The following article will be published in the Autumn issue of Natural Learning Magazine:

 

“We Make the Road by Walking”

A Lifelong Journey – Building a K-2 Learning Environment

By Michelle Taylor

Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” ~John Dewey

Before you can teach, you have to know yourself – your past, your passions, your learning style and the affect you will have on your students.

I grew up in a small northern town with one choice for schooling. It was public, it was harsh, and it was all I knew. When I think about my school experience, my heart catapults – I feel alone, afraid and ashamed. Sitting at my desk in first grade, I felt like I could never do anything right. I did not know the rules. I was confused and waited with terror to raise my hand when my name was called. I didn’t want to be caught daydreaming and be embarrassed in front of the entire class. I don’t think I had “bad” teachers, although I’m not sure I had “good” ones. I was just a product in the school system.

When my grandmother died, I found some of my ditto papers from first grade. They had stamps on them that read, “Poor” and had a frowning face. Others had generic “Good” stickers as well. Was this supposed to help me learn? I was SIX! The other memory that stands out in my mind was on the first day of school. We were given our “reading” books for the entire year. This was a large compilation of stories. I was so excited. I LOVED books and still do, amazingly enough. It was such a treat. I once snuck a book home in my bag, to my great-grandmothers house. I sat on her lap and read her the entire book, cover to cover. Reading became my escape from school but I felt like I had to do it on my own and on the sly.

Many of the stories in my text book were the “Dick and Jane” stories – it was my first realization of fiction. But as much as I liked reading and having the book, I wish there had been a story I could have related to. My mom was a single mom on welfare with a boyfriend. I had a half sister and mostly lived with my grand parents. There were no stories for me. There were also no stories for the other half of the class who were American Indian – our school was on the reservation and the book only had white faces on the pages.

Taking this experience with me, I made it through all thirteen years with some help from a teacher who was actually interested in critical thinking. She showed me what literature was and how to challenge authority. I went through high school with one thought in mind. I will be invisible, get good grades, go to college and get out of the small town. I graduated, went to The Evergreen State College and then to Sarah Lawrence College for my Masters. Neither of these schools gives grades and both of these schools insist that you create your own education. Here I finally was able to discover what kind of learner I am. What I love. What makes my heart back-beat in a positive, passionate way. Here I learned how to help others find these same things out about themselves.

During graduate school I taught at the Ella Baker Alternative School in New York City. Most of the kids were bused in from the Bronx and Harlem. In my K/1 class I learned the ways in which a classroom can be integrated, overlapping and emergent. There were students of all ethnicities and we read books with people of all ethnicities. Math was done with blocks, writing was done with paint, and living was done by skating in Central Park and visiting the public library once a week.

When I started working at my current teaching position, at a small community school, I brought my entire life of learning with me. Little did I know this was to be the soul of my teaching-life. Two years ago I was handed a blank classroom and a list of students. For the first time in my life, there was no curriculum, no expectation, and no lesson to be learned except from the students themselves. For two years I have had many of the same preschool students. We are a family. We love each other. We look out for each other. We play. And we play hard. Play is how we learn. Play is our natural state of being. It cannot be stopped. It should not be stopped.

So here we are, looking to September. My class is the first K-2 class at the community school. Here I have been handed my little family of ten kids, a new classroom to grow into, the public school standards (as a guideline) and a room full of used furniture and supplies. It is my job to create our next few years together. It is tricky. It is overwhelming. It is my dream.

First of all, I know my kids. I know what they like. I know how they learn. This I believe is the most important part of being a teacher. I know that Jessie has been able to read for a year but that he can barely make a J with a pen and paper. But I do know that if given a huge piece of paper upright on an easel with paint and a brush, that he can make an artistic J that he runs to show his friends. I know that Britta is sensitive about talking in a group or having her feelings known, but that in the middle of story time will pipe up with an idea or just need to tell me that she loves me. I know that she cannot be quieted during this time because this is when she feels comfortable sharing. I know that Jack does everything he’s asked before he’s asked, and so I encourage him to rebel and take chances.

Knowing my kids, knowing their passions and needs, I enter my new classroom with only them on my mind. I invite them in to help, to share in the experience, to tell me what they would like, what they want to see in the class. I have them sit at the tables and try the chairs to see if they are comfortable – if they can reach the manipulatives and supplies. I invite them to sit, to stand, to walk around. They think I’m funny and wonder at the mystery of my requests. I tell them like I always do. I let them in on my thoughts. I want to hear from them. This is our room. I’ve learned that as a teacher, you have to let the ego go first. It’s not about me. Well, it’s a little bit about me as I am a part of the community, but it’s mostly about them and their needs.

We’ve chosen to create a “living room” in our classroom. It has two loveseats, a huge comfy chair, end tables, plants, a bookcase, lamps, tapestries and rugs. It is our center, our meeting place, our place to share stories. I want them to be at ease, to communicate, to relax into learning, to not be afraid or uncomfortable behind a desk. Our circle time usually consists of the students telling each other about their lives. Where they’ve been, who they’ve seen, or what might happen. This is their learning experience, it should be about them.

But I’ve also learned that as much as I want this experience to be “home schooling” at school, there is a certain amount of parent expectation that goes with Kindergarten, First, Second grade and on. There are concerns that float around at parent meetings such as: “Will this class be academic enough?” “What does the math curriculum look like?” “Will my child be able to read at the end of Kindergarten?” “Will you be following the Washington State Public School Standards?” And as much as I would like to say – “Children learn what they need to learn when they are ready to learn it,” every time they ask me one of these questions – I know that this will not be the answer they need to help them sleep at night or to allow them to keep their child at our school. I’ve had to build a curriculum that incorporates “standards” but that allows those standards to be met in a way that is real life learning.

Our “curriculum” looks like living. We will be learning math in the organic garden – creating a grid for planting, sorting and counting the seeds, measuring the growth of the plants, and weighing and distributing the harvest. Our reading and writing will be stories from our own lives – writing about our days, journaling about our garden, writing letters to our friends, writing and expressing orally the description of the dead bird we found on a walk and brought back to investigate and bury. Part of our “curriculum” includes bi-weekly visits to the public library and to a retirement home. We want to broaden our community and share our days with our elders – we want to bring stories and songs and share food.

Much like my first grade class, our community of students doesn’t look like the “Dick & Jane” stories either, nor do most classrooms. In our classroom we honor this. We have families with two moms and a son, a family of one mom and a son, a family with a mom, a dad, a son, a daughter and a grandmother with MS who is taken care of by the family. We have a student who is adopted from China and her dad is from India. We have a family from Canada. We have a family going through a divorce. The class is ethnically, spiritually, socio-economically and in all ways diverse. We stand up for diversity. We stand up to hatred and name calling. We confront stereotypes that we witness in the world and the stereotypes that come up within our group. We often have conversations about what boys can wear and what girls can wear, what professions girls can be and what professions boys can be and about how we can all wear and be anything we want to be.

The community we are building is emerging and growing and cannot be contained. I cannot say what will happen – I don’t know myself and this makes learning exciting for all of us. The student’s passions are my passions and my passions often become the student’s passions because we have brought our interests to each other genuinely and honestly without the pretext of a set curriculum, with rules provided by someone who doesn’t share our same experiences.

When a student says to me, “Michelle, let’s build a city,” I find the recycling box and the glue and the paint and it turns into a two week project which includes math, reading, science and writing – with a love for the work. We build a city out of cardboard and plastic bottles that are painted and glued. Someone says, “We need street lights,” so we find some tooth picks, Styrofoam, and make street lamps along with some old twinkle lights to string about the city. Someone says, “we need street signs,” and we make up names and write and draw signs.” Someone says, “We need pipes for the water,” and we find rubber tubing that they string about the city, feeding the water supply to the entire town. Someone says, “We need a flag,” and a flag is drawn, cut and put on the top of the highest building. Someone says, “It’s snowing,” and we find cotton balls and glitter to finish off the winter cityscape. It is amazing and beautiful and emerges from the students themselves.

The students are discovering something new in their lives everyday. What does it take to make a city? What does a bean come from – is it a tree or a bush? How do we know where to dig for the potatoes? Look at the pattern in the bee hive, it looks like our blocks, it looks like the leaves in the trees. If we give them enough time, space and materials, they discover the world all over again. They are carpenters, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, organic gardeners, writers, readers, caretakers, fighters of social justice, negotiators – invested in their world. The work they do has to be relevant to their lives. It must be in context. They must do the discovering through repetition, trial and error and by making a gigantic mess. They must find the answers, find more questions. In fact, not finding or being given the answer adds mystery and longing to the learning process. If you have the answer, you are finished. If you have more questions, you have to keep experimenting to find the answers – thus the love of learning and the making of meaning.

The other day, I took my class on a walk around the neighborhood. We picked up trash, found an old typewriter, picked wild blackberries and wild apples. We walked through the alley behind our school. It was the first time we had done this and they were amazed at our school from this point of view. There is a giant hill and we looked down on the yard and yelled to a teacher who wanted some apples. It was fascinating. They felt larger than life – larger than their school. It’s all about perspective and trying to see things from a new angle. How can we turn it, twist it, bite into it, so that we can discover something new about it.

Really it’s all about intention and it is all intentional. The classroom jobs which include cleaning and feeding the animals, create a sense of community and caretaking. The materials we use are natural and often come from the environment. They are materials you would find for working to make things you need at home, at work, at play. The interaction with the preschool classes and the elders is our way of sharing our school family with others and our way of bridging ages and experiences. The garden is for feeding us, our classmates, our families, and our visitors. The intention is for our school experience to echo a home experience – what do we need to live, to survive, to enjoy the company of each other while measuring to build, while writing to communicate, while growing and cooking food to feed each other, while sharing our stories to entertain and explain our individual experiences when we are away from each other.

There are no promises here of “reading by the end of kindergarten,” there are no expectations of “product” to hang on the refrigerator, nor will our students be “products.” We encourage daydreaming. Hand-raising is optional. You can’t define us – we probably won’t be like any other K-2 classroom. But there is the promise that we will, “Make the road by walking” one step at a time through our days together as an investigating, nurturing, and loving classroom family.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~Margaret Mead

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