01: Open classrooms in action I
Group 01 Readings
Open classrooms in action: A Monday in the ‘Primary’
It is a cold Monday morning. The little group of junior children, who arrive half-an-hour earlier than the others with the first bus from the East side of the Tumbaco valley, come into the class room with an ostentatious shivering and chattering of teeth. One can see that they have been too late into bed over the weekend; and maybe they have not had quite enough attention amid the comings and goings of family life. They find me at the table by the printing press, preparing the weekly ‘check sheets’ on which the children record what they have done each day. Making the excuse that they want to get warm, the children sit themselves as close to me as possible. Each gets a little hug, and one climbs onto my lap, announcing his intention to stay there all morning.
‘You look as though you had come from the North Pole!’ They agree and say it is too cold for them to do anything but keep warm next to me; so we sit a little. They watch me entering the dates on the check sheets; one asks to help, another wants to put the names in. Before long we are all working together, and the children have warmed up enough to start telling me about the weekend.
‘My grandmother came to visit, and my mother was really strange all day.’ Another tells of a family outing to a hacienda, another has been to the football. In a few minutes they are all alert and lively; they move off and begin making plans for the morning. Two of them ask to make a welcoming drink for the others who will soon be arriving from Tumbaco and Quito. They put a large pan on to boil, and look in the garden for herbs to make a tea; then they put three tables together, add a tablecloth and, ceremoniously, cups, and spoons, sugar and serviettes. ‘Do you think everyone will be there? Natalia had earache on Friday. I hope she isn’t away today.’ They count out a cup for each child. ‘Shall we ask Santiago to the tea? Last week he tried to trip me in the football game – I don’t want to give him any. Oh well, we won’t be like that; he’ll probably be cold as well.’
It occurs to Carmen that she could fill in today’s weather chart. She and her sister Alba go out to fetch the rain-gauge, and return with loud cries ‘Now we know why the weather’s so awful – there were seventeen millimetres of rain!’ They let everyone have a look and, after asking what the date is, enter the rainfall on the wall chart by the door. Then they measure humidity-- no wonder when it rained so much!’ And temperature ‘15-degrees we’ll all freeze to death!’ Carmen decides that today she will work on her rainfall curves, which she is plotting for the whole year. But for now all attention goes to something important – the other three buses are coming! The children run to the gate and greet their friends, pull them by the hand into the schoolhouse and proudly invite them to a drink of tea.
Our other teacher, Vinicio, has come on the Quito bus. During the journey he has had time to ‘warm up’ with the children, to feel their moods, to take them on his knee, tickle them, laugh with them. So we do not need any further formalities before the day can begin. Vinicio gives me a warm handshake, one of the few direct contacts we will have during the morning. Both of us will devote ourselves to the children in whatever way the situation requires. We both have ideas for activities that might suit this or that child, this or that group, but we are agreed that the children’s own initiatives take precedence, and both have confidence that the other will be totally immersed in the work, today as on every other day. There is no hierarchy here, although Vinicio is twenty years younger than I am, and a psychology student. Once a week we spend the afternoon together exchanging experiences, problems, new ideas. But here we are all eyes and ears for the children and their needs.
Meanwhile everyone has been served with a cup of tea. We sit and stand around as if it were a cocktail party. Little groups take shape – one is discussing the play and results of yesterday’s football. (Two of the boys are ‘football crazy’ and get teased a little as a result.) Then the children wash the cups and put them, moderately tidily, back in the cupboard. The little drink and chat together has helped us all to feel at home in the classroom again, and now, singly or in groups, the children get organized for the morning’s activities.
Victor and Santiago, whose fathers take them to the football every Sunday, try to persuade some others to join them in a game; when nobody else is interested they start one on their own. A little group, whose weekend has obviously been dominated by the television, agree to play together and reconstruct a whole TV series from bricks, spaceships and people made out of Meccano and Lego. Their intense involvement shows clearly how important this self-expression is and that for a while no adult should in any way interfere.
Three of the older girls put their heads together over tape-recorder in the library, discussing excitedly. I go in with eight-year-old Denise to help her find her book, and the three signal to us, ‘Careful, recording in progress, do not disturb!’ We stay as still as we can, hear that it is a family scene, with each girl taking various roles in turn and altering her voice to match. Denise sits down on a cushion next to them and begins to read. Lit draws near, and Denise points to the others. ‘Quiet! Recording.’ Lit carefully selects a book and settles down at a table. She takes her writing things out, and begins copying, in her clear legible handwriting, from the book in front of her. She spent a year in, a traditional school, and often looks for security in this occupation which does not demand too much initiative. As she works I slip an arm round her and ask what she is writing. She visibly appreciates the attention and takes the opportunity to tell me that her mother sprained a wrist yesterday. Then she complains that she has no ideas, and what arithmetic can she do? This is a repeat performance of every day of the few months she has been here. She has never yet used the arithmetical materials by herself, but asks every day to be shown how – even if she appeared to have understood it only the previous day. If I did not know that Lit had spent her first few years locked in a small flat all day while her mother went to work, and then had to learn arithmetic in a completely abstract way without any ‘operational’ basis, and been beaten by the teacher if she made mistakes – if I did not know all this I might easily lose patience with her. As it is, I promise, as I do every day, to help her with her arithmetic. She has only to call me when she is ready. She bends over her writing and I say farewell with a little caress on the shoulder.
My glance falls on a group of six or seven who are unpacking, with very professional commentary, a basket of junk modelling materials which I had left on the tables. Catching my eye, Carolina pulls me by the hand. ‘Look, we want to build a town. Which glue can we use? Do you think we can soak the dried paint from last week or shall we mix new?’ I help them bring over a couple more tables so that there will be enough room, explain to Pablo where in the storeroom he can find coloured paper to stick on the houses and various other things, show Cristina how to wash a paint-hardened brush, and soon depart with my well-known refrain ‘If you need me, just call’. Here is another group all set up which at this stage of its activities can, and should, follow through its own ideas.
Am I needed at the printing press? Alejandro and Natalia
have worked out an advertisement which they now wish to
print. (I wonder – did their fathers spend Sunday
hidden behind the paper!); ask whether they would like
to read it out; they look questioningly at each other – should
they or should they not initiate me? Finally they generously
suggest that I help them correct the draft, so that there
will not be too many mistakes. As they read it out they
double up with laughter. A couple of new ideas crop up
and I help them check the more difficult words in the dictionary.
This is the end product
They write out the advertisement on squared paper to make it easier for typesetting, then look round the room to find someone who is not busy. ‘Will anyone help us with the printing?’ Peter, who seems to have lost interest in the new town, offers. Until break the three will be busy setting and printing. When the first proof is ready they will call me again to help check it.
Another glance around the room to see whether anyone needs me. Vinicio is crouching on the straw mats with a group of boys, all totally absorbed in a sort of guessing game – they estimate lengths, distances, depths, heights, diameters, anything they see. After each child has written down his answer they take the ruler and measure, and whoever guessed nearest to the actual size gets a prize of a eucalyptus seed. Sounds coming from the kitchen make my ears prick up. Megan and Tui, who speak English together are in the middle of a quarrel in Spanish with Edmundo and Patricio. I try to make out from a distance what the trouble is. ‘We were cooking first. Why are you bothering us?’ shouted the girls. ‘But we want to try out a new recipe. Don’t be selfish, let us have a try too.’ ‘Yes, and clear up after you, we know. ‘What do you know?’ ‘Boys only like cooking, leaving the washing-up.’
Feelings are running high. I decide to go a bit nearer, and immediately both sides try to enlist me. I restate their problems without attempting to offer a solution, and this moral support – as it usually does suffices. They agree that each group will use one side of the kitchen and promise each other to clear up their own side afterwards. I will not be needed any further – they will keep each other to their promises and will instigate a world competition in leaving kitchens tidy. I only remember about them twice more – once when Edmundo, who cannot yet read fluently, has not quite understood the recipe and asks for some help, and the other time when the girls bring a sample of the finished dish for my approval just as I am in the middle of showing Paulina how to use a new multiplication material.
Our two youngest, Gabriela and Mariana, cannot yet decide what to do. They go from group to group, watching here and there, and not doing anything themselves. I try to deduce from their facial expressions and general ‘body-language’ whether they are quite happy with this semi-passive occupation, which has already gone on for half an hour, or whether they would prefer some suggestions. Non-committal as possible, I ask Gabriela, ‘Shall I show you something’, ‘I know her story, and that at barely seven she has an ‘authority’ problem. ‘No, I only want to watch’, comes the predictable answer. I lightly stroke her hair and say, ‘I see. You don’t want to do anything just now, you’d rather watch the others.’ A grateful glance. A few minutes later, as I am putting together Montessori letters to make words with Mariana, Gabriela asks to join in. They sort out the letters they already know, learn a new one, make some words, then use the words they know to make a picture-book, illustrated with colourful drawings on each page, with the new words written as well as they can, underneath.
Now cries for help are coming from all corners. Carmen, plotting the weather curves from our daily records, cannot remember how she used the Montessori Division material last time to calculate the monthly average. In a few minutes I ascertain that she is using the material correctly and can continue on her own.
Liz needs a little more attention, so that she can feel secure with the material and handle adding and subtracting in four figures. But she is only really confident if she can call me back at every step.
Alba and Tania are working with logic material, and arguing how to apportion standing, walking and running men, women, boys and girls in various colours. Here too all that is needed from me is a few minutes considering and formulating the problem.
After much erasing and re-recording, the three girls with the tape-recorder have finished their play. Can they produce it with the puppet theatre and do a performance for the little ones in the kindergarten? We discuss it; such a big undertaking will have to be very carefully prepared, and they decide to try and make a written copy and invite the others to see who can make the best puppets to represent the characters in the play.
The town planning also seems to have run out of steam. I suggest that we all carry the finished houses and cars to the big exhibition table, and the children then realize that the town could be much more lifelike with the addition of sand, pebbles and small plants. ‘Two of them fetch what is needed in the wheelbarrow. One of the older children has the idea of using the map of Quito as a guide lot – the larger streets and making their town as like the real Quito as possible. The main streets are laid out and lined with houses. They need traffic lights, traffic signs and street names, all fetched with much discussion, ordering and running about. One child insists that the table should be turned round so that the points of the compass are in line. A compass is brought in, and it takes a while until everyone’s opinions have been asked and brought into agreement. The crowning glory is a cone made out of cotton wool and sand on the South side, which is easily recognisable as Cotopaxi, the snow-covered volcano that can be seen from Quito. Amid great excitement, we fill the crater with matches. Then everyone is called to see, even some wondering Kindergarten children, and with cries of alarm and delight, one match is lit and the volcano explodes.
Those who were fully absorbed in what they were doing before all this, go back to it. Others stop, clear away, and look at the clock – good heavens, it is long past break time and we had all forgotten about it!
The hungriest among us run into the ‘old house’ and fetch the biscuits and juice from the kitchen. All make themselves comfortable, on the grass, at the picnic-table, in the classroom kitchen; unpack what they have brought from home, and exchange treasures. Others who have already eaten start something new – having a look at the plants; having a game of draughts, or go and see a little brother in the Kindergarten. Vinicio gives his football fans a few new tips. They admire him greatly, because he plays in the University team. I slip off to fetch a cup of coffee and a piece of bread, and sit down on the grass. Immediately someone lands in my lap and wants a bite or a taste of my coffee. Emerson brings his book and wants to read to me, someone else calls me urgently; he has at last manoeuvred a grasshopper leg under the microscope. I must come and have a look. I promise that I will as soon as I have finished, then join the queue of inquisitive children at the microscope, and afterwards we all look at some illustrated books about insects. A few children decide to draw them and add a legend from the encyclopaedia – and thus, without any forward planning, we have a new set of interests.
The children’s enthusiasm pulls me in all directions. During these two hours I have been together several times with each individual or group, have touched, listened to, observed, each one; answered questions, offered advice or encouragement, sketched new possibilities, helped those who could not manage by themselves, sought out new material or helped copy up results. Now it is time for me to call to mind anyone who has not yet ‘got going’ on a piece of serious work. ‘Who wants to try a new writing game? Carolina, have you written anything today? Would you like to find something or will you join in here?’
‘What is this interesting set-up?’
‘We want to use the stopwatch to time who can find the most words to do with water in five minutes.’
‘Can we find words for illnesses too? My grandmother went to hospital yesterday.’
‘I promise that everyone can suggest a subject. Many children find it hard to express themselves spontaneously in writing, and are grateful for suggestions – maybe a subject (or, better, two) to choose from, for a composition, a story to re-tell, the end or beginning of a story to which they supply the rest, description of a picture or of a group of objects which they have themselves put together, a dictation, or a transposition into past or future. Everything normally to be found in language teaching happens here too – but as an offered opportunity, nor a compulsory task. The basis of joy in the new and interesting must not be sacrificed. Quito often, an undecided child has only to hear a suggestion and he comes back with his own – ‘No, not that; now I know what I want to write .... I’ll write my friend a letter, and tell him about our outing’.
We have all quite forgotten that it was a cold morning and nobody wanted to do anything. Even the children’s voices sound different after these two hours of lively activity – less shrill and tense, with a full peaceful quality. Many of them are silently absorbed in their work. The change in the atmosphere can also be seen in the way they move, threading through tables and shelves with trays full of material, getting out of each other’s way, organizing themselves at a table or on a mat, making room for each other. A new harmony is perceptible in their movement and activity, a pleasure in mastering their surroundings, and a lightness of body. The children are absolutely present. The faces are relaxed and aware. Their activities follow their own personal rhythms. After a time of concentrated work sitting still, they seek out something active – the bars, the climbing net, with a ball or a punch bag, a hammer and saw and piece of wood – in the garden, with water or sand. There are plenty of opportunities to work out stored-up energies or emotions. Each child chooses his own measure. The only way to know for certain that a child has had enough is to observe that he has himself chosen to do something else.
The children sense that the morning is drawing to an end. The little ones, who have a recorder lesson for the last half-hour on Mondays, ask how long it is until then. It is a special day for them, which stands out among the rest. They chose to enrol themselves at the beginning of the school year, and each has himself written out a ‘contract’ ‘I promise to take part in all the recorder lessons and to practise fifteen minutes every day’. They take the ‘contract’ extremely seriously, and keep reminding me about the recorder long before it is time. The last half-hour is the most intensive. Everyone wants to finish what still needs doing. At the beginning it seemed like a long morning with no hurry, but now time is short. ‘Do you think I can manage three Arithmetic cards?’ ‘Well, see how you get on. Don’t forget that you need some time to tidy up before closing.’
Megan has found a new way of working with the multiplication table. She feels it as a personal insult that just now, when she is so enjoying the work, she has to bother about tidying up.
Jose has lined up a whole lot of objects which he still wants to weigh. He estimates the weight, enters it on a list, and then weighs it on the balance scales as precisely as he can. It often takes quite a while to get the balance right; adding up the weights is a slow process and then he still has to work out the difference between the estimate and the actual figure. Quito obviously has set himself too much. ‘But will I remember tomorrow which things I wanted to weigh?’ Besides weighing and reckoning, he is learning something that will be useful all his life, whatever work he does – to organise his work to fit the time available.
Before I go off, with the recorder players to the other house, where the cembalo is, there is another excitement. The secretary brings in the copies of the week’s homework – a sheet for each child, in three grades of difficulty. The children can, but are not obliged to, choose a sheet for each day. ‘They snatch at them as though they were flesh rolls, read them at once, and discuss them together. ‘Which question do you like best?’ ‘I know which ones I want to do – can you tell me what this means!’ One child returns the sheet ‘I haven’t time this week, we have visitors from Guayaquil and we want to take them out every day’. They all appreciate the quiet understanding that family activities are just as important as school ones, if not more so. If a child is absent because he is doing something interesting with the family that is an acceptable reason. ‘My son came with me on a business trip’ or ‘My daughter came shopping with me yesterday’, appears just as often on the notes from home as ‘He could not come to school because of a sore throat’. Whether or not the homework is handed in is also voluntary. Anyone who wants it looked at by me lays it on the appropriate shelf; pictures, illustrations and newspaper cuttings go on the blackboard; craftwork of interesting objects on the exhibition table. Experiments or recipes are demonstrated to the other children during the week. Often a child will not show me any homework for several weeks, until he wants my advice on a specific point, and then I see with astonishment that he has worked regularly every week without feeling any need to show me his researches. The parents, too, report with surprise that the children discuss their homework with them without being asked. But they know that it is the children’s affair whether they do a lot of it, a little, or none at all. Sometimes if a child is really interested, the parents have difficulty in getting him to bed.
Thus the distribution of the homework sheets is a happy ceremony, which gives Monday something special and is impatiently awaited by the children.
The first day of the school week ends in a happy mood. The little recorder players work full out until the last minute, then run to the waiting buses. There are always one or two children who want to work right up to the departure time; the others end the morning with playing, reading or craft. No sign anywhere of tiredness or boredom, rather an urgency about using the time and ‘living life to the full’, a feeling that continues, in more sober guise for safety reasons, on the bus journey home. Until it is time to get out, they are all busy singing, making rhymes, chatting, playing, learning German or French or English, asking each other tables or making plans for the next day.