Joan taught a mixed group of 18 first and second graders on her own. A matrix of brass hooks—7 across and 18 down—screwed to plywood Joan had painted white stood at the entrance of the room. On each hook was a 2 x 4 inch card, white on one side and gold on the other. The left hand column was gold tags with the names of the 18 students. Opposite each name hung white cards with a word, symbol or sticker that indicated an activity. The curriculum was arrayed around the room in dozens of centers or all kinds. Where the material involved progressive degrees of difficulty it was color-coded.
Each day when the students came into the room the first thing they would do was go to the hook chart, notice what cards Joan had hung up for them, pick one, go to that center, and get to work. Laura, for instance, might have a robin, a rose, a red car, a yellow kite, “math game,” and “read to me.” Richard might have a blue bird, a tulip, a green truck and a blue balloon, “math game,” and “write a story.” Depending on the activity they might get the work checked by Joan, and when they were finished with an activity, they would go to the hook chart, turn the card over to gold, and pick their next activity.
Joan presented the entire lower elementary school curriculum to all the students, and the upper end was limitless. The structure had infinite flexibility. Some kids were mastering multiplication while others were just starting out. One second grader was reading Shakespeare. One girl was so distractable that Joan gave her one card at a time. A boy with an IQ of 80 spent three years in the room. The Hook Chart said: “Do this. Do that,” but the students felt ownership and agency. All members of this very diverse class loved to go to school.
Although Joan’s method was my favorite—she gave new meaning to the word “structure”—it wasn’t necessarily the best. I have known hundreds of great teachers who all found their own way of teaching so that the students felt they were in charge of their own learning with no compromising on standards. We didn’t even think about standards, because the standards were obvious in the activities. We thought about agency.
Years of exposure to this kind of teaching drew me to the original meaning of the word “genius:” something each of us has rather than something a few of us are. How to teach all those learning styles? How to make diversity work? How to keep kids from cheating? Bullying? Dropping out? How to prepare citizens for democracy and leadership in a complex, changing world? How to get them to love to go to school every day? Treat them as if they each have a teacher within.
For an educator the curriculum is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for children to build their brains as they create their characters. We create our characters as we take on challenges. Educators lead each character to contribute creatively, effectively and gracefully to the world. Education is not something we can do to children. Educators can, however, contribute by creating three key conditions 1) high internal motivation 2) high decision making and 3) high quality (accurate) feedback. Joan showed us one way of doing it.
At the heart of all this is the art of “High responsibility; Low control.” When a person takes responsibility for something it seems intuitively obvious that she needs to have control. How can you have responsibility without control? But that is exactly the question that every parent and teacher needs to answer for herself. All kindergarten teachers worth their salt have it figured out. They know. Bottom line: the kids have to be the actors, the agents, the doers. Education can only occur when a student takes responsibility.
Joan used to say: “My test for myself is: If I leave the room, will the kids keep working as hard as if I were there?” The concept is not new. President Eisenhower said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Lao-tzu said, “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'” in the 6th Century BC.
Dr. Marty Fletcher says: “respect is allowing a student to act, to test assumptions, and to be.” Marjie Braun Knudsen says to parents: “stop teaching and be parents.” Dawn Morris keeps reminding us about the vitality of play. All Kinds of Minds says “Learn how each child learns.” Dr. Edward Hallowell says: “Connect. Play. Practice.” Ken Robinson says that each child is an origin of creativity. Denise Clark Pope and Madeline Levine say: “Change the definition of success.” Deborah Stipek says its all about internal motivation. Peter Ackerlysays the teacher-student relationship is reciprocal.
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