PARTNER PODCAST 9-15-17: 100+ Years of 21st-Century Learning at Charles River School
(LISTEN TO THIS PODCAST HERE)
Featured guest Elizabeth Clayton, assistant head of school and science teacher at Charles River School (coed, day, 160 students, grades PreK–8), speaks with host Peter Gow about how the Dover, Massachusetts, school has embraced its founders’ ideals of Progressive Education since 1911 and how its child-centered culture and practice continue to evolve.
In the ICG’s first Partner Podcast involving a school that does not include a secondary division, the conversation ranges far and wide. In a brief discussion of the CRS mission statement, Gow focused for a moment on its inclusion of the word “joy,” wondering whether there are secondary schools with this word in their mission statements—a word that embodies our hopes for childhood.
With experience in independent and charter schools, Elizabeth Clayton has been excited by the idea of creating programs that really serve the students that are actually being taught; later in the episode she speaks of the primacy of the ICG’s first Principle of Independent Curriculum: “Responsive to the interests, capacities, and aspirations of the students being taught.”
One of the new practices Charles River School has incorporated in recent years is multi-age classrooms at PreK/K and grades 1/2. Not only does this allow students to learn and grow “at a pace that’s right for them,” but it also helps develop a pride- and competence-inducing “mentoring role” in the older children in each group. Clayton and Gow discuss the learning and social-emotional value of interactions between kids of different ages at several points in the episode. The school also has a new middle school building under construction whose design will facilitate inter-age and cross-disciplinary learning.
Helping contemporary parents and guardians understand the nature of contemporary learning is a priority for CRS. They offer a speaker series for families as well as a program of “curriculum coffees,” where teachers presents on a topic or classroom practice that illuminates the school’s curriculum and the thinking behind it—“to help parents see how it all fits together.” As parents compare notes with neighbors, it’s important for them to understand and feel secure in the education their children are experiencing. “We encourage our parents to ask a lot of questions,” says Clayton.
At the same time, the school has worked to help teachers understand “where the parents are coming from” and to create a culture of open and positive communication. It’s also important in the admissions process, Clayton adds, “to make sure that we have families who we know are going to partner with us in the kind of education that we want to provide.”
Clayton offers another important point in regard to relationships with families: “We [in the school] live this philosophy every day, so to us it’s obvious that this is a beautiful way to teach children—that children don’t need to be struggling in order to be challenged… We have to keep reassuring parents…hoping that they will come to us with questions.” This raises the issue of how well the education world as a whole has made the case for the new ways in which we are doing our work; we usually leave the challenge of explaining contemporary best practice to individual schools and even individual teachers rather than speaking with a single, sector-wide voice.
Clayton and Gow also discuss the ways in which a more interactive, hands-on curriculum facilitates the growth of strong and meaningful relationships between teachers and students—as well as how these relationships enhance “the growth potential” of students and their willingness to take risks.
The professional culture at CRS has truly benefited from “faculty summer reads” (see “Resources” below), leveraging the common reading experience to drive intentional, year-long professional and curriculum development initiatives—not just “read it and forget it.” It’s also important for Charles River teachers to take their show on the road, sharing their practice at regional and national conferences.
The discussion ends with some conversation on how we as educators can build our learning networks though events and other channels. Listeners should be on the lookout for a future ICG event on thematic curriculum, a long-time CRS practice and a topic of great interest to many educators.
Resources referenced by Elizabeth Clayton:
- A faculty summer read several years ago, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (2014) by Warren Berger inspired a year of intentional follow-up on teaching students to ask deeper questions.
- Another summer read, Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes” (2012) by Madeline Levine sparked great faculty discussion about “giving kids a chance to be kids.”
- Ditto the above for In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (1999) by Jacqueline Grennon Brooks and Martin G. Brooks, which has served as a reminder and refresher for CRS teachers on the heritage and value of the school’s historical approach.
- A past all-faculty read focused on cultural competency was Class Lives: Stories from Across Our Economic Divide (2014), “an anthology of narratives dramatizing the lived experience of class in America.”
- This past summer teachers read Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (2014) by Debbie Irving, who came to speak at an opening faculty meeting
- Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms (2017) by Tracy Johnston Zager. After some math teachers at CRS excitedly passed this book around, the school will be sending a cohort of teachers to a Zager workshop later this year.
- Charles River School keeps itself open to serendipitous connections. For example, a few years ago the school partnered with artist Sally Taylor to create a year-long iteration of Taylor’s Consenses project, where students produced, responded to, and interacted with one another’s art—over 500 pieces of it!
- The Independent Curriculum Group Innovator Meet-Up in June 2017 had Charles River attendees “jazzed by [NAIS Chief Innovation Officer] Tim Fish,” who will be working with CRS faculty in the spring of 2018 on how to infuse their classrooms with an innovation mindset.