Principal touts innovate kindergarten program

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Underlying principle is that play is the best medium to allow young minds to learn

Curt Angeli, Special to the Times Herald

“Pirates” Autumn Pate, Ethen Britzke and Mashya Webster check out the seven seas during a Gillett Elementary School kindergarten class.

Walking down the hallway of Gillett Elementary School, you might be surprised to hear the loud, joyful voices of tiny pirates shouting, “Arrrghhh!” Sticking your head in the door, you might see 5-year-olds, decked out in eye patches and brimmed hats, boarding an actual pirate ship and preparing to set sail on the wide-open sea.

And you might think, “Are these kids just playing in school or are they learning?” and the best answer to that question would be, “Both!”

This year, our 5-year-old kindergarten classes have adopted and implemented the Tools of the Mind curriculum, a program that develops cognitive skills (such as self-regulation, working memory and cognitive flexibility) while also developing academic skills such as symbolic thought, literacy and mathematical understanding. But “play” is used as the skill-development activity for the students, and the teacher works to support the development of mature, intentional and dramatic play.

In other words, as student act out their routine as pirates, they are intentionally reinforcing routines in their writing, memory and self-regulation – and not even realizing how much they are learning by doing so.

Tools of the Mind is a curriculum based on the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who believed that play was the best medium to allow young minds to learn, and that teachers could cover a wide range of skills within organized and intentional play. Gillett Elementary School implemented the program at the 4K level last year and in 2018-19 trained many of our staff in the nuts and bolts (and well as the mindset) of the next step in the Tools programming.

One of the first things you might notice entering the classroom (when the pirate ship isn’t on the high seas) is how students are not only working cooperatively on tasks or dramatizations, but how long they are able to attend to those tasks. Students learn important foundational skills in literacy, and write every day using Scaffolded Writing. Student plan their own learning every day, set weekly learning goals and work with a different “study buddy” each week.

In our Tools kindergarten classrooms, children are well on their way to being independent, self-regulated learners, with the supports for development woven all across the activities and the teacher’s approach to classroom management. Our students have shown tremendous growth in their early literacy and numeracy assessments using this program, and it’s not hard to see why.

Every unit is based on a book in the “Magic Tree House” series, which students read and then re-enact the travels of the main characters, Jack and Annie. In the process, they transform their classroom into different times and places: Medieval Europe, the African savanna, Ancient Egypt and Japan, the Ice Age, the rainforest – and yes, the open seas of the pirates. The practice of dramatizing the events and social interactions in these books develops the child’s natural love of make-believe and active play, while deepening their comprehension.

With students being so engaged in their learning, it makes it easy for teachers to methodically slip in developmental skills and have the students not even realizing how much they are learning, because they are having so much fun while doing it! Furthermore, many studies show that student engagement in kindergarten is critical for future success in school.

Our kindergarten teachers, Mrs. Deb Regal and Ms. LuAnn Neuenschwander, have worked with our 4K teacher and coach, Mrs. Leslie Pekarek, to implement the program this year. The program has been a great success, and we look forward to not only continuing to welcome our newest students into 4K and 5K with Tools of the Mind, but to see the growth of our students for years to come.

Curt Angeli is principal of Gillett Elementary School.