June 20, 2016
Guest post! Today’s post was written by Minneapolis Barton Open School parent, Sarah Cooper Evans. Sarah has a great eye for progressive education–which is what the “Open” in Barton’s name is all about. As the school year ended, Sarah reflected on what made the year meaningful for her son, who is headed to third grade this fall.
First, a few notes:
- Barton is a K-8 magnet school in southwest Minneapolis, built in 1915. It served as a neighborhood school for most of its 100 years, but has been an “Open” school since the 1980’s. This makes it one of the longest standing leftovers from the heady 1970’s, when experimental schools were offered throughout the Minneapolis Public Schools, thanks to a pioneering, district-sponsored choice program called Southeast Education Alternatives. The aim was to “decentralize administration” in Minneapolis, desegregate the city’s schools through choice (magnets) and promote teacher-led innovation. Sound familiar?
- What makes it “Open”? Nebulous things like multi-age classrooms, portfolio and project-based learning, an emphasis on social-emotional learning (the “whole child”), and dynamic programming for 7th and 8th graders. Read on for specifics, and check out the “Responsive Classroom” model, which Sarah credits for much of the positive, community-building work done at Barton.
- Barton is rapidly diversifying, but remains, for now, a majority white, middle class school. The challenge of how to be an Open school, and an open community, for all kids and families, and not just the historical Barton population, is right at the school’s doorstep. The push to prioritize racial justice, in addition to progressive ed, is happening, amid recent leadership turnover, large class sizes and an expressed need for more resources and support.
Take it away, Sarah!
As a parent at Barton, I am spending this small bit of time at the end of the school year reflecting on all that made my second grade son’s school experience progressive and beautiful. It is so difficult to choose where to focus because, as a parent, I felt as if my son was immersed in meaningful, collaborative, socially constructed, joyful, interdisciplinary learning every day of the school year. But I have come up with a shortlist of highlights.
- In October, students wrote, illustrated and read their own books at an “Author’s Tea.” Students were both authors and audience members, supporting one another, helping other kids read their books, and giving each another child-driven feedback, as parents scribbled encouraging notes on yellow sticky paper.
- November brought a Stone Soup luncheon, held just before Thanksgiving. Students spent all week chopping vegetables, making soup, and then serving one another and their families in their classroom.
- Students made their own lanterns by gluing squares of pink, purple, yellow and green tissue paper onto Ball jars. Each jar had a tea candle glued into the bottom of it, making the tissue paper glow when lit. On a chilly Saturday evening, students and families gathered in a nearby public park. saying goodbye to fall and welcoming winter while singing together and carrying their lanterns through the darkness.
- Students in my son’s class let their own lights shine by completing a self-chosen project having to do with light–be it a historical person they admired because he or she had done good and added light to the world, a scientific inquiry into light and electricity, or how animals use light to survive and thrive (bioluminescence- my son’s beloved project). It was up to them how they wanted to shine, and they all did so brightly.
- My son’s class did a bus tour of Minneapolis, as part of their “Timelines and Skylines” unit of study. As he got off the school bus that day, his excitement was electrifying. He gave me a report on the tour, and it was clear that my 8-year-old is much more knowledgeable about our wonderful city than I am, and I have lived here since 2000.
- In late spring the school hosted a “MoSaic” event, where students and specialist teachers created a mini-museum to display the work students had done in media, art, music, and science, as it related to Dakota and Ojibwe cultures. The evening was complete with a Native drum circle, whose members shared their talents and then invited the students to create music with them, using buckets as drums.
If I must choose just one experience to exemplify the power of progressive education, it has to be the 1st and 2nd grade overnight camping trip to Baker Park in late May. During that camp experience, students were not just learners. They took on roles of campers, outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists, artists, biologists, singers, authors, athletes, teachers, field guides, and of course, friends to one another.
I saw the power in this type of experiential learning as I helped a group of students find a good spot to embark on “pond study.” A student was making her way down a well-trodden path, joyfully exclaiming “touch, touch, touch!” as she grabbed at all the green life surrounding her while she followed her friends. I am not sure there is a better example of hands-on, sensory filled, meaningful, child-directed learning within a class community than observing that first grader that afternoon.
Sometimes people wonder what progressive education really is or really looks like. My response is to consider a series of questions. Are learners active participants, problem solvers, and planners? Are teachers fostering critical thinking and inquiry? Is the community an extension of the classroom? Is knowledge constructed through play, direct experience, and social interaction? Are subject areas integrated to make the learning meaningful to students? I can say very confidently that my answers to those questions are an emphatic “YES!” when reflecting on this school year in my son’s classroom at Barton Open school.
–Sarah Cooper Evans