Elementary school students are learning at an age where they’re naturally curious about the world around them. They desire to ask questions while also engaging in creative activities that give them a means of expression and are integral for their development. That’s why established educators like Joan Gillman have spent their careers creating a classroom environment of interdisciplinary learning, where students can embrace the lessons taught in all subject areas while utilizing their creativity. This not only teaches students that they can make a real difference in the world, but provides them with a sense of inclusivity.
As children navigate growing up in the modern world, they’re natural curiosity is consistently peaked as they go through their initial 12 years in grade school. Early elementary students maintain an infectious sense of wonder that should be encouraged as they grow older.
Joan Gillman has been an established educator throughout the K-12 school system since the early 80s, mainly teaching science and lessons within the STEM field.
Throughout the years, she’s developed a strong interdisciplinary mode of teaching that encourages creativity and inclusion. She has extensive experience teaching grade school, particularly on the elementary level which she loves for a myriad of reasons.
This involves embracing a project-based curriculum that gives students the chance to take a more hands-on approach to their education, while strengthening their creativity.
“Kids at that age are naturally curious about the world, excited about learning, and aren’t disillusioned by the hardships of life. Especially in the realm of science, you can just feel that they want to make a real difference.”
Joan’s interest in the field of science and the natural world began when she was a kid. Her innocent childlike curiosity was consistently peaked, and she never let that wonder die as she got older.
“I became interested in science and engineering as a young child, I still remember experimenting with different solutions in my bathroom. I was sure I would come up with a new product if I kept mixing different powders and liquids together, I was also very interested in the weather. Whenever there was a snowfall, I would be measuring snowfall rates using a yardstick, I would be checking the temperature and barometric pressure, and I would just be enjoying the natural beauty that a new snowfall can create in my yard.
Of course, I would have a camera available to document each snowstorm. Having an older brother provided me the opportunity to work with him to create robots out of shoe boxes. We would also design and make model cities using Kenner buildings sets and Lincoln logs. I still remember the name we selected for our new city, Kinderkamack Village.
Finally, who couldn’t resist making a snow tunnel. With the help of my older brother, we would pile all of the snow on one side of the driveway and then proceed to construct our special tunnel. Of course, to keep my mother happy, we would include an escape window just in case the tunnel started to melt or collapse. What fun we had creating and building together! Little did I realize that the skills I was developing as a youngster would serve me well once I became an educator.
Many people ask how I became interested in teaching. I can definitely trace that back to my years in high school. The school I attended had a very strong community service requirement for graduation. I decided to volunteer in the lower school teaching recorder, tutoring in math, and organizing games in the playground. I found to my delight that I absolutely loved working with children.
During my high school years, I also went through a training period to receive my WSI, Water Safety Instructor Certification. This document enabled me to teach swimming to children at the local Y or JCC. With my WSI in hand, I volunteered at my local JCC and taught swimming to young children. This was an awesome experience because I also had the opportunity to work with some children who had learning challenges.
It was a great feeling to be able to help them become less afraid of the water and more confident in their skills. Finally, I was also a substitute ballet teacher at a local dance studio. What fun I had teaching the young students the joy of movement.
The principal at the school where I volunteered was particularly pleased with how I ran the playground. She appreciated the fact that I included all of the children in the games, not just the ones that were athletically talented,” Joan explained.
“The inclusiveness that I emphasized in the playground made for a wonderful experience for all of the children, and everyone went away feeling happy because they were able to be a part of the fun.”
As Joan began her journey as an educator, she prioritized maintaining the natural wonder and curiosity that every child has when it comes to the world around them. While science can sometimes seem like a daunting subject, Joan has always made it a point to teach her kids that they’re powerful, and can use their knowledge to make a difference.
“I recall doing a lesson on water shortages with my sixth graders. We discussed who has access to clean water and who doesn’t. One of my students, who’s in eighth grade now, was really inspired and motivated by this lesson to do something about it. He ended up joining our school’s Green Team; a community-service based club that focuses on the impact of climate change and embracing green initiatives to combat it.
Together, we researched different organizations and businesses that held the same passion for clean water access. We ended up choosing to work through water.org, and the entire Green Team was so excited to be able to do some hands-on work for this initiative, so through the school we were able to hold a fundraiser.
We had students readily volunteering to collect money, make posters, and give out information regarding the fundraiser and the cause itself. We were able to raise over $1,000, and that’s a real testament to the younger generation and their level of passion.
To be able to see so many students collaborate and realize that even a small group can make a big difference, is everything for a teacher,” Joan stated.
Everyday we hear about the problems of the world, and it can become so easy to feel defeated and unmotivated to try to make a difference. “The energy and drive that these students have, however, is continuous proof that anyone can make a difference. As a teacher I’m inspired every day and love being a part of it. It’s also why a project-based curriculum can be so encouraging for both students and educators. It motivates all of us to use our knowledge as power to make a change,” Joan explained.
Project-based curriculum: Melding the lessons of the classroom with the lessons of the world through games, community service initiatives, specialized projects, field trips, and more.
“I absolutely love utilizing a project-based curriculum in my teaching. I find when you give a child a test, it’s easier for them to simply memorize the material for the actual exam, and then they’ll likely forget it five minutes later when we start a new lesson. Embracing a more hands-on approach gives the kids the chance to use more parts of their creative brain while actively learning the actual information.
For example, we do a lesson on the layers of the atmosphere, and I could easily lay out the characteristics of each layer and test them on the identifying factors and roles each play, but like I said, that information is then more likely to just be remembered in the moment for the sake of the exam, rather than absorbed and utilized.
So instead we do a project where the students own a tour company that’s going to be touring all the layers of the atmosphere, and they have complete freedom when it comes to how they want to present their specific tour group. I’ve had students make posters, create dioramas, film videos, and even create their own news show interviewing a ‘tourist’ who was traveling through the layers.”
“They just get so creative with it and that’s what I want out of every lesson; a willingness to learn and desire to create at the same time.”
“Presently at The Browning School, I am also teaching grade 4 science in addition to my classes with grades 2 and 6. As in my other classes, I try my best to make the sessions hands-on. In the fall, the students get to build and race their own Fold-n-Roll cars from Pitsco. The students compete in different heats, and the finalists from my two classes have an additional race to determine the overall winner. You can’t imagine the excitement the students exhibit when they get to test out their racing cars. Their enthusiasm really brings a smile to my face. “
Later in the year, the fourth grade students delve into the study of astronomy. The fourth graders have an opportunity to design and build a special moon landing device to save the lives of two marshmallow “astronauts.” To build their moon landing devices, the students use cotton balls, popsicle sticks, a cup, plastic bag, cord, tape, index cards, and other materials.
The aim is to have the two marshmallow “astronauts” remain in the cup when the device is let go from a high spot in the classroom. Students may build all around the cup holding the marshmallows, but they cannot cover the opening or put anything else inside of the cup. To test the models, Joan will usually stand on top of the lab table and release the moon landing device.
“It is so wonderful to hear the students cheering on all of the groups and showing a fine sense of camaraderie.”
The fourth grade students also have an opportunity to design and build their straw rockets. The students get to work with different variables. These include the length of the straw, the number and style of fins, the size of the clay nose cone, and the angles for launching the rockets.
“What I love about this project is that the students use their math and measurement skills along with their science knowledge. The fourth graders note all of the characteristics of their rocket including its mass before going outside to launch their devices. The students get to choose three different launch angles.
While outside, the students measure and record the length of each flight. Once everyone has completed their launches, we then go back inside to analyze the results. During the analysis, the students try to determine the ideal launch angle, the best length for the straw rocket, the ideal size for the nose cone, and the recommended style and number of fins.
With this new knowledge, the students get an opportunity to redesign their rocket and try again. This is such a fine learning opportunity for the class. The learning doesn’t stop with the first trials. The students get to apply their new knowledge and improve their rocket designs. I have found that this activity is one that the students remember for years to come.”
“With a project-based curriculum, learning suddenly comes alive for these kids, and they love it. More importantly though, it gives them a chance to take ownership of their own learning, they’re able to take the information they’re being taught and use it, not just memorize it, to receive a more rounded educational experience.”
“It’s the same with my youngest students as well. I teach four second grade classes, and those students have an engineering unit. One aspect of the unit is learning about various types of bridges, why there are different kinds, when you would use a specific bridge, etc.
I don’t ever test on this unit, instead we do something called ‘the elephant project.’ This project starts with a story of a family of elephants, a mommy, a daddy, and a baby. As the family goes on their daily walk, the baby elephant gets too far ahead of its parents and ends up on the other side of a bridge without his mommy and daddy. Now, the parents must cross the bridge to get their baby, and all three then need to cross it again to go back.”
The challenge then becomes building a bridge that can support the weight of two adult elephants and one baby elephant. So not only are the students faced with an assignment where they need to utilize their knowledge in science, but mathematics as well. “Additionally, they make the bridges from recycled materials and arts and crafts supplies, so we’re really combining the skills from all aspects of the student’s learning for this one project. The kids absolutely love it, it’s just so much fun.
We also take an annual trip to the Bronx Botanical Garden for their Holiday Train Show, which uses all natural tree materials to build historic buildings and bridges in New York City. This trip aligns with the bridge unit, so while we’re on the way to the garden itself, my students will yell for my attention every time we pass a new bridge to tell me what kind it is. That enjoyment and engagement is why this kind of curriculum is so important and successful, the students really want to learn and utilize all the information they’re gaining in the classroom. It maintains the natural curiosity and questioning that kids have.”
This is also a good example of how interdisciplinary learning intertwines with the project-based curriculums. As the students are initially learning about the bridges, Joan explained, they’re also learning about the specific places around the world where they are, why they were built there, and are able to even relate it to their own lives because they may know family members who live in those parts of the world. So there’s that personal cultural element as well, which also feeds into the creation of an inclusive classroom.
“Speaking of Interdisciplinary learning we also do this amazing unit on extinct animals/fossils where we take the students to the Museum of Natural History. While at the museum, the art teacher encourages our students to utilize their sketching skills to draw the extinct animals they’re learning about. This way they’re embracing multiple subjects within a single lesson to motivate and encourage using multiple skills.”
It’s fair to say that when it comes to the lessons we learned in elementary school, the ones that stick out the most are the ones where we’re having fun, feeling engaged, and being creative. Joan recalled her own experiences as a student in third grade when they were learning about dinosaurs.
She recalls how multifaceted the lesson actually was. Not only were they learning about various kinds of dinosaurs, in their art class they were making models of them out of clay, and growing their own real grass to use the models for a diorama. “That was truly my first experience with something that was interdisciplinary.” It was this experience that aided Joan while she was a student teacher at PS 47’s Junior High for the deaf, when she had to adjust her teaching style to ensure her students fully understood the lessons.
“I fully embraced and understood the importance and specifics of interdisciplinary learning during my team teaching at a school for deaf and hearing impaired students. For deaf students learning science, I tell people to imagine trying to learn another language by going to another country, turning on the tv, putting it on mute and trying to learn the language by lip reading, you need to make adjustments. That learning process made me the educator I am today, one that’s passionate about keeping the curiosity alive, utilizing new methods to keep the learning fun, and creating a classroom environment where every single child feels welcome and excited to learn.”
The subject of science in the context of the modern world and climate change can seem very daunting. While kids do have that natural curiosity and optimism, it can still feel overwhelming and hopeless at times when we look at the devastating effects climate change has already had on the Earth. However, through projects and initiatives like the Green Team, these kids are seeing firsthand that anyone can truly make a difference, and even if that change is small, they’re still impactful.
Joan is also a National Geographic Certified Educator, which is defined as a teacher who has undergone specialized training and passed a rigorous evaluation process to earn certification from National Geographic Society. Certified Educators are equipped with the knowledge and skills to incorporate Nat Geo’s use of storytelling, exploration, and science into their teaching practices.
“Science education should enhance learners’ curiosity, wonder and questioning, building on their natural inclination to seek meaning and understanding of the world around them. Scientific inquiry should be introduced and encountered by school students as an activity that can be carried out by everyone including themselves. Connecting science to personal and social issues, to good trade books (even high-quality science fiction), and to interesting science-related articles are promising ways to spark that, because science saves lives everyday.”
I find that one of the most important philosophies that I try to get across to my students is the importance of being a lifelong learner. My aim is to have them become so excited by what they’re learning that they can’t wait to get home and continue finding out more about the topics we’re studying in class. I try to model this behavior by continuing my own education as an educator.
“Each summer I attend teacher workshops where I acquire new strategies and techniques to use with my classes. For example, during the summer of 2022, I received a scholarship to the Modern Classroom Project. This was a five-week online course that illustrated a new approach to teaching students. I greatly enjoyed hearing about these new techniques, and I have slowly incorporated some of their ideas into my classroom.
In addition, back in the summer of 2016, I was one of about a dozen educators selected to field test a new weather and climate curriculum with my middle school students. I attended a week-long course in Boulder, Colorado that covered the new curriculum. Once back in NYC, I tested out the program with my students. This was a very exciting time for me. I definitely have a passion for weather, and I couldn’t wait to try out the new material with my students.
Throughout the years, I have attended three different courses at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Agency in Greenbelt, Maryland, taken numerous workshops at the American Museum of Natural History, and I have attended summer teacher programs at Cornell and Rensselaer.
One of the joys I have experienced as a teacher has been the opportunity to go to numerous professional conferences and teach my fellow educators some of the strategies and techniques I use in my classroom.
The ATIS (Association of Independent Schools) Conferences were the first ones where I tried my skill at teaching my fellow educators. I can still remember the names of some of the workshops I taught there. They were ‘Fish, Snails, and Whale Tails’ and ‘The Wonderful World of Weather.’
Later in my career, I started giving workshops at the NSTA (National Science Teaching Association) Conferences, the NSTA STEM Conferences, the STANYS (Science Teachers Association of New York State) Conferences, the SCONYC (Science Council of New York City) Conferences, and last Spring at the NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools) Diversity Symposium.
Some of the workshops that I presented included Equity and Diversity in the STEM Classroom, Mars Here I Come, Let’s Put the Fun Back in Fungi, Straw Rockets are Out of This World, Progressive Education and Interdisciplinary Learning Go Hand in Hand, Buildings, Bridges, and Structures, Oh My! and many others.
This has brought me such happiness to share my passion for education with my fellow educators and to help provide them with new curriculum materials and strategies to enhance their science teaching. I truly hope that this has been making a difference in their lives so that they can continue to inspire their students and stay in the field of education,” Joan expressed.
Through all of these experiences, Joan learned that interdisciplinary teaching isn’t working at its maximum potential unless it’s fully inclusive for every student. By embracing the project-based curriculum, Joan is working to make every classroom one of inclusion, where students of all abilities can participate and experience an interdisciplinary model of learning.
The goal is to consistently empower through inclusivity, creativity, and projects that are physical, and create an atmosphere of inclusive learning and collaboration.
“Learning comes alive when they’re able to plan, design, use their hands, and call on all the subjects they’re learning about for their projects. I beam with joy every time I see a student actively applying their knowledge with confidence and excitement. Of course I love the projects for the educational benefits, but as someone who also loves what they do, it just fills me with happiness to do these lessons with all my kids.
We want to encourage students to learn about the world around them through projects and lessons that stick with them so as they grow older. This way they continue to have that awareness to keep themselves educated on the world around them without feeling discouraged. Holding the knowledge that they can make a difference, no matter how small, they should never doubt their own abilities to try and succeed,” Joan concluded.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.