60 students, 4 teachers, 1 room

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.

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  1. Robert Pondiscio says:

    It troubles me deeply that this “audacious experiment” can be foisted on non-consensual children and families in a neighborhood school. When you deviate so far from reasonable, standard or accepted practice, it’s no longer an acceptable experiment. Beside, isn’t “innovation” what charter schools are for?

    If you want to try this “experiment” do it with the informed consent of the parents in a strictly voluntary setting. You can’t play dice with low-income kids early elementary education. It’s too critical a time for experiments.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    I would be willing to bet a very large amount of money that this will crash and burn. It is the sort of thing that sounds WONDERFUL as a Harvard grad student but is hopelessly impractical.

    However, it may be worthwhile if ed school professors and grad students actually learn from it. Or if–who knows?, I wouldn’t have predicted “reality TV”–it works.

  3. 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.

    I believe the ideal size for a Harkness table class is 12. Those classes are held in seminar rooms. It’s like saying an elephant was inspired by a dachshund. Yes, they’re both four legged mammals. Beyond that, it’s hard to see the relationship.

    The noise must be unbelievable.

  4. If I recall correctly, the “Open Classroom” model was the worst performing model in Project Follow Through, the largest educational experiment ever done in the U.S.

    Why do educators keep making the same mistakes over and over?

  5. Everhopeful says:

    Phillips Exeter is a high school as well. The students at least know how to read, and as Cranberry noted, in a Harkness table group, class size is small.

    What a waste of time, money, and children’s lives this aspect of the New American Academy is. I don’t see how even a Harvard student could think it would work.

  6. My older kids had the misfortune to attend JHS in a building that still had many open classrooms, although most had been enclosed because the noise level was intolerable. That was in an affluent, highly-performing school filled with well-socialized, well-behaved and motivated kids and a large number of honors classes; the kind of school/kids that “should” (in theory) do very well in that environment. Teachers, kids and parents were about equally unhappy and the room enclosures started almost immediately.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    I don’t see how even a Harvard student could think it would work.

    The more brainpower you have, the greater ability you have to convince yourself that what you want to be true really is true.

  8. That’s a ratio of 15 students to 1 teacher. Why was there no control over the students?

  9. In this age of testing, accountability, and real scrutiny, I couldn’t help but wonder how these kids would fare in a couple of years, once they hit a more traditional classroom. The children don’t know what they are supposed to be learning, and if they come to the school with below-level skills to begin with, they probably won’t be much more informed at the end of the year. They should bomb any standardized test. As for a master teacher earning $120,000 – are you kidding me?! I hate chaos, but honestly, the atmosphere of that school would not be worth it. My school was open concept when I first began teaching, and it was crazy. Those open concept spaces have been individual classrooms for many years. Let the critics look at this social experiment – traditional classrooms will seem like the best thing since sliced bread in comparison!

  10. That doesn’t sound a thing like a Harkness table. It bears no relation. What works for high school students (and barely for 9th graders) is not suitable for 1st graders. What kind of morons do they have over there at Harvard? One of our local high schools was built during the open classroom fad. It’s all closed in now, but the teachers complain that the noise is still bad through the thin partitions. They envy my solid 100-year-old cinderblock room.

  11. Placing unwitting students in that kind of acoustic hell should be prosecuted as child abuse.  Even someone who is paying attention cannot learn if they cannot hear; I cannot think of a better recipe to produce frustration, tuning out and worse.

  12. “Placing unwitting students in that kind of acoustic hell should be prosecuted as child abuse. ”

    I know that as a child, I would have either become totally withdrawn or started acting out if I had been subjected to such a loud environment.

    I agree with all the people who say it’s wrong to do this whole experiment with (apparently) no informed consent. If I want to give a SURVEY to my college students, I have to take it through the Human Subjects Committee to ensure that no one is going to be psychologically harmed as a result of the “experiment.” Taking kids during their early learning years and putting them in a chaotic environment cannot be healthy.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    When I was running rats in behavioral psych, we had, we were told, the ASPCA looking over our shoulders, metaphorically, of course.
    Doesn’t sound as if the kids here have that much recourse.

  14. My son (now 38) was in an open-plan school like that; I doubt it was good for anyone, but for him (ADHD and autistic, though only diagnosed as an adult, just a few years ago) it was a disaster. There was no consistent supervision and nobody even tried to find out whether he was paying attention — which he wasn’t, most of the time.

  15. Typical, utter nonsense brought to you (and the poor children) by schools of education and government schools.