Monday, April 15, 2013

Homestyle Education, Part I

Back some twenty years ago, I wrote a piece on the kind of classroom my son Political Sphere was in (and later son Economic Sphere). It says something about the particular teacher, but also the things that worked in that classroom. This was years before I considered homeschooling, but looking back at it, what I find is that, the closer to a family situation, the better the learning. I thought it might be instructive, during the current push to standardize the whole country into limited mediocrity, to look at this case study of what worked in a particular classroom.
The piece wasn’t published, except among teachers in the district; the local paper was only interested in pieces about whatever version of reform was being talked about in education articles—this was a decade before the No Child Left Behind Act, and I'm guessing the phrase du jour was "outcome-based education." It wasn't something I was focused on as a parent.
The piece is long, about 2500 words. So at this point I’m debating how to break it up, or to choose which parts are most useful to look at from our current perspective. But I’m sharing this because so much still applies, and still shows cross purposes with government “experts.”
So today's Part I is an introductory look at the special classroom and teacher in our case study. I’m leaving the piece basically as written, except for changing names of people and places.
Case Study of a Multi-Age Classroom
Mrs. Crane’s classroom at Blue Sky Elementary in Tripletown does not look like an ordinary classroom. It isn’t. You won’t see students sitting quietly at assigned desks. In fact, there are no desks, just tables and chairs in small groups around the room, and plenty of open floor space. Walls are covered, ceiling to floor, with finished student work, work in progress, and pictures that may inspire future work. One wall has a life-size drawing of a student, traced around him, covered with positive comments from his classmates.
The room includes computers in one corner. Just inside the door you’ll find a classroom store where children can buy goods with motivational money they earn by doing more than is expected. Several shelves are filed with books for children to choose and read on their own—which they read while lying on a rug, sitting at a table, or wherever is comfortable.
On afternoon visits during reading time, you’ll find the place silent, except for a few quiet voices reading to each other. But the room is anything but quiet during most of the morning. An hour of each morning is activity time. Several parent volunteers come to help out with reading, writing, and math projects. Math sometimes includes cooking during this hour. Students move from station to station, deciding what they want to accomplish, getting personal adult attention while they do it. There’s a lot of talking going on. If you visit now, unprepared, you may see what looks like chaos.
Adding to the apparent chaos is the inherent difference in student ability. This is a multi-age classroom, with first and second graders mixed together. There is no first grade group or second grade group. There is no group of struggling readers or successful readers. There are twenty-seven different students at different developmental stages in math, reading, and social skills. Difference is not only welcome here; difference is expected.
Managing all the difference is a teacher with a plan. Barbara Crane is an energetic and exciting personality. She often responds to student accomplishments with hugs and cheers. At times it’s difficult to identify her in the classroom. Her small size and her place among, rather than in front of, students help her blend in. Several years ago Crane completed her master’s degree in elementary education. Always ready to find a better way, she is now putting the latest in elementary education research to work.
Mrs. Crane’s plan is designed to help students discover how to learn, and to enjoy doing it. Students don’t all learn the same way. That doesn’t matter. Her classroom provides so many different approaches—hands-on experience, pictures, graphs, reading, writing, explaining to one another, experimenting, singing—something has to work for every child.
During the morning Mrs. Crane gathers students for circle time. This is as close as she gets to a class lecture. They talk together as a group about the current theme, which was recently inventions. The purpose is not to learn all there is about inventions; the purpose is to experience many ways of learning about something---such as inventions. The emphasis is on the process, rather than the product, of learning.
Together teacher and students examine unknown inventions brought in for them to examine. They make predictions. They try some experiments. They make charts and graphs about the various inventions they examine. They make up stories about how the inventions could be used.
Themes, such as inventions, are chosen specifically for their ability to supply multi-layered learning experiences. In exploring the theme, students use their growing math, verbal, and social skills. Learning about a theme is not meant to replace basic math and English; it is meant to make them relevant so they can more easily be learned.
This thematic, or holistic, approach to learning is one of several current trends in education. A body of research has become available in the past couple of decades about how children learn, which is slowly making its way into classrooms.
So part I has given us a taste of what this particular classroom looks like. Part II will look at the research behind the approach and how well it addresses education challenges. I expect there will be a part III, looking at the outcomes for the students in our case study. And either mixed in or following, we’ll compare with what we know twenty years down the road.

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