Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Student Has Become The Master

(Note: A few weeks ago, a parent asked me about my thoughts on the advantages of multi-aged preschool education, specifically wanting to know why she should enroll her daughter in our 3-5’s class next year. She encouraged me to put it in the form of a blog post. In the interest of heeding those regular Teacher Tom readers who have complained about not being able to keep up with all the words I’ve spilled here over the past few months, I’ve broken my response into more bite-sized posts. This is the second one; the first is here.)

It was early in our school year, probably the first day, and one of our very young 3-year-olds shouted out an answer at circle time, oblivious to the fact that many of his classmates were raising their hands. Willie, a 4-year-old who was beginning his second year in our 3-5’s class, a veteran of how things work at Woodland Park, leaned into his new friend and in a very clear stage whisper explained, “If you sit quietly on your bottom and raise your hand, Teacher Tom will call on you.”

This is how our classroom’s communal memory is passed on from year-to-year, be it raising hands, making rules, giving compliments, dealing with someone who is hurting or scaring you, or understanding our daily routines. The older children pass their knowledge on to their younger classmates who in turn do the same the following year.

When I plan our weeks, it starts with our Tuesday afternoon Pre-K class, which is a 2½ hour session each week set aside specifically for the children preparing for kindergarten. I sometimes think of this as a kind of staff meeting where I am training my student teachers for the week ahead.

I often “preview” more challenging projects in the Pre-K class, giving the older kids a chance to master skills or acquire knowledge which they can pass on to their younger friends. I typically don’t make this expectation explicit – it just happens.

The classic example of this is cutting paper “snowflakes.” We pre-fold dozens of pieces of square origami paper (we like a rainbow of snowflakes at Woodland Park) into shapes conducive to producing an approximation of a “snowflake” if cut just so with scissors. I demonstrate the “magic trick” of making a few simple cuts then unfolding the paper to reveal the lacy, symmetrical result. We then turn the kids loose with the scissors, allowing them to experiment, including discovering what happens when they fold their own paper. There are always 3-4 kids who can’t get enough of this, which is perfect given that they will have plenty of opportunities to extend their exploration during the rest of the week.

The following day, the younger children arrive to find the art table set up with the strangely folded origami paper, scissors, and no other indication of what’s going on. If the Pre-K kids don’t descend upon the table right away, all it usually takes is for me to say something like, “Ariya needs someone to show him what we’re doing at the art table,” and he will be instantly joined by his older classmates, eager to show off what they know. After a day as an “official” art project, the scissors and origami paper – some pre-folded, some not – will appear on our do-it-yourself table where it’s not unusual for an older child or two to set up shop for the morning, assisting any and all in their efforts. The paper and scissors continue to make their appearance until the fad burns itself out.

This dynamic isn’t limited to art projects. Our Pre-K science activities often wind up in the sensory table or garden. Certain mathematical concepts we learn in Pre-K are conveyed to our younger classmates, child-to-child, via puzzles or other manipulatives. New toys and games usually make their debut with the older kids, allowing them the opportunity to gain expertise that they can pass on to their friends.

When we are confronting community-wide problems or challenges, such as the rat that appeared in our garden earlier this year, these veteran students are often consulted. And while we can’t always act upon their ideas (e.g., converting the rat into a classroom pet) we often can, such as the time we used tape, glue and splints to repair our broken play dough cutter.

For their part, the 3-year-olds are blissfully unaware of this dynamic, knowing only that they are going to school with these sophisticated, glamorous friends who demonstrate the upper reaches of what a mere kid can do. Anyone with older children can attest to the fact that the second child’s learning is often accelerated in her effort to “keep up” with big brother, and in many ways, it’s this phenomenon that drives our curriculum. It’s not uncommon for younger children to develop “crushes” on certain of the Pre-K kids, tailing them around the room, imitating them, bringing them pictures from home.

Even more common is the “adoption” of a younger buddy by an older child, especially in the spring as the younger child is preparing to step up, while the older is ready to move on. For a couple months, they almost operate like developmental equals, which tells me that the Pre-K kids have pretty much wrung everything they can out of our little rag of a preschool. After 3 years with the same teacher, the same facility, and the same basic routines, they know everything there is to know. It’s not uncommon for these kids to start pushing at the boundaries, breaking rules, testing the limits. This is as it should be.

And at the same time it’s also not uncommon for their younger classmates, next year’s Pre-K kids, to remind their older friends to raise their hands, remember the rules, and stick to the routines. The student has become the master.

(Tomorrow I will try to put a bow on the multi-aged classroom theme.)

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Deborah Stewart said...

Yes, the student has become the master. What a wonderful opportunity to foster leadership, collaboration, and relationships. I'm really liking this:)

Scott said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with multi-age. I really like reading how the older kids help the younger ones know how things work (raising your hand, etc.). It seems like a better learning experience than the teacher "imposing" the rules all the time. (And as Deborah said...fostering leadership and relationships.)

Unknown said...

I love reading about this. I think it is so beautiful that working together is something that happens naturally.

Jen Widrig said...

This is really bringing back memories of my elementary school. It was multi-age by neccesity-- a rural Montana school with limited resources. My favorite class was Mrs. Suchy's 3rd to 5th grade. I loved hearing what the older kids were doing before I was expected to do it, then helping the younger kids when I became the "expert".