In addition to being the mastermind and coordinator of our yoga and meditation program, Nicole Dreyfus is also one of our fearless fifth grade teachers. Specifically, she teaches science and history to an energetic bunch of excited learners. Ms. Dreyfus’s teaching philosophy allows for a very “hands on” approach to learning courses that are traditionally more text-oriented. Her approach is also deeply rooted in neuroscience. When asked if she has a specific process that she follows for supporting her students, she offered the following: “First, I have my students read new material and allow discussion and questions to arise naturally. Then I typically find a way for them to express this new material through writing in order to further strengthen the connections. Next, we review the material through a variety of avenues and this is often where the doors get kicked open and the questions begin to flood in.” It is at this point that Ms. Dreyfus turns to one of her many multisensory projects to bring it all together.

She recently completed one such project after tackling a unit with her class on the three domains that encompass all life on earth. After solidifying their understanding of the Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya domains, they turned their attention to the many kingdoms within. Starting with an empty table top, the prompt is simple: create a castle for your chosen kingdom using recycled materials and have fun! Ms. Dreyfus encourages the kids to go a bit crazy with their ideas, designs, and research. To construct their castles, each group built realistic looking inhabitants to represent the “community” within. The final touch to each kingdom’s “castle” is a sign posted in front explaining what one must do to live in the kingdom. Wherever possible, Ms. Dreyfus gave simple and appropriately vague directions in order to welcome as much creativity as possible. The results were spectacular as can be seen in the photos!

Beyond simply learning the material, the goal of these kinds of projects is to create a multisensory learning environment through reading, writing, discussion, and art. With respect to the depth of the understanding that this project introduced, Ms. Dreyfus added the following, “When students are given a degree of freedom to direct their own learning the results are often far beyond what I could achieve on my own.”

Perhaps the best part of the project for Ms. Dreyfus is being able to observe and listen to the various “ah ha!” moments that happen throughout the project. The most pivotal moment of excitement came when students began looking at photos of bacteria and protists on the computer. Instead of “ah ha!” moments it would be better to call them “OH MY GOSH!” moments. The resulting waterfall of curiosity and learning prompted lots of lively debate about the best sources, the best organisms, etc. Feeling more like “real” scientists, the students took control of their learning and took pride in their newfound knowledge wherever and whenever possible.

Any student in one of Ms. Dreyfus’s classes would be quick to share stories about all of her fun and engaging projects. Ms Dreyfus’s classes are a constant source of fun, engaging, and curiosity-inducing projects and activities, which include playing “Early Human Charades” and building a model of an ancient Mesopotamian city to coincide with the study of ancient civilizations. The Domains and Kingdoms project was no exception. What’s the key to making it as fun as it was? Ms. Dreyfus certainly believes it’s the degree of freedom that she gives the students to read, write, and create with any tools, materials, and mediums they choose. What do you think?