What You Need To Know About The Emerson School

Project Approach

Although teachers are expected to provide daily explicit instruction in reading, writing, and math, the Emerson program is centered on the Project Approach, which provides a framework for guiding children through in-depth studies of real-world topics.

A project is defined as an in-depth investigation of a real-world topic worthy of children's attention and effort. The Project Approach is a clearly structured, three-phase scientific exploration of a topic of interest. There is a complex but flexible framework with features that characterize the teaching-learning interaction. When teachers implement The Project Approach successfully, different subjects are authentically integrated, and children are highly motivated, feel actively involved in their own learning, and produce work of a high quality.

Project work offers children opportunities to do firsthand research in science and social studies and to represent their findings in a variety of ways. Children also have many occasions in the course of their project work to apply learned math and literacy skills and knowledge. The description of a Project can be like a good story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Teachers and children can tell the story with reference to these three phases in the life of the project. Children are expected to work cooperatively on complex and open-ended tasks as well as follow instructions in step-by-step learning. The Project Approach provides one way to introduce a wider range of learning opportunities into the classroom.


Field Studies & Guest Speakers

As part of their Project work, students experience a wide variety of guest speakers and field studies that address the students’ questions and interests related to the Project topic. (These are arranged by the Project Coordinator, in conjunction with the classroom teacher.) Most field studies are accessed via public transportation, with teachers leading and parent volunteers supporting.


Positive Discipline

All Emerson staff members are trained in, and are expected to authentically and consistently implement, the Positive Discipline framework in their work with students.  This is the basis of all of our relationships with our students. Most other “classroom management” programs/systems are not compatible with Positive Discipline.

As developed by Dr. Jane Nelsen, this is a program that teaches important social and life skills, in a manner that is respectful to both the adults and the children in the situation-raising young people to be responsible, respectful, and resourceful members of their community. It is based on the theory that children who have a sense of connection to their community (home and school) and whose input is regarded as meaningful are less likely to engage in misbehavior. To be successful members of the community, children need to be taught the necessary social and life skills. Positive Discipline is based on the understanding that discipline must be taught and that discipline teaches.

Effective Discipline…

  1. Helps children feel a sense of connection. (Belonging and significance)
  2. Is mutually respectful and encouraging. (Kind and firm at the same time.)
  3. Is effective long-term. (Considers what the child is thinking, feeling, learning, and deciding, about her/himself and her/his world-and what to do in the future to survive and thrive.)
  4. Teaches important social and life skills. (Respect, concern for others, problem solving, and cooperation as well as the skills to contribute to the home, school or larger community.)

The Positive Discipline model is based on creating mutually respectful relationships. The methods use both kindness and firmness and are neither punitive nor permissive. The tools and concepts of Positive Discipline include:

  • Mutual respect. Adults can be firm by respecting themselves and the needs of the situation, and kind by respecting the needs of the child.
  • Recognizing the reasons kids do what they do. Identifying the belief behind the behavior.
  • Teaching problem solving and communication skills.
  • A focus on discipline that teaches (and is neither permissive nor punitive).
  • Focusing on solutions instead of punishment.
  • Encouragement (instead of praise).


Participatory Management

The Emerson School uses a Participatory Management structure for program decision making at all levels. This means that, whenever possible, important decisions (e.g. staffing, curriculum, schedule, budgeting choices, etc.) are made together as a group, with all staff members having an equal voice in the process. This requires staff members to be willing to be strong and open communicators, and respectful and receptive listeners, as well as understanding that—while they may not always fully agree with the final outcome—they’ve both had the opportunity to be heard, and have the responsibility to hold true to whatever decision is made.


Morning Movement

Instead of a traditional PE program, we at Emerson have designed our own Morning Movement program to both engage students in a variety of physical activities, and to meet the state physical education standards. During sessions lasting between 4-6 weeks, classroom teachers each lead a Morning Movement activity of their choice. (Some examples include yoga, football skills, spirit squad, jump rope games, and jog/walk.) Each student signs up for one of the activities, and attends the same activity (with students from each of the grade levels) each day for the 4-6 week session.


Literacy Program         

Literacy instruction at Emerson includes the following program components: Phonological awareness; Phonics and word recognition; Fluency; Spelling and Word Study; Vocabulary; and Comprehension. These components are taught through a combination of Interactive Read Aloud and Literacy Discussion; Shared Reading/Performance; Writing about Reading; Independent Writing; Oral, Visual and Technological Communication; and small group reading instruction. During small group reading, the teacher provides explicit instruction and support using all of the skills and concepts mentioned above for reading increasingly challenging texts. At the upper grade levels, book clubs replace explicit small group instruction for most students.

In addition to direct and explicit instruction, literacy at The Emerson School is taught and practiced throughout the day and across the curriculum. The children learn to read, write, speak, and listen in a variety of settings. During Project work, both in the classroom and out in the field, students apply reading and writing skills and learn by listening to experts. In math class, children write about their findings and thought processes and talk about solving problems. As they sing and create, they read along and express themselves. And, as class meeting participants, students listen to each other and share their ideas aloud.


Math Program

We are currently using both Bridges and Eureka2 (the second is currently being piloted in three of our classrooms) as our math curricula. Each emphasizes the need for a deeper understanding of math before engaging more abstract concepts and achieves this by offering year-long lesson plans in which major mathematical concepts spiral throughout the curriculum, allowing students to revisit topics numerous times in a variety of contexts.

In conjunction with the standard curriculum, students regularly participate in integrated, complex assignments in which they apply the concepts and skills they have learned to more open-ended, hands-on, and creative tasks. These activities may range from creating 3-dimensional models of a garden, to attempting to create the longest paper chain possible using only one piece of construction paper. Each of these is designed to illicit and support creative problem solving, perseverance, abstract reasoning, modeling with mathematics, attending to precision, and developing an understanding of mathematics and their uses in the real world.


Planning Time/ “Specials”

With the exception of weekly music instruction, The Emerson School does not have what are traditionally considered “specials”. Instead, classroom teachers are expected to integrate the arts (particularly visual arts and performing arts) into the classroom activities and experiences. Frequently, these happen naturally within Project Work.

Students do receive 50-60 minutes of weekly music instruction, provided by our music teacher. The classroom teacher is not required to be present for this time; instead, it is a planning/break time. In addition, every Friday Emerson students are dismissed at 1:15. The afternoon is then designed for teachers to have a solid 2+ hours of planning time.



Emerson has a short list of commonly used substitute teachers who are primarily scheduled for prearranged absences. In addition, there are two licensed teachers on staff who provide support for a variety of activities (e.g. small group instruction), who are available as substitute teachers for last minute needs (e.g. morning/late night illnesses). Whenever possible, teachers are expected to arrange scheduling their own substitute.



All Special Education services are provided by an employee of the Portland Public School District. Currently, we have a 3/5 FTE individual providing services for all of our students with IEPs.