Inside an MS Classroom with Principal Ana Fox Chaney
The daily experience of students in a progressive classroom is mysterious to most adults whose own childhoods were spent in more or less traditional schools. To believe in Elisabeth Irwin’s vision of a school that is more laboratory than monastery, where “children experiment with life” does not necessarily mean that we can imagine what that looks like in practice, particularly once children are of middle school age. Seeing the myriad ways teachers engage their students, and draw them in to authentic conversation, debate, and problem solving is something that is hard to replicate with a second-hand account. Also, while middle school is largely about students finding and forging their independence, it’s also the last few years that parents have this close a seat to the daily life of their children. They will only get more private and more independent; their daily lives will unfold more and more out of view. I encourage you to take this opportunity as you have it.
What to Expect in an LREI middle school classroom?
“At a time like this when everyone is thinking in terms of world problems, it is sometimes hard to keep our minds on the small problems of the day to day life of our children. Yet the way that the foundations of democracy are build is by daily habits of recognizing the rights of those who differ from ourselves.” - Elisabeth Irwin
Teachers create classroom routines and structures to foster student relationships, to give them practice sharing and comparing ideas, negotiating their differences and appreciating each others’ strengths. You can expect to see students in groups, and the teacher acting as coach - nudging conversations, guilding dialogue, managing and reinforcing norms of respect.
“The new type of teacher shares experiences with the children rather than imposing tasks upon them. This means that the age-old conflict between the interests of adults and children is minimized, and the relationship to authority through adolescence and adult years is not spoiled by the feeling of revolt that is so often engendered by the old school of discipline.” - Elisabeth Irwin
Students talk - to their teachers and to each other - more often than the teacher talks to them. The role of the teacher is to create, as Elisabeth Irwin would have said, a rich environment. You can expect to teachers providing intriguing problems and provocations, books and essays to compare and contrast, materials to manipulate, and products (an experiment, or a song) to create.
“Above all things, the progressive schools believe that childhood is a part of life and not just a preface to something more important, and that at every age children should have a chance to respond to the romance and adventure of the world around them.” - Elisabeth Irwin
You will see students allowed to take risks and follow paths of their choosing. Teachers studiously avoid ‘rescuing’ students from wrong paths at the outset, or providing too much correction early on. Teachers convey respect and confidence in their students by letting them them respond authentically and fully to ideas, the environment, and to each other. More often than not, fallacies and errors are uncovered through conversation and debate, rather than a teachers’ correction.