.

While the program’s goal is to help children become mainstrcamcd into other school settings, the beauty of The Little Room is its integration into Brooklyn Heights Montessori School’s separate preschool through eighth grade Montessori program. Even the physical classrooms are integrated-on the building’s first floor, Little Room Big Kids are nestled between two Montcssori preschool classrooms, and on another floor, a Montessori preschool classroom is situated among three Little Room preschool classrooms.

With the inspiration of the Montcssori view of the interconnection of all cultures and peoples, the Big Kids curriculum has been developed to introduce global concepts in ways directly related to the particular learning needs of the children in the program. By incorporating the school’s overall mission to promote diversity and understanding, the Big Kids curriculum provides not only a view into other cultures but a view into these students’ own place in the school and in the world.

One global focus of the Little Room Big Kids curriculum is a unit on Ancient Egypt, which was conceived and developed by Big Kids teachers Kaisa EIo and Myra Hushansky, with assistance from student teacher Sabrina Fazzino. During the 4 weeks that Egypt is studied, the topics and content of the unit literally take over the environment as activities resulting from teacher-directed activities (necessary in this special education setting) generalize into other areas of the room, even extending into play. Witnessing this internalization and general ization of the new knowledge is one of the signs of a successful unit, as Little Room children’s difficulties often cause fragmented learning. By the end of the month, the culminating project-a diorama of life in Ancient Egypt, including the great pyramids, mummies, a desert floor, the Nile, boats, Egyptian homes, and camels-is the centerpiece of the classroom.

While this final display is certainly impressive, the path of study is long and deliberate, emphasizing visually rich, hands-on, socially-guided activities to key into the needs of the students. One of the first experiences is for students to meet in small groups of three or four for art-related discussions and hands-on opportunities. These small groups are particularly important because they are, essentially, social opportunities, and the level of discussion they foster is a particular challenge for the students.

In the art groups, students are exposed to Ancient Egyptian art through postcard pictures, large photos, pictures from reference books, and small replicas of Egyptian artwork. In these groups, students are asked to describe what they see and notice while viewing each piece of artwork. These language exercises, designed to draw out challenging language and help create new vocabulary, are especially important for students in Little Room Big Kids. As they look at the Egyptian art, students are encouraged to describe colors and shapes they notice, to discuss the various designs and patterns they see, to predict the meaning behind Egyptian symbols, to guess what the artwork could have been used for, and to determine if the artwork is detailed or plain. Discussions also evolve into the history of the pieces: “How we can tell that this is ancient?” and “How might this have looked before the heat of the sun and the wetness of the rain had worn its surface?” Focus is also placed on the techniques the Egyptians used in creating their artwork, and the children discuss how elaborate designs were carved in stone.

Following each discussion group, children have opportunities for hands-on experiences with art. They carve hieroglyphs in clay, and they pretend to be scribes, using symbols to write their names with twigs and paint on papyrus paper. Students also experiment mixing various colors of paint to create different hues for their Egyptian landscape. With modeling clay, students make the pyramids for the final diorama. Of course, the most important product of these small groups is not the art but the experience: sharing tools and materials, noticing others’work, learning to offer constructive comments, collaborating to generate ideas, and learning to be cognizant that each child’s work contributed to the group diorama.

After such varied and deep exploration of the subject material, the students begin to incorporate their newly acquired knowledge into other areas, such as freechoice centers.

Again, this is a significant accomplishment for children whose learning is so often highly compartmentalized. In the block center, children build pyramids, boats, Egyptian desert homes, and landscapes; in the dramatic play center, children mime using ancient Egyptian tools, housekeeping props, and clothing.

Map skills are another critical development fostered by this unit. Early on in the year, Big Kids are introduced to the concept of maps by surveying the most familiar environment, the classroom. Taking a three-dimensional view (the classroom) and trying to “see” it in two-dimensions (as a map, on paper), translates into so many other academic areas, for example, reading and interpreting figurative language. This abstraction of the concrete being difficult for some of the children, they begin with simple techniques to map the classroom, expand to create dioramas of each floor of the building, and eventually, after visits to neighborhood stores and markets, create neighborhood maps. After discussing the differences between maps and globes, and using both to explore countries and continents, the students are directed to Africa and can zero back in on Egypt.

To explore the oppositional concepts of “ancient” versus “modern,” and to further relate the unit to the Big Kids’ everyday lives, the unit jumps forward a few thousand years with a visit from an adult of Egyptian culture, this past year (2003-2004), our friend Ramez Habib. He shared with the students what it is like to be a “modern Egyptian person” (an important moment, since several children expected to see Pharaoh!). Ramez also brought statues and other artifacts for the children to touch and hold. Priorto his visit, the class’s speech pathologist, Allyson Weinstein, led a group language lesson and wrote down the children’s questions to help cue the students and facilitate discussion during Ramez’s visit: “Do you know a Pharaoh?” “Have you seen the pyramids?” “Is it still hot in Egypt?” “Are you going to be a mummy?”

Toward the end of the unit, the class traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a guided tour of the Egyptian Exhibit. The children were well prepared and the tour guide repeatedly complimented them on their knowledge. The trip also provided another opportunity for assessment as the children shared their knowledge with the tour guide amidst an unfamiliar (and busy and noisy) environment. Back in class, the children wrote thank you cards to the tour guide, using photos from the trip as visual cues.

The Egyptian unit incorporates skill building in literacy, mathematics, social studies, history, science, problem-solving, art, visual-motor tasks, and handwriting, and supports the development of cooperative peer skills. And as with all global studies curricula at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, the exploration of other cultures helps children develop a more sophisticated appreciation of the diversity within the school itself and a heightened awareness of the ways in which their own differences enhance the community around them.

MOLLY FORAN is director of external relations at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, Brooklyn, NY. MYRA HUSHANSKY and KAISA ELO, teachers in BHMS ‘s Little Room Big Kids class, also contributed to this article.

Copyright American Montessori Society Summer 2004

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