Head of Lower School, Martha Hirschman, Embraces Innovation and Gets Students Up and Out of Their Seats!

A love of dancing led Martha Hirschman into the halls of teaching and ultimately to Dwight, where she has been Head of Lower School for the last five years.

A love of dancing led Martha Hirschman into the halls of teaching and ultimately to Dwight, where she has been Head of Lower School for the last five years. Under her guidance, students and faculty benefit from innovative practices at every turn. As anyone strolling the hallways or visiting classrooms in this part of campus knows, there is a palpable buzz of excitement in the air. We sat down with Ms. Hirschman to learn about the exciting things happening in the Lower School and how she inspires students to soar!

What makes Dwight's Lower School special?

The faculty and the students — they're why I get up every day! Dwight has the strongest elementary school faculty group I have ever worked with; Dwight teachers are energized, innovative, and always willing to push themselves to sharpen their own skills, regardless of their level of teaching experience.

Our Lower School students are bright, eager to learn, and talented in so many ways. And our faculty members are very able to "lean in" and be risk takers, which is part of the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile. Students pick up on their energy and enthusiasm, so that our classrooms are exciting places where everybody is learning together.

What are some exciting new innovations in the Lower School this year?

We're really on fire in the area of technology. This year, every single student has his or her own iPad. These kids are 21st-century learners, and we have to prepare them to be technologically literate.

Fifth grade students engage in "genius hour," a designated time when they are innovating, pursuing sparks of genius, trying new things, failing at things, and trying again. It's really a time of discovery. The fourth grade curriculum has introduced "tinker time," a designated time when students have the opportunity to focus on learning through playing, creating and 'tinkering." First grade students immerse themselves in "imagination investigation," during the last period of each day. This time is dedicated to whatever suits their fancy, in Dwight's tradition of personalized learning and exploration. At Dwight, we know that the future is going to require students to think in multiple ways and we are committed to preparing them to do so in their early learning years.

How are Lower School students and teachers embracing innovation?

They are doing so in several ways—and with great enthusiasm. One of our fifth grade classrooms has changed how their desks are configured based on their study of the brain, and of a book called Mindset by Carol Dweck. That really kicked off the year for them. We've learned that students don't always learn best in the traditional, frontal teaching mode. Therefore, students created spaces where there are cushions on the floor, rugs, areas where they can stand at a table rather than sit, and little nooks, so that they can leave the desk if they choose and find a space that fits their individual preference.

I threw out a challenge for teachers to consider doing something similar, and some have reconceived the "teacher desk" by downsizing it, while others have removed their desk altogether. This has given them the freedom to spend less time at a desk and to move through the classroom during the day, rather than relying on using the anchor of the teacher desk.

Our students are also very invested in what's going on in the Lower School and they have a voice. Last year, fifth grade student council representatives advocated for a longer recess period and I said, "Absolutely!" This year, we extended the recess period by five minutes in the schedule. We know that once students have had physical activity they come back to the classroom much more able to focus because the whole body, including the brain, has been involved in exercise.

What are some milestones students achieve in the Lower School?

Typically, in grades one and two, you learn to read; and in grades three, four, and five, you read to learn. So first and second graders are decoding and learning to recognize basic sight words, identifying the main idea, for example; and third, fourth, and fifth graders are reading to gain more mastery of text and to deepen ongoing comprehension skills. This is one example of an academic milestone.

We have a strong and robust curriculum in language arts and mathematics. We also have a life skills program, which addresses the heart of who you are as an individual; these are often referred to as character skills. The life skills program was piloted during my first year with Dwight fifth grade students, and it has expanded into an age-appropriate, sequential life skills program designed for grades 2-5. We might discuss anything, from what it means to be a friend, how to self-advocate, or how to have a respectful difference of opinion with someone. All discussions are designed to be relevant to where students are in their social, and emotional development.

We want our students to be citizens of the world. We want them to be smart kids, to discover their sparks of genius, and to celebrate their academic achievements, but we also want them to be kind and caring people. We are creating and reinforcing a culture of respect and kindness. The International Baccalaureate Learner Profile provides ten strong attributes, which help to reinforce these important skills for life.

Tell us about Lower School students collaborating across grade levels.

Students collaborate across grade levels on several projects within the Lower School. As most of our classrooms are right next to each other, we can facilitate mixed recess, mixed reading groups, and mixed math groups easily and efficiently. Students can move to different classrooms and connect with older or younger students with the goal of learning together. Additionally, we have a book buddy program, which pairs students of different grade levels once or twice a term to read to each other or to collaborate on a project-based activity.

We also collaborate with the Upper School students. We recently had a science lab where Lower and Upper School students worked together to dissect a sheep's brain. Fourth and tenth graders also connected on a history and leadership unit. And the third grade "star party" is held every year, which brings together Upper School faculty members and students to study the solar system.

Why is it important for students in different grades to work together?

It builds a sense of community, which we promote throughout our student body. When Lower School students move through the halls and recognize older students, they feel a part of something bigger than just the world of their classrooms. It is also wonderful for our older students to see how knowledgeable their younger peers are when they come together in curriculum-based activities.

How does Dwight's global vision pillar come to life in Lower School?

First and foremost, we bring it to life through the curriculum of the IB Primary Years Program, which, by nature, provides a global lens through which students in every grade learn about topics with a global perspective. For example, fourth graders recently completed an amazing unit on the religions of the world. They visited synagogues, mosques, churches, and cathedrals, and explored how people identify through religion.

Another example is participating in initiatives such as Global Read Aloud, which is designed to forge shared experiences among students. Fourth graders recently read a book called Fish in a Tree in the classroom, and then they made global connections through the Global Read Aloud website by blogging, through Skype, and online conversations using their iPads. So, their experience of that book wasn't in isolation within the classroom, school, city, state, or even the country — it's within the world.

Every year, the fifth grade travels as a class to London for a reciprocal exchange program with year 6 students at Dwight School London. This is a longstanding tradition and just one of the ways we encourage students to forge global connections and friendships, expose them to other cultures, and educate them to be global leaders of tomorrow.

Fifth graders also watch CNN Student News for kids and we have a subscription to Time for Kids magazine, which does a beautiful job of breaking down world topics to an appropriate educational level.

Here at Dwight, we have so many people from so many different places, and we all learn about and from each other. We are a global school and initiate so many things to build connections to life beyond the four walls of Dwight. Next month, our fourth and fifth graders will be performing in Dwight's global concert at Carnegie Hall, where they will share the stage with older students from around the world. Being part of a global network of schools enables students to have such meaningful experiences.

What is your personal spark of genius?

My own spark of genius is dance, which led me to education. I grew up dancing, singing, acting, and playing the piano. By the time I was in tenth grade, I knew that I wanted to focus on and major in dance. I earned my bachelor's in education in dance and English at the University of Michigan, and then a master's degree in dance at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. My first job was at a boarding school as a full-time dance teacher. Teaching in different schools has provided me with several opportunities to take on areas of responsibility and leadership, yet allowed me to continue to teach along the way.

Did you always want to be an educator?

I started teaching dance when I was in eighth grade — in my basement, in Jackson, Michigan. I had a group of neighborhood girls that would come over once a week for a class, and my interest in teaching basically grew from there. Teaching has always been a passion, I really can't imagine doing anything else.

What is your educational philosophy?

My philosophy is one of "teaching to the head and the heart." You teach to the head because it's the brain — the academic engine — but you also have to teach to the heart because that's where you find the person and his or her character. Having good character skills is almost more important than anything anyone can list on an academic resume. And that's one of the reasons why I love being a part of Dwight so much because our community puts a premium on educating the whole child.

We couldn't agree more!

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