Saturday, October 24, 2009

Experience Education

Yesterday, I left our Pre-3 class in the hands of Teacher Cheryl, Violet’s mother, while I took most of the morning off to attend my own daughter’s parent-teacher conferences.

Cheryl’s parent job in the preschool is to be my Friday Teacher’s Assistant and one of the responsibilities of that job is to serve as my substitute should I be sick or otherwise absent. I’d set-up the classroom in the morning and even met her there briefly to convey last minute instructions, but Cheryl has been coming to Woodland Park for the past 4 years, first with her son Elliott and now with Violet, so I had no worries about how things would go.

It’s only been during the past couple years that I’ve really employed my substitutes. I only missed one day during my first 5 years. On that one day, I awoke with undeniable flu symptoms, but still dragged myself out of bed, got the school ready, then went and sat in a coffee shop until I knew the kids were gone, then went back to the school to shut things down. The big change came when my parent educator at the time, Val Donato, the head of the parent ed department at North Seattle Community College, asked, “If you don’t take more days off, how will the parents learn to lead the class on their own?”

My job is teaching the kids. The parent educator’s job is teaching the parents. Experience is the greatest teacher.

As I arrived at my daughter’s school yesterday, I read the sign that I drive past nearly every day:

The Bush School
Experience Education

This is a K-12 school of about 500 students founded in 1924 by Helen Taylor Bush, a Phi Beta Kappa mathematician. The first classes were held in her home. The founding principle is that children learn best by doing, and grow best by being members of an active community.

When my daughter Josephine was in kindergarten with Teacher Janet, as a former co-op parent and current teacher, I was determined to elbow my way into that classroom. Janet, a former NSCC parent educator herself, made that easy for me, helping me find constructive roles in her classroom. Throughout elementary school, I made my presence felt. I brought in my cast iron water pump and a set of plastic house gutters and got all the kids wet and muddy. I emceed a parent talent show to entertain the children at their “manners meal,” which included an all-hands-on-deck performance of "Mother Gooney Bird." I brought in my own stories to read to the class. I built a set of high-powered tennis ball firing catapults that we used to knock down castle walls made of cardboard blocks. I chaperoned everything I could, including the 4th grade camping trip and the 5th grade trip to Washington, DC. In other words, I took that principle of “an active community” very seriously.

Middle school has been a different experience for me as a parent. These are years when the kids need to push their parents to the side a bit and learn to forge their community in their own image. Not that they don’t need us, but rather that nature tends to steer them toward one another, and nurture has given them the skills to create a community of their own liking. These are the years when peers begin to take precedence over parents in many ways, and that’s how it should be. I like that Josephine is experiencing these years in a place where she has developed long-term relationships with both the adults and children. There is a sense of continuity, stability, and safety that has been built through a history of shared experiences and traditions.

As we talked with Josephine’s teachers (most of whom are men, I’m proud to report), I was reminded that this is not one of those private schools that’s all about straight-A’s and high test scores. In fact, it’s clear that these teachers would consider that, at one level, a failure. The children are expected to stumble and fall, to fail periodically, to not always bring home the best grade. This is how “experience education” works. It’s not about scoring 100% on every test, but rather about coming to a true understanding of the subject matter through doing, which often involves learning from mistakes. It’s been instructive watching Josephine struggle to figure out how to study, how to get her assignment completed on time, how to ask for help, and how to learn from her mistakes.

Her advisor said, “The most important thing kids learn in middle school, is how to learn. That’s the main thing they’ll need to succeed in high school.”

As I drove back to Woodland Park, my thoughts returned to what was going on back at the preschool. When I’d left Cheryl and Violet I’d done so with the intention of returning in time to lead Circle Time. Cheryl had seemed both relieved and disappointed at the prospect. After those parent-teacher meetings I regretted that I’d made that commitment. I really should have let her have the experience.

At the end of the day, after leading the kids through their songs, that feeling of regret only became stronger. As I quickly de-briefed with Cheryl, I could tell that she felt good about the job she’d done and had probably been hoping that I’d wound up stuck in traffic.

I apologized for not letting her lead Circle Time.

She answered, "I'll do it next time." There will be a next time.

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Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

I hear you about being out. It's almost easier going in sick than it is to make sub plans.

The well-rounded approach sounds fabulous. I think there are a lot of very good things about public school, but in this current state of high stakes testing, that well "roundedness" gets pushed out of the way more often than not.

Unknown said...

It is great that your daughters school is progressive like that! I really enjoy hearing of that in this day and age.

I love how deeply you are involved. And even more important that your involvement, I love that you care so profoundly for your daughter and her education.

You are a wonderful example for me!

I hope that you will be able to take some time off this year knowing that you have left the school in good hands.

Thank you for constantly being a great blessing and encouragement to me when I come to visit. It is a joy to come!

kristin said...

great reminder to let others lead. it is an honor and a gift to have those moments.

and yes, i'm having the journey through middle school with my oldest.

i miss the simplicity of preschool for her.