How We Teach: Sara Knox on Elementary Classroom Practice

Bill Fisher
The first surprise for anyone who talks with Shore's Head of Lower School, Sara Knox, about the core practices that define the school's Pre-K through Grade 5 classooms is that the seemingly timeless gesture of raising a hand for a turn to speak during a classroom discussion is, in fact, routinely discouraged. 

"What we’ve found is that, often, when kids have an idea they want to share, their hand goes up, and they immediately stop listening to anything that’s happening around them," Knox explains. "So instead, if we encourage them to keep their hand down, to listen, and to engage with the flow of ideas and conversation, they’ll soon learn how to find their moment to jump in and contribute or add on to what someone else is saying—which makes for a much stronger discussion."

[This January offers a series of opportunities for prospective Shore families to meet Knox and fellow teachers and administrators, and to experience the school: a First Friday drop-in tour on January 5, a fun Saturday Studio art/science event on January 6, and an all-grades Discovery Day Open House for the entire family on January 21. Learn more.]

Spend more time with Knox, one discovers, and the surprises keep coming.

"When you visit one of our early elementary classrooms," Knox says, "you'll see our teachers coaching kids to look and listen to their classmates. Even in first and second grades, we encourage students to take ownership of the flow of discussion, teaching them how to use questions as prompts. You might hear a child saying to a partner or to the rest of the group, 'Tell me more about that.' As they become more comfortable, we then teach them how to use expressions like, 'I want to piggyback off of your idea.'"
 
Learning how to dissent is just as important as learning how to affirm, Knox continues. "Something else that we deliberately teach is how to say, 'I’m not sure I agree, because….' If a child is listening and hears something that isn’t what they were thinking, they’re learning that there are ways to disagree that actually help move the conversation forward."

With discussion and student-driven learning at its core, the typical Shore classroom is often a place where students eagerly work independently or in small groups, with teachers gradually releasing responsibility for prompting inquiry. In many ways, the rapid progression from teacher-centric instruction to student-directed exploration with teacher support is a theme that repeats itself across the entire Lower School, not just in homerooms, but in every area, from the iLab to S.A.I.L.

"At the start of any unit," says Knox, "whether it’s writing or social studies or math, teachers own much of the responsibility for guiding the class. But as they see the children becoming more comfortable with the material, we let go of some of the responsibility and ask the students to take on more. By unit’s end, the idea is that we’ll hand off something to students and they’ll be able to do it independently, and demonstrate mastery."
 
Take reading, for example: imagine a second grade class that's about to launch a unit in understanding character, suggests Knox. "At the start of the unit the teacher may offer a few different read-alouds, where the questions and conversation starters are coming from the teacher to get the children to think about character. Then they’ll roll that out to a small group for guided reading, where they study the same text and the same concepts, but dig just a little bit deeper." Finally, Knox says, the teacher hands the text over to children to explore independently; they'll be accountable for showing mastery by writing about a character on their own. 

If higher-level thinking begins surprisingly early in the Lower School, Knox says that Shore's concept-based approach to learning across the curriculum is the cause. "We like to talk about concepts versus topics," she explains. "On the one hand, topics are things that you can learn everything about—by reading books and gathering facts, for example. But topics don’t always allow for the kind of synthesis and analysis that we hope to encourage in our students."

A concept, she says, is more abstract. Take one example from first and second grades: perspective. "What a concept like this allows us to do is group topics under a larger umbrella, and help kids make connections and comparisons—skills they can take with them and continue to use as they encounter new topics down the road. In other words, concepts nurture thinking."

That philosophy weaves its way through every subject Shore's elementary students explore, from reading and social studies to math and, especially, writing. "Our approach to writing," Knox explains, "has more to do with the craft and the quality of the writing than with 'perfecting' things like spelling and grammar." Visitors can see this play out through the writers workshop, a daily, largely independent writing session that often focuses on big ideas such as story structure, dialogue, and action—or, as Knox describes it, "unfreezing" characters.

"A typical writers workshop might begin with five minutes of very intentional discussion and concrete examples related to a single strategy, such as unfreezing characters by making them talk. The teacher may follow that with a quick guided writing activity, and then set students to an independent writing activity during which the teacher is able to visit with each student one-on-one."

The individualized instruction that occurs during these mini-conferences is a time for teachers to quickly evaluate where a child needs a push, and, in the moment, to offer an idea or question that prompts thinking about the next creative step. "It's wonderful to see our teachers move from one child to the next, and to witness students' moments of inspiration," Knox remarks. "We often say, 'Teach the writer, not the writing,' and this is where that approach really shines."

The focus on ideas and understanding, rather than technical perfection, guides Shore's approach to teaching spelling, as well. "Because our emphasis is on the craft of writing, we encourage 'inventive spelling,'" explains Knox. Children's ability to grasp phonetic concepts develops gradually, and so does their approach to spelling—from writing only initial consonants in a word, to adding end and middle consonants, and finally to adding vowels and letter combinations. Teachers practice balance when it comes to evaluating and correcting these "mistakes," holding editing conferences with students during which they pick and choose a few key issues for emphasis. "But we really don't try to touch on every 'error,'" says Knox. "That would create overload, and discourage the kind of creativity and fluidity that we're after."
 
In both spelling and math, however, pointed instruction and practice always complement this concept-based approach. Shore's elementary phonics program, Words Their Way, runs from Pre-K through Grade 4, and offers rigorous word study within a unique, research-based framework. "Studies have shown that the traditional spelling program, with a list of words each week and a test on Friday, actually doesn't work very well," says Knox. "Children just don’t retain what they learn week to week to become successful spellers." Instead, Words Their Way, and the research it's based on, argues that offering children—in a differentiated and developmentally appropriate way—just-in-time insight into how words work, allows them to adopt and practice spelling skills over and over again as they encounter new words. "Instead of remembering individual words," explains Knox, "they learn concepts and components that are used in lots and lots of words."

Much the same can be said for Shore's elementary math program, Math in Focus, which emphasizes visual, hands-on learning and problem-solving skills in teaching children how to understand numbers, not just compute on the page. According to Knox, "When our kids come to math class, it’s very rare that they’ll use paper and pencil and nothing else. Instead, they'll have lots of opportunities to work in small groups using a variety of manipulatives, dice, counters, whiteboards, and the like. Doing this lets kids mentally grasp how numbers work; we call it becoming a 'mental mathematician.' We do this very well at Shore, and by the fourth and fifth grades, many of our students are faster than their parents at calculating mentally."

Yet for all the academic work that happens in Shore's classrooms, there's one aspect of the elementary program that's even more important. Knox explains, "The culture of our school elevates the social and emotional well-being of our students as one of our core concerns, essential for academic success and individual growth. We create so many opportunities for our teachers to deeply know their students, both intellectually and personally, that we immediately notice emotional or behavioral needs and work as a team to support each child."

Formally, this approach to social and emotional well-being is known as "Responsive Classroom" methodology. Not merely a reactive framework to catch problems when they occur, Responsive Classroom informs nearly every aspect of Shore's elementary practice, institutionalizing a core set of social-emotional competencies side-by-side with academic ones. "What this looks like in the classroom," says Knox, "is touchstones like the Morning Meeting, a daily opportunity for the entire class to sit together in a circle on the rug, talk together, and set the tone for the day. It's about engaging and demonstrating respect and care for every member of the group."

Other Responsive Classroom hallmarks, such as "quiet time" and "energizers," get right to the heart of kids' day-to-day well-being. "Literally, quiet time is just that," explains Knox. "Kids can sit at their desk, be sprawled on the rug, get cozied up with a buddy, with no expectations. Sometimes kids use this time to do something like writing or reading; many draw or do puzzles. It’s an emotional reset for the rest of the day." Energizers, on the other hand, get the class up out of their seats and moving around. Like recess, these quick activities help recharge and refocus the brain.

From no hand-raising to inventive spelling, and from mental math to quiet time, Shore's elementary classroom practice is, in some ways, full of surprises. But as Knox explains, the results and, more importantly, the culture it creates, are not. "For us," she says, "this all feels completely natural; it's who we are as a school. The level of preparation, planning, and expertise that our teachers rely on to do what they do every day is tremendous. Yet in the classroom, what you see doesn't look difficult at all: the care our students show for each other, the engagement with their teachers and peers, the moments of inspiration, the excitement about exploring and discovering the world on their own—it all looks simply joyful."
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    • Third graders work together.

    • Fourth graders gather around the outdoor Harkness table.

    • Students take over the Octagon for a discussion.

    • Fifth grade math is hands-on.

    • Second graders plant seeds.

    • Fifth graders collaborate.

    • Pre-K 1 students get close.

    • Third graders team up in the iLab.

    • Fifth graders read with their Pre-K buddies.

    • The result, according to Sara Knox, is joyful.