Berwyn, Illinois, September 5th
I arrived at The Children’s School around 9:00am. I met Christy, the director of curriculum and instruction, who led me to a room where an open house for parents was beginning. There I spoke with a few parents. Brian was a professor of education and had two children at the school. He described the school as a “gem,” doing what most schools only theorized or talked about doing. Antoine had three children go through Chicago Public Schools, and while he said that for the most part they all had good experiences with CPS, he decided on The Children’s School for his youngest because he and his partner wanted something different. He said he’s noticed something different in the way his youngest is learning—she is more excited and motivated to learn than her older siblings were.
Pam, another administrator, explained to me that The Children’s School uses a progressive methodology based on John Dewey’s ideas—namely that education should prepare people to be active members of a productive, democratic society. One of the main goals of The Children’s School is to foster joy of learning in its students. Teachers do not give grades. Project-based learning is employed as often as possible, in order to give students a connection between what they’re doing in the classroom and the real world. On top of lending meaning to students’ learning and fostering creative thinking, project-based learning is more collaborative than lecture-based learning, leading to a greater ability to cooperate and learn in groups.
We entered a classroom of 3rd and 4th graders (some classrooms include students from across grades). The students were in the corner, having a conversation with the teacher. The teacher explained one of the boards on the wall. It was the “How am I feeling?” board. There were numbers one through five and clothespins with the students’ names on them. At any point during the school day, a student could go to the board and change their number if they’d like to. The teacher explained that this would help her monitor how the students felt throughout the day, so if something were to happen that upsets or elates them, she could inquire about what sparked the change.
Besides the How Am I Feeling board and a few other posters here and there, the walls were mostly bare. Christy pointed that out to me, and said that that’s common this early in the school year because the school wants the children to have a decision in how their environment looks (and to gradually fill the walls over time). The teacher got into a discussion of multiple intelligences and the students went to tables to start an exercise.
Next we saw some younger classes, where students were voting on a ‘class name.’ Some options included The Sharks and The Dragons. Another one of The Children’s School’s main goals is to engage students democratically, to encourage them to raise their voices and express their opinions. Every other week the whole school convenes for a ‘town hall meeting’ in which students voice concerns, ideas, and recommendations. If one group or person proposes something, the students can vote on how to proceed. I was told of a brilliant moment during one of last year’s town hall meetings, in which a group of students proposed that students ought to be allowed to eat lunch in any classroom of their choosing. Most students were in agreement with this notion, and would likely have voted to abolish the current location-restricting lunch policy. But then two 1st graders bravely and eloquently explained to the whole school that they had peanut allergies, that they know their classmates don’t bring peanut-containing food but that they don’t know whether others would, and that they might feel unsafe if the policy were to change. Suddenly everyone’s mind changed—they hadn’t thought of that.
We went to the middle school building, where 7th graders were transferring maps from atlases onto poster paper. The atmosphere was very casual. Some students were actively tracing countries onto the maps that were presumably going to be hung around the room while others sat around nearby, everyone engaged in discussion. In the 6th grade classroom, 6 students (the whole class) sat talking with their teacher about what subjects and ideas they might want to learn about this year.
We went outside and around the building to where a young class was playing in a sand mound, building things out of sand using their hands and tools. Another class came outside to read on the grass. We went back inside and I inquired about how much freedom the teachers are granted. Christy said a lot. She said there are certain things they agree on and that the administrators keep the teachers to, but as long as they meet those basic responsibilities (such as helping students achieve developmentally appropriate skills) they have the freedom to foster learning however they would like. Teachers, or students themselves (provided the teacher allows it), can decide to go outside to learn, to use the art/project room, even to go on field trips to places of their choosing. Christy said that if there was a spectrum, on one end traditional public school and on the other end unschooling, they’d be right around the middle.
To me, the students seemed engaged and excited to learn. They also seemed to feel like they had a voice and a say in how things were done—some control and responsibility over their own education. And it was very refreshing to see how the school had patience for the development of each individual child. There was no great rush to teach rigid, ‘age-specific’ standards—the school recognized that each student learns at an individual pace and in an individual way.
You can read more about The Children’s School and its philosophy at its website: http://www.thechildrensschool.info/