At Kaleidoscope, everything teaches

Posted: Monday, February 07, 2011

At Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Sciences, lines between learning disciplines are blurred in order to bring integrated education into focus. A science project diagramming the solar system involves writing, math and artwork. A project to record data on sunrise and sunset times also had students listening to Edvard Grieg's "Morning" song, then observing and writing poems about the colors, sights, sounds and feelings evoked in watching a sunrise.

"We really try to gather everything. It's just like a kaleidoscope, when you are looking through the lens and keep turning it you see it a different way through arts and science and music," said Kelli Stroh, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Kaleidoscope.

The kindergarten through sixth-grade charter school, in Kenai, aims to produce students who are creative, inquisitive and lifelong learners, able and excited to pursue knowledge in all subject areas. To do that, the school focuses on integrated, thematic instruction and hands-on, experiential delivery.

"Our school encourages students to analyze, investigate and synthesize information, and to develop independent opinions and conclusions through inquiry, dialogue and reflection," the school's mission statement reads. "We believe that children learn best by making meaning of their experiences through an appropriate learning environment that provides connected experiences with attention to the whole child: intellectual, physical, social and cultural."

Part of Kaleidoscope's philosophy is that students learn better when they understand why something is important, when it fits into other areas of learning and with their own lives.

"Research shows that children learn better if things are connected and they have a purpose for learning them," said Elaine Larson, music teacher.

That's why thematic instruction is used throughout the curriculum. This year's theme is "From My Backyard to Our Universe," with all grade levels coming up with projects and lessons that relate to the theme. Doing so takes collaboration and dedicated planning time.

"We look at the subject area through the different viewpoints. I look at the subject area through the musical eye," Larson said. "What can I do that will integrate with this unit? At the same time I look at, 'What is it in the curriculum that I need to accomplish with the children in the different grade levels?' Planning together is key, but we also we pay close attention to not just having cool activities, but what are the skills and objectives the students need?"

In the third-fourth classrooms, students started first quarter exploring "It's My Place" as part of the school-year theme. Students interviewed Kenai businesses and made copies of the buildings out of paper mache.

Second quarter's focus was "We're In This Together," exploring connections in students' lives. Classes did a family history project, researching genealogy and creating a cookbook with family recipes.

"Mine was carrot jam. My grandma made it and passed it on to my mom," said Raven Austin, in Stroh's class.

Third quarter is focusing on an "Incredible Journey." Students were finishing a diagram of the solar system last week, measuring out concentric circles for the planets' orbits, labeling everything and adding their own artistic flair. Raven said she would paint her diagram.

"I need to erase Jupiter first and make it bigger, because it's the biggest planet," she said. "I like painting because it's really fun and it's not so hard to me. My sister hates it because it's hard for her, but you've got to practice at it to be good at it."

Practice makes perfect, after all. Or at least makes for a good strategy in problem solving, which is another facet of Kaleidoscope's focus.

"They see meaning into what they're learning. There's a big connection for them. They see the relevance in terms of the learning," Wykis said. "Everything teaches."

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