An Artistic Approach to Learning

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Kilbane infuses lessons with drama, dance and outdoor excursions

By Lydie Raschka

Every weekday, Karen Kilbane rides her bike from Tribeca to the Upper East Side to teach kindergarten at Hunter College Elementary School.

“She lives for her kindergarten,” said Principal Randy Collins. “Her class is a great way for kids to start school.”

An inventive teacher, one of Karen Kilbane’s lessons brings students to Central Park to make an ecology-based documentary.

Kilbane wasn’t sure she wanted to be a teacher when she first volunteered with children more than a decade ago and became caught up in their “energy, love and excitement” for learning. She had an in at Hunter, a public elementary school for the gifted run by the eponymous CUNY school: Her aunt is a professor of education there. Kilbane was hired as an assistant teacher, still unsure if she wanted to commit her life to teaching. About a month into the job, she knew she’d found her calling.

In her classroom, students learn through the arts—drama, literature, music, film, dance and the visual arts. This may take the form of a mural, based on research about the animals of ancient Egypt and how they relate to the gods, or choreographing and performing in a Broadway-caliber musical about Sekhmet, the Egyptian warr ior goddess. Kilbane’s desire is to “keep every child challenged, interested, happy, learning and growing, in spite of different abilities and needs.”

One approach that has worked well to meet these goals is an ecology-based documentary her class makes about Central Park. The class takes field trips with park rangers. Then they go out in smaller groups and capture footage of their own Central Park discoveries and work with the technology teacher to edit a polished film.

“They share their information,” Kilbane said. “It’s project-based learning and it’s seamless—they don’t even realize it’s science.”

A native of Ohio, Kilbane is admired for her creativity, warmth and love
of learning.

“She loves big projects that involve learning on very deep levels,” said parent Kelly Posner-Gerstenhaber, whose 1st-grade son will find any excuse to go back to visit his kindergarten classroom. “All subjects are seamlessly connected and integrated. If ancient Egypt is the subject area of the year, then Egyptian math and numbers are studied.”

Kilbane brings her own passions to the classroom. She enjoys nature, mythology, gardening, hiking and traveling.

“I’m somewhat of a non-conformist,” she said. “That’s part of why I love Hunter. I’ve never taught anywhere else. The school gives us a lot of freedom to teach the way we want to teach while adhering to benchmarks. These are bright little kids who have so much to say. I try to give them an environment where everyone is learning from each other.”

Kilbane has been at Hunter for 13 years, five of them as a head kindergarten teacher—a long time, and yet just the beginning when compared to her father, who taught middle school in Ohio for 50 years. He is a big proponent of public education and has been a model of “dedication, hard work and passion,” Kilbane said. She follows in his footsteps. When it comes to teaching, she said, “I like the challenge.”


Karen Kilbane
Kindergarten, Hunter College Elementary School

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