North Branch faculty members provide students with a solid background in reading, writing, mathematics, sciences, and social studies. In addition, children experience an array of opportunities designed to complement the core curriculum including music, art, drama, handworks, foreign language and physical education with an emphasis on personal achievement and cooperation rather than competition.
North Branch’s experienced, creative teachers and low student-teacher ratios allow us to provide every student with personal attention and individual challenge so that each student may gain mastery of basic skills without sacrificing creativity or academic breadth. Themes are often integrated across the curriculum, deepening the students’ understanding of topics through the perspective of related literature, art, music, drama, mathematics, science or current events. Reading and writing are components of all areas of study, including math and science. While specific skills may be introduced and developed in small ability-based groups, theme units provide opportunities for a whole class to work together, for cooperative teamwork and for individuals to research independently. This fluidity allows children to succeed in a variety of settings and to experience the give-and-take needed to work productively with others. Accordingly, class groupings reflect our desire to respond to children’s changing needs and abilities, providing an environment which is both stable and flexible enough to help children learn how to learn and enjoy the process.
Our language arts program revolves around children’s own writing as a medium for teaching form, style, vocabulary and mechanics such as spelling and punctuation. North Branch’s reading program incorporates phonics and whole language approaches to beginning reading. At every level, teachers choose books to discuss as literature and as sources of information relating to class studies. Students choose books to read independently for pleasure and for research topics relating to math, science, social studies or language arts. “Book Buddy” teams pair older and younger students for weekly reading and the opportunity to forge a special relationship. Out of this variety of reading experiences grow numerous writing projects, through which students learn to communicate their thought and others’ ideas effectively. Students of all ages write for many audiences, including autobiographies to share with family, letters to public officials, personal essays, and formal research papers to be shared with the school community.
Mathematics is introduced to three- and four-year-olds through collecting, sorting, pattern and counting activities often involving nature study. Our elementary mathematics program includes hands-on activities, texts, games, and manipulative tools designed to enhance students’ number sense and problem-solving skills. The middle-elementary years continue this combination of text-based and hands-on math work, working towards an understanding of this process as well as towards consistent results. Computation and logical thinking skills are reinforced through the integration of math and science curricula in these years. Small groups allow children to work at a pace most effective for them and provide opportunities for the students to observe multiple approaches to the same problem. By the time students finish Middle School at NBS, all have been introduced to Algebra 1 and some have finished the course and are ready for Geometry or Honors Geometry in high school.
The science curriculum, from Pre-K through Middle School, focuses on hands-on observation of the world, often using our own Nature Trail and surrounding environs as a laboratory. Students receive structured training in physical science, earth science, and life science, with an emphasis on the scientific method of hypothesis, exeriment, and analysis of data to reach a conclusion. From a study of the Monarch butterfly’s life and migration as a 7 or 8-year-old, to an in-depth look at the watershed in which we live as a 13- or 14-year-old, all students experience science as a living and changing discipline. Whenever possible, teachers avail themselves of outdoor opportunities, such as nature walks through our own woods, stream monitoring on local and county-wide properties, field trips to the Chesapeake Bay or area mountains, and trips to museums with exhibits relating to the group’s studies.
The Social Studies curriculum includes almost every aspect of human experience. The youngest students begin by learning about themselves, their classmates, and their families. They explore stories of people in other places and times with an eye towards appreciating differences. Younger elementary students begin to explore their place in Virginia and then the United States, their scope widening as is developmentally appropriate, able to take in more complicated geography, as well as make sense of Virginia and US history, as they get older. The upper elementary students begin studying world history with a study of the earth’s history, and then human history, working their way over two years through the ancient and medieval worlds. Middle Schoolers complete the timeline of world history by studying both European and US history from 1400 – 1900 in great depth. The goal of the curriculum is to inspire curiosity and respect about the world and its history, and also to allow students to make sense of historical events by giving them a context.
At all levels, teachers make the history relevant to their students by finding the topics they are most interested in researching, the connections they can make to their own lives, and the echoes of those topics in the events of today. Students begin research reports in the younger elementary years and are encouraged to share them with the school at our weekly Assembly. By the time they reach Middle School, NBS students are quite fluent with research and synthesizing many ideas into an effective oral, written, or visual presentation.
Fine and Performing Arts
The North Branch experience is rich with adventures in art, drama and music. Each classroom holds its own possibilities for all three, as teachers often use songs, skits, or drawings to stretch a child’s understanding of a subject. All school-age students have weekly art classes, often taught by professional artists. NBS’s own kiln allows for extensive exploration in pottery and ceramics, and art classes also include drawing, painting, sculpture, printing, and other media.
From dramatic play and play-acting in Nursery and Primary to professionally taught dramatic improvisation and professionally directed productions in upper elementary and Middle School, students reap many benefits from classroom and performance opportunities. All school-age students participate in the school’s annual December production of “St. George and the Dragon,” and most classes perform a class play some time in the spring for students and families.
From Nursery through Middle School, students have structured opportunities for singing. Younger children’s experiences with rhythm instruments lay the groundwork for older student’s exploration of vocal and instrumental music. Beginning with the 8 and 9-year-olds, teachers at school introduce the soprano recorder, and students grow in skill until in Middle School they can play 4-part music, often accompanied by percussion and guitar. Students in the upper elementary and Middle School Chorus regularly sing 2 and 3-part music, sharing it outside of school whenever possible. Weekly all-school assemblies offer chances for students of all ages to share their talents–musical, artistic, or dramatic–with the school.
Student work is evaluated in light of each individual’s needs, abilities, and efforts. Neither standardized testing nor conventional grading systems are used. Progress is communicated to parents and students by weekly notes in our “Friday Folders,” frequent informal conversations, formal conferences each November and whenever requested by a parent or teacher, and written evaluations twice yearly.
While not an official part of the NBS curriculum, service is an unofficial theme that runs throughout the work NBS students undertake. Through all-school celebrations of days like Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Earth Day, students learn at different ages and in different ways about working for change, being stewards of the Earth, and making a difference with their actions. The upper elementary and Middle School students travel to the Nelson County Food Pantry in Lovingston twice a month as volunteers, to help unload the food from trucks and organize it onto the shelves, and then bag it for each month’s distribution. Middle School students also participated in a Day of Service in 2009 on MLK Day, working along the Rockfish River to clean up trash and helping to winterize a local farm. The entire school participates in “Read for the Record” each October, which helps Jumpstart raise awareness of the importance of books to preschoolers. Students can choose to bring cans for a food drive each December, and students also make Valentines for local veterans each February. The oldest students and their teacher have organized a Hunger Banquet every few years, researching and preparing presentations and activities for families and the general public to raise their awareness of world hunger. NBS teachers strive to empower students to know that they matter, and that their words and actions make a difference in the world.