I grew up in suburbia and went to highly regarded public schools.
Like many others, I remember being bored in school,
coping with classrooms where opportunities to move around, talk, be curious — or anything that kids naturally want and need to do — were rare. Usually there were uninspired and uninspiring lessons, endless worksheets and textbooks with questions at the end of the chapter. The general sentiment among kids was, “It’s school! What do you expect?” Most learned to “play the game:” give the teachers what they want, make them ‘think’ you’re doing what they want, learn to do the minimum necessary to achieve one’s desired goal.
I did not think there was another way for school to be.
Then I happened upon The Family School, a small “free” school in California.
I came to learn that “free” meant, above all, freedom from the way school was “supposed to be.”
Children were free to be kids and develop in their own way and at their own pace. Teachers were free to provide a rich environment that was meaningful, interesting and joyful. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone was so happy, relaxed, and engaged. And there was so much wonderful learning going on!
After becoming a teacher at The Family School (despite not having any experience in teaching, the directors apparently liked the way I interacted with the kids), I realized I had found my life’s work and returned to college to get a teaching credential. I began to learn that there was a long and distinguished lineage of thinkers who extolled the glories of a child-centered approach or what is most generally referred to as progressive education: from Rousseau to Frobel to Dewey to Montessori to Piaget, not to mention a host of teacher-writers like Kohl, Holt, and Kozol--they all provided a theoretical and practical foundation for the free school and open classroom movements of the ‘60s and beyond.
Ever since, my goal as a teacher has been to provide a learning environment where children thrive best. The materials and activities should be intrinsically interesting and meaningful, developmentally appropriate yet always allowing for children to move along on their own trajectories. The culture should encourage curiosity, self-expression, responsibility, independence, and collaboration. The barometer is the level of engagement.
When children, or adults for that matter, are absorbed in what is before them, learning is optimized because attention is optimal.
For example, I predominantly teach reading and writing through "language" experience, augmented with fun phonics.
This means using the children's or the class's own words to write and read. Just a few ways this can be done are:
- We brainstorm ideas, write them on an easel so we can refer back to them.
- The students invent characters and write chapters about them, getting as much or as little help as they need. They might dictate to me, then read and write, or get words spelled as needed, or sound words out phonetically.
- We write collaborative poems where everyone contributes a line, and we read it back together.
- Students pick a state and gather information, make a map, send a letter to the state tourism office, locate interesting facts, put together a computer-based presentation of the state.
In other words, they learn to become a (better) reader by constantly interacting with words in interesting, meaningful ways.