Yesterday, I attended a coffee night for San Francisco parents interested in Marin Country Day School. Wearing a thick layer of antiperspirant and my mingling shoes, I was feeling confident and ready to chit-chat. I talked to several current MCDS parents. One delivered the great news that the school's buses are converting to biodiesel. Another told me about the number of Noe Valley families attending the school.
And then a prospective parent asked, "Are you the K Files blogger?" I was a little taken back, but said, "Yes." It turns out that she and her husband had been on my Live Oak tour and noticed that I was writing down everything. "And then when we saw you here tonight, my husband said, 'You have to go talk to her,' " she said.
They were friendly and we got to talking about schools, the search, comments on this blog—and then she said, "What really matters are the teachers. If a school has good teachers, then your children will get a good education." I think she's entirely right. This is an excellent point that often gets lost.
And I think her words were especially meaningful at a Marin Country Day School event. The average teacher stays at the school for 16 years. And that night three teachers spoke. Here's a brief rundown:
Doug is one of the school's three kindergarten teachers. He looks a bit like Harry Potter. He's got the same wire glasses, sweet face, and hair, only his is gray. His voice is calm and gentle; it could soothe a colicky baby. And when he talks about kindergarten, his words are thoughtful and heart-felt.
I first observed Doug on an MCDS tour. I actually mentioned him in an earlier post. He's the one who brought tears to my eyes as he played his guitar and sang a song with students gathered round. A few weeks after the tour, I attended a coffee night for MCDS where Doug spoke. I remember thinking, "I've found the perfect kindergarten teacher for Alice." And so I was excited to see him again.
This time, Doug talked about a past need to bring together the school's three kindergartens. His solution? To simulate a farming community. One class is the dairy, another the orchard, and so on. The kids grow plants in their classrooms and roll weather dice. If they don't roll rain, then the plants get no water. The classrooms conduct "business" amongst each other. And the kids actually have little tractors to pedal and pull around compost and produce harvested in the garden.
Doug also talked about the Reggio Emilia Approach, an education philosophy born in northern Italy. The town of Reggio Emilia is supposedly home to the world's best primary education schools and educators from all over the world (including Doug) visit to learn about the innovative approach to learning. In a nutshell, Reggio Emilia is based on the belief that children are equipped with the means and tools to construct their own learning about the world. As a result teachers build their curriculum around the children's ideas and interests. The teacher is a collaborator; not a transmitter. Doug didn't explain all of this as he ran out of time. I tracked down the information in a 1991 Newsweek article, which further piqued my interest.
Jenny talked about a People Study unit. Her students learn to respect differences. They learn about adoption and various family structures. She told us about science and how the kids study snails, and about Math Mania on Wednesdays. And then she went on to reading. "Children really learn to read this year," she said. "There's nothing better than seeing a child read their first book." As she said this, her eyes lit up and you could tell she truly meant it.
Jenny's students primarily learn through phonics. They're reading independently, in groups with a teacher, with a partner. They're also doing lots of writing in their journals. They might read a story and then ponder it in their journals.
Another highlight: the first grade library. The first graders in all three classrooms work together to build an actual library. They write and publish their own books, and file them on shelves. And then they set up a system so they can actually check out books.
When Claire's students are conducting a science experiment, they don't pull a kit out of their desks and follow directions in a textbook. Rather, they lie on their tummies, their heads hanging over the edge of the MCDS dock jutting out into San Francisco Bay. They observe sea anemones, barnacles, and rays—and then they start talking amongst each other about what they see. Together, they decide which creature to study. And this is how the class study of San Francisco Bay begins.
Once they've got a creature—Claire said her most recent class chose muscles—they ask questions: What's inside the muscle? Who eats it? What do muscles eat? How does it get stuck to the rock? What temperature water do muscles like?
Next: Divide these questions up into two categories: those you can answer through research and those you can answer by setting up an experiment. And then the kids actually set up experiments: writing a procedure, conducting the experiment, and sharing conclusions. "It's a completely empowering experience for kids," Claire said.
Back at home
When I got home, my kids were in their beds but still awake. "Mama," they cried as I walked into their room. I smothered them in kisses and sat down on Alice's bed.
"Where were you?" Alice asked.
I told her that I had attended a school event. She asked me what I did. As usual, she wanted details. I told her about Jenny explaining how children learn to read.
At that moment, I practically saw a lightbulb appear above Alice's head. Her eyes grew wide and she earnestly said, " I know how I can learn to read. I'll write letters down on a paper and then I'll practice the sounds for those letters. When I want to learn more letters, I'll write down more."
As she explained how she wanted to learn to read, I immediately thought of Reggio Emilia.
"Okay, honey. We'll try that," I said. "That's a great idea."