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February 28, 2019

By Kevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager

A towering cardboard box, its sides painted in bright blocks of color, stands in the corner of Geri Guidetti and Domingo Paulino’s classroom, which teems with children and adults alike. Several slots have been cut into the cardboard; a hand extends a nickel into one labeled, “Put your money here.” Seconds later, a strip of postage stamps drops out a separate slot marked, “Get your stamps here.” Within the box, the Kindergartener responsible for this “automatic” stamp dispenser awaits the next transaction, as all around the classroom — as in all the other Kindergarten classrooms at Ethical Culture — students are busy operating their own post office.

Customers who prefer face-to-face interaction can walk up to the full-service desk, where smiling cashiers exchange money for homemade postcards and stamps. Two students peek out from behind the curtains of the inquiry desk. Kindergarteners not actively working at one of the stations join their peers and caregivers in filling out postcards of their own. For the next three weeks, Kindergarteners are the brains and hands behind Mail World!, an organization that interacts with every room in the building.

To call Mail World! an immersive experience would be an understatement. Rob Cousins, the principal of Ethical Culture, says, “In creating a system to deliver mail, Kindergarteners learn about money, design, and promotion. They build machines to automate the buying of stamps. They visit post offices to see how sorting is achieved on a macro scale. They learn about how mail was delivered in the past. They navigate the different rooms in the school, all the while practicing their reading, writing, and math skills.” Even the stamps that students distribute are products of their own, featuring artwork the students made: ladybugs, volcanoes, mammals of indeterminate species, and several iterations of the United States flag.

The busiest time of each day is 8:30–9:00am, when parents, students, and caregivers purchase stationery and write letters to friends and siblings around the school. The work of Mail World!, however, continues well beyond the morning rush. After lunch, a group of Kindergarteners dates and marks the postcards that are to be delivered, the postprandial lull punctuated with the repeated claps of a self-inking stamper coming down on paper. They then pass the postcards to another group of classmates, who sort them into cubbies corresponding to each classroom and office.

There’s a good deal of manual dexterity asked of Kindergarteners, who cut out and glue stamps, arrange coins and papers in neat rows and stacks, and form letters and words in their still-developing handwriting. But beyond learning to work with their hands, students are also honing other skills. A sign in Johanna Igel and Will Tesdell’s classroom displays the four coins of American currency, their names, and their denominations — and, beside them, a list of student observations. Pennies are the only bronze coins. They are not the smallest coins, but nor are they the largest. On one face is the profile of Abraham Lincoln, while on the other is a crest or a yet-to-be-identified design. Running one’s finger along the perimeter of the coin reveals the surface is bumpy, not smooth. The oft-overlooked penny becomes a focal point for students who are still processing much of the world around them.

Math skills, of course, come into play as students learn to count money. Different students are at different levels of numeracy, but the post office project allows each to go at their own pace. Some students are still learning to count up by ones — twenty-one pennies, twenty-two pennies, twenty-three pennies, and so forth. Others are ready for larger increments. One student, with 14 quarters before him, exclaims, “I have $3.50!” Adding another quarter, he says, “I have $3.75!

I hope you like the post office. I can’t wait to build with you.

The Kindergarten teachers find ways to connect the post office study to other parts of the curriculum that may not be immediately apparent. Outside Maryann Mazzacaro and Emily Smith’s classroom, a world map is decorated with different mailboxes from around the globe. The locations, from Korea to Bulgaria, represent the ancestries of students in the class and serve as a useful tool for thinking and talking about diversity.

In the coming weeks, students will continue to build on the skills they develop through working on Mail World!. Betty Russell sits with a group of her students in the hallway outside their classroom. As the Kindergarteners lay their coins across gridded sheets cut and taped in various dimensions, they are simultaneously laying the groundwork for a future lesson about money. A row of four quarters makes a dollar, but so does a column of ten dimes or twenty nickels. Tied to the post office project will also be lessons about how to write a letter, complete with a salutation and valediction.

At the end of the school day, rubber-banded sheaves of postcards sit in the shoeboxes-turned-mailboxes outside each classroom. One of them, written to a Kindergartener from his classmate, reads, “I hope you like the post office. I can’t wait to build with you.”

The rest of us can’t wait to see what our Kindergarteners will build, either.