At Atlas Academy, our students will not learn Social Studies...they’ll learn History.
They’ll learn the story of our world, including the major people and events that shaped it.
And each time they hear a story, the students will add it to the giant timeline that runs across the walls in their class. After that, they’ll add the same story to a giant map that hangs on another wall.
Together, the timeline and the map will help them to keep track of the stories, and to make connections between them.
Back when I used to teach Kindergarten, I used a timeline in my class, and I noticed how it helped the students to make connections. In other schools, historical events are not taught in chronological order; instead, they are taught when the relevant holiday rolls by on the calendar. So, for instance, in October we talked about Christopher Columbus; in November we talked about the pilgrims; and in February we talked about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Typically, the children hear these stories and have no way to connect them, and therefore no way to really understand them, or care about them, or remember them--and stories are forgotten until one year later when they hear them again.
But, since I had a timeline in my class, it allowed my students to keep track of the people and events that we discussed. And one time, in February, as I was telling my students the story of George Washington, one student raised his hand and asked a brilliant question: he asked, pointing up at the timeline, “Mr. G, I don’t get it. How did Christopher Columbus discover America before George Washington made it?” If this five-year-old was able to make such a smart connection between events on a timeline which were not presented in chronological order, imagine how many connections children could make between events on a timeline if they were presented in chronological order.
At Atlas Academy, students will learn history in chronological order--from Ancient Egypt all the way to today.
The curriculum that we are using was written by Susan Wise Bauer, and it is called The Story of Our World. There are four volumes each with 42 separate lessons, or “stories”. The four volumes are: Ancient Times, The Middle Ages, Early Modern Times, and The Modern Age.
Students will work through these volumes in three distinct cycles as they age from elementary school up through high school.
During the first cycle, from 1st grade through 4th grade, students will become familiarized with the major people and events from history. Then, in the next cycle, from 5th grade through 8th grade, students will learn about the same stories; but this time they will read the stories themselves, and the focus will be on discovering connections between the various events. Finally, as highschoolers, students will cycle through the same material one last time; but this time the focus will be on discovering cause and effect relationships-- specifically, the role of ideas as the driver of historical events.
There are three main values--or benefits--that the students will get from our history curriculum. First of all, they will acquire a deep knowledge of the major people and events--and ideas--that shaped our world. Next, they will get thorough training in logical thinking by analyzing the causes and consequences of each historical event. And last, as a result of studying the story of the human race, they will develop a deep interest in and love for humanity in general; and they will carry this love with them into their adult lives, their relationships, and their careers.
Unfortunately, chronological history is not taught in other elementary schools. Instead, they teach a subject called Social Studies. And Social Studies has evolved to be something quite different from the geography and civics lessons that we remember from a couple decades ago.
Here’s an example of a modern social studies curriculum.
A number of other local schools use a social studies curriculum called “Children Discovering Justice” (CDJ). In their own words, CDJ’s mission is “to prepare young people to value the justice system, realize the power of their own voices, and embrace civic responsibility by connecting classrooms and courtrooms.”
Within this framework, each grade has its own specific focus. Here is the description of the first grade curriculum: “What is a Rule? The first grade curriculum engages students in exploring the laws and rules that help us to work together as a group. The curriculum focuses on four central questions: What is a rule? Why do we need rules? Who makes the rules? What is a good reason to challenge a rule?”
Like I said at the beginning of this article, at Atlas Academy, our students won’t learn social studies--we’ll stick with history.
Back when I was teaching Kindergarten, I also did some tutoring on the side. One time I was tutoring a third grader who was having a hard time with reading comprehension. He would read a long sentence in a book, but by the time he got to the end of the sentence, he had no clue what it meant. He was reading the words fluently, but wasn’t able to gather any meaning from them. In the end, I succeeded at helping this boy to improve his reading comprehension skills. And the key to it--one of the keys to success in reading comprehension--is grammar.
“A sentence has two parts,” I told him. “A subject, and a predicate”. “The subject is what the sentence is about, and the predicate tells you something about the subject.” And then we practiced. We read a sentence, and I’d ask him, “what or who is the sentence about?”, and then I’d ask, “OK, and what does it say about that person?”.
For example (from a Magic Tree House book): “The creature’s long jaws were opening and closing”.
“What or who is the sentence about?” -- the creature?
“What was the creature doing?”-- opening and closing?
“The creature was opening and closing?”-- no…?
“So what was opening and closing?” -- his jaws.
“So then what’s the subject?” -- his jaws.
“And what’s the predicate?” -- opening and closing.
By repeated practice in identifying the subject and predicate of a sentence, this child was able to significantly improve his reading comprehension skills.
In addition to helping kids with reading, grammar also helps with writing.
With writing, grammar mostly helps during the editing phase. This is after you’ve already written something, and you look back at it and you think, “No, it’s just not right. The way it’s written, there’s just something unclear about it.” And then you can use your knowledge of grammar to fix the problem and make your writing more clear.
But helping children with reading and writing are only the secondary benefits of learning grammar. The primary benefit--the main reason for teaching grammar in elementary school--is that it helps children to think more clearly.
Grammar is the science of combining words into a sentence. And a sentence is one single complete thought. So, in its fundamental sense, grammar is a science of thought. It teaches children how to express a thought (writing) and how to understand a thought (reading).
And later on, once children have learned grammar--once they have learned how words combine together to form a sentence--then they can learn how sentences combine together to form an argument: which is the science of logic.
Grammar is the precursor to logic. Grammar is about putting words together to form a sentence; logic is about putting sentences together to form an argument. Without first learning grammar, children cannot learn logic. And without learning either of those, a child’s knowledge will remain sloppy, unclear, and unconvincing in writing.
So, at Atlas Academy, we teach grammar in order to help kids to think clearly--which means, to clearly express thoughts in writing, and, while reading, to clearly understand the author’s thoughts.
But, unlike other schools, we do not believe that reading and writing are ends in themselves. In other elementary schools, reading and writing are seen as the end goal for children to reach. Once kids can understand what they read, and write a five paragraph essay, then their elementary education is complete. Other schools take their lead from the Common Core standards, which place an emphasis on “skills” rather than “content”. And so reading and writing are the two main “skills” for children to learn during elementary school. But this is not our perspective on reading and writing at Atlas Academy.
For us, reading and writing are not ends in themselves--but rather they are the means to acquiring knowledge of the world. The end is knowledge--to which reading and writing are only the means.
At Atlas Academy, we will help children to carefully process what they read so that it adds to a growing sum of knowledge in their minds. And also, we will help them to carefully write about what they know so they can see it on paper, and edit it, and clarify it, and make connections.
Grammar is a crucial tool that helps kids to read and write--and reading and writing are the means by which children learn about the world.
This is why we take grammar so seriously at Atlas Academy--because it is an essential tool for learning.
Our literacy program is one of the main reasons that parents choose to pay for private Kindergarten.
As I recently explained to one of our parents, “It’s February, and your 4 year old daughter already knows the sounds of the 26 letters, and she’s starting to put those sounds together to sound-out words. This is the exact same skill that is taught in February in other Kindergartens. At the moment, she’s about one full year ahead of her peers.”
How do we help our preschoolers to start reading in their pre-k year?
We teach them phonics. All of phonics. The full phonics system. This means the sounds of the 26 letters, plus the sounds of the 48 combinations of letters (eg. ‘tch’, ‘dge’, ‘ough’), plus 30 phonics rules (eg. “every syllable must have a written vowel”).
Armed with the knowledge of the full phonics system, children can read and spell 98% of the words in the English language. Contrary to popular belief, English is not a “language full of exceptions” where children must memorize long lists of words in order to read and write. English makes sense, it has a logic to it--in fact, the name of the curriculum that we use to teach the full phonics system is called The Logic of English.
But don’t they teach phonics in other schools? Yes and no.
Yes they teach some phonics. But no they don’t teach enough for the kids to actually be able to read and write. What do the kids do instead? They memorize. In other Kindergartens, kids memorize how to read and write about 50 words; and from 1st grade on they have spelling lists week after week.
I personally taught Kindergarten for four years. And during my last two years, I decided to try teaching the full phonics system to my students. The results were striking. The students in my class were the best readers in the whole district. Parents of former students have told me that the first grade teachers knew that the best readers came from Mr. G’s class. And it’s because those children learned the full phonics system, and were therefore able to sound-out and spell almost any word.
There’s one other interesting point to make here. Many other schools use a literacy curriculum made by Lucy Calkins, who is from Teachers College at Columbia University (the epicenter of American educational research). All over the country, children sit down for lessons from Calkins’ “Reader’s Workshop” and “Writer’s Workshop” programs. The problem with these programs--is that they don’t work. And this isn’t just my experience; it was recently confirmed by a non-profit group of experts called the Student Achievement Partners. They reviewed the efficacy of Calkins program against decades of literacy research, and concluded that it would “be unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.” One of the experts, Dr. David Paige, “who closely reviewed lessons for their phonics content, noted major failings, such as there not being enough time given to acquiring the phonics skills.” Another expert, Dr. Claude Goldenberg “found that [Calkins] program fails to highlight the importance of explicitly and systematically teaching phonic skills.
The results are in. Phonics works.
If young children learn the full phonics system, they will be reading and writing fluently by the end of Kindergarten. And from that point on, they no longer have to rely on adults for information; they can get it themselves from books; they are independent learners at the beginning of a long, exciting journey.
What is 1,267 plus 4,298?
This is a typical problem given to Lowell’s 2nd grade students in January from their Eureka Math curriculum.
This year, in January, at our school, our Kindergarteners could easily solve this problem using hands-on materials. Our Kindergarteners have other materials, too, that help them to solve multiplication and division problems.
What’s the secret?
The Montessori Math materials. Over a hundred years ago, the famous educator Maria Montessori developed a set of hands-on math materials that help children to count and do the four arithmetic operations. These are the materials that we will use at Atlas Academy.
But math isn’t just about numbers. Those numbers serve a purpose. And that purpose is: measurement.
Math is the science of measurement. It’s how we take our vague knowledge and make it specific.
It’s really fast. How fast? 65mph.
Or: It’s really big. How big? 859lbs.
Or: That will take forever. How long? 2 hours; or 6 weeks; or 10 years?
Math is what allows us to cook delicious meals (recipes), drive safely on the road (speed limits), and send rocket ships to outer space (calculus).
When children learn that math has a purpose, and that purpose is to measure things, then math becomes interesting and fun, and they can’t wait to find something else that they can measure.
What can they measure in Kindergarten and 1st grade?
The three main things that children will learn to measure at Atlas Academy are (1) time, (2) distance, and (3) shapes.
Time: the clock (seconds, minutes, hours, days), the calendar (weeks, months, years), and a historical timeline for centuries. That way, the year 1492 actually means something to them.
Distance: inches, feet, yards, miles. That way, they can actually grasp how wide the Atlantic Ocean is.
And what about shapes? At Atlas Academy, we will introduce our students to geometry by having them take measurements of shapes.
They will measure the sides of triangles with a ruler, and the angles of triangles with a protractor. They will measure the sides of rectangles, pentagons, hexagons, etc. with a ruler, and the angles with a protractor. Then, at some point, they will be able to see relationships between the sides and angles, and it is then that they will be able to enter the field of geometry.
The purpose of math is measurement. But, what is the purpose of measurement?
The purpose of measurement is to expand and refine one’s knowledge.
Expanded knowledge: It is measurement that allows children to relate days to years, and years to centuries, to be able to understand the course of historical events.
Refined knowledge: It is measurement that allows children to learn that there were exactly 284 years between when Columbus found America and when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
At Atlas Academy, math is not an end in itself. It is a means for children to expand and refine their knowledge of the world around them.
During math class. We will build their math skills. Then, we will use those skills to help them to learn more about the world in science and history class.
When math has a purpose, it is interesting, it make sense, and the children are motivated to keep learning more.
When the Ancient Greeks looked up at the sky, they saw the celestial bodies moving across it in a regular pattern. Naturally, they thought that the earth was in a fixed position, and the celestial bodies moved around the earth. This idea was accepted for many centuries. It wasn’t until over a thousand years later that Renaissance astronomers discovered that it’s not the celestial bodies that move--it’s us! It’s the earth and other planets that orbit around a stationary sun--not the sun and planets that orbit around a stationary earth. That was an enormous discovery that forever changed the way we think about our world--to realize that our planet is not special and that we are not at the center of the universe; but rather we’re on a massive sphere that is hurtling through space at 20 miles per second; and that our earth is only one member of a group of other spheres that are likewise hurtling through space.
At Atlas Academy, as part of our science curriculum, our students will retrace the steps of the great scientists who made this discovery. We’ll start with the basic astronomical observations made by the Ancient Greeks, and progress towards the heliocentric theory of the solar system. Our goal is for each student to experience the same “eureka” moment as the Renaissance astronomers.
This is science at Atlas Academy. The accumulation of observations leading to a simple but powerful theory.
We will gradually lead our students to understand such revolutionary theories as: heliocentrism, the atomic theory, evolution, and thermodynamics. This progression will start in our K-1 class with simple observations such as the differences between solids, liquids, and gases; and it will build towards more and more abstract theories up through middle school and high school.
Science starts with the accumulation of observations, and gradually builds up towards theories and laws. Historically, that is the path through which the various sciences were developed. Pedagogically, that’s the path through which a child’s science education should develop.
There’s a term for this style of education. It’s called the “hierarchical” approach to education. It means there’s a certain order--a hierarchy--in which facts must be presented to kids so that the facts fit together to build a solid, growing sum of knowledge. Everyone knows this when it comes to math--a child has to learn arithmetic first, and then algebra, and only then can he learn calculus. But when it comes to science education in other schools, the principle of hierarchy is routinely violated.
Here’s one example. A popular science curriculum that was developed at University of California, Berkeley, called the “Full Option Science System”.
For first graders, the first unit of this curriculum is on “air and weather”, and the very first lesson is supposed to teach children that “air is something real and is called matter”. The lesson consists of giving children a straw and letting them blow small objects across their desk; and then giving them a balloon to try to blow up. From these “experiments”, children are supposed to learn that “air is something real and is called matter”.
This lesson is a perfect example of a violation of the hierarchical approach, because there is no basis whatsoever for introducing the term ‘matter’ to the students. Although the lesson does give a couple of examples that ‘air is something real’, it doesn’t give any explanation as to why it’s called ‘matter’. The student could very well hear the teacher say that “air is called matter”, and proceed to say that he blew “matter” through the straw, and blew up the balloon with a lot of “matter”. He’s using the term, but has no clue what it refers to. For him, it’s a term that is now simply interchangeable with the term ‘air’. So if you told him, “No, see, the cup over there and the water in it; those are also matter”, then you’ve completely lost him. This lesson violates the rule of hierarchy because it presents a new concept--’matter’--without first supplying the children with the context they’d need in order to grasp it.
At Atlas Academy, we found a science curriculum that, for the most part, presents material hierarchically. The author’s name is Bernard Nebel, Ph.D., and the program is called Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding. He describes his lessons as “progressions of lessons that build understanding in systematic steps over time.”
So, how does Bernard Nebel teach something like ‘the air is something real and is called matter’?
Well, his first step is actually to teach children about the concept of ‘categories’. He has a whole lesson in which children practice organizing various items into categories.
The next lesson introduces three important “categories”: ‘solid’, ‘liquid’, and ‘gas’. He then asks the children to “assign anything they encounter” to one of these categories. Then, he shows that things can change from solid to liquid and liquid to gas, and vice-versa. The easiest example here is to show how water exists in all three forms.
Now, and only at this point, he feels comfortable introducing the term ‘matter’. He says that all solids, liquids, and gases, together, are referred to as ‘matter’. So, everything in the world is matter; and sometimes that matter is a solid, sometimes it’s a liquid, and sometimes it’s a gas.
Nebel then guides the children in looking for a unifying principle; something that is the same about all matter; something that is true about all solids, liquids, and gases. He uses a few thought experiments to demonstrate that the unifying principles are that (1) all matter takes up space, and that (3) all matter has weight.
Now the students have a method for figuring out whether or not air is matter in gas form. They can try to determine if it takes up space, and if it has weight. If it takes up space and has weight, then air is matter in gas form; if not, then it’s not. He then goes through a number of simple but ingenious experiments to demonstrate that air does in fact take up space and have weight.
At this point the children are ready to conclude--by their own first-hand observations and logical inferences--that air is in fact a gaseous form of matter.
These particular lessons on ‘air and matter’ are great examples of hierarchy in science education.
They are also the foundational lessons that eventually lead children to learn about chemistry and, ultimately, about the atomic theory of matter. Other theories that Nebel builds up over time include the theory of evolution--which starts in first grade with ‘life-cycles’; the laws of thermodynamics--which start in first grade with ‘making things go’; and the heliocentric theory of the solar system--which starts in first grade with the concepts of ‘day and night’.
Nebel’s curriculum is, for the most part, a hierarchical approach to science education. It progresses gradually from one concept to the next, eventually culminating in grand sweeping theories.
There are three crucial values--three benefits--that children get from science education when it is presented hierarchically.
First, they acquire an in-depth knowledge of the world around them, which accompanies and illuminates their everyday experiences.
Second, through repeated exposure to content which is presented in logical succession, they become steeped in the method of logic. By learning science in a methodical way, they develop the thinking methods that are required to make new scientific discoveries.
The third crucial value that children get from a good science education, is simply that they love it. When science is taught hierarchically, the children really understand it for themselves, which gives them a deep interest in the subject. They develop a love for science and a strong motivation to learn more and to continually expand their knowledge of the world.
When science is taught hierarchically, they really get it, and they really love it.
Back when I taught Kindergarten, I used to read the first 8 books in the Magic Tree House series to my students. They loved it. They called it their “Jack and Annie” books (named after the main characters).
But, this was not part of the curriculum. It was extra-curricular. It was an experience that I, as a teacher, wanted my students to have.
Literature, as a separate subject, is not taught at other schools schools. Instead, the curriculum area which includes literature, among other subjects, is called English Language Arts (ELA).
Of course, teachers do read books to their students, almost every day. But for the most part, in Kindergarten and 1st grade, the books are short, fun books with very shallow meaning, such as Dr. Seuss books, or Mo Willems books.
Some teachers, of course, read longer, chapter books to their young students, but that is not required by the curriculum.
The Common Core curriculum for ELA consists of lists of “skills” that children are supposed to develop from reading books. Here’s one such skill for kindergartners: “With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.” And here’s one more: “Ask and answer questions about unknown words in a text.”
These “skills” are the reason why teachers stick to short, fun books, instead of longer literary classics, because it’s much easier to teach these superficial skills with superficial texts.
At Atlas Academy, our students will analyze the novels that they read, but this skill will not be the main purpose of our literature class.
To me, great literature is as much an end in itself as it is a means to academic success. While I do think that it’s important to analyze a books characters and how their traits drive the plot; I also believe that the main benefit of reading great literature to children is simply that it’s enjoyable.
I remember that my 1st grade teacher read “The Witches” by Roald Dahl to us, and I was enthralled. To this day, I still vaguely remember the plot of the story, although I have never re-read it. It was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget, and I want the students at Atlas Academy to have the same experience.
I want our students to experience the delightful characters and inspiring worlds imagined by such children’s authors as Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, Katherine Patterson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Now, we do have a second purpose for teaching literature, other than the fact that it’s enjoyable. We also want to help our students to develop a deep understanding of each story that they hear, and we want them to develop a deep understanding of the characters involved.
We will do this mostly by teaching them a single skill: we will help the children to recognize that the plot of a story is driven by the characters' traits.
We will read a story to them, and then ask them “why” a certain event occurred. And by answering that question, students will learn how to identify character traits and see how such traits drive the plot of the story.
The main benefit that children get from analyzing literature in this way, is that they start to develop an inventory of personal “characteristics” that they can use to better understand themselves and the people around them.
For instance, by reading the Magic Tree House books they get to see what it looks like to be “cautious” like Jack vs. “risky” like Annie. Or, from reading the book Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner they can see what it looks like to be “brave” and “persistent” like Little Willy, or “sympathetic” like Stone Fox.
By reading great literature, children can build-up in their minds a repertoire of characters--each with their own collection of character traits--and use this repertoire to better understand and deal with themselves and the people around them.
At Atlas Academy, our students will enjoy great literature, they will see how each character’s traits drive the plot, and they will develop a repertoire of human characteristics that will deepen their understanding of what it means to be a human being.
Here’s a list of the books that we’ll read in our K-1 class (mostly from a list of VanDamme Academy’s selections for their K-1 class).