Sunday, June 06, 2010

Summer Experiments

Our first ever summer program is really, for us, three inter-related experiments in one:
  1. Indoor-outdoor: we are testing the viability of running an indoor-outdoor school in our current urban facility.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
On Friday, I wrote about some of our first-week observations on the indoor-outdoor front, mentioning the "quiet" that we all noticed. One of the hallmarks of Woodland Park, for better or worse, has been our sound level, but a real hush fell over our school last week, one that had us counting and re-counting children because it just didn't seem possible that there were 26 of them (the maximum our insurance company would allow us to enroll) on the premises.

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?

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Floor Pie said...

The term "zoochosis" makes me sad on many levels.

Glad to hear the experiment's working out well so far. We're looking forward to participating in the next session!

Scott said...

It does sound exciting, Tom. I'll be interesting in seeing how your experiments work out - I really interested in your multi-age observations so far.

Unknown said...

Hi Tom, my school is co-mingled 2years to 6 year olds. There are some challenges (many two year olds have their own way of using certain "tools" in the evironment, dumping, boundaries, etc) but the benefits are wonderful!! I look forward to reading your observations.

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

Thanks for you kind words and links to my websites.

I think you've cottoned on to the fact that it's the adult-child ratio that makes a difference as much as the sheer numbers. I also believe that the crucial part here is the ability of those adults to create an environment that enables child to develop the capacity to love and live life to the full.

You might be interested to read my post "Animal behaviour in schools" - I looked at the legal requirements around space in educational establishments and compared that to our primate cousins in zoos...

Thanks again

Let the Children Play said...

Hi Tom - I enjoyed reading this post. Our preschool has an open indoor / outdoor program all day and we find the same thing Juliet wrote about and you are discovering. I find that the play outdoors is truly valuable when the day is organised in this way - we tend to have small groups of kids engaged in really long periods of play rather than running around willy nilly.

As for circle times - have you thought of letting the children have the option of whether or not they become involved on the day? Our kids have the choice to carry on with what they are doing or participate in circle time at the end of the morning and we find that this works really well for a number of reasons:

1. Those that choose circle time are there because they want to be, and so are more likely to engage with the experience rather than fiddle about. There is far less time spent on group management and more uninterupted time for songs, stories and games.

2. Those who choose not to attend are often right in the middle of something that they want to keep playing at - it gives them the opportunity to get the most out of their play, and we are less likely to have disgruntled circle-timers.

3. It allows younger kids to feel their way before participating. Sometimes they drift in and out of the room to watch, or sit by the door with a teacher for some time before joining in.

4. Those who really want to be there are less likely to have their experience disrupted by those who don't or perhaps aren't quite ready to be.

Kids that choose not to attend one day may well choose to attend the next - if we notice that there are a few kids (especially those who will be heading off to school next year) who rarely attend we will plan for ways to make it more attractive and inviting to those individuals eg taking group time outside into the sandpit, or planning an experience that we know will capture their interest.

And of course we incorporate songs and stories and games at other times throughout the day in small groups or less structured ways.

Works for us!

Unknown said...

I can't leave educated comments like those above me as I have no experience with this : ) but I can say I love that you are trying and I love that you always come from such a positive place!

tashanarenee said...

I think its exciting when you begin something new and it starts off good as your summer program did. Also I wanted to make a comment about experimenting with multi age children in your program. I have taught multi age children (3-5) years old and I have to say that it can fun and challenging all at the same time. It can be fun because the children learn so much from one another and the more advanced children are always so good about being a leader to the other children. it was challenging at times because it takes a lot of planning, observing and assessing children on a regular basis to ensure that strategies used are appropriate for all children and instruction is being differentiated to meet the diverse needs of students. It was definitely a learning experience for me!

allie said...

This is beyond amazing, Tom. It's a family style cooperative classroom. I haved loved the shift that I had from fours to three to fives this year (I loved having three to fives in wallingford), and I am, once again, jealous of and inspired by you.

I think that multi-age communities really do create just that: a community. The older ones help the younger ones, and they enjoy being experts. The younger ones sometimes do stand in awe of the older ones, really seeing them as role models. It sounds like you are really taking the things you know all of your students love and using those in this mixed class - you have a head start on this because of your experience teaching all of these ages on their own. But it sounds like the start is good - take the classics and see where it goes. Have fun! This is a wonderful project to hear about.