Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Common School - Amherst, MA

A child of the sixties, The Common School was founded by educator Emily Johnson as a progressive school that combined a developmental approach to teaching with a vigorous understanding of how children learn. A PK- 6 program for 125 students, the school is located on fifty acres in the scenic Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts, near Amherst College. In 2004, the school joined with its two bordering neighbors on Larch Hill  - the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and Bramble Hill Farm - to form the Larch Hill Collaborative. The school shares the use of more than 140 acres of protected farm and conservation land, where students can engage in nature and wildlife study and learn about farming. The school opened up its classrooms to me and I met with the Director of the School, Christine Lindeman.

The Common School is one of a handful of small independent schools located on beautiful countryside acreage that I visited on my tour of schools. With a view of the rare east-west running "seven sisters" of the Holyoke range, it was difficult to train my eyes away from the natural surroundings. But the endearing children and the engaging educational programs were enough to hold my attention, and I greatly enjoyed my tour of the school. 

I arrived at the school during morning "winging" time. This is a time when the children can go anywhere in the school they choose, and have free choice of activities. (In some classes, the teachers guide choices, especially in the older classes). "Winging" comes from the  practice of older students, "winging it" by visiting and playing with the younger kids during choice time. It has become a daily part of the student experience at The Common School and I appreciated that the teachers were willing to give over this amount of choice time and trust that the students will use it productively. Teachers utilize the time by pulling aside individual students, or planning with colleagues. I am discovering that many very small schools exert less moment-to-moment control over the students and give much freer reign around campus. The children grow to be very independent and build a striking level of confidence. Left to their own devices, they will immerse themselves in projects, create art, read in the library, or venture to another class to help out or play with younger students.

The library is a cozy warren
with nooks and crannies
I am told that many a child's memories of the Common School are centered around the library, a warm and cozy area teeming with books. The teachers have created a language rich environment throughout the school, where student writing and language is displayed aplenty. For School Director Christine Lindeman, schools turn around creating safe, stimulating, and rich learning environments, where students feel known and respected. For Chris, everything that goes on in a progressive school should be centered around the students. All decisions flow from what is best for the kids; the work of the teachers should be about the kids. The more kids love coming to school each day, the more they will be willing to take risks and own their school environment. Student autonomy is highly prized at the Common School and lays the foundation for student leadership. 

Chris Lindeman
Chris and the faculty champion the mixed age grouping that is so common to the progressive school community I have toured. As I have mentioned in earlier entries, the grouping allows students to develop at a more comfortable pace in a classroom where the range of skill and interest is intentionally wider than in a homogenous age grouping. In a second/third grade combined class, for example, younger students who are ready can find academic peers among the olders, and vice versa for the more gradually developing older learner. For so many children, fitting into the grade level "box" academically or socially doesn't work. The cross-age group creates a family style climate and allows students to be with a teacher for two years. It is a compelling argument given the desire among our progressive schools to deeply understand our students and develop a comprehensive assessment of their learning profile.

Time for making snowmen
I had the privilege to sit in on Holly and Cathy's Elementary I class (nine and ten year-olds) during their "Recognitions" meeting. This is a meeting where the students take turns giving appreciations, recognitions, or apologies for interactions, actions, or gestures that had occurred throughout the week. It was marvelous to hear each student recall an endearing moment, express gratitude for a kindness they had seen, or genuine expressions of apology for a transgression. I felt I was entering the inner sanctum of the group and appreciated the class giving me permission to sit in. It was a quintessential example of how community is built in progressive schools and how teachers attend to the social and emotional development of their students. So many schools I visited incorporate class meetings, and the majority have a soft carpeted space in the classroom for these intimate gatherings. This is in stark contrast to the rows of desks facing the teacher which fill classrooms in more mainstream schools. 

The more I visit progressive schools, the more I am filled with hope. The Common School is an endearing place of joyful learning among the children and serious-minded professionalism among the teachers, many of whom have been at the school for over twenty years. The pulse of progressive education beats strong and steady here - living proof that our movement endures.

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