My eyes slowly pan the scene, recording it for later viewing: beautiful trees -- some rare, most indigenous; the sunken garden, where a group of 3rd graders water native plants, labeled and arranged in raised beds. An inscription on the cornerstone of the main building, a former orphanage, reads "Dedicated to Homeless Babies 1925."
Two springs ago, strolling around the campus of Park Day, the independent school in Oakland where I teach 2nd grade, I tried to envision what life was going to be like for my 10-year-old son and me during our upcoming year in Alabama. Park was the only school Nolan had ever attended, but his 4th grade year would be spent thousands of miles away. On my walk that day, I remember contemplating the contrast between quirky "Berserkly," where Nolan's biracial identity is almost mainstream, and the Deep South, where I imagined cultural boundaries to be more distinct.
In my year as a Teaching Tolerance research fellow -- and Nolan's year in the Montgomery public schools -- we've both learned a lot about ourselves and about where we came from. Faced with new concepts of authority, an emphasis on competition rather than cooperation, and an alarming absence of recess, Nolan has shown the natural resilience of youth.
My exposure to fresh ideas and educational resources, including contact with progressive teachers nationwide, inspires me to reflect on my teaching and parenting experience at Park. As I learn about current reform movements, state mandates and educational philosophies similar to and radically different from my own, I can better appreciate the multiple layers of commitment that go into creating a true community of teaching and learning.
At Park, we staff members and students' families (both current and former) often refer to ourselves as the Park School Community. But what does this comforting phrase really mean? From my new vantage point, I see at least three ways that Park's "members" attempt to make good on that claim: 1) by constructing community in each classroom and schoolwide; 2) by reflecting the community around us in diversity of students and staff; and 3) by connecting with the community around us through participation, partnership and service.
Constructing the Community
Each year, the construction process for our classroom communities begins well before school starts. In June, after classes are assigned for the coming September, students make an introductory visit to next year's room. Wide-eyed, the 1st graders scurry in, and I encourage them to look around before joining me on the rug. As the children begin to "feel" their next classroom, we plant the seeds of future friendships.
The staff reconnects at a retreat in August, around the time we send welcome packets to our students and their families. My letter introduces new Park students to our class, outlines the year's curricular themes, and lists supplies needed for the first day. The packet also describes parent volunteer opportunities, from labeling supplies to reading one-on-one with the children to typing students' stories at home. Included is an invitation to a dessert potluck for families of both 2nd grade classes before the school year begins.
The day after the potluck, I follow-up with a postcard to each student, reiterating my excitement about getting started and requesting they bring a favorite book to share on opening day. Everything is in place. My welcome wall displays a rectangular oil painting of a quilted bed -- rescued from a neighbor's trash pile -- each patch labeled with a student's name. Below the painting a sign reads "Welcome to the Family." Fabric wall hangings reflect world cultures that we'll learn about in our "Family Ties and Fabric Tales" immigration unit. The room feels ready. Now, to fill it with children.
On the first morning, staff members stand on the steps of the main building and sing an a cappella welcome. Tom Little, school director, greets the families and directs students to their teachers. He points at the serpentine playground sculpture where I'm standing and calls, "Michelle's class, meet over by the green dragon." I lead a cluster of children and parents into the building and we ascend the stairs to Day One.
An important goal at Park is to help students develop a sense of ownership and responsibility toward their classroom. Within the first few weeks, we discuss the concepts of cooperation, respect, empathy and accountability. Together we create guidelines for positive action and interaction. From our discussion we generate a list of classroom rights and responsibilities, which each student ratifies with a signature. This mini-Constitutional Convention sets a climate of trust for the ongoing conversations that we call "family meetings," a hallmark of Park Day.
When I first began teaching at Park, I was nervous about the family meetings because I had heard about the complex issues -- such as gender roles, cliques and exclusion -- that often come up, and I had no "answer key." I soon learned that conversation is the key. Last year, a new Park student got off to a bad start with negative behavior on the playground and was quickly labeled a bully. He and another student had a particularly difficult time with each other and regularly aired their disagreements at family meetings.
As the year progressed, the students' stories and discussions unveiled how a new person's fear of not fitting in can cause him or her to behave in ways that others may misinterpret. Classmates began to examine their own behavior and were able to recognize problems within themselves that contributed to the negative cycle. At our final meeting for the year, the child who had been particularly intolerant toward the new student announced, "This year I learned that if someone bugs me all the time, there's probably good things I'd like about him if I stop only looking at the bad things. Then they'll stop doing the bad things so much. This year I learned how to be a better friend." To my amazement, the two boys hugged, and then lightened the moment by tumbling to the floor laughing.
The skills of discourse and problem-solving that students practice in the family meetings are among the most important things we do. As teacher Karen Corzan observed in the school newsletter, Park Central, "Learning to get along with others, to articulate one's feelings, and to communicate one's needs and respond to the needs of others successfully is a lifelong process." We remind ourselves constantly that the cornerstone of true communication is trust.
Perhaps the best measures of the schoolwide level of trust are two Park traditions: We don't use textbooks and we don't give grades. Abandoning such basic pedagogical tools may seem unthinkable to many teachers and parents, but we believe it strengthens our school community. We construct our curriculum from a variety of sources -- including classroom libraries, the Internet, professional development workshops, and our students' own ideas and lives. Integrated units help young learners make connections between subjects, across disciplines and from individual to universal experiences. A social studies lesson on recycling, for example, may prompt a science mini-unit on the importance of worms, which in turn may inspire a school-wide composting program. We often say that our textbook is the world around us.
Instead of measuring progress in letter grades, we use an evaluative method that engages parents, students and staff in supporting each child's success. Class newsletters inform parents of curriculum developments, upcoming activities and volunteer needs. Teachers administer self-evaluations to students and guide them in setting goals and becoming reflective about the learning process. We send home written assessments that encompass the child's academic, social and emotional development. And semiannual parent/teacher/student conferences underscore the home-school partnership.
In her research on creating multicultural classroom communities, author/educator Sonia Nieto has found that getting parents, students and teachers to share in decision-making can dramatically improve student learning but that most schools do not organize methods to achieve this collaboration. Beyond helping out in their child's classroom, parents at Park may choose from a variety of opportunities to fulfill their required 25 hours of school service during the year. The Parent Education Committee, for example, sponsors parenting workshops and presentations on topics such as managing homework time or positive discipline. The Technology Committee recently set up a laptop computer lab. There's a committee job for everyone.
Reflecting the Community
According to our school mission statement, "Park Day School values diversity in its students, families and staff. Our goal is that PDS reflect the diversity of the East Bay." The committee I'm on -- Diversity Outreach -- works both to achieve that goal and to celebrate it. At present, 40 percent of our 220 students are children of color, and a quarter of all students receive financial assistance. We have no academic testing for admission, and one-fifth of our students have an identified learning disability. To honor and draw upon the diverse perspectives in our school family, the committee sponsors diversity workshops, film nights, family potlucks, "culture days" and other activities.
Last year, the school director, Tom Little, introduced a new idea -- "Gatherings of Parents of Color." Tom explains, "The voices of many cultural and ethnic groups are under-represented in our society, and many parents have shared with me their experiences of feeling uncomfortable, if not silenced, by the prevalence of White culture." As he reiterated in a recent newsletter, "We constantly remind ourselves that diversity is not simply a matter of numbers, but of attitude and understanding."
Connecting With the Community
Tom is a member of the Oakland Education Cabinet, a citywide advisory group, and serves as the liaison between the city's public and private schools. For many parents, the decision to send their children to Park is complicated by a desire to support the public schools. Our partnership with nearby Emerson Elementary provides a direct means of doing so. The connection serves to eliminate stereotypes and open dialogue between two groups that are often separated by the boundaries of their institutions.
Workshops allow teachers to benefit from the experience and insights of their peers in other settings. Emerson teachers, for example, can share effective strategies for working with a broad range of learning modalities, while teachers from Park can offer hands-on curricula and techniques suitable for the smaller classes now mandated for California public schools. Teachers from the two schools have exchanged classroom visits and have engaged in dialogue on such topics as thematic units and classroom management. With the encouragement of Park, the Education Cabinet has sponsored a symposium on the "how-to's" and benefits of public/private school collaboration.
During my year with Teaching Tolerance, I've had a rare opportunity to step aside and evaluate my school from a distance. I now know that my son, who had never received a grade in his life, can leave the cozy womb of Park and transition successfully to a strictly academic public school that boasts the top test scores in the district. I'm thrilled to have visited the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute, and the 35th anniversary commemoration of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma.
I'm elated over the binders full of new ideas I'll integrate into my teaching; the warm letters I've received from my students back home; and the range of innovative school programs across the nation that I've learned about. I'm intrigued to have witnessed the "changing of the guard" when a political newcomer ended the 22-year run of Montgomery's previous mayor and declared, "I am going to serve a notice on the world tonight that Montgomery old-line politics is over with. There is a new beginning."
This is a time of new beginnings, in the new millennium and the Year of the Dragon. I hope that more schools will embrace the cognitive revolution and move away from narrow curricula designed to match standardized tests. Perhaps in this global age, school reform measures will actually advocate for children and meaningful learning. This exposure has opened new doors in my mind and can lead to new directions in my world. Perhaps I'll drive a different route on my return path to Park.