On a late May morning, seven-year-old Eleanor worked on an integrated-studies lesson about creating a restaurant. "They were a little spicy," she wrote of the dumplings she had tasted in class the previous week in a hands-on lesson that combined world cultures and English.
Eleanor's prose about Chinese food was not just a random, if creative, writing exercise. It was part of a unit at the Community Roots Charter School, in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, that integrates social studies with reading, writing, and a variety of other subjects during a months-long project about how eateries work. The study ends with an elaborate simulation as the students transform their classroom into a dining establishment for one day near the end of the school year.
During the restaurant study, Eleanor and her classmates got to integrate a number of subjects through hands-on lessons such as reading menus and restaurant reviews in class and then tasting food and writing reviews and menu text of their own. They then studied four ethnic cultures before deciding which kind of restaurant they wanted to open.
The students eventually decided as a group to open a Chinese restaurant, and the class spent several weeks reading fiction and nonfiction books about China to help them make decisions about their restaurant’s decor, ambience, and menu. In music class, they played xylophones and triangles, and they wrote a song about Chinese food. In art class, they planned "tablescapes" inspired by Chinese culture.
"We use integrated studies, rather than isolating a subject area, to make learning more meaningful," explains Allison Keil, the school's cofounder.
"These kids are not having isolated, disconnected experiences," adds Frank Pignatelli, a professor at the Bank Street College of Education, who serves on the Community Roots board of directors. "The school is actively engaging the kids in constructing knowledge. It is child as researcher. Their teachers allow them to make inquiries, to question organically, to ask the questions that arise from their experiences and the curricular theme that they're engaged in."
Integrating the Real World
Most notably, the curriculum at Community Roots combines integrated studies with project learning. In other words, not only are subjects integrated, they're also taught through a hands-on project driven by a larger question—in this case, "How does a restaurant work?"
The first graders began the restaurant study by walking through their neighborhood to note the eateries in the area. Next, they learned about how a restaurant operates by interviewing and observing chefs, waiters, and busboys. Then restaurant employees interviewed students for restaurant jobs, and the kids adopted those roles during class and snack time.
By the time they were scheduled to open their restaurant at the end of the school year, the first graders had made group decisions about every aspect of their restaurant, from the cuisine (Chinese) to the restaurant's name (Golden Dragon) to the menu (for instance, the class selected Eleanor’s dumpling description to appear on it).
But beyond engaging students through a creative curriculum, the integrated-studies projects at Community Roots are also designed to imbue their students with concepts such as collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking. "The big idea behind the restaurant study is that they're looking at community," explains Keil.
A Winning Combination
The real-world–based restaurant study is an example of how Community Roots successfully combines project learning with social studies integration in most of its curriculum. Social studies is a running theme in every unit. For example, each grade participates in three project-learning and integrated-studies units each school year on subjects including the kids' families to their school, the history of Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, development of Fort Greene Park, and public transportation.
"Through integrated studies, kids are able to access information in many ways, from reading to writing, and it reinforces things that they’ve learned," says Lorrie Balton, a Community Roots first-grade teacher.
Although combining subjects for more rich learning is a core of the Community Roots curriculum, teachers don't integrate social studies into every subject, particularly when it comes to reading and basic math. Still, Community Roots teachers do integrate these subjects whenever they can. Eleanor's teachers, for example, had recently found an opportunity to use restaurant seating as the basis for a math lesson on grouping numbers.
"In the elementary grades, it's necessary to have direct instruction in things like reading and writing, and then there's the integrated study on top of that," Keil explains. "So it's an ebb and flow in terms of how the projects unfold. We don't force the integration."
In mid-June, Golden Dragon opened its doors in Brandi Forte and Lorrie Balton's first-grade classroom. (Each grade is team taught.) The class transformed the space into a functioning Chinese restaurant, complete with an operating kitchen and bar, thanks to some hot plates and some clever classroom-furniture rearranging.
They hung paper lanterns throughout the classroom, and each table featured bamboo centerpieces the students had made in art class. Renaya, the hostess for the day, earnestly seated the line of customers, which consisted primarily of proud parents and siblings.
Eleanor was a waitress at Golden Dragon, and as soon as customers arrived at her table in the center of the classroom, she hurried over and said with gusto, "My name is Eleanor, and today I'll be your waiter. Someone will bring you your drinks. Today we have dumplings -- six dumplings, so that's one dumpling each. I'm going to bring your dumplings, and then I will take your order."
Kasia Walicka Maimone was one of four diners seated at Eleanor's table, and she watched as her son Kayetan worked as a busboy at the opposite end of the restaurant and carefully poured water and removed plates. "Ever since he started the restaurant study, everything we did in the world or at home was somehow related to it," she says of her son.
"I feel so strongly about this model of education, of integrated studies and project learning, because it's working," adds Walicka Maimone, who also has a daughter at Community Roots. "My kids are so excited to go to school and about the day in front of them. And they come back and are so excited to tell us what happened. What's so spectacular about this school is the teachers engage the kids in the life that happens around them. And once they are excited, they learn almost effortlessly."