What do you get when you put 60 first graders in a big room with four teachers circulating from group to group? Chaos, suggests a New York Times story on the New American Academy, an experimental public school in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Also, noise.
. . . while waiting for her teacher to come by, one little girl arranged the pennies she had been given to practice subtraction into a smiley face. Another shook her pennies in a plastic bag. A high-pitched argument broke out over someone’s missing quarter.
“We don’t know what we are supposed to be doing, but we are learning about math,” Thea Burnett, 6, said.
Across the room, a second teacher, Jennifer McSorley, successfully led the class’s weakest students in a counting rhyme. But when she leaned forward out of her chair to write a word on an easel, a 6-year-old boy moved it, and she fell when she tried to sit back down.
. . . another boy ran off to hide under an easel. Someone grabbed someone else’s pennies. The noise snowballed.
The school’s philosophy — student-directed learning, self-expression and inquiry rather than structure, discipline and memorization — was inspired by the small discussion groups at Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school, says the founder, Shimon Waronker. Previously, principal of a tough middle school in the South Bronx, he developed the idea for the elementary school as a Harvard graduate student.
New American Academy started with kindergarteners and first graders in a high-poverty neighborhood; some 20 percent of the children have emotional, physical or learning disabilities. Only one third of the first graders started with grade-level skills.
Lessons are a series of complex choreographies. In the 2,000-square-foot kindergarten, for example, each child is assigned a “university”— a grouping by skill level — and another group by color: blue, red or green. Every 40 minutes or so, the children regroup in a different part of the room. During a visit in November, an observer noticed that each move led to the children’s standing up, running, talking, and then having to quiet down again.
The model assumes teachers “will collaborate and learn from one another, rather than being isolated in separate classrooms,” reports the Times. One $120,000-per-year master teacher works with three novice teachers. Teachers have 90 minutes each day for joint planning.
The principal says he overestimated the ability of new teachers to learn quickly from experienced teachers. Next year, when a second grade is added, he’ll try to hire more veterans.
I like the idea of grouping students by the skills they need to learn rather than by age. But it’s hard to believe 60 students in a room — or 50 with attrition — is going to work.
It all reminds me of the “open classrooms” movement a generation ago. With no walls, teachers were supposed to be able to collaborate with each other and regroup students. The noise drove everyone crazy.