Salem State and Bentley School: an unique partnership (op-ed by Mary-Lou Breitborde)

Bentley School students

Who knew that measuring raindrops, exploring bubbles and floating a golf ball could help teach children to read and write? As part of a four-week program organized by Salem State University in partnership with the Salem Public Schools, Bentley School students are doing just that—strengthening their English, literacy and math skills while gaining a knowledge of science at the same time.

Experiments with water—such as those above—are just a few examples of the kind of integrated learning that Bentley schoolchildren are experiencing this summer as Salem State faculty and reading program graduates work with Bentley teachers using the theme “A Wave of Reading” to tie together English, literacy, mathematics, and science for children who need enhanced support. 

For the children involved in this program, the local environment of the school and of the university across town provides a rich resource to motivate and deepen learning. For all of us involved in the venture, the curriculum is evidence that all the ingredients necessary to raise children’s language and content learning are right at hand. What’s required is simply the crossing of boundaries: between town and gown; between school and community; and across disciplines.

When a team of university faculty, public school teachers and Bentley School principal Renata McFarland pool their talents to bring children’s immediate worlds into the curriculum and teach skills in the context of interesting subject matter, you can call it ‘place-based education,’ ‘thematic learning,’ ‘content-driven literacy,’ or ‘inquiry-based instruction.’ The common denominators remain the same, however—collaboration, community and connected teaching and learning.

Salem State University science education professor Cleti Cervoni is working with Bentley School teachers Ed Mercier, Gabrielle Montevecci, Marta Garcia, Nancy Dukes, Kelly Papalegis, and Carol Fine to develop the science curriculum around the theme of water that is the focus for teaching language, literacy and math as well. The children make regular field trips to investigate the tide pools at the edge of the harbor. Back in the classroom they read and write about what they find, and demonstrate the results of their research in murals and dioramas, photographic essays and clay. Fourth and fifth graders venture over to the Salem State campus once a week to explore the salt marsh nearby and use informational texts and writing to explain what they saw.With the guidance of Salem State art professor Rebecca Rohloff, they then use papier mâché and watercolor to recreate their experience and talk about it.

Commenting on the program, Ed Mercier says it “has been a fantastic learning experience. It revives many of the great teaching practices that I learned as an undergraduate education major at Salem State. It challenges me to constantly improve my practice, which is exactly what I need to succeed as a teacher." Gabrielle Montevecci echoes that sentiment. “I am thrilled with the collaborative partnership, and hope it is the beginning of many such projects with the university.”

Bentley students are not the only beneficiaries of the program. Their teachers are also learning new ways to teach, assess and channel their pupils’ learning. Assisted by coordinator and Salem State education instructor Cami Condie and assistant coordinator Richard Giso, who coach teachers on how to assess children’s needs and how to use guided reading, poetry and Readers’ Theatre, they are learning to help the children become fluent readers and writers.

“Looking over assessments with a team of eyes rather than by myself was enlightening,” said one teacher. Others noted that, “We’re focusing on moving children forward as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and artists. Every child in every classroom deserves this kind of teaching every day.” By the end of the second professional development day, Bentley teachers marveled that there were “so many ways to study water!”

Program coordinator Condie, a language and literacy specialist, is delighted with the collaborative relationship between the university and the Bentley School and the joint planning of a program that is growing children’s motivation to read, write, observe, create, and know things. “Assembling a Dream Team of teachers, coupled with a curriculum driven by student needs as opposed to programs, has led to amazing results. The students are so busy learning about tide pools and salt marshes that they have no idea how much reading and writing they are doing every day. At the Bentley Summer Program, the children call learning fun! ”

The four-week summer program currently underway is part of a number of ongoing efforts involving Bentley students and teachers. Kevin Fahey, associate professor of education at Salem State University, was on the Bentley School redesign team and is presently the primary facilitator of a year-long professional learning community project at the school. “Our main objective,” he says, “is to find ways to help all members of the staff work more collaboratively. At monthly meetings, we’ll explore ways to develop a more comprehensive approach, and in so doing provide ever more effective teaching and learning to the school’s students. Finding ways to work together better—and learning from each other as we do—will only enhance the teaching/learning community at Bentley.”

 Mary-Lou Breitborde EdD is associate dean of the School of Education at Salem State University.