Little students, big ideas

Teacher Jeanne Bustard's influence tends to crop up in places well beyond the classroom.

Take, for example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One mother was surprised at her five-year-old's insistence on going to a Cezanne exhibit -and once there, her ability to expound on paintings by Monet, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh as well.

"[Mrs. Bustard] develops an incredible art awareness in the children," says parent Sharon Rosen.

Fine art isn't the only area Bustard, a prekindergarten teacher, leaps into with her young charges. In her classes at Friends Select, a private school with a Quaker affiliation in Philadelphia, lessons span the spectrum from camping to dogs to opera. Little is off limits to the 30-year veteran who unfailingly regards her preschoolers as promising young scholars - and the most exciting age group to teach.

That's what she realized in college when she visited a first-grade class taught by her sister. "There was something for me about the little ones, the idea of getting them early and sparking their interest and creativity," she says.

It was a revelation for someone who, despite hailing from a near-dynasty of teachers, had steadfastly maintained that education was "the last thing" she would consider. She majored in Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania with an eye to becoming a translator.

Instead, over the course of three decades, Bustard has endeared herself to a generation-and-a-half of small children and their parents. She is hard at work in a field that is gaining stature.

Never before has there been such tight focus on the education of the very young. Many educators today support the claim that structured learning for three- and four-year-olds boosts academic success later in life. More than 20 states have recently increased their investment in pre-K classes even as experts bewail the lack of trained staff to work with children so young.

Instructors like Bustard, however, are busy setting a high standard. Teachers of the very young, Bustard insists, need a thorough grounding in educational philosophy. "It's important to do some deep thinking about education. Anyone can pick up a cute idea from a magazine or another teacher, but that idea needs a framework."

You want opera? Poetry? No problem.

The parents at Friends Select seem surprised to discover the capacities and enthusiasms that can be unlocked in four- and five-year-olds by a talented teacher. They've been astonished to see their little ones take an interest in opera, write remarkably good poetry, and show a genuine interest in the rudiments of science.

For the children, perhaps what makes the deepest impression is the gentle respect that surrounds them in Bustard's classroom. Bustard has a soft voice and quiet style that allows even the shyest students to make themselves heard.

"She's not mean at all," says Emily Kremens, a member of Bustard's current crop of prekindergartners. "She's a nice teacher and it's really fun here," adds Lauren Lamb, a bouncy classmate.

Yet combined with low-key encouragement is a genuine intellectual rigor that comes across through steady eye contact and an intent focus on the children and their work. When Bustard speaks to each child, the words are meaningful - never intended simply to distract or amuse - and generally require a response in kind.

"I always felt as if she treated me like an adult," remembers Jennifer Bradbury, a college senior who still cherishes memories of Bustard as a teacher.

"She had expectations, and the children responded," says David Bradbury, a college professor and Jennifer's father. "The kids in her class came home bursting with all kinds of information, and at the same time they were growing socially."

Bustard's aim is to tap into her students' natural enthusiasm. A key part of her job, she says, is being sensitive to their interests and then thinking of creative ways to turn those into learning experiences. Often that means examining a topic in depth, and finding ways to weave in language skills, science and social-studies lessons, and hands-on learning.

One year, for example, a child in her class got a new puppy. The class read books about dogs, studied the jobs dogs perform in different cultures, brought dogs in for visits, and wrote their own books about them.

Another year, one student's mother was an opera singer. She invited the children to a rehearsal of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutti." In preparation, the students learned the plot, listened and danced to pieces of the music, made dioramas, and then dressed up and acted it out.

This year's class has been studying the night. They arranged a pretend camping trip, made a tent, and wrote postcards to people back home. They studied different types of beds, people who work at night, hotels and motels. They also read myths and stories about nighttime, and learned about the movement of the planets.

Teaching at Friends Select, Bustard finds herself in a fairly privileged world. Classes at the private school are rarely larger than 17 students, and although 40 percent of the 500 students at the pre-K-through-12 school receive financial aid, most come from relatively affluent families.

That's a change from what Bustard originally envisioned herself doing. "My original sense of mission was to low-income children," she explains. That's why she chose to teach first in inner-city public schools. But after a five-year break to raise her own two children, she returned to work at a private school and discovered that "no matter what economic level you're dealing with there are children with needs and there's something to be contributed."

No talking down

Aaron Hultgren, Bustard's assistant, says what fascinates him about her teaching is the degree to which she brings a deep sense of intellect to it. Bustard loves to share poetry, and has the kids read and sometimes memorize the work of poets like e e cummings, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost. "The kids don't just say the poem, they connect with it," he says enthusiastically.

They also tune into such concepts as personification and onomatopoeia, and create their own poems that they dictate to a teacher and then put into books.

Bustard refuses to talk down to the children in any way. "You need to treat them respectfully," she insists. "I try not to talk to them in a way that focuses on their cuteness. Of course they are cute, but they know when you're talking to them in a way that makes fun of them."

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