Preschool and Junior Kindergarten
Quest Academy’s mission is to provide gifted children a challenging curriculum and a nurturing environment. We encourage each individual to strive for personal excellence in a warmly connected community. Here’s how we do that in the “Otter Class,” our program for 3-4 year old students.
Our youngest students start their day in our sunlit entry, greeted by welcoming smiles and warm gestures from their friends and teachers. While the students sign in and take care of their belongings, parents and teachers touch base about the children, classroom news, and generally build our connections. Kids settle in and investigate the morning provocation, constructed on a table, that prompts them to draw or sculpt as they are inspired. The day officially begins with our morning meeting, then children enjoy time for meals, focused classes, and most importantly, exploration and play. The daily routine affords both dependability and flexibility and spontaneity.
Our approach to childhood, learning, and teaching is based on decades of work by researchers and teachers in both gifted education and early childhood education. One of the most important of these comes from Reggio Emilia, Italy.
The people of Reggio Emilia, faced with rebuilding their community at the end of World War II, decided that the best way to create a town worth living in was to invest in schools focused on learning in community. Their philosophy and practice isn’t standardized for replication in other schools because it is specific to their culture, environment, and community. So, we say that the Otter class is “Reggio inspired” -- we are guided by certain philosophical and practical principles:
Community and Collaboration
- Family is at the center of children’s learning. Children’s first and forever teachers are their families. Therefore, we develop strong teacher-parent/caregiver connections.
- Children learn best in a community that they actively and intentionally co-create. For example, our classroom rules (agreements, really) are made by the children.
- Learning happens through relationships. Collaborative efforts are necessary for cognitive development. Children imagine, create, explore, and solve problems together, every day. Dialogue, negotiation, critique, debate, and discussion are central to learning, so they’re a big part of the work and play we do in the Otter Class.
Each child is a unique, fully formed human being
- Every child is inherently worthy of respect. Their feelings are real. Their ideas are valuable. Children learn to respect us and each other by experiencing our respect for them.
- Each child’s unique potential belongs inexorably to them. We facilitate the child’s own development, not like a sculptor forms clay, but more as a gardener nurtures a flower.
- Children show their learning in myriad ways, storytelling, drawing, explaining, dancing, sculpting, building, writing, painting and more. One of the Reggio school’s founders, Loris Malaguzzi, poetically described this as “the hundred voices.”
Curriculum - we pursue wonder
We know that children learn as a consequence of their own actions. They learn best when they’re genuinely curious about something. “Academic” skills are best learned when embedded in play and work that children find intrinsically interesting. Therefore, most of the curriculum in the Otter class emerges directly from the children’s fascinations.
Short explorations can run their course from spark to completion in anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. The flexibility within our reliable daily routine allows students and teachers to creatively follow a child’s lead.
One day, a student sang a spontaneous song. “Did you like it?” she asked. I smiled, “It sounded like a happy song and it was very quiet.” “It would be louder with a microphone,” she said. I replied, “I think I know where to find materials to make one, let’s go.” And we did.
Projects can last from a few weeks to a few months. Students use and extend their math, literacy, problem-solving, and other skills in the process of investigating, exploring, and creating a topic that fascinates them. Some past projects include the Airplane Project, the Candy Project, and the Salon Project.
Teachers as Wonderers
- Teachers frequently wonder out loud, provoke and stimulate thinking, to encourage children to see learning as a life-long, enjoyable endeavor.
- We constantly observe and listen in order to understand children’s learning, interests, and expressions.
- We regularly guide research, and co-construct knowledge with children, to honor their curiosity and encourage them to follow through.
- We reflect on our own teaching and learning in order to constantly improve the art and science of our teaching,
- We listen to and speak to each child as an individual and as a member of a community, to model our understanding of humanity,
- We think creatively, innovatively (and sometimes quickly!), to capitalize on students’ spontaneous sparks of curiosity,
- We resist the temptation to jump in with answers. The process of discovery is vital, so we act as guides, connecting students with resources for them to engage with directly.
We think our program is pretty cool and unique. Our learning environments are beautiful, stimulating and reflective of children’s learning (Reggio teachers often refer to the environment as “the third teacher”).
Following the foundational experience in the Quest Academy preschool program, the Junior Kindergarten experience celebrates and respects the joy and wonder that naturally abounds in this pivotal year of a child’s development.
As four- and five-year olds gain independence in leaps and bounds this year, our unique program latches on to that momentum and provides an environment to grow within that is both rich and multifaceted.
Academics are taught within thematic units, weaving together concepts in emergent math, literacy, science and social studies. Through imaginative play, the arts, and practical application, lessons are developed to engage kinesthetic learning strategies that invite and encourage creativity and open-ended thinking.
As a bridge from Preschool to Kindergarten, the Quest Junior Kindergarten student enjoys a mix of structured and unstructured activities. Our day begins with routines and stimulating activities that provide fodder for imaginative play at the end of our day. Our teachers are flexible and adaptive, differentiating instruction for individual student need and growth.
Junior Kindergarten students begin their journey to knighthood by focusing on Quest’s five foundation character traits: compassion, patience, responsibility, industry, and respect. These five words are woven into our daily goals and language. These character traits provide guidance for our young students learning to interact socially with the world around them. Foremost, our goals in Junior Kindergarten are to love learning and to adopt the qualities of a good learner: wonder, persistence and believing in oneself.
One sunny October morning, we’d just finished singing our welcome song when “N” said, “Mr. O., I want to add something to the agenda.” I passed N the whiteboard and a marker and N “wrote” down the idea. N gave me permission to write the idea in my own writing, next to his, then dictated to me a new classroom rule he’d proposed in writing: “no toys going down the slide.” Out loud, I spelled the words as I wrote. Some students watched and listened, and others helped spell the words. I held up a picture book and said, “I was planning to read this today, but we can postpone it if this discussion is urgent.” All but one of the students agreed that the discussion was definitely more urgent and off they went, debating the merits and disadvantages of the proposed rule. After about ten minutes, the students reached consensus and we added the rule to our classroom agreements. It’s not always like that. Sometimes the debate deflates as it proceeds; other times students stretch the discussion to their own breaking point and we decide to table it for another meeting. Always, my role as teacher is to facilitate, guide, and coach the students as they take on their role as a full community members, to co-create the learning community of which each of them is a part.