Teaching & Learning Blog

Learn more about PS1's academic program, philosophy, and curriculum through the lens of Nancy Harding, our Assistant Head for Teaching & Learning. The Teaching & Learning Blog features posts published several times throughout the year. See the latest posts below.

A Virtual Toast to PS1 Teachers

Summer days are long, but summer still speeds by.

Enjoy your time with your children. They are wonderful.

For this last blog of the 2018-19 school year, I want to present a virtual toast to the teachers at PS1 Pluralistic School.

Along with the comprehensive progress reports teachers just finished writing about the development of each child, teachers also write detailed self-reflections about their teaching each year at this time. They are long, about eight pages, and cover a wide variety of aspects of teaching and learning. It is my privilege to meet with individual teachers and talk about their work and these reflections. Every teacher acknowledges their strengths and examines their areas for growth. They are introspective and think about how they are going to study over the summer. Growing and learning are integral to who they are as professionals.

Many of the classrooms have created special mini-units for these last few weeks to keep students engaged and focused as they get summeritis. Walking into classrooms, I see students who are engaged and focused.

When the students leave for the summer, the teachers will attend professional development, clean-up their classrooms, and start to brainstorm curriculum ideas and themes for next year.

It is an honor to work with the teachers at PS1. Please join me in a virtual toast to them.


Studio Stewardship

Social Emotional Learning at PS1 (SEL) begins a soon as our students enter the school in Youngers. The program is ingrained at each cluster level, with teachers supporting students’ SEL in numerous ways. In the Olders cluster, the Studio Stewardship program supports a culmination of this learning for our students. The Studio Stewardship aspect of the SEL program is guided by Genevieve Mow, our Child Development Specialist and Chris Kuzina, The Studio director. This blog, written by Genevieve and Chris, provides an overview of the program.

Studio Stewardship has two main components. One component of the program is for Olders students to practice their leadership skills in an experiential setting with Chris. The other component, led by Genevieve and one of the classroom teachers, is designed to enhance students’ attitudes and beliefs about themselves, their relationships with others, and their education. The sixth-grade equivalent students participate in Studio Stewardship from September through Spring Break. After Spring Break, the fifth-grade equivalent students begin the program.

Chris: I mentor the Olders students, helping them work in the Youngers and Bridge classrooms as well as in The Studio. This year, Olders worked directly with Youngers on their various writing, reading and math centers. They also worked with the Bridge classes to help them with their Studio science lessons related to physics. This leadership gives Olders the opportunity to learn alongside and give guidance to their younger peers on a variety of different projects and learning goals. We are very proud of the relationships that are forming between age groups and the service that is being performed around campus. This not only helps our Olders students begin to value the power of generosity, but it also allows us to see where and in what capacities these students feel inspired in growing their leadership abilities and at the same time experiencing self and social awareness.

Genevieve: I meet with students together with one classroom teacher from each class to provide a structured forum and space for students to process their thoughts and feelings as they transition to adolescence. The groups are small to provide a space for honest and thoughtful conversation. There is a clear roadmap for discussion including managing stress, digital citizenship, values, and the upcoming transition to middle school. Students can also bring up other topics of interest as they arise.

In the class, the teacher and I sit in a circle with the students. Each class begins with an initial “check-in” to provide an opportunity for anyone to ask a question or bring up a subject to discuss. The conversation will always reference the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (www.casel.org), five core competencies, which are:

1.    Self-Awareness:

2.    Self-Management

3.    Social Awareness

4.    Relationship Skills

5.    Responsible Decision Making

Through discussion and role-play, art and games students learn about themselves, develop in their understanding and management of emotions to show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships with peers, and explore how to make responsible decisions. We hope that providing this learning environment for students to discover and discuss their feelings provides each of them the foundational skills that they will take with them to middle school.



In her book, Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, Barbara Blackburn (2008) states, “Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.” To create an academically rigorous environment, teachers must help students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.

As I prepared this blog for publication, I walked through each classroom to find evidence of rigor. To provide a sense of continuity, I include here examples of rigor from Youngers to Olders, specifically in the subject area of Writing.

In Youngers, students wrote about the features of non-fiction text. This is the culmination of a long process in which students are required to identify characteristics of non-fiction text and to understand their purpose. From books about Antarctica to Matter, students are reading and writing to understand the specific structure of non-fiction text and the value of non-fiction to provide information. Rigor is evidenced in the varied levels of text that students read. Students wrote multiple drafts to address specific learning goals, from scribing letters correctly to ordering their ideas. On an ongoing basis, teachers meet with each student individually throughout the week to review their drafts and go over expectations. These one-on-one conferences ensure that students incorporate new concepts and provide a rich opportunity for each student to progress.

In Bridge, students wrote poetry inspired by paintings that they created. I include some here:


As you read these poems, notice the careful imagery, rhythm of the language, and sophisticated vocabulary. Teachers base their learning goals on the Teachers College Reading program to provide students with clear expectations and standards. In writing these poems students experienced multiple opportunities to move through the different stages of the writing process to take their pieces from rehearsal to publication. The finished product that you see here reflects the arduous process that an author goes through.

In Middles, students wrote non-fiction research reports about Monarch Butterflies. These reports are individual, detailed, and fact-checked. Teachers and students examined a rubric together that offered students detailed explanations for expectations. An educational rubric is a way to communicate expectations of quality around a task. They are typically divided into distinct sections that explain and illustrate the properties or characteristics on which the task is going to be evaluated.

In Olders, students worked to strengthen their understanding of inference and the importance of using text to support one’s argument. Looking at specific chapters of a novel, Olders students wrote about the inferences that they were making from the text and supported their arguments with specific and concrete examples. Once again, students were aware of the expectations and precisely what was required to create publishable-quality papers.

One bi-product of rigor may be cognitive disequilibrium. Cognitive disequilibrium occurs when there is a mismatch between what a student is currently thinking and new information that may not “fit in” to that way of thinking. This can be initially uncomfortable for learners and may result in a temporary dissatisfaction, or a feeling of unease. Equilibrium is restored when students expand their thinking to incorporate these new concepts.

This blog offers several examples of the academic rigor that takes place daily in our classrooms, from Youngers to Olders. The essential components of rigor: content acquisition, critical thinking, relevance, integration, application of concepts, long term retention, and student ownership of the learning is essential to all of the work we do at PS1.

What Is A Learning Goal And How Do We Think About Learning Goals At PS1 Pluralistic School?

Over the winter break, I had the opportunity to read all of the PS1 progress reports, from Youngers to Olders. Rather than it being a chore, it was a pleasure. It is evident from these reports how well our teachers know our students, socially and cognitively. Each report offers a complex snapshot of where a student is at this moment in time. One way that teachers are able to capture this information is because they are thoughtful and purposeful about the learning goals that they set. In this blog, I describe learning goals and how I work with teachers to plan them at PS1.

Setting learning goals is the process of establishing a direction to guide learning (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). Learning goals are the backbone for all lessons. It is the focal point for planning instruction. When teachers communicate learning goals to students, students can then make connections between the steps they are taking in class and what they are supposed to learn. They can gauge their starting point in relation to the learning objectives and determine what they need to pay attention to and where they might need help from the teacher or others. This clarity helps decrease anxiety about students’ ability to succeed and helps to support intrinsic motivation.

Learning goals are specific, and the language that teachers use to articulate them is essential since it requires actions that are measurable and observable. The language of learning goals is precise, objectives are set for specific tasks in particular, and there is a range of activities for the accomplishment of a particular task.

Learning goals are developed on three levels. The broadest goals occur at the unit level. These are created as an essential question that will help interweave social studies, science, and specific academic content. The next level (monthly) goals come from established research-based curricular standards and benchmarks. The third level of learning goals (weekly and daily) is determined by teachers to meet the needs of their students. For example, an essential question might be, "Why do people move?" This question acts as a unifying theme. In this example, geography and history learning goals come from the National Social Studies Curriculum Standards. The final level of planning integrates standard academic curricular goals with students’ academic and or developmental levels. These goals cover a range that is appropriate for all of the students in the class. 

Middles Math Example:

The unit level goal is an essential question. For the Middles Cluster, it is: What are relationships? Specifically, the goal is that students will be able to identify relationships as a concept, how relationships impact their role in the community, how relationships impact objects scientifically, and that students will explore relationships between people and the places where they choose to live. Through this example, you can see the rich opportunity we have to use these large goals to interweave academic and social learning.

At the monthly goal level, we have broad learning goals related to the topic that are based on standards and benchmarks. An example from Middles Math is: Investigate the relationship between multiplication and division. Use a variety of strategies to build subtraction fluency (including looking for patterns and relationships, determining unknown quantities on both sides of an equal sign). This is one example of a monthly math goal and is in no way comprehensive. There can be a number of monthly math goals.

The weekly level contains specific lessons and strategies. In this example for Middles math, these include but are not limited to: practicing facts and fluency with interactive math journals, differentiated stations to review skills related to subtraction fluency, determining unknown quantities on both sides of an equal sign, math learner glyph’s to extend and illustrate thinking, and enrich thinking, having students choose tools to demonstrate their thinking, and continued practice with interactive math journals.

The daily plans are iterative and change based on formative assessments that are ongoing and whether a student needs more or less time on a given skill or concept.

As students become familiar with specific learning goals, they gain experience in self-reflection about their learning. They can self-select learning targets, self-monitor their progress, and self-assess their development (Glaser & Brunstein, 2007; Mooney, Ryan, Uhing, Reid, & Epstein, 2005).

As you can imagine from the paragraphs above, all of this planning takes a lot of time and professional expertise. Teachers are expected to know their pedagogy and the strengths and challenges of their students.  One of the hallmarks of the PS1 program is the level to which our teachers truly know each student and have an in-depth understanding of each student’s development. The process of setting and following through on learning goals in this manner enriches that experience by facilitating students’ growth and their ability to progress.

Observe, Hypothesize, and Experiment: Science Education at PS1

At PS1, science is about students learning to observe, record, hypothesize, examine, and experiment to develop their scientific problem-solving skills. We take a three-pronged approach to our science curriculum following the model of the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS). Our school addresses a broad scientific theme every year, and the themes rotate between Physical/Earth Science and Life Science. Within these broad themes, I work with teachers to choose the coordinating NGSS, and clusters follow the associated learning goals. Students maintain detailed science journals that they use to record their science learning and continue throughout their years at PS1.

In the 2018-2019 school year, we are focusing on Physical/Earth Science. This topic examines important questions such as, “How can we make new materials?” “Why do some things appear to keep going, but others stop?” and “How can information be shipped wirelessly.” A fundamental goal in our science program is for students to see that there are underlying cause-and-effect relationships that occur in all systems and processes. Because the physical science ideas explain many natural and human-made phenomena that occur each day, developing an integrated understanding of them is essential for all learners.

NGSS seems to have been tailor-made for PS1. One example of a standard is: Develop a model of waves to describe patterns in terms of amplitude and wavelength and that waves can cause objects to move. Within the standard, there are specific sub-goals. The NGSS divide each one of these sub-goals into three sections: Design and Engineering, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts.  This three-pronged approach is ideally suited for PS1. The design and engineering work occurs in the Studio, teachers address the core science concepts in classroom lessons, and teachers use the cross-cutting concepts to help students make links between science and other subjects that they are learning. Chris works closely with all clusters and classrooms to support science learning in the classroom as well as with the amazing design and engineering work that he does in the Studio.

Design Thinking:

To expand on Chris’ work in the Studio, it’s important to elucidate the design thinking process. The heart of design thinking is Alvin Toffler’s quote (1970), “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." This is the foundation of design thinking. Students are attempting to solve problems—real problems—with their brainpower. They are unlearning and relearning constantly and they understand that their level of success depends on their solution's practical application in the real world.

The principles of design thinking (https://dschool-old.stanford.edu) are:


Identify a driving question that inspires others to search for creative solutions.


Inspire new thinking by discovering what people really need.


Push past obvious solutions to get to breakthrough ideas.


Build rough prototypes to learn how to make ideas better.


Refine ideas by gathering feedback and experimenting forward.


Design thinking supports PS1’s philosophy that engaging students to solve real-world problems empowers them to change the world. Want to see our STEAM Studio in action? Watch our video profiling ongoing design thinking projects with all Clusters at PS1 HERE.


Additional Posts:

PS1 and Thematic Curriculum:


Structure in a Progressive Classroom: