Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Children's School - Chicago


Chicago has a rich history of progressive education with John Dewey and Col. Francis Parker starting schools in the early days of the progressive education movement. It is still a place where many progressive schools flourish and I continued my journey to visit Chicago schools. I started with The Children's School.

Located in a beautiful old former Catholic School building near the Oak Park (actually Berwyn) area of Chicago, The Children’s School (TCS) was founded ten years ago by Daniel Ryan, Ph.D. (Daniel is a former PEN Board member and currently the Principal of Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka). To name the school, Daniel reached back into the history of progressive education and named the school to honor a school that later became Baker Demonstration School. Unabashedly progressive, the K-5 (and growing to K-8) school is a diamond in the rough, deeply committed to project-based learning and to creating a developmentally appropriate, intellectually stimulating environment for its students.

Christy Martin, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and Pam Freese, the Director of Administration hosted my visit. Christy and Pam handle all of the administrative duties for the school, including answering the phones and running the school office (a tiny space they share together). I interviewed them together and their enthusiasm for progressive education was uplifting.

                               
                                          Christy Martin                     Pamela Freese

Their view of progressive education starts with honoring childhood. Christy says, “Let them be children with their joys and struggles, and create an environment that supports their complete development as learners.”  For Pam, progressive practice de-emphasizes testing and competition and creates a safe learning environment where the attributes of each student can shine. It is education that starts with teachers understanding the interests, motivations, and experiences of the child and upon those discoveries build a meaningful learning program.

Christy and Pam believe that by creating a democratic school community where student participation is encouraged, they are preparing students for their role in society. An important purpose of education is to nurture citizens who can fully engage in the world.

At TCS, the academic program is integrated and not separated into little separate boxes. Pam alluded to the quote by Alfie Kohn: “We give students a brick of information, followed by another brick, followed by another brick, until they are graduated at which point we assume they have a house. What they have is a pile of bricks and they don’t have it for long.” (In Published by Rewards, 1993, Mariner Press). For Pam and Christy, the building of skills must be in service to a deeper understanding of context and concepts. The school attempts to build in students the skills of critical thinking and analysis. Especially as information becomes more easily accessible, these are important attributes as children move into secondary school and their adult lives.

With 120 students, TCS faculty and staff can keep their arms wrapped around a student body where each kid knows every other student in the school. I attended the morning meeting (held daily), which is run by the students (each child in the school has the opportunity to run one of the morning meetings), and watched a third grade girl lead the entire faculty and student body with poise and confidence. Leadership among the students is palpable as the teachers provide one experience after another where students run the show. On more than one occasion I heard adults on staff proudly share anecdotes about how the students had influenced school policy by their participation in decision-making.

Anyone who doubts the progressive educator's approach to academic development would be enlightened by an activity I witnessed as second and third graders (TSC groups second and third graders together) presented their project on the senses. In this case, I observed four students explaining the role of the vestibular and proprioseptive systems using an oversized model of a human head they had created. The inner workings of the head were visible and demonstrated the senses of hearing, seeing, and smelling.  To observe eight and nine year old students accurately teach about the role of the cochlea and the various ear canals was a sight to behold and very inspiring. They were almost jumping out of their shoes to share what they had learned.


              
          The inner ear (notice the ear drum)    The human head with all its senses displayed


What was poignant about this unit is that it arose because two of the students in the class experience acute sensory difficulties. As the children in the class learned more about the challenges their classmates were dealing with, they wanted to know more about the senses. Not only were the kids learning a great deal of information and understanding about the science of the senses, they were also developing compassion and empathy for their classmates. 

I lunched with the faculty of The Children’s School and they stressed the importance of emergent curriculum that is developmentally appropriate for students. Three years ago I visited the school and observed an extraordinary unit on Shakespeare in Kate Miller’s fourth grade classroom. When I returned, I was hoping to go back to Kate’s class and learn more about the unit. But, when I asked Pam if the Shakespeare unit had begun yet, she answered, “No, the kids have not yet decided what they want to study.” Instead of repeating a successful unit year after year as so many teachers do, TCS faculty listen, wait patiently, and develop units arising out of the current interests and passions of their students. It is teaching at its most challenging and, in my view, very progressive. These examples exist in every classroom in the school.



TCS is an exciting place to visit and a school walking its progressive talk, day in and day out. It was a thrill and a privilege to see them in action.

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