Friday, March 1, 2013

The Orchard School - Indianapolis, In.

Founded in 1922, during the heart of the progressive movement, The Orchard School is located on 43 beautiful wooded acres in Indianapolis. The school was founded by nine women, who were intrigued by the work of John Dewey and Marietta Johnson, two pioneers of progressive education. The women invited Ms. Johnson to a series of community meetings and discussions, and she helped guide the women as they opened the school. Head of School, Joe Marshall was gracious and welcoming, laying out a wonderful itinerary for my visit. I was able to meet with teachers and administrators, and spend a long session with Joe discussing The Orchard incarnation of progressive education.

Tree Tappers
Orchard is the largest progressive school I have visited thus far on my tour. With 600 student in its PK-8 program, it occupies a unique niche in the Indianapolis educational community. On the day I visited, the first graders were starting to tap maple trees in the woods. The unit is an old school tradition, and culminates in a community-wide pancake breakfast that draws parents and alumni by the hundreds. Maple tapping is an experience this San Francisco boy has not encountered much in his life, so I was intrigued when the kids told me all about the process. Apparently, if a first grader can put his or her arms entirely around a tree, it is too young to tap. (I come from a very different tree hugging part of the country). Nonetheless, I learned much from those six year-old tree tapping experts.

Kristen Hein
I started my day at Orchard with Head of School Joe Marshall who ushered me into the gymnasium for an all-school assembly. Today's gathering featured musical performances by several of the students who had recently participated in a major musical competition. Aside from the beautiful performances - and they were outstanding - I was struck by the respectful attention given the performers by every student in the school (even the 3 and 4-year olds). Throughout the performance, you could have heard a pin drop, save for the thunderous applause after each student played or sang. This was a striking example of how the staff has built a culture of kindness and respect among the children. After the performance, the Director of Admissions, Kristen Hein took me on a tour of the school and I was thoroughly taken by the kindness of the Orchard students, who one after another, would smile and greet me.

Linda Prell, the Director of Extended Day Programs shared how the morning meeting sets a tone for the school and contributes to the effort to have students get to know one another. In a large school this is a challenge, so getting the student body in the same place as often as possible has become part of the culture of the school. 

Joe Marshall
Joe Marshal has narrowed his definition of progressive education into two core tenets: a school must take a constructivist approach, and education must be relevant and meaningful for students. Joe believes that other elements that might commonly be associated with progressive education such as diversity, social justice, and equity, could easily be found in traditional schools, but these two primary characteristics are germane to progressive schools. Within this framework, Joe would add that several important elements must be in place. The focus should be on cultivating students' internal motivation by empowering them as learners. This is accomplished by establishing a safe learning climate where the emphasis is on the process of learning well above the final product. Individual students must be celebrated for their growth, and not compared to others. Success should be defined as widely as possible, tied to goals and milestones particular to individual students. These are the cornerstones of child-centered education.

At Orchard, Joe believes that these ideas manifest as teachers are given the latitude to follow the interests of the students. As professionals, teachers should be able to respond to learning moments and meet students as the need and excitement arises. Joe talked about how this can be "messy" at times, but the messiness is a result of creativity and innovation, and teachers should be given the trust and flexibility to create this environment. Within this creative climate, students engage more often with critical thinking and problem solving, working to solve real problems. For Joe, this approach embodies the consummate experiential pedagogy and has always been a part of progressive education.

The number nine is important to The Orchard School. Nine women started the school and, over time, the school has established nine promises: The best teaching; students who love school; parents as partners; diversity is a given; successful outcomes; state of the art resources; nature as teacher; global readiness; and a meaningful heritage. But, as rooted as the school is in its past traditions, the staff is equally focused on the future. I met with the two divisions heads, Donna Romack (Director of the Lower School), and Jeff Kalil (Director of the Middle School), and discovered the working parts of the school are dynamic and vibrant.

Jeff Kalil
Jeff invoked John Dewey's famous admonition: "We must prepare our children, not for the world of the past, not for our world, but for the world of the future." As I walked through the middle school, stopping to chat with many of the charming Orchard seventh and eighth graders, I could see this playing out at Orchard. We observed a group of students learning rope climbing techniques in the middle school village, a large sprawling space with high ceilings and strong beams that could hold their weight as they learned to make special knots. Then in the social studies classrooms, the kids were engaged in a simulation activity which took them on a caravan journey across a region of the world they had to learn about in order to navigate their travels. The teacher would impose challenges along the way, and the students earned points by overcoming the challenges. Jeff points out that in both activities, collaboration is crucial and the students are learning vital relational skills which will serve them no matter where they go in their lives. Regarding relationships, Jeff also believes that the relationship between teacher and student is vital and serves to build a foundation for student motivation. Clearly, The Orchard School is working very hard to attract teachers who build strong relationships with students.

Donna Romack
Donna Romack has an interesting approach to defining progressive education by starting with the results. Who are the students we are graduating? What attributes and skills have they acquired at our school? What kind of leadership capacity have they developed? Donna would hope that the graduates of Orchard have a strong sense of agency; would be risk takers who knows their strengths and weaknesses; would be confident, hospitable and open; welcoming to the ideas and perspectives of others; and capable of good dialogue. For Donna, knowledge of the child is at the heart of working toward these goals. She works with teachers to deeply understand the learning profile of each student. She believes that leadership in a progressive school requires one to have the heart of a servant - to listen, listen and keep listening. After all is said and done, these attributes constitute the bottom line for Donna in measuring the success of a school as a progressive institution.

Diana Shellhaas
Diana Shellhaas, Orchard's Outdoor Education Coordinator has been at the school for thirty years and watched it grow into the 21st Century. Donna has worked hard to preserve the emphasis on nature-based education and the students take good advantage of the school's 40-plus acres. On the day I visited, in addition to witnessing the maple tap, Donna showed me the campus ropes course, constructed at dizzying heights in the maple grove. The school gets kids involved with challenges as soon as they arrive in preschool. Nearby, a sturdy indoor/outdoor shelter allows an entire class any time of the year to sit around a fire pit for discussion and instruction. A beautiful greenhouse and student garden allows students to cultivate vegetables for the school's lunch program. This emphasis on outdoor and nature-based education is another common characteristic I am observing in progressive schools. The more we can have kids building, climbing, discovering, exploring, and yes, tapping, the more they are exposed to the elements and learning about the natural world.
Indoor Rope Climbing

 The Orchard school is a special place with big challenges keeping it's shoulder to the progressive wheel. Located in a more conservative part of the country where the "p" word is not always popular or palatable, the school adheres to its progressive roots with courage and determination. I am so happy I had the privilege of visiting the school and grateful to Joe, the staff, and the students of Orchard for their warmth and midwest hospitality.

1 comment:

  1. Wow!! As my child at Orchard did yet another math worksheet at a trivially easy level it makes me realize how hard it is to translate those administrators' wonderful sounding principles into something in the classroom. Notwithstanding Joe Marshall's views, my child would not accept for a moment that the hundredth worksheet was in anyway relevant and meaningful. Unfortunately the school seems to have been resting on its laurels for many years--maybe the new Head of School will change things--and is no longer particularly progressive or rigorous.