The Cooper School Daily

Head of School – Recently I was made aware of an alarming statistic

In the US, one student drops out of school every 12 seconds. Why? As a country, what are we doing wrong, and how can we do better? In a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 47% of high school dropouts left because they “were bored with school.” Student disengagement is creating a crisis among our students. Even though this statistic may not directly affect our own elementary school students, it started to make me wonder: Are we doing enough at TCS to create engaged and passionate learners? If we believe that elementary schools offer the foundation for success, are we creating a strong enough one? 

As I pondered this, I was led to the work of Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski. Authors of Leaving to Learn, Washor also co-founded Big Picture Learning. This educational initiative in Rhode Island led to a school redesign model which now includes over 65 schools in the United States, and many more around the world. They have created 10 expectations that students want from their schools.

I was struck by how this work captures much of what makes learning “stick” and feel joyful at progressive schools such as The Cooper School. A standardized, one-size-fits-all, traditional approach to learning doesn’t reflect how children (or adults) learn best. At The Cooper School, we take these expectations seriously each and every day.  Below you will find the top 4 expectations that I believe are critical to the work we do here.

  • Relationships – I know my students as individuals. I know their individual interests and talents, and they do not feel like just a face in the crowd.

One of the hallmarks of The Cooper School, and progressive education in general, is this relational piece. We believe that children learn best in relationship, with each other and with their teacher. By design TCS teachers are in deep relationships with their students. In fact, it is one of the reasons students call their teachers by their first names! Teachers are seen as the lead learner in the classroom, a guide. By using first names, the sense of being partners in learning is fostered. Not only are these relationships delightful to engage in and witness, they matter academically. Multiple studies have shown that positive teacher-student relationships have been shown to support students’ adjustment to school, contribute to their social skills, promote academic performance and foster students’ resiliency in academic performance. At The Cooper School, we know relationships matter, and we make time to foster those relationships each and every day.

  • Relevance – Is my class just a series of hoops to jump through? Am I helping my students understand how learning contributes to the community and the world?

Parents, have you ever had your child ask you why they have to do something? Well, research tells us the “why” matters! This makes sense, right? As adults, we are more engaged, more present, when what we are doing actually has real world applications – when it makes sense and is meaningful. Kids are no different. The benefits of relevance are rooted deep in brain research. Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know, help build neural connections and long-term memory storage.  Students have to connect to the material in deep ways in order to engage and remember. This is precisely why paper pushing and busy work is not only boring, but it doesn’t create long lasting learning. Here at TCS, we give students the opportunity to explore and apply relevant, real world work. Students map and plan, collaborate and design, fail and try again, all in ways that make sense to their own, meaningful interpretation of the world they inhabit. In these ways, they both learn and remember.

  • Play – Do my students have opportunities to explore, make mistakes, create, tinker, guess and innovate?

We all can agree that play is how the very youngest children learn. But somehow, in many schools the time and space for play is eliminated by First Grade. Teacher led, lecture format instruction has replaced play in many traditional classrooms across the country. At TCS, we know that when you eliminate play from your classroom, you eliminate opportunities for innovation and growth, both academically and socially. Plus, isn’t joy in discovery what is should be about? Play at TCS can take two forms. First is when children are given ample time to carry their own ideas into play—with assistance from teachers as needed. For example, last year, as Grade 2 students were deep in their Bird Study, playground play was transformed.  Second Graders became a family of birds at recess. They would gather wood chips and materials around them to intricately create their nest. The “clutch” was often seen in the nest, while the mama bird searched for food. Little “hatchlings” could be seen spreading their wings and learning to fly. It was magical and all inspired by what they were learning in the classroom. Play at its finest. 

The other type of play is when the teachers enrich content in experiential ways, using hands on activities and exploration. This may not be delineated by your student as “play” but, in fact, play is at the heart of it.  Student’s play and teacher’s content should go hand in hand. As adults, these children will be expected to create, to problem solve, to negotiate, to socially navigate what others say and mean, and to follow through to completion something of their own initiation. This is what play allows. At TCS we create space in both time and environment for this most important work of children.

  • Challenge – Do my students understand real world standards of quality of work? Are they being held to meaningful standards of excellence?

Ah, academic rigor. We say we want our students to be “challenged” but what do we really mean? One common misconception of progressive schooling is that it is laissez faire, steeped in hippie idealism. Certainly, I understand the marketing ploy of “if it is not hard, it can’t be working.” In fact, I recently read an article about the “Listerine Theory” of education, which was based on an ad campaign run by Listerine. In effect this ad proposed that because Listerine tastes bad it must really work!  The converse being implied is that if it is fun and engaging, it can’t be educational. Our students are so darn happy, they can’t actually be challenged academically, can they? In fact, by definition progressive education is rigorous and challenging. Constructing your own learning, having your academic needs individualized, and designing your own academic goals within a discipline are far more challenging in their nature than a series of rote worksheets or flashcards.

At The Cooper School, teachers are assessing their students daily and planning with administration weekly in order to make decisions about the direction that a student’s learning is going.  This may mean that one student needs to be presented with more challenging work, or this may mean that a group of students needs some more focused instruction with a specific skill. By individualizing instruction, we can make sure each and every child is challenged appropriately. Every day, every discipline, every student.