Written by Bryan Soh ’18
The majority of the TASIS community is enrolled in the High School program, which explains why it tends to be the most covered division at TASIS. However, there is a much smaller sub-community of TASIS that, in my level-headed opinion, has a much higher interest-factor-to-size ratio. The exclusive and elusive Al Focolare building is located a short walk down the hill from the main campus and is where much of the Elementary School action takes place. Home to Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, and first grade, Al Focolare is indeed a place buzzing with energy as one would expect, especially with the inauguration of the Pre-K 3 class this fall.
In late November, I headed down to Al Focolare to take a peek into the lives of the youngest members of the TASIS community. Below is my account of the morning.
8:00: The day begins
The sun is barely rising on a sunny yet chilly Wednesday morning, but the students are already streaming through the gates of Al Focolare, greeted warmly by Ms. Carol Hinchliff (Early Childhood Education Coordinator), Mr. Martino Stickley (teacher), and Mr. Fitzgerald (Head of the Lower School). The sounds of giggles and squeals start to fill the air as the children play outside until the school day starts at 8:15. After lining up and putting down their bags, puffy jackets, scarves, and gloves, the Pre-K 3 and Pre-K 4 students rush into class for their combined Morning Meeting with Ms. Ilse and Ms. Leah.
“At this age,” Ms. Hinchliff highlights, “a few months equates to tremendous cognitive, motor, and social developmental differences between kids. Therefore, whereas older kids would not struggle with interacting with individuals years older or younger than them, it is a huge leap for these kids. So even though this combined Morning Meeting between the three- and four-year-olds presents a challenge to the former group of students, it encourages them to develop their skills to match up to their older peers.”
One by one, the students find their own name cards and attach them to the whiteboard to indicate that they are present. They greet their teacher in unison after settling down, and four-year-old Tima stands up to lead today’s Morning Meeting.
Tima started this September in the Pre-K 4 program speaking no English at all, and today, less than three months later, here he is leading the Morning Meeting; he stands in front of the group and successfully identifies today as Wednesday, November 28, 2018; Ms. Ilse then helps him guide the class through a number of topics, including days of the week, colors, counting to 28 (today being November 28), weather (“today is cold, sunny, and not windy”), and what they are doing today (“we come to school, we work, we have a snack, we play outside, we go to art, we eat lunch, we do quiet reading, the teacher reads a story, we have rest time, we work, we have a snack, we play outside, we go home”).
The class sings a familiar song about weather and then learns a new song about decorating a Christmas tree, where they learn new vocabulary with words like lights, tinsel, sparkle, bauble, ribbons, star, and angel. It’s impressive what these kids are learning because I definitely learned two new words today with them. (I’ve also learned that a successful Pre-Kindergarten teacher at TASIS must be a linguist, an artist, a musician, and more.)
8:45–9:15: Library with Pre-K 3
As the Pre-K 3 students put on their jackets and gloves, Sebastian, 3, points out to me that he got a new jacket and really likes it. His class leaves the Morning Meeting to meet Ms. Alyssa Uecker, the ES Librarian, at Al Focolare’s very own library.
Pre-K 3 students make their way to the Focolare library.
After the kids settle on the floor following a quick “criss-cross-applesauce,” Ms. Uecker and the Pre-K 3 students greet each other with a song. But the class is quick to notice one missing member: Rocky the Raccoon Puppet. Ms. Uecker explains that Rocky was simply having a cup of tea out back, at which the children laughed uproariously. “Should I get Rocky to come out and join us?” asks Ms. Uecker. Of course, a unanimous “YES!” resounded throughout the class. Before long, Rocky receives a celebrity’s welcome from his paparazzi of three-year-olds as he emerges from the back of the library. Rocky exchanges pleasantries with the kids and teaches them a rhyme about making a cup of tea. “Here’s a cup, and here’s a cup, and here’s a pot of tea. Pour a cup, and pour a cup, and have a drink with me.” The kids act this rhyme out and repeat the rhyme with enthusiasm.
Story Time! The story of the day? Rory the Dinosaur Needs a Christmas Tree. As Ms. Uecker gives her especially expressive reading (with uber-clear enunciation to help with vocabulary acquisition), the kids follow along closely.
“It’s a Christmas tree!” “A star!” “Baubles!” Either three-year-olds have longer attention spans than me, or Ms. Uecker is extremely skilled at capturing theirs. I believe the latter is the case. The repetition of themes and vocabulary (in this case: about Christmas) throughout the day reinforces and aids their learning.
This is followed by an exercise in which the class uses markers to decorate a picture of a tree (all the colors are reviewed to reinforce some of the vocabulary discussed at morning meeting); each student selects the color of his or her choice and adds something to the tree (typically a bauble or a star, but in one case a spider web). Their Christmas tree is eventually decorated by colorful dots and a creatively appropriated spider web. Ms. Uecker and Ms. Hinchliff take this opportunity to recap the colors the kids have learned in American Sign Language. As the kids gesticulate to the different colors, I watch from the back of class with a dropped jaw. These kids are really sponges when it comes to soaking up knowledge.
Toward the end of class, the students are allowed to check out a book of their choice and then spend a few minutes reading alone. Library time soon draws to a close, and the kids line up once more to make their way back to Al Focolare. I part ways with the Pre-K 3 students with a heavy heart as I head for English class with the first graders.
9:15–9:45: English class with grade 1
The first graders are having English class with Ms. Sarah Hertig and today they are learning about yoga. Shortly after, Ms. Hertig uses her mini-lecture as an example to hand over the baton to the students. The students pair up and begin teaching each other about topics of their choice. Our student-teachers today briefly teach their partners about topics like snails, sharks, baseball, habitats, and even how to make a milkshake! Ms. Hertig also ensures that their partners are actively learning by “taking notes,” or at least simulating this action to make sure they pay attention to what is being taught.
Following this session, the students grab their notebooks and sit at their places to begin creating personal “teaching books” regarding their topic of choice. These teaching books will be used as tools to help the students explain their topic to others through their writing and illustrations. For a task that might seem tedious to some, these students display admirable enthusiasm and are all extremely excited to share their progress with Ms. Hertig and I. There was also a considerable obsession over sharks among the boys—a rather interesting observation…
It’s 9:45 and arguably a child’s favorite time of the day at Al Focolare. Why, you may ask? It’s Break Time! 30 minutes of pure fooling around —albeit, under adult supervision—is equal to 30 minutes of pure ecstatic heaven to any child, as vouched for by photographic evidence. The playground is children-dominated territory as the kids take to the swings, sand pit, and see-saw. Squeals and shrieks once again fill the chilly morning air. Joy in its purest form.
“PIZZAAAAA!” This word resounded throughout the group as enticing wafts of pizza filled their nostrils. “Can your olfactory sense pick up the smell of pizza?” Yes, that was an overheard conversation while walking down the stairs. The vocabulary being used between the teachers and kids still blows my mind. At this point of time, pizza was still being prepared and it was an hour out from lunch. These kids have a real admirable olfactory sense, I must say.
Break time soon draws to a close as the kids head back to class. It’s time to join the Kindergarten kids for their Fundations class.
10:15–10:45: Fundations with Kindergarten
First of all, I must say that I am really impressed with Ms. Koltypin’s Kindergarteners. Not only are they disciplined, but they are also well-mannered and obedient during class and outside of it. They are proactive learners and are quick to snap back into paying attention if they get distracted. In their Fundations class, students sing along to the alphabet while enunciating individual letters along with the words containing them. They learn specific actions to associate with those words, which I feel adds the kinesthetic aspect of learning for these young kids.
They run through the alphabet song a few times with Echo the Owl before they sit back down. Today, they are focusing on the words “Pan,” “Jug,” and “Yellow” to practice writing and enunciating the letters p, j, and y. It is evident that the teachers have made learning very enjoyable for the kids, as I do not remember myself writing the letter “j” with such enthusiasm. These days I find myself saying “start from the plane line…” while writing too.
Repetition is especially common in this class, as seen in the repeating of the alphabet song and the repeated writing of the letters with the accompanying pronunciations. Though this may seem like a no-brainer in regard to teaching children, practicing by drilling them with alphabet pronunciations and the words helps the students associate the letters with objects and properly master their pronunciation. There is a method behind the madness after all.
10:50–11:20: Lunch break
10:50 to 11:20 is the midday break for the children. Pizza, corn, and zucchini are on the menu today. Much to my surprise, the kids chomp down everything on their plate, showing no mercy to every iota of food. I thought a good handful of these kids would be as picky as I was—or even, am—but I was pleasantly surprised. The teachers help the younger ones cut their pizza slices into smaller bite-sized pieces, while the older ones are already independent enough to chow down on their portions—the perfect display of how motor development skills vastly improve during this age, as Ms. Hinchliff explained to me later on.
As lunch goes on, and second and third portions are being served, I get the chance to interview the Pre-K 3 students. As my interviewees and I engage in conversation—albeit having roughly four at a time as each bubbly interviewee attempts to get his or her own say in—I am deeply impressed at the extent to which they converse with me. They talk about their families, holiday destinations, friends all over the world, and even their experiences during a recent hike through the hills of Montagnola. These kids hold up better conversations than some who are 10 years older, just saying.
Alas, our short visit to Al Focolare must come to a quick end as the students head back to their classes for rest time. The children wave bye to me with huge smiles on their faces and even bigger leaps in their steps. I leave the building, head craned back to catch a glimpse of the last few kids still waving goodbye. It’s amazing what the warmth of several exuberant kids can do to thaw your heart on a chilly November’s day.