Guided By Imagination

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Students’ interests create the bedrock of Klassen’s lessons

By Lydie Raschka

Gabriela Klassen is reluctant to share her secrets of time management—perhaps because they go against the grain in this test-prep, skills-based climate. One trick is to “compact” the basics: spend an entire morning on math, for example, so that the afternoon can be dedicated to projects.

Gabriela Klassen was a professional musician playing in orchestras before she became a teacher.

And projects are the meat and potatoes of Klassen’s curriculum. They spring from extensive interest surveys she administers when she first meets students to get a good sense of the group’s curiosities (Klassen has recently taught the same gifted and talented class from 3rd through 5th grade).

In 3rd grade, a boy wanted to go to China. She developed a series of lessons centered on the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, comparing Chinese design principles with the tradition of Western classical architecture. The idea of yin and yang was applied to vocabulary: Kids made lists of opposites. During their visit to the garden, students identified design elements and then designed their own gardens. The study ended with a Chinatown lunch.

An emphasis on architecture is another hallmark of Klassen’s teaching. She has taken summer classes on everything from drafting, design and theory, to model-making and computer-aided design. She first thought about bringing this passion to the classroom when a student said he wanted to climb to the top of the Empire State Building. This launched a survey of architectural structures, from the simplest to the most complex.

“These are structures they can build, make and find all over New York,” she said.

Learning through thematic projects requires lots of planning, something Klassen does when she gets home, after she collapses for an hour or two and takes Mishka, her dog, for a run. Klassen lives with her husband Arnold near the school. In her spare time, she plays violin or Renaissance lute in chamber music ensembles. A previous career playing in orchestras took her from Japan to Italy, but Klassen eventually wanted to settle down. Her younger sister, Helen, suggested teaching: starting at age 14, Klassen began to teach Helen to play violin and continued to do so for 10 years.

Rekha Menon, the parent of one of Klassen’s students, has found that she brings out the best in her son.

“He was advising us on our stock picks in 3rd grade,” Menon said.

In 4th grade, he got into playing piano in a full-length production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 5th grade, he became fascinated with red-tailed hawks in Central Park.

“My son identifies birds while walking down the street with binoculars,” Menon said. “I don’t think this is something you would find in a standard curriculum.”

Now, Klassen’s 5th graders are deep into reading and writing mysteries—and learning about the musical leitmotifs in North by Northwest, how sound brings about suspense—and they’re working their way through Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Samantha Deutsch, a fellow teacher, is amazed at Klassen’s talents.

“She has a natural ability to channel her student’s own passions—for trains, rocket ships, skyscrapers, butterflies, planets, whatever,” she said. “As a colleague, I learn something every time I walk through her door.”

Gabriela Klassen
5th grade,

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