Ginger went to observe in the school with a group of other visitors the first day. When she returned, she had many positive things to say about the school and the teaching. Every classroom they visited had active engagement of almost all the children. The teachers were tolerant of children having conversations with each other while working on projects. There were no desks. The students moved freely from place to place during the classes, while still staying engaged in their work. The teachers maintained a calm, contained environment.
The teachers managed lack of participation and disruption – potential or actual – in an unusually skillful way. In one class on Social Studies, the students made paper lanterns and discussed a topic about profit and loss in an animated and involved way; the students who had trouble actively participating in the discussion, had something not disruptive to do with their hands in a self-regulating way, allowing them to listen and follow along. A little boy in the upper kindergarten who wanted to be part of a puzzle activity during a free choice time had difficulty collaborating with the puzzle doers. The teacher came up and put a hand on his shoulders and to calm him and support his efforts, and when that was not successful, guided him to another activity that had a more sensory basis, sorting seeds. He never sorted the seeds the way everybody else did but sat next to another child and kept scooping up the seeds and letting them fall through his fingers, his way of participating. He tried to take seeds from a little girl, but she set a clear boundary and he stopped.
The teachers consistently displayed a calm and receptive manner, quietly acknowledging individual children’s successes. In the upper kindergarten classroom, each child had to bring the teacher his or her journal when finished with each lesson, so that she could mark it. In that way no child was allowed to fall behind or drop out. The kids seemed to expect it to be a good day. Even at the end of the day, the children did not seem eager to leave.
After the school day was over, Ginger and I gathered in the Resource Room and gave a presentation about helping children learn. In addition to showing some videos of El Salvador that offered an example of adults facilitating learning in an infant, we concentrated on teaching about early developmental problems that can interfere with learning, introducing Dan Siegel’s model of the brain (Siegel, 2012) and Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model, and also offered some interventions designed for the “bottom up” healing of developmental problems that affect learning, such as breathing exercises, regulatory breaks of various types, and meditation (which is culturally syntonic here). The teachers were receptive and and stayed late to listen. At the end, Prajna suggested that we continue the next afternoon, so we did that.
After school, Prajna brought over tea and biscuits, and she reflected on how the school had changed over the years that she had known it. She discussed the project-based learning curriculum, a change from the original lecture-based curriculum. They eventually moved to what they called an activity-based instruction method in which they added structure to a project-based model. In that way they “grew” their own curriculum, adding structure to allow for more helpful classroom control. She explained that the teachers remain with their classes through the lower grades, providing a continuity of the caregiving role of the teacher. Prajna also mentioned her belief in the value of practice and structure in learning.
Then I did a little work of my own and later followed her to the dining room where the older children (“standards” 5-8) were doing homework. It was now 7:00, and the children would not eat until 9:00. There were thirty kids, both boys and girls, sitting in two circles on the floor, and Prajna was the only adult in the room besides me. Prajna was leading a lesson on English grammar, and of the twenty children sitting with her, all of them were actively engaged for more than 40 minutes, eagerly offering answers to her prompts. From time to time, a child from the other circle, where the children were working together in small informal groups doing math, would come to ask Prajna to review their work. She always interrupted to do this, and she gave a non-effusive but affirming response to each child. One thing I noticed is that Prajna immediately responded to each child who made a bid for her attention, even if it were for a few seconds; I remember being impressed with Rachel’s habit of doing this at Love and Hope.
Siegel, D. (2012) The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (Second Edition). Guilford Press.
photograph by Ginger Gregory