- Indoor-outdoor: we are testing the viability of running an indoor-outdoor school in our current urban facility.
- Class size: we are exploring the idea that a well-run cooperative classroom, theoretically, can accommodate classes of any size the community of families chooses.
- Multi-aged: our 3-5 class has always been a multi-aged classroom, but this summer we are experimenting with expanding our age range to 2-6.
Outdoor learning expert, founder of the Creative Star Learning Company, and a blogger who has helped inspire us along this path toward spending more of our time outside, Juliet Robertson remarked:
Your comments echo those of many who start providing regular free access to outdoor spaces -- children do become quieter and often more engaged in purposeful play. I find there is less "zoochosis" behavior such as frantic running or pedaling on bikes round and round the outdoor space. Research shows that children need at least 45 minutes uninterrupted time to allow deep sustained play to develop and grow.
(I had to look up the word "zoochosis." It's a term used to described the obsessive, repetitive behavior found in many zoo animals.)
It's encouraging to find that we're already replicating the findings of others.
The part of our experiment involving a larger class size, on the other hand, is one that is so far out of the mainstream that it might not even be in the stream at all. Nearly all the research demonstrates the benefits of smaller class sizes even while early childhood classes here in the US, at least in public schools, continue to grow due to the tendency for politicians of every stripe to balance their budgets on the backs of schools, expecting teachers to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources, all the while merrily pumping money into things like a military-industrial complex that was built to deal with the problems of the prior century.
Political grousing aside, this research is almost all done in traditional classroom settings involving a single teacher and bunches of kids of various sizes. I believe that NAYEC recommends a maximum of a 1:18 ratio in preschools. I think that's crazy. I could never teach a class that size on my own and more power to those of you who do, but I'm more of a 1:8 kind of guy, which is the ratio for which I paid big bucks to my daughter's private kindergarten.
That said, one of the great benefits of the cooperative model is that we add parent assistant teachers to the classroom as we add more kids. Our 3-5 class runs on a 1:3 ratio, while our Pre-3 class is 1:2. There are some homeschools that don't achieve those kinds of teacher to student ratios! Our 3-5 class' policy of inclusion is something that most of us value highly, but it makes us all gulp when it sometimes results in springtime enrollments of 30+. (For the record, due to attrition over the summer months, the largest class we've ever actually had was 24.) At the same time, many of us are convinced that if we should emerge one fall with 30 kids still on the roster, we would not just make it work, but would thrive. We operate as a fully transparent community at Woodland Park and if we all agree, through the process of voting with our feet, to stay together as a larger community.
And while I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that families who voluntarily come together around educating their children in a cooperative community like ours can achieve great things, the specific issue of a very large class size has not actually been tested. Personally, I have every confidence that the free play and station portions of our days will be none the worse, and in some cases improved by a larger class. The one area about which I've had concerns is circle time.
The idea of getting that many preschoolers, all those individual suns around whom the planets revolve, to do anything together would be a feat, let alone sitting together for 20-30 minutes of singing, stories, discussions, and dancing.
So it was with some trepidation that we assembled on our blue rug this week, all 26 of us, ranging in age from 2-5, many with very little circle time experience under our belts. I started each session off with some high-energy, full body songs like our anthem "Jump Jim Joe," then got us on our bottoms with some of our more rollicking sit-down songs. Finally we slowed it way down with the felt board.
Generally speaking the younger the crowd, the more time I like to spend on singing song after song, while group discussion is more the hallmark of my circle times with older kids. I'm still working on it, but I'm pleased with the balance I achieved last week, mixing in short discussions between songs, while sticking to a fairly rapid-fire program of both old and new songs.
One week is too early to draw conclusions, but not a single child attempted to wander off, eyes tended to be on me, and participation was pervasive and enthusiastic. Early in the year Pre-3 circles are usually typified by 2-year-olds bouncing up off their bottoms in an attempt to interact with me personally, trying to snatch things from the felt board, or (as in the case of Charlie L. last year) trying to bite my thighs while we sang. But there was none of that this week in spite of a large proportion of young 2-year-olds in the mix. In fact, some of them spontaneously started raising their hands in imitation of the older kids, and I was successful in eliciting participation from every child in our brief group discussions.
I've been told to expect the 2-year-olds to really "step-up their game" in a classroom of older children and that seems to be what's happening and not just at circle time. I've likewise been impressed with the gentleness with which the older kids have so far been interacting with their younger classmates. For instance, while playing "What Time Is It, Mr. Fox," on Thursday, I noticed Jack frequently placing his hands on the shoulders of young kids who weren't stopping on the proper count, often successfully "persuading" them to wait beside him until the next instruction. Pretty cool.
There is still a long way to go, and hopefully a lot to learn, but if this first week is any indicator, each of our experiments seem to be progressing just as our theories would suggest.
I'm eager for next week to see if these trends hold as the children settle in. Can you tell I'm excited?