Vision for a Classrom

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In DeSimone’s novel curriculum, students learn through city’s history

By Mary Stachyra

In her seventh year as a teacher, Danielle DeSimone took a job doing what most educators only dream about: creating an entire curriculum from scratch. The experience, she said, was an opportunity for both her and the students to “create, not just regurgitate.”

Danielle DeSimone said that designing a new curriculum was like going back to school herself.

The Speyer Legacy School, a K-8 program for advanced learners that opened in September 2009, tasked DeSimone with designing a curriculum for its students’ accelerated pace. DeSimone’s 1st- and 2nd-grade students, taught in the same class, now learn about a different period in New York history every month. To reinforce the lesson, which reflects the larger American experience, the 11 students then work on a major project, like building the Guggenheim out of marshmallows or splattering paint on canvases after learning about Jackson Pollock. Families are invited into the school to view the projects. The class then takes a field trip somewhere in the city that coordinates with the lesson. Last month, they went to a tenement museum on the Lower East Side to get a feel for what the area was like in the early 20th century.

Sharon Roth, whose son is in DeSimone’s class, said that he “charges” into class and leaves “skipping and singing.” What’s more, when he’s sick, he emails the class to find out what he missed.

It might come as a surprise to some parents that DeSimone, 33, didn’t always see her future in teaching. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, the Long Island native majored in sociology and political science, hoping to become a lawyer. After completing an internship in the field, however, she realized law “wasn’t as interesting as I thought.” DeSimone went back to school and obtained a master’s degree in special education from Fordham University. Last year, she stepped away from a position as a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 163 to join the start-up school. The opportunity to help design a curriculum for highly advanced learners was too tempting to resist.

“Because this is a gifted and talented school, I’m able to cover very mature, challenging content that is typically not a possibility,” DeSimone said. “And [the students] do so much with it. They’re avid readers: they can read on a 5th-grade, 6th-grade level.”

What’s more, the curriculum challenges her.

“The entire year required me to do research and learn about the history of New York,” she said. “So in a way I’ve become a student again myself.”

DeSimone, whose grandmother emigrated from France, doesn’t limit her sights to New York. She’s a passionate traveler who spends every summer in Nantucket, has traveled to London and Paris and wants to go to Japan next. Even her curricular aspirations involve travel abroad.

“There’s an orphanage in Kenya that the school is affiliated with,” she said. “My dream would be to go on a school trip there, and build a new green building.”


Danielle DeSimone
1st and 2nd grade, Speyer Legacy School

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