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Learning Organically: Mia Bates ’20 at The Antioch School in Yellow Springs, Ohio

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.  
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Photo credit: The Antioch School

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Mia Bates is an Antioch College first-year student, hoping to design a major combining psychology and philosophy with the aim of teaching after graduating. She’s currently working as a Miller Fellow at the Antioch School in Yellow Springs.

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