Thursday, March 28, 2013

Green Acres School - Rockville, MD

A rich progressive

The history of Green Acres School follows a quintessential progressive school course, having been founded by a visionary woman in the mid-1930's during the heart of the progressive movement in America. Influenced by John Dewey, Frances Parker, and the early pioneers of progressive education, Alice Mendham Powell opened the school in 1934 on Greenwood Farm in Brookville, Maryland (the school moved to its current location in 1948). Her vision was to create a school where children of all races and social stations could form a learning community where learning would arise from the real experiences of children, who made connections with the larger world around them. The history of the school, Think of What They Could Be Learning, was written by Lisa Nevens Locke, and is found on the school website. As was the fate of many progressive schools, Green Acres struggled to maintain its progressive philosophy and programs during the 1950's when the country turned to a more conservative political agenda. Today, however, the PK-8 independent school serves 320 students, and is unabashedly committed to its progressive roots. Lower School Teacher, and PEN Board Member Terry Strand hosted my visit and I met with Head of School Neal Brown. Terry has been one of the driving forces behind the establishment of CAPS (Capital Area Progressive Schools), a regional PEN network which gathers seven progressive schools in various collaborative activities.

Beautiful spaces
adorn the campus
Tucked away in a residential neighborhood on 15 acres of wooded property, Green Acres school is a campus reminiscent of several schools I visited on my tour of progressive schools. Six classroom buildings serving various program needs and children of different age groups, the campus features wooded areas, a stream, athletic fields, and themed playgrounds. The thoughtful design of the space allows an easy indoor-outdoor flow with an ample supply of natural light spilling into the classrooms. The library is a work of art with private niches graced by beautiful stained glass windows. It's a place that speaks, "Children are here, and we value them." 

For a real immersion into an exemplary project based classroom, I visited Nic Ribya's sixth grade science classroom where the students were studying natural disasters. This was a fully loaded 3-month unit where the students, working in groups of three, selected a natural disaster and dove deeply into the research to discover as much as they could handle on the topic. They created their own website with illustrations, photographs, charts and tables and information. Students were responsible for creating a three-dimensional model of the phenomena, and a blue-print of a dwelling that was designed to withstand the full force of the disaster. The day I visited, Nic had the children designing a lesson to teach to visitors who would be touring their exhibits later in the week. She has created a web-based portal with a discussion board for the students to interact and parse through their questions.

Lower School Teacher &
PEN Board Member
Terry Strand
This multi-disciplinary activity demonstrates an archetypal progressive education notion – students who are given rigorous expectations, allowed the freedom to pursue their learning independently, and expected to work collaboratively, are capable of extraordinary accomplishments. The activity called to mind my visit to The Children’s School in Chicago (see my blog entry from February 20, 2013), where the students were demonstrating their understanding of the vestibular and proprioseptic systems.

Head of School
Neal Brown
These programs support Head of School, Neal Brown’s definition of progressive education, which he believes emanates from the earliest days of the movement. Teachers possess a great respect for children and their ideas and they have students spend their days engaged in authentic work that mirrors the world. According to Neal, students must be “creating more than complying; encouraged to take risks and learn from their mistakes.” If students have ownership over their learning they will invest more and create things and ideas of real value. Students understand that school carries many responsibilities and not everything is being done for them; they learn how to collaborate with others and become resilient. 

Neal acknowledges that it sometimes makes visitors or parents nervous to see how much fun the students are having at school. That they love to come to school each day can mystify the adult who spent his/her earliest school days dreading school and laboring through the long hours of a school day. But in our progressive schools, the notions that learning should arise from the interests of the children, and that teachers should be working assiduously to understand the needs of individual students, bring a tonic to that dull and dreary conventional educational system. This is the heart and soul of progressive education, and Green Acres provides acres and acres of beautiful examples where this model comes to life every day. 


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    1. Thanks for your comment and the encouragement. I have not posted much lately because I am working on my book on progressive education. Hoping to post new thoughts later this week! Many thanks.

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