I’m led to believe that the month of May is busy in every school; there are always a number of events and special activities, excitement for summer and next year, surely some uneasiness about this school year coming to a close, the weather is suddenly warmer and the sun is out at last—energy is generally high and often a lot needs to be fit in before the year is out. The Antioch School is very different from the average school: it’s the oldest democratic school in the country meaning decisions (from the group game played in the morning to the acts they’ll perform in their circus to the rules/guidelines of the class) are made with the children; there are no tests or textbooks, and grades are mixed, so no one is under any pressure to alter their learning pace or interests; it’s truly a child-centered school, with free time for play, social development, chosen activities and projects, exploring and discovering space, their peers, their own wants/needs/interests/strengths, the world that exists around them. The children are curious and self-driven, with the freedom to learn from such an array of sources and in so many different places. (If you’re interested: http://antiochschool.org/joomla_antioch/index.php/about/about-the-antioch-school). Even still, May is a very busy month, containing a play, the YG sleepover, the OG camping trip, an all-day camp-day for Kindergarten, an all-day hike for YG, the YG circus, and of course the annual picnic and 6th grade graduation ceremony.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the musical) was put on by the Older Group (4th through 6th grade) along with the Thirds from the Younger Group (1st through 3rd grade) the very last weekend of April. They spent the week leading up to it in the Clifton Opera House, having free time and lunch across the street on the old school’s playground. It’s something they chose (the story, the characters they portray, how the scenes should be blocked, etc.) and my role was simply to support, however that’s manifested in different ways.
The Monday of that week, what was left of the YG (about twelve 1st and 2nd graders) combined with the Kindergarten for some Forest Kindergarten time. Every Monday, the Kindergarteners begin their week outside in their Forest Kindergarten space (doubling as the OG’s Enchanted Forest in the fall)—a wooded area with winding paths, a climbing tree, a lean-to fort made from found sticks, a fire pit, and lots of versatile space, but they also take hikes in the Glen, sometimes only to play on The Rocks, sometimes to Meatball Rock (Trailside), sometimes even a creek-crossing on a warm day. A recent YG project was state reports, where we walked to the public library, everyone choosing a book about their respective state, and throughout the week maps and state flags were drawn, they practiced researching and recording interesting facts, finally telling the rest of the class everything they found.
In any school setting or when working with children, you’re practicing being flexible and adapting to a constantly new set of circumstances and challenges. I think that by the nature of the Antioch School, it goes even further. I’ve had so much trouble describing to people what I do or articulating my role there. I tell people, “Oh, I just hang out with kids,” and that’s absolutely true and is how it feels the majority of the time. But there are so many other things happening as well, so much is coming from that and happens alongside it. I’m another presence (which is often very helpful as is), I help with math work, spelling and vocabulary, facilitating “meetings,” leading games, making snack, setting up for an event, being a friend. I can’t accurately depict my role, even though I feel comfortable and confident in it, I think in part because of the fluidity. I was telling a friend about the YG Sleepover (complete with s’mores and stories around a fire, tag games in the dark, sleeping in tents on the playground, and a pancake breakfast) and expressed how excited and happy I was to be able to act as a chaperone—the teachers know that the kids are all comfortable with me, that I know my way around, I’m trusted. And my friend said, without even thinking about it, “yeah, you’re just everyone’s older sister,” (a role I’ve been practicing for nearly my whole existence).
I’ve wanted to teach for as long as I can remember, surely to some degree because of my overwhelmingly positive experience in schools, including the Antioch School. So I’m so appreciative to be around so many wonderful teachers, overhearing so many daily insights about all the underlying things happening in any interaction. I love being in a classroom every day and having such inspiring conversations with these youthful people. I’m reminded every day of what I enjoy and want to spend my time doing, learning more and more about myself every day.
Last quarter, I was awarded the Miller Fellow position at the Antioch School; I loved it so much I just couldn’t wait to co-op. The Antioch School has been around since 1921, founded by Arthur Morgan, President of Antioch College at the time, but the school has been functioning separate from the college since 1979. It’s an elementary school running from nursery (pre-k) through 6th grade, four classes in all: Nursery, Kindergarten, the Younger Group (approx. 1st through 3rd grade), and the Older Group (approx. 4th through 6th grade). It’s the oldest democratic school in the country, and I see examples of said democracy every day. Rather than children asking permission to go to the bathroom or put something in their cubby, the student will tell the teacher their plan — “My plan is to put my sweater away,” — to insure safety by the teacher still knowing where everyone is, however without the authoritarian aspect. Instead of a teacher deciding when it’s time to go inside or when the next activity should start, they’ll go around asking every child, “how many minutes do you want until we do X activity?” and will find an average from everyone’s answer.
It’s a school where learning happens organically; the children are self-driven because their curiosity and inherent desire to learn and create and grow is valued and encouraged. And that’s absolutely contagious and extends to me as well: I’m learning by doing, learning through play. It’s less about facts or figures or material you’d read about in a class, but I’m learning alongside the children the different ways communication and expression can look, how to check in with myself and respond to myself adequately, how to foster community, the value of curiosity and play — I might not be learning numbers, but I’m definitely learning (and witnessing a lot of learning) about how to be a well-rounded person and how to engage with others.
Every day is different, and I take something from each day as well. Mondays begin in the Forest Kindergarten, their outdoor classroom that doubles as the Older Group’s Enchanted Forest — they explore and play, I help build a fire so we all have something warm to sit by when we eat snack, which is usually a granola bar, a string cheese, and a small cup of hot chocolate for the special occasion. There’s a short hike in the Glen, more often than not, to what everyone calls “the rocks,” or if the kindergarteners are feeling ambitious, to a small cave a little farther down the trail, where everyone takes turns holding the flashlight while everyone else has the important task of filling a certain hole with rocks. I have a schedule though it isn’t concrete — I float around a lot and help wherever help is wanted or needed.
I spend a good chunk of time throughout the week with the Younger Groupers, sometimes helping with spelling and writing short sentences — some kids only need someone to sit next to them and ask “what’s next?” — sometimes I’m helping with math, sometimes I’m getting snack ready, but am probably just acting as another presence, being another student, another friend. Someone might have a question or want some assistance during project time where we might be building structures with marshmallows and toothpicks, or making calendars for the upcoming month, or writing about the most recent event we had (Winnie the Pooh day, the performance/play, Valentine’s Day, etc.). Still, every day begins with morning meeting, everyone can share a thought, or show & tell, or do a skit, as long as they don’t use more than one minute (there’s a little sand timer), and every day, the Younger Groupers have stories read to them three times a day: right after their morning group game, right after lunch, and at the very end of the day; right now, they’re reading Pippi Longstocking.
I also help out quite a bit in Art & Science, a class that takes place for each group of students a couple times a week. I love seeing the range of projects, and how each group of students interprets and uses all the tools. The Kindergarteners seem to really enjoy the little wood table, with saws and nails and chunks of wood — they know to always wear the goggles. Recently, the YG painted big pieces of paper, focusing not on drawing things, but trying to create interesting textures and colors. A couple of days later, the big sheets of colorful, multi-textures pages were cut into pieces and smaller pieces, to then be used for creating Eric Carle inspired collages (think: the Hungry Caterpillar). Last week, OGers were folding flowers out of tissue paper as a welcoming of spring to replace the winter paintings and dried leaves from the fall hung around the school. Today, some of them were solving some technical problems with the program they’re using for the stop motion animation they’ve been working on for a number of weeks. A couple children in the Older Group, just for fun, began experimenting with hot glue and popsicle sticks, eventually building a miniature two-story house, complete with stairs, floors, rooms, etc.
There’s normally more than one station in the Art & Science room (one table has canvas and acrylic paints, legos on the stage, another table with paper and scissors and stamps) to keep things varied and allow space for jumping around a bit — so much sitting still and focus is hard for anyone, especially little kids who have what seems like never-ending bubbling energy. So, towards the end of Art/Science time, the Kindergarteners are asked to “scan their bodies for outside energy,” meaning if they feel like they need to run around in the fresh air and be loud for a couple minutes before going back to class, they have that opportunity. They’re learning how to check-in with themselves and adapt what they’re doing based on how they’re feeling because one’s capabilities and needs aren’t exactly standard or the same day to day. I think it’s a skill which many adults forget.
The Antioch School website: http://antiochschool.org/joomla_antioch/
Photo credit: The Antioch School