Teachers know what kids need to learn.
Kids know what they want to learn.
At Waterfront Elementary School, teachers and kids put their heads together to come up with some of the most dynamic curricula in the city.
It must be working: Waterfront's scores on standardized tests measuring basic academic skills are among the best in the district, and many of its graduates advance to the best public and private high schools in the area.
Waterfront, just blocks from City Hall near the Erie Basin Marina, is one of the city's most-sought-after magnet schools. Many parents are taken with the school's striking appearance and open classrooms. Others like the prominent role of music and art.
The school's curriculum may be the star, however.
It differs from what is offered in many schools -- city and suburban -- in two ways:
Teachers involve pupils in developing curricula.
Themes are taught across subject lines.
Phil Gullo, who works in a team that teaches fifth- and sixth-graders, said his colleagues ask themselves two questions when they start developing lesson plans: What do we want pupils to know, and what do we want them to be capable of doing?
They don't stop there, however. The teachers also ask the pupils what they want to learn.
Pupils in Gullo's class listed 25 questions, titled "What We Want to Know," for the current astronomy theme. Among them: Why are craters in the planets, and does the Earth have the only moons?
Gullo said working with teachers and pupils to develop new curricula, rather than dusting off last year's lesson plan, makes teaching -- and learning -- more interesting.
"It motivates me," he said. "If I have ownership, I have a harder work ethic. Kids are the same way."
The theme this particular week was astronomy. Half of Gullo's pupils listened -- sitting at tables and on the floor -- as he explained an assignment that would require them to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. The objective was to learn math skills.
Next they would have to locate their city on the planet -- social studies. Later they were expected to write a story about an imaginary planet. Once the story is written, they will create a fantasy creature in art class to live on their imaginary planet.
The other half of the class was down the hall in music. Pupils were working in groups of three and four, making a simple song out of planet names. First they sang it in a distinctive rhythm, then played it on a variety of percussion instruments.
"If it's not fun, I don't do it," explained music teacher Alexis Zolczer.
The kids seemed to be enjoying themselves as they learned the planets -- and they didn't sound half bad.