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Furry Friend Gets Kids Excited About Learning
February 05, 2012
George Washington alumna helped create a curriculum for elementary school students centered on the dog who used to serve as the postal service’s mascot.
There’s something about snail mail that intrigues kids, and George Washington alumna Katie Biechman, M.Ed. ’09, knows it. This past fall, she helped develop a curriculum for the U.S. Postal Museum that revolves around Owney, the scruffy mutt who criss-crossed the country with mailmen as the postal service’s unofficial mascot in the late 1800s.
“They don’t get letters in the mail that much anymore,” said Ms. Biechman, a kindergarten teacher at Nottingham Elementary School in Arlington, Va., explaining kids’ interest in mail. “To look back and see that this is a whole different world where trains carried mail and there was this dog that went on all these adventures is really neat for them.”
Ms. Biechman knows that capitalizing on kids’ innate curiosity is a sure way to get them excited about reading, writing and arithmetic. She first heard about the opportunity to create the Owney the Dog curriculum during a visit with her class to the U.S. Postal Museum for a unit on mail and transportation.
Over last summer and into the fall, Ms. Biechman brainstormed the curriculum with a team of teachers. They developed units on maps and jobs along with companion worksheets and lessons for special education classrooms. Although impossible to meet every education standard for every state, the teachers did their best to meet the most common. The entire curriculum recently appeared online for use by elementary school teachers across the country.
The 28-year-old teacher said her master’s in elementary education program in the GW Graduate School of Education and Human Development served her well while working on Owney. She learned teachers can’t “teach in a vacuum”—students can (and should) learn a variety of subjects from just one curriculum like Owney.
That approach, said GW Associate Professor of Curriculum and Pedagogy Sylven Beck, is one of the Owney curriculum’s greatest strengths.
“Take that one curriculum document and just blow it up into every compartment you can,” said Dr. Beck, who described Ms. Biechman as tenacious and thorough.
Another crucial part in any curriculum—and something students learn very early from Dr. Beck—is the “hook” that will grab and keep students’ attention. Owney has that, too: Ms. Biechman has a stuffed Owney on her desk, and the kids are always ogling and saying how cute he is, she said.
The Owney curriculum is targeted to second-graders, but it can be modified for slightly younger or older students. Although she hasn’t used it in her kindergarten class, Ms. Biechman said she will incorporate some components when the students write valentines to their parents this month and walk the three blocks down the street to that big blue box to mail them. If only Owney could be there to pick them up.