Parents as Teachers - Collaborators in Curriculum

At our state of the school meeting in February, we talked a bit about how we describe Red Oak Community School when talking to others. Our name implies we are some version of a school which Merriam-Webster defines as “an organization that provides instruction.” Indeed, our 3 and 5-day students’ school days are structured around studies with various teachers in the disciplines they are most passionate about.

Our families pay tuition so, technically, we are a private school. But we aren’t the sort of place with a platinum price tag. We aren’t the sort of school where you drop your kid off and only show up for parent-teacher conferences. At least that’s not the kind of school we want to be.

Red Oak Community School parents are required to volunteer each year for a set number of hours, determined by how many days each week their child(ren) attend. As such, we strive to be more of a cooperative learning program. But what does that mean and what does it look like? We don’t have a single answer to that question and we’re still learning.

Sometimes it means sharing your knowledge and experience with students. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience leading Tankyuu (exploratory hour). Another ROCS parent, Dr. Danielle Clark is a board certified pediatrician who recently helped lead a series of lessons on the human body with one of our science teachers, Bethany Filipow.

It all started in the fall when Danielle approached Bethany and asked her if the kids had any interest in learning about physiology and anatomy. Bethany recalled some kids asking about the spinal chord and neurosystem. She said there would be time in January if Danielle wanted to help put some lessons together.

The two met in November and December to talk more about what they could cover. They kept Danielle’s knowledge and passion of specific subjects and the kids’ interests in mind during their planning and settled on studies of the cardiovascular, muscular, and digestive systems. Danielle took some time to consider what would be most interesting to the kids and could be taught to their level. Reflecting on her own education and what early school experiences she remembers best, Danielle wanted to do tactile things to help them learn and remember.

Bethany came up with a plan for Danielle to visit once a week for three weeks. Bethany would supplement Danielle’s lessons the other days.

The unit started with their study of the heart. Danielle brought in a 3D heart model, like one you would see in a doctor’s office. She helped the kids identify the chambers of the the heart, the ventricles and atria, and the valves.


They tried making their own stethoscopes using funnels connected by pieces of tubing. These didn’t work that great but, they were able to compare what they could hear through these diy tools with what they heard through Danielle’s stethoscope. Comparing their attempt with the modern day professionally used version, they got to experience what early versions of this technology might have been like and learned how hard it was to make one that worked well.

The kids were really excited to hear their own hearts beating. Danielle suspects this was because it helped them “take something really abstract they learned about through a model and make a very personal connection.”


For this lesson, Danielle also tracked down a copy of an anatomically correct coloring book her 8th grade teacher used and which left an impression on her. She brought pages for the kids to look at as they talked about the heart’s anatomy and color, to show the flow of blood, if they chose to.

Danielle said she and Bethany adjusted each lesson and discussion based on the different groups’ interests and knowledge. The youngest students focused on the idea that the heart is a pump that helps move blood around the body. The next older group were introduced to the idea of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood and how the heart functions, globally, as a means to provide oxygen throughout the body. The oldest students learned about what makes the heart beat.



For the muscular skeletal unit, Bethany showed Danielle a project she found online for building a model of the hand using foam (the flesh), string (the tendons), and cut up drinking straws (the bones). It resonated with Danielle immediately both for its anatomical clarity, and because it was exactly what she pictured in her mind when she learned about how the muscles in the hands work.

When my daughter brought her hand home, I was fascinated by the way it moved. It is a great, tactile learning tool. Playing with it, I understood more about how my own hands move.

As the kids put the pieces together, Danielle and Bethany circulated the room, talking with the kids about how the parts fit together and reviewing what they represented in relation to the kids’ own hands.


The final unit was on the digestive system. Danielle made six different colored cutouts to show the different parts of the body involved with digestion. She showed them to the students and then had them put them in order in small groups.  


One of the things they talked about was how the body breaks down protein to turn it into fuel the body can use. They used Biuret solution to detect the amounts of protein in different foods including, honey, yogurt, turkey, chick peas, pretzels, and lime juice. They watched as the solution changed from blue to varying shades of purple based on the amount of protein they contained.

Bethany told me this collaboration was a great experience.  “I always wanted to teach about human bodies. But it isn't my area of expertise. It was useful to have someone to answer some of the more complicated questions that the students had as well as being able to provide correct pronunciations!” She noted that another mother also came in during this unit, Sara Rismiller, a physical therapist, to help teach about the muscular system.  Bethany shared that “having an extra set of hands in the classroom allowed us to complete more complicated projects with students.”

Danielle isn’t trained as an educator but, as the mother of two children and someone who has spent a lot time in schools as a student, she intuitively understands Vygotsky’s constructivist theories of cognitive scaffolding. She told me she hoped her lessons would “give the kids some connection to the content so when they see it again as they get older they will have a context for learning more information.”

When I thanked Danielle for her efforts and said it seemed like she put a lot of work into guest teaching, she said it didn’t feel like a lot because she was enjoying what she was doing. It also provided her a chance to reflect on herself as a teacher. After college she coached soccer and felt she had found her meiter - giving her time, bringing a level of enthusiasm to what she was teaching, giving freely of herself. While Danielle is not currently practicing medicine to focus on mothering, she hopes to go back to work some day. She wonders if medical education might be a good place for her.

Jodi Kushins, ROCS Mom and Blogger