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Learning in an Atmosphere of Collaboration and Cooperation

by Rise Richardson, Director of The Village School

I often tell visitors that the Village School provides a safe learning atmosphere, aiming to reach all types of learners in a culture of kindness and respect, where children feel free to be creative and to take risks emotionally, intellectually, and physically. The following is an example of the Village School learning experience:

In math, children sit at tables together, talking to each other about math problems. They collaborate to solve math problems and share different ways to get to the solution. The whole class talks about the different methods and sees which are more efficient. Assessments are given at the end of a unit so that teachers can see if their teaching was effective, and to figure out how to help children to understand concepts. From concepts, children can develop and learn skills that help them integrate facts.

If a child says that 8+7 is 14, a teacher will not simply say "that's wrong." Instead, the teacher asks, "How did you figure that out? Can you show me your thinking? Can you talk to Jake and ask him to show you how he worked on this problem?" In that exploration of the child's thinking, the child comes up with a more sensible answer. Much of math is about order and common sense, being able to picture the situation and have a general idea of the direction for the solution. Even with "correct" answers, teachers look at the child’s thinking to see that he really understands the process.

Instead of grades at the Village School, there are assessments. The most important kind of assessment is self-assessment. Children learn to ask themselves, Do I understand this? Would I do it this way next time? What did I learn in this situation? Am I proud of my work? If a student asks, "Did I do a good job?" The teacher often responds: "Well, what do you think? Why?" The discussion that follows helps the child develop skills for self-assessment.

A culture of kindness and respect is built into the structure of the day at the Village School, beginning with morning meeting, when each child says something about their lives or what they are reading, and other children listen and respond.

In Language Arts, children are taught group work, where they read a chapter together and break into small groups that discuss the characters and the plot. The small groups come together in a whole class meeting to share their findings and make conclusions together.

Cooperation is the norm at the Village School. Children are taught how to listen to each other, how to deliver positive criticism, and how to encourage each other. In this atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration, one feels "safe," enabled to take risks, to try to learn something new, to push one's own boundaries.

We teach Growth Mindset, that all children are mathematicians, all children are writers, that it is practice, effort, and occasional failure that help us develop our abilities and talents. And that mistakes are great learning opportunities. We are not trying to protect kids from making mistakes; in a safe learning place, mistakes are an opportunity to explore and learn more.

Village School teachers are also conscious of language: what teachers and staff say and how they say it, goes a long way to making a child feel included, empowered and autonomous. This is one more way we actively cultivate a safe learning atmosphere from the minute students walk into our building.

The traditional classroom does work for some students, but the safe classroom model at the Village School is inclusive of all types of learners. Our graduates go on to all kinds of secondary education: Monty Tech, public high schools, charter schools and college prep schools, and attend colleges including Bard, Berklee College of Music, Colby, Columbia, Hampshire, Haverford, Harvard, Olin, R.P.I., U.C. Berkeley, U. Mass., Union, Yale, and W.P.I.

Our graduates report that feeling "safe" made learning fun, joyful, engaging and inclusive. The "safe" learning atmosphere of the Village School gave them the confidence to be themselves in the real world, and to take the risk to be creative in future learning environments, feeling comfortable asking questions, digging deeper and exploring answers.

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February 4th 2010

Dear Sir,

Susan Engel, in Playing to Learn (February 2, 2010), outlines an ideal curriculum in an imaginary classroom, where children would spend two hours a day in reading, hearing and discussing books, and having books read to them.

Her fortunate students would write pieces that have meaning for them; their math curriculum would require investigative, critical thinking, rather than rote learning of algorithms they don’t understand. Children would spend time outdoors in the natural world. They would even be allowed to play.

Such a classroom is not imaginary. At the Village School in Royalston , Massachusetts , and schools like ours around the country, our curriculum almost exactly fits Engel’s prescription, from preschool to 6th grade. The school is full of passionate, questioning learners, enthusiastic readers, excited mathematicians and thoughtful writers, all of whom get to play outdoors for an hour a day.

As Engel predicts, thanks to such a curriculum, our alumni have shown that they are indeed prepared to ‘learn almost anything in high school and college’.

Rise Richardson, Director

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