Monday, April 22, 2013

Homestyle Education, Part IV

I’ve spent the last three posts reviewing a particular innovative classroom from about twenty years ago: Part I, Part II, and Part III. I’d like to do some followup, now with hindsight.

The Followup
At the time I wrote, it was during my son’s second year in the class. We wondered what to do for the following year. He had been recommended, since kindergarten, for the gifted program at a magnet school across town. I was hesitating, because sending him far away seemed uncomfortable if it wasn’t necessary. During the two years in the multi-age class with an extraordinary teacher, I think he got much of what he would have gotten in a gifted class.
But for third grade we needed to make a decision. The school was trying to expand the multi-age classroom concept. It was going to be tried with a third-fourth class. The teacher wasn’t as experienced or as flexible as Mrs. Crane, but I thought it was worth a try.
In retrospect, we missed a good year we could have had at the gifted school. This next multi-age classroom was just one teacher handling two groups of kids: one assigned third-grade level work, and the other assigned fourth-grade level work. A kid could choose harder work if he wanted, but there wasn’t anything really self-paced or individualized.
Now we had the standard rows of desks, with students sitting unnaturally quiet, and doing the same work others were doing. It was boring. And while our very smart son didn’t get behind, he didn’t really thrive either. So for fourth grade we sent him to the gifted school. By then, it turned out all his neighborhood friends were being sent there as well, so socially it was a good choice. And the gifted classes were innovative in many of the same ways as Mrs. Crane’s class.
Meanwhile, Economic Sphere, our second son, had gotten through kindergarten. His older brother’s kindergarten teacher had moved up to teach a first-second grade multi-age classroom, with some additional innovations. She began the year team-teaching with yet another teacher and classroom. So really there were two classrooms full of students (about 52 total), half assigned to each teacher, but all receiving some attention from both. And the kids ranged from Down’s Syndrome first graders to gifted second graders—a wide range. (Special Ed students also had an aide assigned to them.)
Mrs. Helmsley had been an excellent kindergarten teacher, and her philosophy about how to run a multi-age classroom coincided with Mrs. Crane’s. In fact, eventually they worked together to train other teachers in the district in methods that worked. Part way through the year, it became apparent that the chaos of having 52 kids in a room was too much, so the divider between classrooms was replaced, and the two multi-age classrooms worked separately. But the other innovations continued.
I used to volunteer as a writing helper in the classroom, during what they called Writing Workshop. Kids wrote their own “books,” with whatever help they needed. They illustrated as well. And when they were finished (which often took a number of Writing Workshop sessions), they would “publish,” which meant getting the pages bound. And then they would share, reading aloud to others who had recently published. It was a very satisfying experience to have that sense of completion and recognition. I still have some of Economic Sphere’s first books tucked away somewhere. (His very first published “writing” was a wordless picture book, which was unorthodox even in that setting.)
They adjusted for individual children, which we needed. Economic Sphere came home from school in September of his first grade year, about two weeks into the school year, and said, “I’m the best speller in my class.” He’d only been reading aloud since June, but he was reading the Encyclopedia at that point. I wasn’t aware of the spelling skill yet, so I said, “You mean you’re the best first grade speller in your class.”
“No,” he said, with certainty; “I’m the best speller.” Within days I got a call from Mrs. Helmsley recruiting my help. They had no spelling lists that would do. He needed to come up with his own spelling lists, going through the dictionary to find words he didn’t know yet. Among those early lists were Tyrannosaurus Rex, dolphin, constellation, and reindeer. By year’s end, he had moved on to archaeopteryx. What I appreciated was how delighted his teacher was by his special abilities, and how willing she was to accommodate, rather than say, “Since he’s doing fine, we just won’t worry about him.”
When he got through those two years, we sent him directly on to the gifted school for third grade. The gifted school also did themes, lasting a semester or even longer. They put on plays and musicals. They did murals. The teachers used a portfolio approach to progress reports as well. I looked for just a couple of things at parent-teacher conferences: Was my child progressing well? And did his teacher appreciate him and like him—see in him the delightful things I saw.
I knew these several extraordinary teachers spent their lives thinking up new and different ways to share learning with the kids. These brave souls allowed a kid to bring in the heart of a deer (during hunting season) and led the kids in the dissection. We had a class that used small wading pools to contain habitats for spiders and their webs. We provided a large, green, striped garden spider that was known for beautiful webs.
There were hamsters, rabbits, and chicks in various classrooms. One Saturday we ran over to the school when we got word the chicks were hatching—phonecalls going out to every child’s parents so the kids wouldn’t miss out just because it was a weekend.
It has been a couple of decades, and we left the area fifteen years ago, so I have no way to follow up and find out whether the multi-age classroom concept is still thriving there. It might have been dependent on those few extraordinary teachers. I believe the gifted program is still there; the gifted program we got when we moved here was nothing like that, and the culture shock of disappointment is what led us to homeschool.
Again, these great classrooms I’ve described were all in public schools. But what worked was everything standardization prevents:
·         Personal decision making by the teacher, in concert with the parents, about a particular child and his/her learning style and needs.
·         Curriculum and learning materials chosen by the teacher for her classroom, sometimes for a particular child.
·         Enrichment brought in when it was available, adjusting other things so the special opportunity wouldn’t be lost.
·         Bringing in parents to help in the classroom, so parents were part of the learning taking place.
·         Plenty of individualized education—each child at his own pace, with plenty of opportunity to follow his own interests.
·         Accepting differences in pace and style without shame, stigma, or labeling; this included the “learn, then teach” method, where students helped tutor someone in a subject they already understood.
All of these things are natural within a family homeschool. It would be difficult to approach homeschooling some other way. Schooling within the home is the natural, normal method that has been used, at least for elementary education, through most millennia. The factory-institution style schools we see so often now are a recent anomaly. Functional illiteracy grows as responsibility and choice are taken over by government, usurping the parental role.
The only way for public schools—or private schools—to successfully educate a leadership class is to use the methods that work in the home. Make the school less like a factory and more like a natural learning environment, where differences are cherished.
Next time you come up against Common Core, or CSCOPE, or any other top-down decision, speak up and say, “That’s not acceptable for my child.” And if you can’t get the schools to give you what they can and should, get your child out of there.

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