This blog post was originally published on February 24, 2017, on Chris DeRemer's personal blog, Reflections From Room 320
I had the privilege today of playing hooky from work and spend the entire day with my toddler. Every Friday he spends the morning at an ECE program at a neighborhood elementary and as excited as I was to spend time watching him play and learn I was equally excited to observe how kids his age experiment, play and learn. I spend nearly three hours with him this morning in one classroom and as we walked out I reflected on five lessons that I as a high school educator leaned from this remarkably fun experience with my son.
1. School was Joyful
Everyone was happy to be at school this morning from the teacher the parents and especially the kids. It was as if everyone in the room could not wait to see one another and as a community of relative strangers we were all excited to be part of our child's shared experiences. The tone of the entire three hours was positive, energetic and consistently joyful and there was not an undertone of cynicism or a case of the Friday's - it was simply a joyful and rich experience from when we said hello to when we walked out (I think the animal crackers helped).
2. There was unforced collaboration
I had never seen my son play with playdough before but once those classic yellow canisters were brought out and kids started to congregate at a table he could not help but elbow his way in and begin working with a new toy. There was no mention of homogenous or heterogeneous groupings or any contrived turn-and-talks; kids were interacting because they were engaged in what was in front of them and they fed off of the energy of one another. I am a firm believer that engagement is everything in the classroom and that belief was clear and apparent as I watched my son talk to, laugh and work together with kids who were as interested in what was in front of them as he was.
3. The teacher was a facilitator
There was not teacher talk, no instructions and no organized time for the teacher to fill the minds of students. The teacher simply created experiences for kids and then conferred with them, celebrated with them and cared for them. She was preparing the next experience for kids before they became bored with the one they were in not after the kids became bored. She was proactively working to engage kids and while the kids were engaged she was conferencing with parents and planning the next day's activities based on what the kids loved today. I have always wanted to change the way I as a teacher thought about lesson planning. A lesson presupposed that I as the teacher am the keeper of knowledge and that there is a clean beginning and end to the lesson. If I as a teacher altered my wording from "lesson planning" to "experience planning" then I would completely change the flow of how I approached a classroom. The teacher today planned experiences not lessons and her classroom was evidence of that work.
4. Parents were part of the experience
The impact of parents in the educational experience of their children could not be understated. They were literally walking side-by-side their kids and of course I am not advocating for parents to fill the desks next to their high school students (though I think parents should be in classrooms much more than they are) I am suggesting that parents are the most underutilized piece of this complex educational puzzle. Today the parents were encouraging learning, teaching lessons on how to interact, share and apologize and supporting the teacher and other parents. The environment would not have been the same without the parents today and that is a lesson I will absolutely work to implement right now as I work in high schools.
5. Text rich and appropriately rigorous
The whole room was filled with books and there were books at all different levels from picture books to chapter books. This classroom was only used for ECE and there were texts far out of the range of development for the kids but they were still able to pick them up, explore the texts and have the teachers help them dissect the words and images. In addition to the text rich environment there were tasks and activities at all different levels that kids could push themselves to use or return to for comfort when the task got too challenging. I am really struggling with the idea of "grade-level texts" or "grade-level reading lists" as if each student would hit the same developmental marker to access the text or that they cannot read or try to read more challenging texts when available. There were toys and activities that were too difficult for my son but he pursued them anyway and when he became tire or frustrated he returned to something more appropriate but that challenge was available at all times.
It was a remarkable experience to watch my son grow and learn in this environment and as we walked out there was something even more remarkable - my son was tired and content. He was ready to go home and rest but he was tired from learning, from interacting and from engaging. That is the same goal we as educators should all pursue; to have an environment so engaging and rich that kids are leaving tired and content. Perhaps we overcomplicate this education thing or perhaps what we hold as foundation are not actually the right ones to build schools upon. I do know that these five lessons are something that I will take back on Monday as I work with kids far older but no less in need of rich and engaging experiences.
Chris DeRemer is the Dean of Students at Manual High School in Denver Colorado and an Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves.