Sunday, May 09, 2010

From Great Grandparents, To Grandparents, To Parents . . .

My daughter spent 3 years as a student in cooperative preschools and I've never taught anywhere other than a cooperative preschool. Having marinated in this model of early childhood education for the past 11 years, it's easy to forget that not everyone knows how it works. And I'm always a little shocked when someone finds it shocking.

Several weeks ago I found myself describing how our school operates on the Teach Preschool Facebook page. I mentioned that the North Seattle Community College network of cooperatives, of which we are a part, has been around for over 50 years and that I sometimes think of what we do as a sort of "communal home school."

Danny from Regency Kindergarten, as many teachers do when I tell them about how our school operates," wondered how we do it, then attempted to answer his own question by speculating:
. . . the reason why this communal "home school" can stand for that long time, (is) because it becomes a tradition I think. From their great grandparents to their grandparents and then to their parents already got used to this.
Danny is a teacher in Indonesia, a nation with a strong tradition of passing knowledge along from generation to generation. My initial instinct was to correct him. That's not the way we do things here in the U.S.A. For one thing our parents and grandparents tend to live thousands of miles away from us making it very hard to pass on these kinds of traditions. As far as I know, of the hundreds of parents who have enrolled in Woodland Park, none of them attended cooperative preschool themselves. I'm sure there are a few co-op alumni parents sprinkled throughout the 40+ schools in our system, but it's not the norm. Most of us either attended traditional preschools or, as in my case, none at all.

As I reflected on Danny's comment, however, it occurred to me that while he was perhaps wrong in his specifics, he was spot on in principle. I don't think there is a single teacher currently teaching at one of our cooperatives who wasn't herself (or himself) first a co-op parent. And nearly all of the college's parent educators were first co-op parents, then co-op teachers before moving into the parent ed game. I know that some of them are even co-op grandparents. So yes, Danny, I guess you're right, maybe our programs work because we are, in fact, passing it along like a tradition, informally, from generation to generation.

There is no single pedagogy employed in cooperatives other than the simple one that community comes first and the rest emerges from the needs, desires, and talents of that group of families that comes together around their young children. As author Alfie Kohn writes, "Progressive education is marinated in community," and that, in fact, is at bottom the great strength of our model. I know of no other that builds so firmly on that foundation.

We recently held our spring parent orientation for our Pre-3 class. The mix of families for next year is fairly typical in that about a quarter of them are families returning to Woodland Park with a second or third child, and while most of the rest have some experience in cooperatives having attended a one-day-a-week toddler program within our system, they are new to Woodland Park. As I always do at this meeting, I encouraged these families to think of this as their first year in a 3 year program. I asked them to look around at the other people in that room and to know that these are people they will come to trust like family. I know this is true because I've seen it happen over and over again for more than a decade.

When I tell other teachers that I always have between 6 and 11 parents working with me in the classroom as "assistant teachers," like Danny, they usually ask "How?" Frankly, I don't know how I could do it without them. I love knowing that every station in our classroom has a teacher's presence, guiding, demonstrating, keeping things safe. I count on having all of those extra arms and legs in the room cleaning up, putting things away, organizing whatever is to come next. It's empowering to know that we have the capacity to make big ideas happen fast. And there is no better way to enrich a curriculum than to have all of those unique talents and loving hearts at school with us every day.

I suppose when teachers ask "How?" they are really thinking of the headaches and challenges of getting all those extra adults organized and productive while not losing focus on the kids. And I'm pretty sure I'd feel the same way if it were all up to me, but it isn't. I count on our alumni families to pass along our preschool "traditions" (e.g., procedures, policies, methods, schedule) organically, simply as part of the process of drawing newcomers into the center of the community. Yes, we have written bylaws and parent handbooks and job descriptions. Yes, I provide detailed instructions and admonitions and encouragements at our monthly parent meetings. But the true essence of how we educate our children together simply can't be passed along in a formal way. It is done parent-to-parent, year-to-year.

Strong communities are always built by informal means, individuals working together shoulder-to-shoulder and face-to-face toward common ends. It is through working together over the course of months and years that we come to truly appreciate and trust one another. It is, in fact, the process of passing on traditions from "great grandparents to . . . grandparents and then to their parents." Danny's right, that is how our cooperative works.

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Monkey's Mama said...

I'm a co-op mom and I was a co-op kid too (Wallingford co-op back in the day). We'll be across the street from you next year at NS5's. I look forward to watching your garden grow :)

pamela wallberg said...

I have to see you guys in action. Is there a date and time that could work for an observation? (Monday or Friday would be ideal, so I can spend the night in Seattle on a mini-vacation...) Can I bring you and your parent teachers any coffees or teas?
(you can email me, too, if it's easier:

Deborah Stewart said...

I think many teachers in early childhood find it scary or overwhelming to include parents in their preschool planning and program. Perhaps they worry it will become a power struggle or that the kids will not listen as well or that parents will be more of an interruption than a help. I also think that in full time childcare or preschool settings, the parents really see the school more as a service and less as a place to become involved. As I have been learning about how your school works with parents and the community - I am learning as well. I have not personally experienced any program where the parents are so deeply engaged in the learning process or in the classroom. I have enjoyed hearing about your school so that I can become more inviting and creative when it comes to parent involvement and the building of a community that stretches beyond the classroom walls.