IN THE CLASSROOM
The Integrated Curriculum
Classrooms at Brilliant Star are organized into several curriculum areas, which include language arts (reading, literature, grammar, creative writing, spelling, and handwriting), mathematics and geometry, everyday living skills, sensory awareness exercises and puzzles, geography, history, science, art, music, and movement. All rooms include a classroom library. Each area is made up of one or more shelf units, cabinets, and display tables with a wide variety of materials on open display ready for use as the children select them.
Brilliant Star’s curriculum is organized into a spiral of integrated studies, rather than a traditional model in which the curriculum is compartmentalized into separate subjects, with given topics considered only once at a specific grade level. In the early years, lessons are introduced simply and concretely and are reintroduced several times over succeeding years at increasing degrees of abstraction and complexity.
The course of study uses an integrated thematic approach that ties the separate disciplines of the curriculum together into studies of the physical universe, the world of nature, and the human experience. Literature, the arts, history, social issues, science and the study of technology all complement one another. This integrated approach is one of Brilliant Star’s great strengths.
Although this takes place at all levels, it is more easily seen at the elementary level. In the elementary program this integrated approach will be one of its fundamental features. For example, when students study Africa in world history, they will also read African folk tales in world literature, create African masks and make African block print tee-shirts in art, learn Swahili songs in music, and make hieroglyphic calendars in math, as well as study African animals in zoology. All of this will take place seamlessly.
The same is true in our science curriculum, weaving principles of physics, chemistry, earth sciences, botany, and zoology together from the primary years and up, with far greater emphasis on the sciences in general than is common in the more traditional curriculum.
You will not find rows of desks in our classrooms at Brilliant Star. The Brilliant Star learning environment is set up to facilitate student discussion and stimulate collaborative learning. One glance and it is clear that our children feel comfortable and at home. Students will typically be found scattered around the classroom, working alone or with one or two others. They will tend to become so involved in their work that we cannot help but be tremendously impressed by the peaceful atmosphere. It may take a moment to spot the teachers within the classrooms. They will be found working with one or two children at a time, advising, presenting a new lesson, or quietly observing the class at work.
Specific characteristics associated with the child’s interests and abilities can be seen at each plane of development. A school carefully designed to meet the needs and interests of the child will work more effectively because it is consistent with basic principles of psychology. Rather than fight the laws of nature, we “follow the child” and allow him/her to show us how to facilitate the development of his/her human potential.
This focus on the “whole child” has led Brilliant Star to develop a very different sort of school from the traditional adult-centered classroom. The classroom is not the domain of the adults in charge, but rather a carefully prepared environment designed to facilitate the development of the child’s independence and sense of personal empowerment.
This is a true community of young children. They move freely within the room and between classrooms selecting work that captures their interest, rather than passively participating in lessons and projects selected by the teacher. In a very real sense, even the very youngest students at Brilliant Star take care of their own child-sized environment. When they are hungry, they prepare their own snack and drink. When something spills, they help each other carefully clean things up. Parents are often amazed to see small children in Brilliant Star’s classrooms cut raw fruits and vegetables, sweep and dust, carry pitchers of water, and pour liquids with barely a drop spilled.
These little ones normally go about their work so calmly and purposefully that it is clear to even the casual observer that this is their environment. The classrooms are commonly referred to as “prepared environments.” This name reflects the care and attention that is given to creating a learning environment that will reinforce the children’s independence and intellectual development.
Typical Class Size
At the Toddler level, the class size is typically ten to twelve children. At the Primary level and up, the class size is twenty-five to thirty children representing a three-year age span (3-5, 6-8, 9-11). All classes are taught by a certified teacher and an assistant.
Parents often wonder if it would not be better to organize classes into smaller groups, but there is actually a great deal of research, thought, and successful experience behind this particular model. The key is to remember that the teacher is neither the center of attention nor the sole source of instruction. The children are learning on their own by independent discovery and from each other, as well, through lessons presented by the teacher, and through the specially designed materials. This approach allows the children to explore and learn independently as much as possible. The stimulation of older children and the encouragement of their peers fuels this process. All too often the best teacher of a four-year-old is an older child rather than an adult. Children learn best from one another. We create classes of twenty-five to thirty-five to ensure that each child will have enough classmates of the same sex and age group, as well as the stimulation of the older children.
A Three-Year Age Span
Above the Toddler level, Brilliant Star classes are organized to encompass a three-year age span, which allows younger students to experience the daily stimulation of older role models, who in turn blossom in the responsibilities of leadership. Students not only learn with each other, but from each other.
Some parents worry that having younger children in the same class as older ones will leave one group or the other short changed. They fear that the younger children will absorb the teachers’ time and attention, or that the importance of covering the “kindergarten” curriculum for the five-year-olds will prevent teachers from giving the three and four-year-olds the emotional support and stimulation that they need. Both concerns are understandable, and easily addressed.
Working in one class for two or three years allows students to develop a strong sense of community with their classmates and teachers. The age range also allows accelerated learners the stimulation of intellectual peers, without requiring that they skip a grade and feel emotionally out of place.
Each class is an essentially stable community, with only the older third moving on to the next level each year. At each level within Brilliant Star, the curriculum and methods are logical and consistent extensions of what has come before.
Role of the Teacher
Brilliant Star teachers play a very different role from those played by traditionally trained educators. The stern disciplinarians of the past may be an endangered species as many teachers are now focused on maintaining order and on covering a pre-defined curriculum that is not necessarily tailored to the needs of the individual child. Most see their role as dispensing facts and skills to complacent students.
The role of the teachers at Brilliant Star is that of facilitators and guides. The teacher is usually not the center of attention and will not normally spend much time working with the whole class at once. Her role centers around reviewing the progress and needs of each individual child on a daily basis, and preparing and organizing appropriate learning materials to meet the needs and interests of each child in the class.
The teachers usually present a lesson to one or two children at a time and limit them to a quick, efficient presentation. The objective is to intrigue the children so that they will come back on their own to work with the materials.
Lessons center around clear and simple information that is necessary for the children to be able to do the work on their own: the name of the materials, its place on the shelf, the ground rules for its use, and some of the possibilities inherent within it.
The teachers closely monitor their students’ progress, keeping the level of challenge high. Because they come to know the children so well, the teachers at Brilliant Star can use special materials for individual needs to enrich the curriculum and provide alternate avenues for accomplishment and success.
The basis of our approach is the simple observation that children learn most effectively through direct experience and the process of investigation and discovery. In her studies of children’s learning, Dr. Maria Montessori noted that most children do not learn by memorizing what they hear from their teachers or read in a text, but rather from concrete experience and direct interaction with the environment. Asking children to sit back and watch us perform a process or experiment is like asking a one-year-old not to put everything in his mouth. Children need to manipulate and explore everything that catches their interest.
This led Dr. Montessori to emphasize the overriding importance of concrete learning apparatus and to the development of materials for mathematics, sensory development, language, science, history and geography. The learning materials are not the method itself, but rather tools that we use to stimulate the child into logical thought and discovery. They are provocative and simple, each carefully designed to appeal to children at a given level of development. Each material isolates and teaches one thing or is used to present one skill at a time, as the child is ready. Dr. Montessori carefully analyzed the skills and concepts involved in each subject and noted the sequence in which children most easily master them.
To facilitate the prepared order of the environment, the teacher arranges the materials on the shelf following their sequence in the curriculum flow chart. The materials are displayed on low open shelves that are easily accessible to even the youngest children. They are arranged to provide maximum appeal without clutter. Each has a specific place on the shelves, arranged from the upper-left-hand corner in sequence to the lower right. Materials are always arranged in sequence, from the simplest to the most complex, and from the most concrete to those that are the most abstract.
Second languages are taught to children at this age in the same way they learn their first language – through immersion. One of the functions of the classroom Assistants is to interact with the children using a second language. Brilliant Star has adopted Mandarin as its second language. Mandarin is the most widely used language in the world, spoken by more than one-fourth of the planet’s peoples. It is recognized as a language of increasing importance in the coming decades.
(While we use the phrase “second language”, we also recognize that many of the children at Brilliant Star already speak two or more languages.)