Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wingra School - Madison, Wisconsin

After Chicago, I headed to Madison, Wisconsin to visit Wingra School. The staff at Wingra has been a full participant in past PEN conferences, and I was eager to reacquaint with these friends in a beautiful part of the country. 

Founded in 1972, Wingra School sits on a hill near scenic Lake Wingra, across from the Arboretum of the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. A K-8 school with 120 students, the name "Wingra" means "duck" in the language of the Ho-Chunk nation who inhabited the area. The charming school building was purchased from the Madison Unified School District in the early 2000's, and spacious classrooms and hallways are a signature part of the identity of the school.

I visited on a cold but sunny winter day with snow covering the ground and watched kids sled and play in the snow at recess. For this California kid, it was an entirely unique experience as I watched how long it took teachers to supervise the "transition" to outside. Kids sit in the hallways donning their ski gear and boots (imagine, you Californians, how long it takes kindergarteners to pull this off). The landscape and the setting play a major role in the culture of the school. The multi-age class names are descriptive of duck habitats, and are metaphors for the students' developmental stages: Nest (5-7 year-olds), Pond (7 - 9 year-olds), Lake (9-11 year-olds) and Sky (11-14 year-olds). 

Paul Brahce
Paul Brahce is the Head of the School and he kindly hosted my visit. Paul's dedication to progressive education traces back to his high school days when he was involved in the creation of an "open-classroom" model high school, which he then attended. As a young person he read Jonathan Kozol and John Holt, whose writing formed deep impressions. Since those days, Paul has been a student and devoted practitioner of alternative and progressive models of education. He has been the Head of Wingra for five years.

I also had a delightful conversation with Mary Campbell, Wingra's Education Director, who taught at the school between 1990 - 1997, then returned in 2006 after raising her children. Mary cut her progressive educator's teeth studying the British Infant System and now works closely with teachers to co-create the school's educational programs. She is proud of the climate of collaboration at Wingra, and describes it as a place where teachers are highly valued and receive respect from the entire community. I am observing a common attribute of progressive schools - seeing teachers as respected professionals who constitute the heart and soul of a school. Indeed, in this era of normative standards, when much has been taken from teachers, it is refreshing to be around other educators who believe strongly in this principle.

Mary Campbell
Paul's definition of progressive education starts with an acknowledgement that humans are natural learners and social creatures. In his words, "...learning is what we do and what we do together." The purpose of a school is to support this understanding and to cultivate and nurture a safe environment for children to learn and make social connections. Helping children learn to care for one another is at the heart of this enterprise and at the heart of building a democratic society. People need to build and support communities and this learning begins in school. Paul brings politics into his definition of a progressive school insofar as he views the mainstream educational system in this country as damaging to children. Progressive schools have agency as institutions and need to lead the way to discover alternatives to the testing frenzy that has consumed this country's educational system.

Paul (and the Wingra staff) is another proponent of the multi-age classroom grouping. At Wingra, students spend two (and possibly three) years with one teacher and Paul describe the continuum of growth over the two years as profound. Teachers develop a deep understanding of their students while the "youngers" become "olders," and bring wisdom and leadership to their classmates. As the relationships build, a culture of traditions form at the school to support the learning and create a secure environment for the students.

Olders share with youngers
I observed this in full measure as I visited the "Sky" class of 11-14 year-olds. The students were just starting to learn an abstract algebraic concept through a measurement activity, and create their own "string equations" to illustrate their understanding. The teacher invited the "Lake" group (9-11 year-olds) to visit the class and hear the "olders" explain their new learning. I observed two thirteen year-old girls take the plunge and, in front of all the other students, explain the concept verbally and by writing out string equations on the white board. The teacher asked for feedback from the "younger" students, and one of the Lake girls offered to share her understanding (mind you, she had just heard this concept for the first time), and she went to the board and with great confidence, created her own string equation, while giving a courageous attempt at explaining the concept. I was almost moved to tears seeing the confidence and level of comfort among the students (teenage girls skilled and confident in math - are you hearing that??). All that Paul had talked about - right in front of me - I was amazed!

The warrior teachers of Wingra
I lunched with the faculty, who were warm, welcoming, and wonderful! It was such a pleasure to spend time with these teachers who have a well-developed understanding of the principles underlying progressive education. They are warriors for children and for preserving a nurturing and intellectually engaging program. What heroes, every one. We discussed the stereotypes of progressive education and they had heard them all: "loosey-goosey,  kids running amok, no structure, not rigorous, the hippie school." There is an almost palpable resentment (between the giggles) as they rattle off these old notions of progressive schools. These teachers, who take such a serious-minded approach to their practice and who deeply commit to professional development, and collaborate with their colleagues, bristle at the stereotype notions. And, they are grateful that they teach in a supportive environment where they can build healthy and positive relationships with parents and their students.

Wingra, one of the few progressive schools in an ostensibly progressive city, swims upstream in the current mainstream of schools in their region. Give these courageous educators credit, and feel good for their lucky students - these guys are doing it right - in beautiful (but very cold) Madison, Wisconsin.

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