The Foundation of the TCS Academic Journey: Experiencing the Lower School

By Jen Tatasciore
Director of Curriculum


The Lower School, under guidance from Director of Lower School Elena Jaime, offers a safe space to learn and grow, where each part of the day is intentionally structured to allow the children to engage in the skills they will need to be successful in their academic lives. 

Often families wonder, “What does that look and sound like in action?” “How does it all connect and what is the purpose behind what all the teachers do each day?” I want to give you a peek into the daily lives of our younger learners in TCS’s Lower School (3’s/4’s – grade 3) to see how their minds are being shaped and developed to prepare them for their learning journeys. 

Beginning the Day
As our littlest friends begin their journey at TCS , they make their way to the welcoming smiles and warm ambiance of their teachers, friends, and classrooms. Once they’ve arrived in their classrooms, backpacks are hung and materials organized, children begin to wake up their brains with learning games, word teasers, math riddles, or free reading. Morning messages are emblazoned on white boards or projected slides while music plays in the background, welcoming children and centering the day with inspirational quotes, messages, and photos. 

Creating a Sense of Emotional Safety and Belonging in 3’s/4’s
Once everyone arrives in the classroom, students are called to the carpet or centering circle to begin the day with a greeting, and Morning Meeting officially kicks off the school day. In 3’s/4’s, this might look like each child saying hello to one another or starting the time with a choral greeting. They then move into activities that build community, empathy, and perspectives. Students might engage in different handshake greetings, play a game like  “A Little Known Fact About Me,” perform improv to build on one another’s ideas, or sing songs to energize their brains. 

All of the activities help create a sense of emotional safety and fulfill needs of belonging while building trust and setting a positive tone for the day. This approach sets the stage for academic learning by creating the space to think freely which builds confidence in ideas and creates a strong sense of identity and self.  When children believe in and trust who they are and those around them, they can think creatively, freely express what they wonder, and are brave enough to share what they know. Risk-taking is a given in spaces like this, providing the fundamental environment for building the skills necessary to thrive in learning and in life. 

Play With a Purpose in 4’s/5’s
Following morning meeting, movement, an early learning specialist class, begins for 4’s/5’s. Movement infuses a mix of exploration, creativity, active engagement, imagination, art, and critical thinking. On any given day, you might see students sitting outside in a circle designing creations like “Earth Spinners,” where children are reusing cardboard circles to create their own individualized toys. Or, you might find the class racing around a miniature obstacle course, crawling through tunnels, dodging cones, and jumping over hula hoops. This approach to class structure also sets our youngest learners up to build the foundation for future academic learning. Structured play, or “play with a purpose,” has many academic and social-emotional benefits for children. It builds executive function skills such as problem-solving, following directions, working memory, focus, and attention, all of which are indicators of future academic success. Having a class like movement for early learners intentionally lays the building blocks to develop these skills.

Building Critical Skills Through Structured Play in Kindergarten
Moving into kindergarten, we see structured play continuing to develop. Through structured, collaborative play, students are finishing up their explorations at different stations. Standing side by side, offering blocks to one another and naming their buildings, a small group of children build towers as tall as they stand to create a small city. Another group sits on the floor, sharing markers and paper while tracing words, letters and shapes, proudly showing one another their creations. A few students sit together around a table reading one another books, pointing at pages and sounding out words one by one.  Several students work with a teacher using number cards to string groups of beads. 

At any given station, you can see children developing their interpersonal skills; each learning when and how to use their voice, navigating each others’ ideas to get to a compromise, considering their friends’ perspectives as they build empathy, and navigating conflict resolution with the help of a teacher when they do not agree. 

As they transition out of collaborative play and take a seat on the rug for the beginning of their PBL lesson, children are shown a brief video about snail babies and asked, “What do you wonder?” and “What do you know?” All of these experiences in kindergarten are laying the foundations for the rich project-based learning that will continue to take place throughout their time at TCS. Collaborative small groups are a core tenet of the PBL experience and learning how to work with others is a key component of a successful unit. 

Content Learning in the First Grade Classroom
Students transition to different content learning in the classroom, including math learning. In first grade, math is taught using the Daily 3 approach. Each lesson begins with a whole group mini-lesson and is followed by smaller group learning and rotations led by their teachers. 

After a short, whole group lesson on different ways to build number bonds, the children begin identifying different ways to show the number 14 as they explore the math standard of adding and subtracting by grouping into 10 and ones. 

One group discusses which words to write as they spell the target number out on white boards, another group builds the target number using base ten blocks, and the third group draws number bonds and writes number sentences to show the different number combinations that can reach the target number. In utilizing this approach, children receive support in the areas they need and extension in their areas of strength across the year. 

Benefits of this approach include time to dive deeper into concepts, differentiated learning experiences tailored to student needs, time to develop mathematical proficiency, more 1-1 time with teachers, and dedicated time with other students to grapple with concepts. 

Working in small groups like these, the children become more aware of their learning styles and personal learning goals which allows them to understand who they are as learners and to build metacognition. This knowledge helps them to advocate for themselves as they go further into their academic journey.

Active Learning in Second Grade
Moving into second grade, active learning takes on a whole new meaning. All of the skills children have acquired since their time in early learning are on full display as they integrate collaborative learning, PBL, exploration, math, and literacy skills. In one particular lesson, children can be seen molding clay into a variety of landforms while creating topographic maps. Carefully adding and measuring 1 cm of water over their clay landforms, the children then trace anything that is not submerged under water. Students are able to identify which landforms would create different types of contour lines based on whether they have high or low elevation. Watching this type of learning in action, it is evident that the children are not only learning the science behind landforms, but also building on ways to engage in the collective of skills they have amassed prior to their time in second grade. 

Active Engagement in Third Grade
Walking into third grade, all of these skills are an interwoven and natural part of the day-to-day experience. Through whole group instruction, small group collaboration, partner sharing, and independent work time, children are actively engaging with one another and their learning. Whether it is writing reflections or drafting poetry in their writing journals, meeting for targeted small group math instruction on the carpet to further practice how to order fractions, using multiple sources to research historical Atlanta buildings, or engaging in structured play while designing their simple machines, the children are continually employing all skills at any given moment. 

By this time in their academic journey, the children are even more confident in their ideas and have a stronger understanding of who they are, not only as learners, but also as friends, classmates, family members, and members of the TCS community. 

Every decision the teachers make on any given day is intentional and purposeful and has far reaching impacts outside of the classroom itself. The students are willing to take risks while problem solving together. They’re considering how they’re showing up in spaces while also advocating for themselves and others. 

Preparing for More Challenges in Upper School
The Lower School has prepared them well to take on the more challenging and complex learning that will develop as they continue on to the Upper School. It is our goal that these skills are transferred to the spaces outside of TCS while children navigate the world and interact with others. This brings us all one step closer to our Portrait of a Graduate and creating a new generation who will bring all of this knowledge to help shape their communities for good.

Be on the lookout for…

Academic Journey Part 2: Inspiring Change Agents in the Upper School