What is a Multisensory Teaching Technique?

Applying a multisensory learning technique can be as simple as following along in a book as a student reads aloud. It can be as complex as using percussion instruments to demonstrate a mathematical principle. There is no template for student-centered learning. 

It can be overwhelming for teachers who are getting started with this whole-brain and whole-body approach to education. I’ve found it helpful to break it down into modalities. Keep in mind that multisensory teaching, by definition, involves using two or more modalities to reach learners.

What Is a Multisensory Learning Technique?

New teachers have told me, “I use multisensory techniques in my classroom! I have an essential oil diffuser! Sometimes I play music during the writer’s workshop!” 

These are wonderful ways to create a pleasant, home-like environment for your students. They are also great examples of what multisensory learning is not. 

Teachers who utilize multisensory learning techniques utilize multiple modalities to reach their students. We can shorten the list of modalities to VAKT – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. Strong multisensory activities utilize two or more senses at once. 

Like all solid pedagogy, a multisensory teaching technique must be intentional. Teachers employing this technique are not sending unconscious sensory cues to their students. They are very deliberately teaching students to take in new learning through their senses across content areas. 

This is especially important for budding children but ultimately serves every individual we teach. When I think of some of my most memorable former students, my mind goes to their particular strengths and worldviews. The first step toward teaching through all of the senses is to identify and embrace the diverse ways your unique students experience the world. 

Teachers who employ multisensory teaching techniques effectively provide various sensory-driven entry points to any area of learning. I’ll be honest; it requires a lot of empathic perspective-taking! You must help students use their own prior knowledge to make meaningful sensorial connections. 

How can you help your students touch reading? How can you guide them to hear math? Do they have the opportunity to embody the history and see science?

Why Use Multisensory Techniques?

Teaching students through the senses is a way of teaching children how to imagine the world complexly. You are allowing students to practice using their whole brains to process their unique human experience.

Neuroscience and Connections

While children’s brains are developing, they are creating synapses all of the time. The more synapses they have, the easier they can make connections and recall information. If they don’t make certain connections, they will lose them, sometimes for life. 

Engaging the senses helps students create and hold onto information by activating the areas of the brain tied to memory. 

While Howard Gardner’s theories surrounding the multiple intelligences and learning styles may be less concise than initially thought, they still inform educational practice. The research shows us that students learn best when they engage in both novel and meaningful ways

As classroom educators, we know that we are not the students’ only teachers. Their families and environments have taught them first. It is our job to harness that context to support them as learners. 

We help build bridges and form connections when we honor the ways that students learn best. Offering multiple entry points to learning is a way of recognizing where children come from and helping them get where they want to be. In that regard, multisensory learning is all about connections.


Multisensory learning has the added benefit of being highly engaging. What student doesn’t rise to the occasion when the material is presented in a way that addresses their individual strengths as a learner? Multisensory learning involves learning. 

I am always amazed by the wealth of lessons and experiences that I can recall from my time as a student. It should not be surprising that each of those experiences was active! I was busy reading, making, talking, and moving! 

Once I began implementing more intentional multisensory techniques in my classrooms, I found I was equally involved as a co-learner. I also benefited from receiving new learning through my senses! I have many fond memories of exploring beside my students, and all are tied to knowledge. 

The most engaged students are using their senses constantly. Project-based learning (in which the student is the researcher) can teach you the many ways students gravitate toward sensory experiences. When given agency, students will show you what they understand using the sensorial languages in which they are fluent!


For a full-body experience to sink in, it must be meaningful. Often, this means that students are reading aloud to other students or using oral language to present findings. The auditory element of multisensory learning means both hearing and making audible. 

When my peer is my teacher, I can both hear and see. When my peer is my collaborator, I can speak and create. When my peer is my student, I can guide them toward understanding in the way that best reaches them. 

As a result, multisensory learning is inherently a social process! I would go as far as to say that, in a classroom that embraces multisensory learning, engaging fully in one’s education can be an act of service. Students are constantly serving one another in these small but important ways.

What Does Multisensory Learning Look Like?

If you haven’t been lucky enough to see the multisensory approach to learning in action, you may be stumped when it comes to how to apply these engaging techniques. I have found it helpful to break them down into individual sensory modalities.

Remember that multisensory learning involves teaching and learning through more than one modality at a time. The key is combining the modalities in exciting and dynamic ways.

Make Learning Visual

Visual learning seems to be one of the easiest modalities for teachers to implement. This can be as simple as “including visuals” – a PowerPoint presentation, a poster, a picture. Seeing the thing you are talking about can be enough to make ideas click, especially for younger learners. 

This can also mean utilizing color in a meaningful way. Students may highlight, organize information, or create some sort of visual sort. This can easily be made tactile or kinesthetic! 

It is also meaningful for students to craft their own visuals, which are active and tactile. Students who are drawing, sketching from life, or creating from imagination are all deeply engaged.

Make Learning Auditory

A multisensory classroom is not always a quiet classroom. After all, what does learning sound like? Students who are explaining, reading aloud, composing, and listening are all teaching and learning. 

Curate podcasts or audiobooks! Use period music and place your students in context to teach history! Allow students to present to peers and explain what they understand in their own words!

Make Learning Tactile

Even the most traditional pedagogy involves the use of tactile sensory techniques to teach symbols such as letters and numbers. How can students touch the alphabet? How can they use materials to build models that confirm what they understand about the ways numbers work?

Students love to make. Research on young learners has shown that they are less intimidated when asked to make a book than writing one. Providing opportunities for students to become makers is a great way to implement tactile experiences across the content areas.

Make Learning Kinesthetic

Kinesthetic learning has the added benefit of supporting the young child’s developmental needs. Fine and gross motor development is essential for engagement in more complex academic tasks. Kinesthetic learning supports a learner’s need to build muscles and proprioceptive skills. 

Most of the time, kinesthetic learning means incorporating games into the classroom. These games don’t need to be competitive, but they should be engaging! How can you incorporate materials like tweezers, beanbags, or skipping rope? 

Better yet, have the students develop their own games to teach, review, or reinforce learning.

Multisensory Teaching and Learning for a Harmonious, Engaged Environment

By now, creative teachers will be making their own connections and finding ways to mix and match these sensory modalities to create high-engagement experiences for their students! What are you doing in your classroom to implement this multisensory learning technique? What new ideas might you try to encourage students to participate in their education with their whole-brain and whole-body? 

I would love to hear from you and learn more about your experiences! Visit my website to contact me and tell me what you’ve tried. While you’re there, feel free to read some of the other helpful posts intended to support teachers.

Is Data King: What really matters?

Lately, there has a lot of talk about data being king. When I explore what data constitutes parents most strongly consider prior to enrolling their children in our school, they most often refer to college acceptance as a significant demonstration of success among our students. We are happy to report 100% acceptance at 4-year colleges with impressive academic scholarships.

However, lately I have found myself taking a broader look at the measure of success, particularly as alumni return to me bemoaning the straight path from college and internship to career, financial security, and happiness. What exactly constitutes success in the minds and heart of Voyagers’ alumni?

According to Madeline Levine in The Atlantic Magazine, “Financial independence is one way to measure success, a sense of doing meaningful and fulfilling work is another, and raising a healthy family and contributing to one’s community yet another.” (February 2020) The question is in the order of importance and the significance of each factor on the whole person.

When I consider the Voyagers’ students who have moved on to college, I find most have managed the academics admirably, completed interesting and challenging internships, and graduated. Many have traveled and studied abroad and some have moved on to graduate school. There are others who chose a different path. They opened businesses, moved on to earn a certificate in a trade, served communities overseas, and established nonprofit organizations and small businesses. Many, whether in or outside of college, have taken meandering paths that have revealed opportunities to be flexible, try new things, turn passions into profit, and hold onto happiness.

Often, Voyagers’ graduates consider themselves successful because they are passionate about the work they do and find that this passion drives them to work harder than others, handle mistakes effectively, and learn from failures. They feel what they do has an impact and this is the indicator of success, and where satisfaction and happiness is rooted. While money must be earned for most, real success has many other characteristics for these adults.

While the tale of success for our high school students often, like so many others when moving on, involves a seemingly straight line, from grades and SAT scores, to admittance to colleges and the completion of an internship and graduation, our data tells us they are meandering within and outside of tradition, having graduated, taken sabbaticals, transferred, changed majors, initiated startups, toured with a band, and opened small businesses.

Our graduates continue to prove that anything is possible and that many are following circuitous trajectories that are of their own making and driven by a desire to be contributing members of society with financial stability, personal satisfaction, and happiness. They continue, after Voyagers’, on a path that leads to success as defined by them. They live the Voyagers’ Vision as they grow and learn as a whole person; develop thinking and working attitudes that empower them to take over their own growth; reflect their vision, tenacity, initiative, imagination, generosity, and exploration ; approach life with a bounding level of excitement, enthusiasm, creativity, ingenuity, inquisitiveness and individual satisfaction; invoke vibrancy and trust in themselves; find their voice and participate in a democratic community; and where their learning and life is defined by no one and by everyone.

About the Author: Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.

To Grade or Not To Grade: Sparking intrinsic motivation

Leaders in the field of education have spent lots of time addressing the question of assessment, standardized testing, and reporting grades. Why? Because they believe grades motivate. Many educators are rethinking this theory and consider it shortsighted. Teachers and even whole schools are dedicating time to discussing intrinsic motivation. What makes students want to do their very best? Are there ways in which we stifle this? Inevitably, grades and rankings weave their way into conversations.

In most schools across America, a student’s work boils down to one thing, a grade, which represents everything about the child’s progress in a class and, collectively, during a school year. Most people say, “So what, shouldn’t the best student be rewarded?” “How else are we going to know how a student is performing and what they learned?” More often, educators are realizing grades are subjective, arbitrary and, often, demoralizing. Whether an “A” or a “D”, grades serve to squelch motivation, limit possibilities, and ignore a student’s learning path. Grades either open or close doors, as they become gatekeepers to colleges and careers.

Progressive schools around the world and in our very communities are built on ideas, challenges, and reflective engagement. Among these ideas is the abandonment of grades wholly or partially. Instead, educators in these schools compose narrative reports and often, with older students’ self-reflection in mind, provide an individualized and comprehensive evaluation. They rarely assign grades and always provide a lengthy look at the whole person in the context of academic, social, and emotional learning.

There is no limit to what can be learned when the race to the best grades is removed from the equation. When students can dig in without fear of failing or slipping in class rank anxiousness disappears and the floodgates open. Teachers are assured learning happens because interest builds and risks are taken. Students are not hampered by an impending grade. Even when grades are a part of a student’s life, as is the case at Voyagers’ Community School’s (VCS) High School in Eatontown, grading becomes a group project. Students create rubrics, grade themselves and others, and defend their position regarding grades. High schoolers are encouraged to debate assigned grades.

So, what about teaching at a progressive school where content and student engagement rather than grades prove a teacher’s worth? This is a challenging job. Faculty members are asked to keep students’ interests at the fore and to incorporate the skills they need to learn. The conversations that are typical among teachers include constant questions, recap, and “what ifs”. Teams of teachers talk about what they heard; how they, compared to their colleagues, interpret what they heard; what it means; and where to go next. Designing and delivering a class that is flexible yet structured, deep without preconceived notions, and student-directed is not for the faint-hearted. As a humanities teacher entering a two-hour class without a sure plan, I often feel like I do when I fly a stunt kite. “Where in the world is it going and how do I keep it in flight?” It’s exhausting, energizing, and always interesting. No class is like another. Some are stupendous. This is not because I was on my game, it’s because together we, the students, and teachers, connected well beyond that which is typically evaluative.

At VCS we invest an inordinate number of hours in narrative documentation for all of our students and students demonstrate learning through the use of digital portfolios. We skip grading for all students through eighth-grade; translate work to grades for 7th and 8th graders applying to local schools and academies; and grade high school students over stretches of time, with their help. In an hour or two, a parent can see and, in conversation with a student, understand what has been learned. This is far more informative than any single grade or collection of grades. It is far more reflective of a teacher’s ability to engage, motivate, and inspire students. Narrative reporting can be implemented in any classroom, or school-wide, with a shift of perspective. In this way, teachers and students are rewarded.

In this environment, grades become one piece of a larger narrative, as teachers keep detailed notes and students and teachers populate individual digital portfolios that show and tell the topics and ideas being explored and the work being done. Of greater importance, students and teachers openly question each other’s thinking, work, and contribution to the learning environment. This goes well beyond the competition that comes with grades. Students are motivated because they see themselves in a broader world outside of themselves and they want to be a part of the conversation. Through this interplay students become passionate learners, who know themselves deeply, direct themselves, take criticism, and push to improve. This can’t be graded and shouldn’t be undervalued.

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.

Let’s Talk About “Back To School”

As parents, grandparents, students, teachers, and community leaders ready ourselves for another school year for our children, we should ask of our test and standards-driven schools around the country, “Is that all there is?” We all have the responsibility of assuring today’s children that we are providing them with the very best conditions for the ultimate outcome.

Yes, children should learn and even master reading, writing, and thinking mathematically. They should also have a good sense of US and world history, geography, and science. Hopefully, there is time for art, music, technology, and physical education. The day should be balanced out with sufficient time for lunch and recess too.

The three R’s are “must-haves” but it is everyday experiences that grow our children’s sense of place, identity, and talent. Will they be outgoing, gregarious, curious, generous, intuitive, studious, ingenious, and worldly or the opposite? Will school, where children spend the majority of their waking hours, bolster or squelch the greatest possibilities in each child?

The best in children arises from a school environment that creates and fosters hope, acceptance, compassion, love, curiosity, strength, connectivity, empathy, unity, and intelligence. In these environments, children create defining images of themselves individually and in community with others. You might ask, “How does a school provide the optimal experience for each child?”

It begins with thoughtfully designed and appointed spaces, not just because it looks good, but because it says to a child, “You are important.” “You deserve beautiful spaces.” Children will feel nurtured when beauty and care is expressed through the design and decor of classrooms, play yards, the school building, and common areas. Turn on the TV or search for a podcast or webinar, and you will find a home decor show every day of the week, without fail. We think about and strive to achieve warmth and aesthetically pleasing spaces at home because it expresses us and wraps us in comfort. It brings out our best selves. This is true in schools as well.

Creating the optimal school environment requires unconstrained time for thinking, doing, and exploring all ideas, even those that seem outlandish. When this happens in a classroom or a whole school, it tells children, “What you think matters.” “Your curiosity piques my interest.” “Your contribution is significant and beneficial to our learning community.” Creating this condition leads to the expansion of ideas, the avoidance of judgment, and broader thinking for all. It results in a try, try, and try again growth-mindset.

Schools should provide experiences such as tinkering, exploring the outdoors, solving community problems, working unconstrained by time, developing passions and talents, and building relationships with people and ideas. This can all be done through thoughtfully crafted schedules, curriculum, and lesson plans. This can be accomplished with an eye toward cross-curricula design and differentiation in instruction, in lively classrooms. When this approach is offered in sincerity and with the thought that, “anything is possible,” the possibilities are endless, and the learning is lifelong.

Letting children rule their environment, with adults providing facilitation rather than management, is also imperative. Yes, rules of safety must be handed down to children. However, the everyday code of conduct and expectations in a classroom or school can be designed and reinforced by the children. This opportunity should not be limited to a few students who serve in student government but rather to the whole community of children, so all parties have a voice for the benefit of all. Every young person is empowered and involved and called to solve scuffles and disagreements. When children are “solutionaries” they become emotionally aware of themselves and others and grow to be good problem-solvers, friends, mentors, collaborators, and leaders.

Educators, through their words and actions, must create an environment that exudes love, respect, engagement, and acceptance. This exists when children are recognized beyond their names and viewed as whole and ever-changing beings. Often children are assigned preconceived identities that place them in categories or groups based on mannerisms, habits, accents, appearances, prior academic performance, et al. Teachers and administrators contribute to each child’s sense of identity, which they carry into adulthood. When children are valued, heard, and honored by educators they make their way in the world with confidence, joy, and love for their surroundings and people. They become empowered to manage their own future and our shared future.

School is an essential part of each child’s life; it is, in a sense, an organism, a system, a being. How it contributes to each of its parts, particularly children, is important to all of us. We must be proactive in asking schools to love, nurture, and educate every child fully and with great thought and care. We must identify and choose schools that are best for our children now.

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.

The Progressive School

In today’s digitally infused society, most parents of high school aged students would agree that this generation faces increasingly complex challenges that can greatly impact their adulthood. Educators also face the increasingly difficult task of preparing students for jobs that likely do not exist as of today. With these thoughts in mind, how do parents find the “perfect fit” for the unique learning needs of their child? Many parents may not realize there are varied educational options for today’s high school students, beyond the typical traditional educational approach of the past.

Most high schools today operate from a long-standing traditional format that was successful for students of years past. In these types of instructional settings, students are placed in overcrowded classrooms where they move through a rapidly paced curriculum and only experience surface level understanding of concepts. Teachers are forced to deliver subject matter that is based solely on content standards with little to no regard for students’ interests, motivations, academic abilities, or unique current day needs.

But what if we could rethink the educational process and design a program that is tailored to the 21st century needs of adolescents? What if we could create a learning environment that engages students in meaningful learning experiences where we ignite a spark for learning, foster individual creativity, and instill a deep, intrinsic desire to be change makers, innovators, and confident visionaries? Progressive schools may be the answer to these tough questions facing parents, as they pave the way for this type of educational reform and transforming how students are now learning.

In our area, Voyagers’ Community School in Eatontown, the first in New Jersey to offer Socratic Seminar and experiential, project-driven learning at the high school level, provides a solid intellectual foundation for adolescents. This approach allows high school students not only to ask what to do but moreover to think on their own and ask why. Progressive schools are dedicated to the idea that children have to take an active role in their intellectual and social learning. They also believe, from day-to-day children should be given intellectual freedom, agency, and a say in their education. This is founded in the belief that teenagers are capable and trustworthy. Progressive high schools typically do teach traditional academics but in non-traditional ways.

Common among almost all progressive high schools is an interwoven approach to studying classic subjects including literature, history, science, math, world languages, an unusual variety of electives, guided independent studies and opportunities for student leadership. Progressive education at any age promotes personal initiative and adaptability, engaging all parts of a student’s development, not just the academic aspects. Progressive education culture embodies respect for the individual and the rewards of participation in a community. This approach set the stage for collaboration, inspiration, and forward-thinking intelligence.

Schools with a progressive education philosophy allow for the social construction of ideas and values the individual. The establishment of schools steeped in this progressive education theory date back to the mid 1800’s when John Dewey, a professor of philosophy and the head of the Chicago University’s Teacher College, expressed his belief that children should be encouraged to develop “free personalities” and that they should be taught how to think and to make judgments rather than to simply have their heads filled with knowledge. He also believed that schools were places where children should learn to work cooperatively.

By creating opportunities for intellectual development, Voyagers’ Community School high school and others like it enable students to become discerning. These adolescents learn to discover and examine an extensive body of information, evaluate evidence, consider all perspectives, and only then form their own conclusions. Higher-order thinking is crucial for college and life success, where knowledge, skills, and perspectives must continuously adapt to our rapidly changing world. Progressive schools, teach that questions matter as much as answers and thinking, solving, and doing are pillars of a meaningful education.

Common among almost all progressive high schools is an interwoven approach to studying classic subjects including literature, history, science, math, world languages, an unusual variety of electives, guided independent studies and opportunities for student leadership. Progressive education at any age promotes personal initiative and adaptability, engaging all parts of a student’s development, not just the academic aspects. Progressive education culture embodies respect for the individual and the rewards of participation in a community. This approach set the stage for collaboration, inspiration, and forward-thinking intelligence.

Students come to realize discovery and adventure, in the form of experimenting and creating in a STEM/STEAM Lab, Artist’s’ Studio, Writer’s Center, or Field Laboratory, complement robust academic and social pursuits. The caveat is proven success; adolescents attending progressive schools go on to reputable colleges and universities, into 21st-century professions like eGaming and social media marketing, and join traditional trades. More significantly, they lead lives with confidence, curiosity, and a sense of social justice and citizenship. These young adults possess worldly panache.

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.

Let’s Pursue New and Broad Possibilities

Columnist Andreas Schleicher, in TeacherMagazine.com, frets, “It’s so much easier to educate students for our past, than for their future. The biggest risk to schooling today isn’t its inefficiency; our way of schooling is losing its purpose and relevance.”

These days, people, cities, countries, and continents are connecting digitally in ways that vastly increase human potential. Any one person can shift the trajectory of most anything for better or worse. Collectively, people can address big problems and find ample solutions. The speed and power of digital technology, with all its complexity, introduces once unthinkable and still unfathomable possibilities.

Today, success comes to those who have ideas long before they have the financing. Ideas are not rooted in textbook knowledge. Recognizing a problem and conceiving of a solution involves the ability to see beyond what is obvious, formulate questions, conceive of concepts, apply practical skills and intuitions, and integrate what one comes to think and know. Through trial and error, flexibility, ingenuity, and perseverance people find an answer to a big problem or simple nuisance.

In a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse ideas and interests requires people to become adept in handling tensions and dilemmas. Progress requires people to strike a balance between competing needs for equity and freedom, autonomy and community, and innovation and continuity. Can this be taught in an education system that is inherently resistant and reluctant to change?

Undeniably, schools teach important and necessary skills. Society greatly benefits from a citizenry that can read, write, manipulate numbers, understand various fields of science, possess knowledge of global, social and political issues, and articulate thoughts, beliefs, and facts. However, this alone is quickly becoming woefully and obviously inadequate. Why are we complacent and complicit? What holds us back from expecting more for our students?

Some point their fingers at teachers who are comfortable in the status quo, teaching as they were taught. Others blame parents, who are resistant to their children learning skills they don’t know and studying subjects and concepts they were never taught. But at the heart of the problem is a large and cumbersome ecosystem called public schooling, that is driven by political and economic interests, antiquated beliefs, corporate motivations, and fear of failure. It’s a system that requires compliance and blind commitment to a teach-and-test approach.

Today, people are no longer celebrated for what they know, unless they appear on Jeopardy; Google seems to know everything. We marvel at people who have the capacity to theorize, search and sort through information, and deeply understand and make sense of content. Those who think, work collaboratively, develop new ideas, and contribute to society are leagues ahead of others. Knowledge is only as valuable as our capacity to act on it.

For education to be of service to its students and society it needs to emphasize the integration of subjects, of students and of learning conditions, be connected with real-world contexts, and cognizant of the resources in the community. Instruction needs to be project-based and co-created by students and teachers. This requires adults to see their students as resourceful and competent with ideas of value and worth.

Educators need to model characteristics of collaboration and mentorship and tap into their own passions and those held by their students in order to create curricula that are responsive and innovative. The future is also about creating partnerships that unlock limitless potential. Schools should provide for, and educators should welcome, synergies that find new ways to enhance professional, social and cultural capital with others.

In the face of fast and furious advancement will our children be offered an education that inspires them to be nimble and curious inventors and social and cultural contributors? We can allow technology and globalization to lead or we can realize these are the tools to a new cultural, social, and economic landscape where original ideas grow and our children emerge as vital participants and contributors. Let’s imagine and pursue new and broad possibilities. Let’s demand and help create schools where children and teachers collectively and vibrantly play with words and numbers, explore ideas and inventions, experiment and innovate, and step into the realm of risk, failure and success.

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.

The Importance of Service Learning

So often, I’m asked to allow children to provide community service hours in our early childhood education rooms or summer camp at Voyagers’ Community School. The children who provide these services are typically well-intentioned and genuine but rarely entrenched in the work. Their motivation is often to satisfy the hours required by their church, dojo, or other entity. They have not been engaged in an examination of the variety of needs existing in their surrounding community. Often their commitment to volunteer precedes research, discovery, and self-examination. They have not fully realized and matched their skills, talents, interests, and passion with a service-learning project. Most children who volunteer in our toddler and preschool rooms fulfill their hours effectively, often enjoying themselves and the little ones they help, but they never fully understand the value and spirit of giving through intrinsic motivation.

Before pursuing a service-learning project child should be given time and the support necessary to consider what needs exist in their community. This research might begin with visits to local municipal offices, churches, and nonprofit service organizations to speak to representatives who are on the frontlines every day. A child might also search for articles presented by local news sources. Children should take seriously the many opportunities to address real needs and build partnerships locally.

A parent can support their child’s desire to identify a worthy and interesting volunteer opportunity by asking, “What do you want to learn? Who do you want to help? What talents and skills can you contribute to a project? What talents and skills are you hoping to develop?” Service-learning should be a reciprocal relationship where children are learning from their recipients and the recipients are learning from the children. At the least, through service-learning, children should develop an understanding of civic responsibility, collaboration, problem-solving, empathy, and critical thinking.

A parent can support their child and assure they gain the greatest benefit while providing their very best effort throughout the project by asking thoughtful questions and listening carefully. Through conversations that are reflective, a parent can provide guidance and scaffold listening strategies for their children that lead to building empathy and respect.

Reflection is a key component to helping children create more effective service-learning experiences. We ask our students to reflect often — before, during, and after a project — on what they are learning in terms of content and also in terms of empathy, respect, service, civic duty, and more. Reflecting on these topics and skills can help children internalize their learning and slow down to ensure meaningful action and outcomes.

Through volunteerism, children learn to manage themselves. Encouraging a child to develop working agreements, task lists, and more, help them own the process. Once needs, and approaches to addressing those needs, have been determined for a project, children and local partners can determine small, manageable steps to take to ensure notable learning and valuable service. This is an opportunity to empower a child and create a life-time volunteer. Also, remember to celebrate the great work your child does; they and their recipients deserve to know the extent of the impact of that work. Even in cases where the outcome was not as effective as was planned there is much to learn.

In the end, children will have made a difference for themselves and others. Make time to celebrate their progress. Ask, “Where were you before the project and how far have you come? Celebrations can involve a large or small gathering; they can also involve discussions, letters to the editor, a well-crafted commendation letter from a leader of the organization who has received your child’s services and, if permitted, photos and videos of work from the project. A parent can help their child create a digital portfolio that can be revisited and shared with those interested in your child’s ability to give of time, thought and energy

Service-learning is nothing new. Children, with the help of supportive adults, have long done amazing projects that serve others. We should continue to push ourselves to find and offer opportunities to children and make volunteer experiences authentic and impactful. Can you use the generosity, hard work and sincerity offered by children who volunteer?

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.

Can learning be made real?

When exploring education options for children, parents often encounter words like progressive, experiential, and project-based. They wonder, what in the world this is about. Often the explanations are incomplete and lack tangible examples. Despite this, over coffee, at a dinner party, or while taking a spin class, someone will ask, “Can you tell me more?” of a parent who is going on about their child’s incredible transition to a new school or classroom.

Teachers and whole schools across the country are inspired by the practices put forth by educators and theorists who believe children should have a say in their education, education driven by students’ interests is deeply meaningful, a curriculum should be built together with students, and learning should be a sensory-rich experience.

Classrooms driven by these beliefs look, feel, and sound different. It is likely there is mixed seating at tables, on floor cushions, and in cozy corners. There is often a buzz of voices as children bat around ideas, share knowledge, and help each other through assigned work. They often push each other further while the teacher is moving about the room listening, collecting data, and providing small group instruction, encouragement, and provocations. The teacher is always assessing what students think, know, and have not yet learned. This informs the teacher of new and continuing interests, which provides inspiration for curriculum and new or deeper studies of topics that guarantee student engagement.

When entering a progressive school like Voyagers’ Community School, in Eatontown, a visitor will find this happening every day. The array of teachers and students are much like what one would find in any school, they are typical. The difference is their brilliance shines and the energy for learning is obvious at every turn.

All academic subjects are taught. Daily schedules include literacy, math, science, STEAM, global studies, music, and foreign language. Also evident might be an all-school meeting, a student judiciary hearing, a capstone advisory period, a committee jobs slot, and a quiet lunch focused on math games. More importantly, smiles, furrowed brows, one child helping another navigate a big idea, or high schoolers debating relativity and cultural myths will be prominent.

This environment, and approach to teaching, is driven by three pillars: the child is powerful, resourceful and competent, community drives intellectual and life skills learning, and democracy, voice and agency, is imperative to intellectual growth. At progressive schools, there is little interest in measuring learning through a test that examines finite facts predetermined by a committee in a room far away from where learning happens. Teachers are interested in immeasurable possibilities and the way children think, question, access, and examine information. They understand, “What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught, rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources.” Loris Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children.

When peeking into a Progressive preschool classroom, like that found at Voyagers’, during lunch or snack, little ones are likely to be gathered at the table in “conversation” in the form of gestures, laughter, facial expressions, and words. This is a moment every progressive teacher cherishes, as their children’s strong bonds to each other become apparent. Progressive schools often offer aesthetically beautiful environments filled with materials and people, and therefore possibilities. Students are brought together in classrooms, nature, public spaces, and professional environments. Often mentoring artists, musicians, lawyers, business owners, and the likes are invited into these classrooms. Out-of-the-box thinking leads to digital meetings with people around the world including writers, aerospace engineers, and community leaders. These schools rely on authentic materials and books. It is typical to see children building 3D printers, animating original art, and, reading a New York Times bestseller, such as Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari rather than an outdated and expensive textbook.

Progressive educators believe it is important to understand children do not develop and grow themselves but rather they develop by interacting and learning with others in vibrant schools and classrooms. Children have the right and the need to learn in joyful and innovative places. There are schools and teachers who provide just that.

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.


Administrator: Founding Director
Admissions Team Member
Teacher/Researcher – High School – Humanities

With a vision and philosophical foundation for a private, nonprofit independent school, where traditional academics are taught in non-traditional ways, Karen fearlessly purchased an abandoned and blighted 18,000 sq ft building and restored it to its original grandeur. It is now the home of Voyagers’ Community School, which serves 87 children from 6 months to 18 years of age. Karen sits on the Board of Directors as the Secretary, serve as a career and college counselor, and often is a visiting faculty member in the high school, teaching Global Studies.

Karen is dedicated to creating stronger, healthier learning environments that foster the spirit of childhood, while arming students with valuable education and life and leadership skills. Under her tutelage, 100% percent of Karen’s advisees have been accepted to 4-year colleges and universities.

Karen’s collaborative education approach is inspired by many innovative practices — one of which is the Reggio Emilia philosophy of early childhood education, leveraging the innate curiosity of children to guide learning, emphasizing respect, responsibility, and community involvement.

Karen received her BA in Political Science and Communications from Hood College and her M.Ed. in Education and Partnership from Goddard College. She has also participated in Advanced Studies in Exercise Physiology at Springfield College and earned a Master’s Certificate in College Counseling from UCLA.

Karen began her teaching career in Harvard, Massachusetts where she taught 5th, 6th, and 8th-grade social studies. This was followed by years of serving as a teacher and director of fitness and recreation programs. Karen developed an elementary interdisciplinary curriculum as a researcher and writer and then as a trainer and promoter of the national physical education program, Physical Best. Karen’s children inspired her to create a progressive learning environment that honors all children as people. She founded Voyagers’ Community School in 2004 after spending 18 months composing the philosophical foundation that guides the school’s day-to-day operations. From 2013 through the spring of 2017, Karen served as the Co-Chair of the Middle State Association Accreditation Team, which resulted in procuring accreditation for Voyagers’ Community School.

Karen has garnered recognition as the Keynote Speaker and Presenter at both national and local professional conferences, including, most recently, the Association for Constructivist Teaching Conference and the Progressive Education Network. She has been a Guest on DisruptED TV, CEO Chat on RVNTV, and several international podcasts. Karen served as an expert childhood and parenting panelist on the international Hackmankind. Karen serves as the New Jersey State Liaison for the Alternative Education Resource Organization. She also served as Chairperson and Treasurer for the New Jersey Educators Exploring the Practices of Reggio Emilia, President of A Child’s Place Education Fund, a member of The Colts Neck 9/11 Committee, and past Treasurer and President of The Colts Neck PTO.

Each day, Karen looks forward to growing Voyagers’ Community School while sharing widely about our mission. On a larger scale, through her speaking engagements and media appearances, Karen encourages parents, teachers, and business community leaders to demand more for our children, and for children to be respected as powerful, resourceful, and competent with intelligence, curiosity, and a try-and-try again focus — here and now!

There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.

Martha Graham