School Culture

The Specials: Curriculum Enrichment Builds a Positive School Culture

Symonds Elementary’s music, art, PE, and media teachers weave their practices into the fabric of the community, getting to know each student while enriching the school culture.

October 7, 2015
Photo credit: Edutopia

Like all elementary schools, Symonds has its own distinct culture. The development and maintenance of the school environment requires intention and daily work. Social curriculum and academic collaboration require clarity and consistency throughout the building. Symonds art, music, PE, and media teachers all play a vital role in reinforcing the school culture. We do this regularly by creating opportunities to meaningfully express the foundations of our school.

We specialists (or "specials" teachers) teach every child in the school, often for five or six years. This long-term experience has several advantages:

  • Building familiarity with each student, and with his or her siblings and family
  • Watching a student grow and mature over time
  • Recognizing and nurturing abilities outside typical academic skills

We have the ability to interact and collaborate with every teacher and every grade level, giving us insight into how individuals and the entire school work together.

Maintaining a Culture of Caring

Because of classroom demands, the logistics of collaboration are often the most difficult thing to work out. Symonds' master scheduler, Principal Cate, has figured it out. Specialists are given the opportunity to carve out a meeting time once each six-day cycle. The official purpose of what we call our Quest Team is planning and organizing school enrichment, but it also provides us the opportunity to discuss current school, grade-level, classroom, and student happenings. We celebrate achievements, share struggles, and brainstorm solutions.

Symonds' specials teachers believe that it's important for child development to have common expectations, language, and procedures, both in specials and throughout the building. At the beginning of each year, we revisit our common practices for routines. These include how we greet the students for the first time and when they enter our classrooms each day, how we begin and end each class, and our consistent behavior expectations. Our common methods come from the Responsive Classroom and Social Thinking curriculums to reinforce Symonds' Four Pillars philosophy of effort, knowledge, kindness, and community.

Events throughout the school year help maintain our culture of caring. At our Day 1 Assembly on the first day of every six-day cycle, 400+ members of our school community (including students, staff, families, and guests) sing the songs taught universally in music class. Songs may be about a holiday, about comically helping us learn how to conduct ourselves during assemblies, or about the place we live. Much of the music is just for fun and woven into the fabric of our school year. During assemblies, classes also have the opportunity to present on cultural and academic themes, giving each student a chance to practice public speaking. Through collaboration with specialists, these presentations often include components of art, music, literature, and physical activity.

Community Themes

Symonds' specials teachers work together to collaborate on school-wide and grade-level activities. We spearhead themes for the year, and plan family activity evenings and special assemblies. Here are few examples:

Underground Railroad

Each winter, we work on an all-school Underground Railroad unit with specials teachers creating inter-related units. This includes an Underground Railroad experience in PE, slave songs and dances in music, and literature and research themes in media. We also organize an all-school assembly with a storyteller or musician sharing the Underground Railroad theme. This set of activities creates context for talking about civil rights throughout history to the present.

Rock Swap

After noticing second grade students struggling with active listening and peer relationships, we collaborated with classroom teachers to create a second-grade unit focused on our social curriculum and their geology unit. To prepare for our Rock Swap, we practice language and social skills for conversation and fairly trading items. The activities take place in specials classes (games, songs, literature, technology) and when we're co-teaching the classroom morning meetings, culminating in a grade-wide Rock Swap.

Peace Circus

A PE circus residency with expert clown/performer Troy Wonderle culminated in a Symonds School Peace Circus. The theme revolved around peace and our Four Pillars. Art classes collaborated in designing materials and a giant puppet, while the drama club provided student actors a leadership role in the play. All students learned, practiced, and showcased their newly-acquired circus skills.

Enhancing School Climate

In addition to these collaborative units, each specials teacher often enhances core curricular studies in the classroom through art, music, PE, literature, and technology. By understanding each grade's units of study, we're able to focus our curriculum on grade-level topics. We might introduce a concept in the specials class to expand on or enrich a grade-level study. Specials classes tend to be very hands-on or project-oriented, so expanding a classroom study into art, music, PE, or media provides access to content through a variety of avenues.

Finally, Symonds specials teachers are regularly involved in conversations and meetings to ensure student success in learning. A representative of our Quest Team attends regular special education meetings to share our experiences and observations with students. Being included in these meetings gives us tools to work with special needs students. Because we work with all students in different areas of their school life, we're able to collaborate with special educators and classroom teachers to paint a whole picture of an individual student or class. It's particularly rewarding to share a struggling student's successes in one of our disciplines. In this way, we begin laying the foundation of greater student learning and success.

Instead of merely playing a supportive role, specials teachers at Symonds actively develop the culture of our school community. A specialist is a multifaceted position. We're not confined to our own classrooms and the occasional event, because the school's system includes our fields of study in all areas of the school. We participate in regular classroom activities as morning meeting co-teachers and members of lunch, recess, and student dismissal duty teams, allowing for interactions and observations outside of our own classrooms. We receive both encouragement and financial support to extend our culture beyond the school day and include after-school health- and arts-oriented clubs.

Our Quest Team is a valued component of the staff because Symonds School understands the importance of having people in the building who see, hear, and understand each child, view the school as a whole entity, and uphold those Four Pillars: effort, kindness, community, and knowledge.

School Snapshot

Symonds Elementary School

Grades K-5 | Keene, NH
355 | Public, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$17132 District
Free / Reduced Lunch
88% White
5% Asian
3% Hispanic
2% Multiracial
1% Black
0% Pacific Islander
Demographic data is from the 2014-15 academic year. Financial data is from the 2013-14 academic year.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Symonds Elementary.

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Filed Under

  • School Culture
  • Arts
  • Physical Education
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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