Friday, March 29, 2013

Lowell School - Washington, DC

In many ways, Lowell School has been growing and expanding since its founding by Judith Grant in 1965. Now in its third location, the school purchased the former Marjorie Webster Junior College Campus bordering Rock Creek Park in 1997, growing from PK - 3 to PK - 6. Three years ago, the school added 7th & 8th grade, and has now settled with this configuration in a beautiful permanent location. The middle school building is soon to undergo a renovation, creating a state-of-the-art program space for the school's oldest students. My tour was hosted by Winnetka transplant and Science Curriculum Coordinator, Kavan Yee, and I met with Head of School, Debbie Gibbs.

Lowell Campus
Rising like a castle
Driving up to Lowell School feels like one is approaching a small castle. Set on a knoll, the design of the building includes a turreted wing with high transom windows that resemble guard lookout stations. Across from the school is a large playing field, cut into the landscape that could be (in the mind of an imaginative child) an impassable moat protecting the fortress. It's a location perfect for the adventurous at play - images of knights, princesses, and ladies-in-waiting - oh, to be eight years-old again!

Back in the 21st Century, when entering the building, one is taken by how thoughtfully the Junior College has been transformed into a beautiful space for elementary school-age children. High ceilings, spacious classrooms, and ample gathering spaces, the school has yet to fully fill all of its available spaces, even after inhabiting the site sixteen years ago. Landing this property was a coup for the Board in 1997, and Lowell will reap the benefits of this campus for many years.

Debbie Gibbs
Head of School
Head of School, Debbie Gibbs claims the progressive mantle when describing Lowell, but is careful to add that the programs are eclectic, an oft-repeated theme of my journey to visit progressive schools around the country. Debbie is in that group of educators who shy away from the dogmatic approach of progressive purists and looks for effective teachers and programs designed to engage kids in an authentic learning environment. At times, this might involve a more conventional approach to teaching. That said, Debbie holds true to a classic definition of progressive education - one that incorporates democratic values in all aspects of the school operation. Education arises from the experience of children and incorporates hand-on, experiential learning.

Lowell features a unique thematic approach in constructing its curriculum. The themes correspond to the developmental levels of the K-8 students: Kindergarten - Patterns; First Grade - Relationships; Second grade - Adaptations; Third Grade - Change; Fourth Grade - Systems; Fifth Grade - Structures; Sixth Grade - Diversity; Seventh Grade - Identity; Eighth grade - Communication. It's easy to see how the teachers can integrate any subject area into their thematic programs, while having the flexibility to change directions if a particular topic is not working with age group. The staff worked hard to establish this sequence and it is well represented on the walls and in the classrooms as you move through the school.

A change agent unit for
third graders
I met with third grade teachers Kathie Clements and Laurie Carter who have teamed together for 16 years. The third grade theme is "change," perfect for the eight, turning nine year-old child who is transitioning from a reigning status in the early childhood program, to the youngest of the "big kid" cohort. This age represents major developmental leaps cognitively and physically. The teachers were in the midst of their "change agent" project, where kids had studied Martin Luther King and the nature of social activism. Students selected a notable person from history to study, and they were preparing three dimensional dioramas to illustrate their learning about the notable person. The curriculum was a good example of providing students with choices within a guided structure. The methodology dispels the notion that progressive classrooms lack structure and a sense of direction. There is an order and sequence to the unit and the feeling among the children of ownership over their learning was quite extraordinary. And, to top it off, there is an important social justice component at the heart of the learning.
The inner self

The outer self
A seventh grade art exhibit featured multi-dimensional plaster cast self portraits aligned with the theme of identity. While the outside "face" of the portrait may be abstract, whimsical, or dark, turn the portrait around, and the student's "inner"identity is revealed. As twelve and thirteen year-old students grapple with their identity and search at times to redefine themselves, this activity brings expression to an important stage of their development. Many units and learning activities across subject areas intersect with the theme and the teachers are extremely creative.

A beautiful space for learning and growing, Lowell School is steeped in key progressive traditions. Its integrated and thematic approach brings an extraordinary continuity, again dispelling the myth that progressive schools lack cohesiveness and structure. The teachers and staff have created a wonderful, playful learning environment, where knights and knaves of the Lowell realm can frolic and grow. Be careful crossing the moat!

1 comment: