Lower & Middle School Director's Blog: The Unspoken Curriculum

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.
--Martin Luther King Jr.
As we approach the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, this time of year in particular always reminds me about the values preached and modeled by Martin Luther King Jr. His legacy is strong, and his constant emphasis on critical thinking, collaboration, and thoughtful dialogue still rings loud today, 51 years after his tragic death in 1968.
At Gill St. Bernard’s—like in any school—it is fairly straightforward to look up when we teach chemistry or whether or not we offer woodworking, for example. What comes between the lines is sometimes harder to identify, yet many times it is the unspoken curriculum that rounds out an exceptional education. At GSB, there are many opportunities for students between the lines of our formal curriculum, and in light of MLK’s legacy our emphasis on teaching communication skills is one of those opportunities.
In the Lower School, our homeroom teachers begin most days with what is known in layman’s terms as circle time. Part of a program through Caring School Community—a curriculum emphasizing social and emotional learning—children sit together in a circle on the floor sharing experiences, planning for the day, or reviewing important concepts. Emphasis is placed on listening skills, honoring one voice, and building confidence in effectively communicating in a group setting.
In the Middle School, outside of classroom dialogue and opportunities within the regular schedule, several programs exist that provide students real time practice with communication skills. A weekly Current Events Club is held at lunch on Thursdays, providing students a chance to discuss topics of their choosing in a casual yet supervised atmosphere. New last year was our Building Bridges course specifically designed for eighth graders. The central text of the course is Seedfolks, and this dialogue-based class allows students the opportunity to discuss what it means to be a productive and positive member of a community. New this year in the Middle School is The Ethics Bowl. GSB is one of several area independent schools to be invited to this event, which takes place in late April. Organized into teams of five, students explore ethical issues regarding personal, political, or societal scenarios. Points in the competition are based on clarity of thought, the ability to respectfully and patiently deliberate with those who hold opposing positions, and a collaborative spirit. This year, participation in the Ethics Bowl at GSB is through teacher nomination.
In the Upper School, plenty of opportunities exist for students to practice their deliberation skills. The English and history classrooms all have Harkness-style tables, designed to foster student conversation. Model UN, Mock Trial, and The Academic League are additional opportunities—and the list goes on.
As it turns out, one of the most important unspoken areas of our curriculum is indeed the spoken word. Teaching young people how to ask critical questions, how to consider various viewpoints, and how to peacefully and constructively dialogue with others to find common understanding is paramount to our collective futures—and true to the legacy of Dr. King.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful, and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.