Friday, February 19, 2010

They Are With Me

Anyone who has been reading here for any length of time knows that I'm a cooperative preschool evangelist, proud of our small "communist" community, and committed to the concept that our parent experience is every bit as important as that of the children.

A couple weeks ago Jenny over at Let The Children Play posted this quote from author and progressive education advocate Alfie Kohn:

"Progressive education is marinated in community."

The term "progressive education," of course, is not a specific one, and has been in use since the 19th century as a response to the kinds of schools that emerged to serve the Industrial Revolution (i.e., schools that emphasize grades, testing, competition, lectures, and drills; what I sometimes call the "factory education") but in fact describes the kind of play-based, "learn by doing," exploratory approach that has characterized education throughout most of human history. One element that is common in everyone's definition of what makes education progressive, however, is the bedrock notion that humans are social animals and as such learn best by engaging in real-life activities in a community.

Community is where progressive education starts and I've found no other model of early childhood education that better exemplifies this fundamental principle.

Yesterday, I posted about how we are going about revamping the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools' playground by reaching out to our community, immediate and extended, for both resources and labor. It's our school. It's our community. It never occurred to us to do it any other way.

Parent involvement is a struggle in many schools, but that is never true in a co-op. I understand that it takes a certain kind of family, in a certain kind of circumstance, to be able to make cooperative education work. That said, I've known many families over the years that have made incredible sacrifices and gone to great lengths. For instance, John and May sent 3 kids through our 3-5's program. May went off to her job in the morning, while John brought the kids to preschool. They did a childcare hand-off in the early evening and John would head off to his night shift at the hospital -- he would often show up at our parent meetings in his scrubs, then go back to work. And theirs isn't the only family that has juggled their lives in order to prioritize cooperative preschool.

A few weeks back our board (all parents, of course) undertook a review of our enrollment policies at the request of the college with which we are affiliated. At one point our parent educator said, "It sounds like what you're saying is that you consider the parent community to be as important as the children." Before the words were even fully out of her mouth, two of the board members said, "Yes!" and the rest added their affirmatives one beat later. It was a powerful statement of community; one that almost made me cry. It was a real validation of our version of progressive education.

When I stand in our classroom alone at the end of the day, I find myself still surrounded by our community. Everywhere I look I'm reminded, not only of the children who have passed our way, but also the parents.

Many years ago, I purchased a collection of very inexpensive tricycles, the caveat being that they were all pink Barbie-branded vehicles. Alicia, the mother of two daughters, felt that there needed to be a "boy" trike and so took one home to accessorize. She painted it black, added flames, and replaced the white hand-grips with something more rugged. It was beautiful. And it was always the least ridden trike in our fleet. As the other cheap machines fell apart over the course of the year, Alicia's masterpiece survived in its original pristine shape. She had put so much work into it that I finally gave it to her saying, "It's a piece of art. You should keep it."

As luck would have it, that weekend was Alicia's turn to clean the preschool. When I arrived the following Monday, this is what I found attached to the wall:

Note the detail work on the seat! That used to be plain white plastic.

Seriously, look at the quality of her workmanship.

She even painted tracks across the ceiling, including marks
indicating that the phantom rider skidded to a stop.

Alicia was a dynamo, one of the "from each according to his ability" types one needs to make a cooperative work. She also painted all of our mis-matched tables and chairs to give us a "look," and our big doll house was a joint project she took on with John.

When I look at our ceiling I think of Teacher Aaron's wife Marie, a corporate executive in her spare time, who turned two posts in the middle of the classroom into trees:

When I look into our courtyard, I see our row boat, and think of Michael, who found it for us (they're hard to find), painted it, and installed it:

When I look at our garden fence, I think of Steve who built it.

Every time I handle the plugs in our sensory table, I'm reminded of Eric who bought a special metal cutting circle saw just to punch the drain holes, and didn't charge the school for it.

The "butter yellow" paint on our walls evokes memories of Vivian.

Our white shelving was donated by Julie and Charlie.

Rachel figured out how to build new cabinetry from the remnants of our old shelving, suddenly doubling our in-classroom storage capabilities.

Each spring when the grape hyacinth bloom in our garden I think of Bridget, and the tough little lamb's ear plants bring up images of Lynn.

Greg is present when we play with the colored theater lighting gel scraps he brought in from work.

We're still using the vellum that Sybrina gave us . . .

This list is endless. I'll probably obsessively update this list for years as I'm reminded of yet another parent. None of the parents mentioned here still have children at Woodland Park, yet they are with me every time I stand alone in our classroom.

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Floor Pie said...

Marie, if you're reading this, I just wanted to say how much I love the trees you painted. From the first time I saw them (touring for my older child, who didn't get in) they've become iconic of the preschool to me. Now that I attend this school with my younger child, I love seeing them in the classroom...especially when the sun pours through the windows. They really make the space special. So, thanks!

Unknown said...

I was so touched by your post today. I spent most of today on a field trip visiting a former (and hopefully future next year) pre-k parent, that I'll be writing a post about this weekend. Today was such a good day and I really connected with several parents. I came home and was already feeling really good about my parent teacher relationships. Your post was timed perfectly and really made me misty. I've come to love some of the parents as much as the students!

bre said...

This is a really sweet post. You are really fortunate to have so much love and support.That touched my heart.Ps That trike is super cool!

ShamanMonkey said...

Sometimes Tom, you make me cry. Awesome.

Juliet Robertson said...

The trike is cool. Can Alice do up my car one day?

I love the idea of co-operative schools. The notion officially does not exist in Scotland. However I was always proud of my small schools and the degree of parental involvement. Christmas has passed and I still received cards and letters from parents of the first small school I worked in. I have grown-up pupils who asked to be my Facebook friend.

Schools are only a strong as the relationships within it.

Deborah Stewart said...

Wow - that tricycle is amazing! You are so blessed indeed to have so many wonderful and talented share in your classroom environment. But they are also blessed because you invite them to express their talents and ideas. Too often, teachers turn talent and ideas away either because they are afraid of losing control or they just don't understand the value of creating community in their classroom.

Domestic CEO said...

I LOVE the tricycle hanging on the wall - brilliant! And that tree is simply beautiful.

Early Childhood Educator said...

I absolutely love this post. I agree whole heartedly that parental involvement is just as important as the children themselves and I wish more programs would emphasize it. Than you for the inspiration of your work!!!

kristin said...

no. way.

(how many times have i written that?)

the trike is amazing.

awesome stuff.

so glad for your community!

Unknown said...

I love your community.
I am so glad you get to be a part of something magnificent such as that.

sybrina said...

And YOU, Tom, are still with US too. It's been 6 1/2 years since my daughter "graduated" from your school and the experiences we had in your class helped shape her as a person and me as a parent. Thank you!! And now that she's entered middle school at Salmon Bay K-8, she is suddenly back with a number of her preschool buddies again. The kids don't seem to remember each other well, but the PARENTS remember each other and easily pick up the friendships again, enjoying memories of your class together. The community is still with us too.
PS ~ I'm really looking forward to returning to your school next autumn...with my two year old!
PPS ~ I still have more vellum sheets if you need them!