Grassroots: Day Five

Here is a list of book titles that were suggested to me while I was here. I skimmed the first few pages or chapters to see if they piqued my interest, so here they are!

Children: The Challenge, by Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D. “We do not suggest that parents be either permissive nor punitive. What parents have to learn is how to become a match for their children, wise to their ways and capable of guiding them without letting them run wild or stifling them.”

Summerhill: For and Against, by a compilation of authors. “Outstanding writers in education, sociology, and psychology evaluate the concepts of A.S. Neill.”

Legacy of Trust: Life After the Sudbury Valley School Experience, by Daniel Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky. “This book is about adults who participated, while students, in a remarkable [freeschool] experiment in education. Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1968 as a place where each student could be fully trusted to make every decision about how to grow from a child to an adult, seeking such advice as he or she wished. In this book we try to determine what the legacy of such trust might be.”

Night, by Elie Wiesel, and other books by him. “This is a true story of a boy and his father. It is a unique document- unique in the special perception of the boy of the moral effects that suffering can have on its victims.” [An autobiography of Wiesel’s terrible time in Auschwitz. I heard him speak at Florida State University while I was here, as I described in an earlier post.]

Tolstoy on Education, translated from Russian by Leo Wiener. “Tolstoy, disgruntled with contemporary educational practice and dismayed by the bankruptcy of the theory that underlay it, founded in 1861 an experimental school for peasant children on his estate…”

Today I was invited to visit the School of Arts and Sciences, a charter public school in Tallahassee. One of the administrators is a neighbor of the Seerys, and when she heard about my interest in alternative education, she kindly set up a time for me to come visit this school. I moved back and forth between two classrooms full of five, six, and seven year olds; there were twenty-five children in each class, with two teachers per classroom.

The School of Arts and Sciences was founded by a core group of parents and educators in the early ’90s. Their mission statement is: “to facilitate individual educational ownership and responsible lifelong learning through interdisciplinary approaches to arts and sciences in a safe and nurturing environment.” The school accommodates about 275 students, kindergarten through 8th grade, chosen by lottery in the Florida education system. Grades are combined so that students can have a multi-age experience, with slightly younger children learning from slightly older children, while the older students learn how to help younger students, etc. Kindergarten is paired with 1st grade, 2nd and 3rd grade are combined, 4th and 5th, and the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classes are combined in a different way (I wasn’t very clear about this process).

Here is what class 1, combined kindergarten and 1st grade, did in the morning.

9:00-9:30 Children arrive at school and immediately begin “Morning Work”, which is journal writing. They were directed to write a letter and draw a picture in a notebook to a family member. Most children knew enough words to write a basic sentence or two; sometimes children asked for help spelling words they didn’t know, but I was told that kindergarteners were not corrected on spelling unless they asked for help, instead being encouraged to spell words how they thought they sounded. All the children seemed eager to write. After they were done, the students were allowed to pick a book off the shelves and read it or look at the pictures. Surprisingly, many children knew how to read. Teachers told me that reading was so highly encouraged, in a gentle way, that with the help of the other children most students were reading basic vocabulary by the end of kindergarten.

Class 2, also combined kindergarten and first grade.

9:00-9:30 These children also had “Journal Writing”. This classroom was a little more free-choice and less scheduled than the other class. They chose what theme they wanted to write about on their own. Some wrote about stories, others wrote about their friends, or monsters, or their favorite food, and drew pictures to accompany their sentences. The older children were allowed to type out their writing on the computers, using two fingers to slowly transcribe their written work onto the screen. They clearly enjoyed this a lot. A teacher said that they were allowed to choose what they (the student) considered to be “really good writing” and self-publish it as a little book, which they could put in a portfolio and read aloud to the class.

One boy showed me his self-published book he was finishing. It was only a page long, more like a booklet, but he had put in a lot of work with the teachers to edit spelling and punctuation (learning the rules of grammar along the way). It was six sentences about John Wilkes Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln. He was very proud of it.

Class 1, 9:30-10:15 “Science Fun with Amy” came next. The teacher in this class seemed more scheduled and focused on following the rules, which her students understood. There was definitely a lot of organization. The children were attentive as they went through the familiar patterns of the morning. They had a science lesson about the five senses and identifying living and non-living things; half the kids already knew the information, it appeared, while the other half were still learning it, so there was some fidgeting as children began losing interest.

Soon they got to decorate “binoculars” made out of two toilet paper cardboard rolls stapled together, with a string to hang them around their necks. After about six minutes to color them with markers, they lined up to go outside and observe nature. Getting ready to stand in line (they sat on mats beforehand), getting into line, preparing to leave, exiting the building, and walking to a destination definitely took quite a while. It makes sense, since there were so many of the children and so few teachers, but it was tough to see the kids struggle to keep quiet, stay still, and keep their eyes on the teacher for instructions at all times. By the time they got outside all the children really wanted to do was run and shout, but they were told to walk and whisper… one of the hardest things about being a young child in a formal school setting.

Once they had walked to their designated spot by one of the butterfly gardens outside, things settled down. The teacher led them in a discussion of what living and non-living things they could see. All the kids got it. They laughed as they asked silly questions like, “Is this rock living? Is this number four on the wall living? Am I living?” They had fun looking around through their cardboard binoculars. Everyone was happy to be outside on such a beautiful day. It was hard again to get everyone to line back up and go inside.

Class 2, 9:45-10:15  This class had their “Morning Meeting”, something that happens every day in each classroom. A chosen student and the teacher led the class in studying the date, the months, some counting exercises (skip counting by 2’s, 5’s, and 10’s), a few mental math problems, and some basic money problems dealing with change. The kids really liked thinking these problems out in their heads and coming up with the right answers.

One interesting thing I noticed was that when a child was excited, they waved their hands back and forth as if they were clapping without actually touching their hands together, so it was silent. I was confused by this at first until a teacher explained that children were taught to use that motion to express excitement quietly without being a disturbance. That made me a little sad.

Each member of the class had a job. Their names were under their specific chore on a job chart. There were occupations such as line leader, door holder, messenger, compost taker, clean police, table washer, chair stacker, lunch helper, duster, etc. Whenever it was a child’s turn to perform their duty, they were so thrilled. You could really tell by the proud look on their faces, the careful execution of the task, and the eagerness to do a good job that the children really loved having their own “special” chore. It reminded me that children do like being useful, because it makes them feel that they are contributing to the well-being of their community group.

This class, as the more choice-based, less strictly scheduled room, ended their morning meeting early. The teacher praised everyone for such good behavior all morning (little over an hour) and said that as a reward they could go outside for extra recess. Everybody was overjoyed. I was thankful that the teacher allowed them to go outside and run around, since that was clearly what the kids had at the forefront of their minds!

Class 1, 10:20-10:30 The children were supposed to have their morning meeting, but didn’t have very much time, as science class had run a little long, so all they did was read a book that one of the boys had brought yesterday. The teacher was sure to keep her promise to the boy that it would be read no matter what. The children quietly showed their approval of her following up on her word.

After that, the class had a brief time to play outside for recess, but all too soon had to come back in for “Movement Class”, which lasted until noon. I didn’t see too much of this, but it seemed to involve a lot of rhythmic chanting and hand/body motions. The children liked it because it allowed them to expend energy and have fun developing coordination.

Class 2, 10:30-11:10  It was this class’s turn for “Science Fun with Amy”! They sang a song about the five senses to the tune of Bingo, which was enthusiastically received by everyone. The students discussed living and non-living things, colored cardboard binoculars, and went on a nature excursion outside. One of the girls found part of a wasp nest with only a few eggs in it; we brought it back inside, and the students liked hearing Amy talk about wasps, bugs, and insect nests.

Class 2, 11:15-12:00  Next the class marched off to music time, which happens once a week. Their teacher was a bright, bubbly lady, Annie, who clearly loved music! She had a guitar there and asked me to play a few songs. Some of the children really seemed interested in music and instruments. Then two children played songs on the piano that they would be performing soon. The class sang a song accompanied by movements that they liked a lot. After that, Annie put on a music video called “Ani-Music”, which described itself as “computer animation with digitally created music”. About a third of the kids were fascinated by it (as I was!), but they kept getting distracted by other children, who were arguing with each other and fidgeting. Annie’s enthusiasm for music was bright, but there is only so much that can be done with twenty-five children who are hungry and have too much energy! I wished again that the children had been able to eat or play outside before coming. It was good to meet Annie, though, and I would have liked to have more time to see her with other classes too!

Classes 1 and 2, 12:00-12:30  Both rooms had half an hour to eat lunch. Usually they have a little bit longer, but Fridays have a slightly different schedule. All students ate lunch in the classrooms. For some bizarre reason, they dimmed the lights in the classroom during lunchtime. The more structured class was simply told to eat quickly so that they would have time to clean up before going to the next event. The more free-choice class had a video playing of books being read aloud, Reading Rainbow style, so that the children could enjoy watching something while they ate. Both classes had time for clean-up at the end.

While eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I’d packed, I talked with some of the teachers. They use a method called “Conscious Discipline” by Becky Bailey for conflict resolution in the classroom. This entails a lot of discussion between the offended parties, mediation, and problem-solving. Emphasis on building good character, or developing “life skills” as they call it, is an important part of the school’s philosophy. Children are taught to think, “Is this helpful or hurtful?” when interacting with others. Traits such as compassion, patience, love, kindness, gentleness, self-control, diligence, etc. are taught, encouraged, and praised by the teachers for all ages. I did see examples of this happening while I was there.

The school also has the “Peacemaker Awards”. One or two students are chosen every week out of the entire student body to win a special certificate by exemplifying what it means to have good character and/or be a peacemaker in their classroom. Two little girls from the classes I was visiting won the awards this week! They were shyly thrilled.

Finally, at 12:30, all the students from the school gathered in the auditorium for something called “Friday Sing”. This was a time for people to get up in front of their peers and perform! Everybody loved it. The Recycling committee presented a little skit about the proper materials to recycle. Two girls danced to a song. Two little boys read a Dr. Seuss book out loud as “poetry”. A teacher sang a tune from a musical. A tiny six year old played two songs on the piano. The Peacemaker Awards were distributed, with nice things read out loud about the two students who won them (much to their embarrassment).

During this time, I had a chance to observe other grades. I didn’t see a single unhappy face in the group. All the students appeared cheerful and glad to be there. Yes, many of the young children were almost bursting out of their seats with pent-up energy, as to be expected, but even they had smiles most of the time. There are many great things about the school, like the teachers having the freedom to choose their own curriculum, use of portfolios instead of grades, and the ability of students to have more liberty to focus on areas of interest in the fine arts. It was good to see a school trying so hard to provide a positive environment for so many children.

There were certainly things I disagreed with, as there will be with any system. I do not like standardized testing, which is mandatory for all state-funded schools. I still wish that the children had much more free time and time to be outside playing, as I think children should be able to do at that age. But as a whole, I was much more impressed with the School of Arts and Sciences than I have been with any other public school. It was a great experience for me to attend!

Lyn drove me back to Grassroots after the Friday Sing, since she was done with her administrative work for the day. She dropped me off at the freeschool. The rest of my afternoon was spent in a surreal sort of mindset. Having just come from a structured, more formal school setting to the do-as-you-please, freedom based environment of Grassroots, I wasn’t sure whether I felt more relaxed or more like I’d had a bucket of cold water thrown at me. The differences between the two schools are monumental. It is quite shocking to go from one place to the other immediately. I don’t mean to imply that it was unpleasant at all, but it was just very strange.

This just isn’t what you’d see in a typical school.

Most of the children at Grassroots were playing in the sandbox again. The weather was sunny, with a balmy wind and temperature of about 85 degrees. People were beginning to wind down as the afternoon progressed; several students lay sleepily on the porch of the main building, watching the autumn leaves blowing off the trees. I joined them for a while as the events of the week swirled in my thoughts.

Pat gave me a lesson on the djembe when I asked for it. My hands are not as coordinated as I’d like them to be.

Jasper was much better at the “slap-bass-tone-tone” pattern than me.

There are so many amazing things about Grassroots. I don’t think I need to elaborate the tenets of their school again, since I’ve been voicing them for the past week. I am definitely on the side of the child having freedom in their education. How much freedom? I believe that it depends on the individual child to determine with their parents. I heard stories this week of students who were at Grassroots for a short time before deciding that it wasn’t the right school for them, because they wanted more structure, so they went to a different school with typical classroom schedules and found that it was the right path for them. And that’s perfectly fine. Every individual deserves the right to discover the best way of learning for themselves, and the freedom to pursue what they desire to learn, in whatever manner is appropriate, healthy, and productive for them.

I was sad to leave. The students kept giving me hugs as they went around during clean-up. They stroked my braid and asked when I would be coming back. I promised to write the school postcards to be read during Powwow. Grassroots is truly a magical place in many ways.

Tandy spent the afternoon teaching me how to make enchiladas with homemade chili sauce. I’m totally hooked; the recipe is written down in minute detail so that I can make them on my own! Pat and I spent some time playing chromatic octaves on the guitar, and doing finger exercises. Both Pat and Tandy let me ramble on and on about teaching guitar, music, parents, students, and what I do. They are two of my heroes.

Tandy went to bed after a long evening of chatting. Pat is raiding the pantry again for a late night snack (as usual). I’m eating more enchiladas and wishing for a little more time. But home calls me back again.

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One Response to Grassroots: Day Five

  1. Pingback: Freedom in Education: Final Thoughts on the Grassroots Free-School | lifeistheteacher

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