|L E T T E R S F R O M J O A N|
August 7, 2010
Well … yesterday saw me finishing “Conversion,” and I find myself with ever so many conflicting thoughts. There was an element of sadness in reading your account of the continual fight to keep family-style education at Oak Hill. The teachers themselves who fought against it brought back memories of a Culver City teaching staff who out-and-out were very disturbed by my classroom successes--especially the two second grade women who should have quit long before! For two of the years I had a supportive principal, but the final year in which I taught, our principal had been assigned to the “backwaters” of Culver City, just awaiting his retirement. This man was the perfect example of “The Peter Principle.” He had definitely been promoted to his level of incompetence.
My particular brand of family-style teaching was enough of a modified version that I was able to continue without too much interference. Most parents were supportive to highly supportive. A lot depended on how much they understood about children themselves. It seems that this is the crux of the whole thing! We haven’t placed enough emphasis on how people learn and how very early that learning process begins. I guess we forget that in our early developmental stages toward becoming a human as we now know it, infants and children had to very quickly learn independence and survival skills. And we tend to forget that we learn a lot from mistakes! As adults, we need not protect children from mistakes but only from serious consequences. And we must help children learn that mistakes are not the end of the world.
It would be helpful to me to have the reactions of readers who are not family members or connected to education. My own intense interest in Plainston stems, of course, from 30 years in the classroom, and working with the Williams school district during my stay in Arizona. In Williams, because I knew the superintendent, I was invited to attend the two Board training sessions which were led by an NAU professor. He is a true educator and a man who has had firsthand experience as a school board member. He began his first session by reminding the Williams Board that their job was policy, nothing else. I remember his statement, word for word. “Your task is to develop policy for this school district. When you do that, you must always ask yourselves, ‘Is this good for children?’” The second session was started with his comment, “If you discover that you are riding a dead horse…get off!” Unfortunately, the board neglected to follow his good advice!
The good news? There are still many strong voices out there which are advocating solid changes in our educational system here in the United States. The bad news? Many adults still feel that children have no sense, can’t learn on their own, and God forbid that children should be allowed to teach each other! How and where did we go so wrong?
What I particularly love about family-style teaching is that it can be implemented full strength or modified (as I did) and get the same miraculous results. A classroom teacher can “allow” a little to a lot of independence. But, and this is a fair warning, once you make a small beginning, you won’t want to stop! Like my entry into this whole concept, which was because I was so overworked, each little thing I tried was so instantly successful that I just kept going.
After four months of success with the children in charge of the classroom, our afternoon evaluation session on the rug, just before dismissal, took an interesting turn. My question to the children usually was, “Did you do or learn something today that you want to share?” On this particular afternoon the tables were turned. One of my bright little K babies asked, “What did you do today, Mrs. Larimore?” I thought for a second and then said, “I talked to every single one of all 36 of you!” A glance at 36 big smiles told me how very important that was!
Do I have any regrets about my five year toe-dipping into family-style learning? You bet! I heartily regret not jumping in sooner. The biggest successes came with multiple grades. And the K-1-2 was the best of all! 10 K babies, 16 1st graders, and 10 2nd. I recall a 2nd grade ADD boy who was a whiz in math and a petite K girl. He often tutored her in math concepts and she bemoaned the fact that she had no skill in which to tutor him! So he told her he had a really difficult time using scissors and had noticed how well she cut things. I’ll never forget overhearing her tell this 9-year-old ADD boy with motor skill problems that “your scissors are like a crocodile. They like to eat things and open their mouths really wide. So open the scissors as big as they’ll go and take a big bite!” These two became fast friends! If we had been in a traditional classroom, chances are that exchange would never have happened.
Mac, I can scarcely remember my first year of teaching, but those last five years are ever-green! Is that because the last five years were the most recent on my teaching timeline? Maybe in part, but mostly because they had the greatest memorable interchanges, chock full of those wonderful “Ah ha!” moments. And, of course, few of those focused on me. It was child-on-child moments of discovery. Oh, and back to my ADD 2nd grader—because I had ample time to work with the seven ADD and ADH boys in the class, all were removed from that labeling at the end of the year!
Copyright © 2021 by E.M Swengel