Video by Zack Eagles
I Am Vanderbilt celebrates the people of Vanderbilt and the unique talents and contributions they bring to their work at the university each day.
A classroom of curious 4- and 5-year-olds produces a lot of wiggly, exuberant energy. But it’s no match for Marybeth Briney, an early childhood educator at The Acorn School’s 19th Avenue location.
Briney, who has taught pre-K at Vanderbilt for the past six years, believes in letting her students take the lead on the path of discovery. A recent question from the class—Why can we see the moon during the day?—inspired a unit on the sun, moon, planets and space.
“We got books from the library and other resources from within the center, then we added different provocations,” said Briney, explaining how she builds a curriculum. “We look at what they’re interested in and provide activities for them to be able to explore that topic even more.”
This approach follows The Acorn School’s philosophy of empowering children to construct their knowledge through wonder and discovery, with an emphasis on play as the most effective delivery system for learning.
“We do long, extended play periods, because the children like having time to really explore a topic—they like repetition,” Briney said. “Then we provide more experiences that will provoke that interest,” like the map of the solar system adorning her classroom floor, and the art projects depicting space objects displayed in the hallway outside.
“The students are so competent and capable when we’re giving them these experiences,” Briney said. “Twenty years or so ago, we looked at the teacher as being the giver of knowledge—it was a lot of rote memory. I find that doing curriculum this way is so much more meaningful, and the children are much more engaged.”
Whether it’s the social skills students pick up on the playground, or more formal instruction taking place in the classroom, Acorn School educators, like Briney, strive to educate the whole person and nurture a lifelong love of learning.
“No matter where you go, the Vanderbilt name is associated with excellence, and I really feel that’s what’s going on here—excellence in early childhood education.”
“No matter where you go, the Vanderbilt name is associated with excellence, and I really feel that’s what’s going on here—excellence in early childhood education,” Briney said. “We’re trying to find what works best for children, and we’re willing to watch what the children are doing and make adjustments and learn from them.
“I guess that’s what I love most about Vanderbilt: that we are always looking at ways to improve what we’re doing,” she said.
Briney balances the high energy of her classroom with daily exercise—she likes to walk around campus or use the elliptical machine at The Commons Center during her lunch break—and enjoys reading, quilting, baking and practicing yoga in her spare time.
She said her favorite part of the job is witnessing students’ “lightbulb” moments. “We’re leading them down a path and not just giving them information,” Briney said. “It’s really exciting for the children, and it’s an incredible experience to watch.”