Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Marketplace Education" Idea

I was having a fast-paced, full-fledged action and suspense dream last night, driving a semi-truck across country and chased by aliens in a flying space ship. But when I arrived at a something called a "marketplace school," everything slowed to a halt. Suspense ended. I got out of my semi and went inside to see what it was about.

It was a wonderful little school in its first year of existence, and it got its name from the half a dozen little shops bordering the patio down to its front doors. I believe they were all owned by the parents of the children that went to school there, or if not, they were community members fully supporting the school. My favorite was the bakery, full of delicious sweets and breakfast pastries and selling its wares quickly to the parents and children coming to school that morning.

The patio itself was a brick-laid downhill path, with big, thick wrought iron gates opened every morning and closed off from the street every evening. There were no cars, I don't think the gates would have been wide enough to let a car through--everyone walked. There were tables and benches in a little lounging area where one could eat a pastry they had just bought or sit while they wait for a friend to meet them, but being morning, no one was sitting, everyone was seeing their children off.

The school, at the bottom of the downhill grade, was separated by another set of tall, wrought iron gates. A bicycle rack sat just inside the gates, and some older children were taking off helmets and putting bikes up as they came in. The school doors were made of tall panes of beautiful glass. Inside, I was met by a lot of open space, brown walls with a bold stripe of green paint, and a black leather circular couch. There was a blackboard next to the door, which a handful of children, seated on the floor, were facing; tall shelves of books and materials; and a few wooden tables with four wooden chairs each along the back three walls. The back of the school was as well-lit as the front, perhaps it had floor-to-ceiling windows, and perhaps it led to a small garden out back.

I spoke with the head instructor / principal (whose name was Heather or Feather) after the day began, and she told me all about the school, but unfortunately either I have forgotten it, or my dream-brain made something up that didn't actually exist. The school may or may not have been Montessori-based, but it got a lot of support from the store owners it shared space with. Looking around, there were many parents sitting with their children, laughing and watching them work. Apparently, they also received a lot of support from parents. Who may or may not have been the same people. I talked to a few parents, too. The only thing I remember from what they told me was that I was somewhere in Kansas, remarkably.

When I awoke from my dream, I searched Google for this new concept, "Marketplace Education." I even tried, "Marketplace Montessori." I tried "Market Education," and "Market Montessori," all to no avail. What was this wonderful concoction my sleeping brain dreamed up? Does it exist, in some form, in the real world? Would it, could it, work in reality?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Minimalist Teaching Redefined (An Introduction and Musings)

Inspired by a recent personal interest in minimalism, the other day I found myself wondering, "What would minimalism as a pedagogy look like?" Immediately I turned to Google, but every search result referenced what I've heard called silent teaching, standing back to let students discover knowledge for themselves. While I admire this approach, it wasn't quite what I was looking for.

I have two large tubs full of "teacher stuff" in my living room closet. The quotes are used in the previous statement to imply that not everything included is actually useful as a teaching tool. Honestly, it's been a while, and I'm not exactly sure what all is in there. I know that there are plastic paper organizers, small containers, stickers, ink pads and a couple of stamps, a few sets of bulletin board borders,... And that doesn't include all of the supplies (pencils, paper clips, sticky notes) that are kept in a separate box in my bedroom closet, the countless children's books that have crowded themselves out of an entire two-shelf book case, or a shelf full of professional books in my bedroom bookcase. And I don't even have a degree yet!

During my time as a paraeducator, I worked with a teacher that, frankly speaking, I shall call a hoarder. She'd been working for 26 years, and her room showed it. The first thing one noticed upon entering her classroom was, despite having one of the larger rooms in the school, the complete lack of space. Stacks of papers lined every surface. The students' tables were topped with a small plastic tub each, but the tubs were overflowing with worksheets in various stages of completion, broken crayons and various bits of their boxes, dirty ziplock baggies, pencils to be sharpened, and fragments of destroyed pink erasers. Boxes and boxes of worksheets stood around the perimeter of the room. Her walls were covered with faded, outdated, childish cartoon character posters. Stuffed animals lined top shelves. And the closet? I had to work with her for a year and a half before she let me take a glimpse. The door could only be partially opened because it was crammed full of tubes of wet wipes (for cleaning?), countless boxes of untouched construction paper, a million worksheets, and a tower of unopened boxes of tissues (literally around 50).

I also worked with a new teacher that had only been out of college for two years. She was unfortunately let go because of cutbacks, but found a position elsewhere in the state. I helped her clean out her classroom at the end of the year. Despite having worked for such a short period of time, it was surprising how much she had accumulated. She had let her students know a couple weeks before school let out that she had a new job in a different city, and they helped her pack most of her materials into boxes. Still, it took the entire morning to finish cleaning out her desk area and closet. By the end, she was tired and frustrated and kept saying variations of, "I don't care, just throw it all away!"

How do these kind of situations come to be? What does it mean? How can we prevent them from happening in the first place? When I did a preliminary search for Minimalist Teaching, I hoped to find more along these lines.

Just the other day, I got a catalog in the mail (who knows HOW they got my address) full of page after endless page of cheap junk. Apparently teachers are just another source of income for capitalist corporations wanting to make a buck. But is it at the expense of your students?

My political stance aside, when I first began looking into minimalism for my personal life, I noted to a friend what a contradiction it would seem to be both a minimalist and a teacher. You never know what might interest or help any particular student specifically. Therefore, everything must be saved in preparation for having that one student in your class. I've come to believe that this is the mutual though process of most teachers.

It's either, "Oh, look at this thing! I could use this in my X lesson!" or "Hey, that's an interesting thing. It might come in handy sometime."

I've learned a lot from Leo Babauta recently about how to quell these feelings and fears. (Personally, I have a fear that I might be able to use something for making something new or for a craft, but I'm not even a crafts type of person!)

Back to my original question, what would a classroom concerned with minimalism in regards to "stuff" look like?

I've been a fan of Socratic teaching for a few years, but since I haven't made a post on it, I'll have to reference this article, in which the author teaches binary to third graders. In my ideal classroom, we wouldn't need a large quantity of materials because we would spend more time in dialogue and discussion.

But how realistic is that? As a pre-service teacher, I'm not entirely sure, but I may be able to approach the topic with more of an open mind than an experienced teacher whose judgement may be clouded with personal bias. The main issues that concerns me are the areas of tactile learners and (with a hint of bias picked up, whether truthfully or not, from media and popular conception) boys. Would I be able to reach them as fully without objects for them to hold and manipulate about every matter we discuss? The obvious answer, at least in the case of the tactile learner, is no, I would not. But perhaps the question I should have asked is whether I would be able to reach them as easily. To which the answer may not change, but the ideas to which it alludes might. It may not be easy to reach these learners, but maybe, it would benefit them more.

Perhaps, a good friend notes, children who are "inundated with the stuff and the entertainment of their parents" would benefit from a blank canvass. It could be a healthy break from the fast-paced, invasive life of our current society. She also suggests bringing in a new set of found objects every once in a while to study, perhaps from nature, seashells, feathers, pine cones, etc., which I thought was a wonderful and simple idea.

Above all, what I want to accomplish the most with this study is to get students to question more. "What is this doing here?" "What do we use it for?" "Why are we keeping it here?" I want for us to constantly re-evaluate and look for ways to improve our shared environment. And, hopefully, our dialogues themselves will be entertaining enough to keep the children's attention more than materials and manipulatives would. I want to teach the powers of community, thinking, and sharing, not the power of items.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Eat, Exercise, Excel

The PE Methods for Classroom Teachers class I took this summer briefly mentioned a program called Eat, Exercise, and Excel, but just enough to catch my attention make me want to learn more. What follows is the research I found.

Anthony School in Levenworth, Kansas was the elementary school that no one wanted to go to. Teacher turnover rate was high, student grades were low, bullying was rampant, and everyone was unhappy. No teachers wanted to work there, and no parents wanted their children to go there. Until Janine Kempker took the position of principal and turned the school around with a new program she developed, Eat, Exercise, and Excel.

Main points of the program:
-Daily vitamins for the entire school population, students and staff
-Replacing recess with 40 minutes of structured PE
-PE/recess before lunch
-Lunch in the classrooms with polite socializing while learning manners and nutrition
-Teacher eats with students
-Constant access to water (bottles on desks)

It also seems that the school staff cracked down on discipline. The entire school, though happy and healthy, seems almost prison/boot camp-ish from the videos (links below), although I suppose it was a necessary measure to fight the bullying that once owned the playground (and probably every other part of the school).

The lunch aspect struck me as similar to the Montessori school I volunteered at a year ago and as possibly the most important aspect of the changes Anthony made. Eating is a time of vulnerability and sincere humility. Lunch time resembles an assembly line in most public schools I've seen--stand in line, receive plate, receive utensils, receive milk, sit along a long table, eat silently and quickly, line back up, exit, repeat for next class. Anthony has returned to a more natural lunch, calm, peaceable, and social. The teacher that eats with the class (on a daily basis, not as a reward), shows that she is human as well. She needs to eat to stay healthy, just as students do. Oh, and look, she's eating her vegetables! She's drinking her milk! Those things must not be so bad after all, maybe they're worth a taste. And there's no rush to eat quickly because the students have already had recess, and they can chat quietly with their friends as they eat. That results in less upset stomachs and more food eaten rather than thrown away in a rush to the playground.

The vitamins were an aspect I'd never considered before. What a great way to give students, especially low income as these are, a little extra advantage and nutrition. Available only to those with money or grants, but if you have it, use it!

And the test scores, every politician wants to know? Reading from 56% to 84% passing and math from 46% to 82% passing.

What a great program and a wonderful way to build a community. I wish every public school would/could implement something like it.

Eat Exercise and Excel program home page, unfortunately down.
Anthony School before and after, from the EEE website, somehow still available even though the main page is down
PDF explaining program from Kansas State Department of Education, Child Nutrition and Wellness website
29 minute video by Hugh Riordan, M.D.
5 and a half minute video from Fox News