Academics
Lower Division
Curriculum

Katherine Callahan #ASpotlight Interview

Our next ASpotlight interview is with Third Grade Teacher Katherine Callahan! Read her full interview to learn about her professional trajectory into teaching Third Grade, how she pioneered our impressive social-emotional learning curriculum (SEL), and why SEL plays such an integral role in Allen-Stevenson classrooms.
 
Can you describe your professional trajectory? How did you discover your passion for teaching?

As cheesy as it sounds, I have wanted to be a teacher forever. I don’t come from a family of teachers – my brothers and dad work in finance, and my sisters are in fashion and real estate. But teaching was the one thing about which I was sure. I knew I wanted to work with kids.
 
My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Bellman, had a huge impact on me and was my inspiration to become a teacher. What stood out about Mrs. Bellman is that she made time for me. The curriculum was secondary, and I was primary. I didn’t realize that in the First Grade, but as I got older, it became clear to me which teachers separated curriculum from being a human being. And that meant a lot to me.
 
I earned my bachelor’s degree at Loyola University Maryland and did a lot of student teaching in inner-city Baltimore while a student there. That was a totally different experience and an important one for me.
 
After that, I taught First and Second Grade at an all-girls private school while receiving my master’s from Columbia University in Literacy. That was a special experience because I taught the same set of girls in both First and Second Grade. I really got to know them. I saw their shift between grades and their love of learning continue to grow.
 
Through a connection, I met Susan Etess and came to work at Allen-Stevenson, falling in love with the place. I thought that working with girls was super cool because they started to have a voice, which I am such a proponent of because all women need that. I thought I was going to be an all-girls teacher forever. But then I came to Allen-Stevenson and thought, “oh my gosh, this is great.” Right when I entered the school, I knew this was the place for me. The warmth in the Allen Stevenson community is contagious. If the boys need a movement break, they can get up and work out their energy. It isn’t a one size fits all kind of school. It is truly a unique place, and I love it. 
 
 
What do you like best about teaching Third Grade?
 
I love teaching Third Grade. In the earlier grades, boys build the foundation for how to be a student by learning how to read and write and to do basic math. That’s cool and really special. For example, in First Grade, they start the year not knowing how to read, and when they finish, they know how to read. That is incredible to watch and be a part of.
 
But, in Third Grade, we say that they go from “learning to read to reading to learn.” And that stretches beyond just reading. Something sparks in them, and they realize that they are just a little human in a big world. They want to know more about how the world works, not necessarily just what works for them. Their perspective opens outside of just themselves.
 
At this age, they are old enough to talk about real-life stuff. They care. They really care. The Black Lives Matter Movement was eye-opening. It became so clear to me that we all need to listen, and we all need to learn, and they were ready to listen, and they wanted to learn.
 
Also, frankly, the topics we do in Third Grade are just plain fun. We have Mr. America and their first debates and so many joyful projects.  
 
 
You play a huge role in developing our third-grade social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum. How did you come to take on the role of developing this curriculum?
 
I was bullied when I was younger. I am an open book when it comes to that. If we act like it’s something that shouldn’t be talked about, then the boys will perceive that, and we want them to know it’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.
 
When I was in Third Grade, one girl totally tormented me. I felt like I had no one to talk to except this woman named Dr. Moss. When you went to Ms. Moss, you were labeled as someone who had issues – it had such a stigma. I wasn’t good at math. I wasn’t a good writer. That’s not what brought me to teaching. I came to be a teacher because I wanted to shape my student’s experiences in the real world.
 
So, I brought this into my educational journey. While I was doing my master’s at Columbia, we had something called our “Masters Action Research Project.” I decided to focus on social-emotional learning (SEL). I studied many different curriculums related to SEL and felt like the curriculums I explored all seemed so scripted. They were missing that real-life, relatable narrative - the personal touch that makes it authentic. The situations came off more like math word problem worksheets. But then I found this book called A Mindset for Learning; Teaching the Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth by Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz that introduces SEL not in a textbook way. They introduce it using five stances. I used this as the building blocks from which to build our curriculum.
 
 
Can you tell me about the curriculum you have developed and share a few examples of some lessons?

We start by having the boys write down their hopes and dreams for Third Grade. Then, we take these hopes and dreams, and we think about how we all play a role in helping our classmates achieve their hopes and dreams for the year.
 
From there, we move onto kindness. Allen-Stevenson always highlights kindness, which I think is super special. We show the boys that they can make a difference with small, daily acts of kindness.
 
Then, from there, we lead into the five stances: empathy, resilience, optimism, perseverance, and flexibility. They are not always introduced in that order. This year, flexibility had to come earlier because of the COVID pandemic.
 
We explain these five stances of social-emotional learning by having the boys think about them as lenses – literally like glasses – through which they view the world. Each week we introduce a new stance, but we don’t tell them the word. We do activities that lead them to it.
 
Take empathy, for example. I wear contacts. In order for the boys to understand how I feel when I don’t have my contacts in, I have them look through a water bottle and use words to describe the experience, like “blurry.” I point out that they now truly understand how I feel when I don’t have my contacts in by looking through the water bottle in a way that they can’t without experiencing it. We talk about how understanding that something is hard for someone is important, but it’s not the same as really living that experience.
 
Throughout the week, they look for examples of these stances in action in the world around them. We come back and talk about it as a class afterward, and we discuss their experiences.  
 
We also make a point of introducing them to different types of families and different types of interests. We read the book Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino right before a break. In the book, Morris loves wearing a tangerine dress. He tells all his classmates that it doesn’t matter if he is a boy; he can still love to dress up in dresses. When we returned from the break, one of the boys in my class had gotten his nails painted and was excited to tell the class about it.
 
All the activities we do are designed for the boys to lead the conversation based on what they have learned from the activities. It is truly a boy-driven curriculum.  
 
 
Why is social-emotional learning (SEL) so important?
 
The most emotional connection has happened this year because of the pandemic. There is not a single teacher in this building who doesn’t stress the importance of SEL. It’s exploding.
 
It’s hugely important to have SEL in our curriculum. It’s the missing piece that connects our three As. To thrive as a student academically, athletically, and through the arts, our boys need to be able to be in touch with how they are feeling, what they need, and what they bring to the community.
 
A mentor teacher said to me once that nothing in her classroom gets swept under the rug. And I’ve never forgotten that. How I interpret that is that for me to do my job, I need to be aware of how everyone is feeling. But I don’t have a million eyes. So, SEL positions each student to be able to speak the emotional language to voice what’s on their mind so that they can successfully get through the day in their subjects.
 
It’s also so important to mention that, while I brought SEL to our grade, all the other third-grade teachers have really taken it on with me. The bones have somewhat remained the same, but it’s equally important to them. This example is just one of many that shows how much of a solid team we truly are. Everyone has a say in the curriculum, and everyone wants to participate and play a role.
 
 
What is unique about the Third Grade Team?

Our primary purpose is to help the boys. It all revolves around them. We constantly support the students and our fellow teachers. Ashley Train just joined us this year, and it’s as if she has always been there. I think that is a testament to the kind of community and environment that we create. The rest of our team reached out to her from day one to involve her in the curriculum and to make sure she knew and felt that her opinion was valued.
 
We get to know one another’s strengths so that we can leverage them and learn from one another. We combine our strengths to make the perfect team. It all comes down to helping the boys succeed.
 
My teammates aren’t just colleagues to me – we are friends. Every time a big life event happens, they are some of the first to know, like when a sibling gets married or has a baby. Our friendships stretch far beyond the classroom walls. I went to Third Grade Teacher Cate Campo’s wedding dress fitting. She looked beautiful! It’s not just about school. It can’t be just about school. Our team has a work-life balance that is important. This camaraderie sets a hugely important example for the boys because they see how important teamwork and respect are to function as a community.
 

Are there any fun traditions, or a passion of yours, that you incorporate into your classroom curriculum?
 
Music! I love to use music. We use music in the classroom in many ways. Mostly, it’s soothing. We listen to classical music or pop music without words to help calm them down.
 
Sometimes I put lyrics on the board for a song, like a Beatles song, maybe, and we learn them together to connect. Then, we sing the song that we just learned together.
 
I also break down barriers by sharing information about my family with them. From day one, they know about my dog Pippa, my siblings, my nieces and nephews. My boyfriend works in finance and is also in a band. That’s a cool connection for them because he went to Buckley, and they can relate to him and think it’s cool that he has been able to have both of those interests and pursue a lifelong dream.

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Allen-Stevenson’s distinctive “enlightened traditional” approach educates boys to become scholars and gentlemen.