Members of the Open Classroom community see social, physical, emotional, and academic growth as being interrelated and of equal value. In order to meet the needs of the total child, we emphasize respect for the individual and individual learning styles, emotional growth and freedom of choice. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget has shown that there are patterns and sequences to the learning of certain skills; we use these as guides and recognize that individuals do not follow precise timetables. To help our children develop a sense of responsibility for their own progress, we encourage them to make choices. As educator John Holt said, “Only from making choices and judgments can the child learn to make them better, or learn to trust his own judgment.” Our role is to provide information, set limits, and share our excitement. We see ourselves as more experienced, but not necessarily more right, than the child.
We believe that learning is exciting, that the excitement adults and other children feel is catching, and that the best learning is “hands on.” We know that the child with a positive self-concept, who “thinks he can,” is far more likely to be able to learn — and will venture into the unknown, believing it to be only a temporary condition. We want to provide a rich and accessible learning environment, where spontaneous events as well as formalized learning can occur. By permitting freedom of movement and talking, we respect the nature of children and childhood and use it positively in the learning setting. When children are free to do for themselves whatever they are capable of handling, they grow in initiative and self-respect.
Our goals for our children are that they be:
- self-reliant and having a sense of self worth
- joyous and spontaneous in both work and play
- responsible for their actions and the consequences of their actions
- able to form productive and satisfying relationships with others
- able to think creatively, inventively, and critically
- able to express themselves verbally, artistically and physically
- exposed to a wide range of things, people, and ideas
The major influences on the teaching style of the staff include, in addition to Piaget and Holt: Carl Rogers, who developed the “contract” idea that allows children to structure their own time and goals; A.S. Neill, whose school, Summerhill, showed that children can learn without coercion; Herb Kohl, who explored many of the boundaries of conventional public-school education and opened ways past them; and the English Infant Schools, which developed many concrete ways of utilizing the real world in the classroom. Later influences include Mary Bereta Lorton’s “Math Their Way,” math activities organized on a conceptual and developmental level, and Arnold Gesell’s research, which defined children’s developmental tasks and led to the Gesell assessment tool (which provides information on a child’s behavioral developmental age, as opposed to a child’s chronological age and intellectual development).
The program itself continues to evolve. In the first years, every elementary class spanned K-6 in a family grouping approach. Instead of academic aides, the program’s aide resources were divided between art and creative-play specialists, and field-trip and parent-participation coordinators. Currently, children are divided by age into groups that span two or three years. While each group has one teacher, the staff plans and works together, and there is ample opportunity for the groups to merge for academic, social, and creative activities. District-paid aide time currently goes to an academic aide. Art, music, foreign language, science, and computer specialists are financed through district monies and parent contributions, as well as being supplemented by parent volunteers.
Our students are involved in both daily and long-range planning, which must include basic academic commitments. Teacher input varies with the age of the child. Our curriculum is ungraded. A child works at a level that is appropriate for him/her, and progresses at her/his own rate. Our students do not receive letter grades. Instead we rely on oral and written evaluations. Children are encouraged to pursue their own special interests. Frequent field trips as well as special projects offered by members of the community enrich and enliven the year’s program.
Time is provided on a daily basis for both quiet individual work and stimulating group processes. On any given day, children may be involved in: manipulative math, individualized reading, story writing, a wide variety of art activities, music, gymnastics, science or math projects, creative thinking games, social studies, handwriting, foreign language study, outdoor activities, “dress-up” role playing, cooking, improvisational drama, parent- or child-initiated projects, computer work, video viewing, experience sharing, carpentry, and on and on. This may be as simple as drawing pictures to illustrate a story, or as complicated as reenacting a period in history. At times, the entire program has a special focus, at other times groups and individuals will be working on quite different activities.
Each day begins and ends with group time, where all members of each group have an opportunity to share their ideas, their plans, their hopes, and their lives.