As the students get ready to hear a story, one student, Eleanor, stands before the group. This story is the year’s first published student story in this class of three, four and five year olds. When the year began, students were introduced to a language arts activity during which they were encouraged to write and draw, inspired by a subject of their choosing. Eleanor looked forward to writing time each day. She loved sharing her knowledge of letter sounds and techniques for drawing. With guidance from a teacher, she soon began writing sentences to go with her vibrant illustrations. As Eleanor became more skilled and confident in the writing process, she was encouraged to try writing a story. She took on the challenge enthusiastically, meeting with a teacher to consider the elements that make a story interesting to read. She created a story plan to guide her through weeks and weeks of crafting her story one page at a time. When Eleanor completed her writing, she helped type and bind her masterpiece.
Now with the final draft in hand, Eleanor reads her book to her class. Sitting in the audience is a boy who has not yet embraced writing and who cautiously accepts writing challenges. Rob has great interests in non-fiction books and knows many facts about a variety of machines and creatures. But when he considers subjects to write about, he often chooses to write and draw something he perceives as “easy.” For example, his notebook is filled with swirls and circles that he has labeled, “dirt, tornado, roller coaster,” etc. Although Rob has a strong grasp of letters and sounds, it is only with ongoing encouragement that he attempts to write more than a single word.
As he listens to his classmate read her story, his eyes grow wide. He turns to his teacher and whispers, “Could I do that? Could I write a book?!”
Moments like these are the essence of learning at University Child Development School (UCDS). UCDS is a community of learners designed so that every member is given the responsibility of both teaching and learning. This happens teacher to student, student to teacher, student to student and teacher to teacher. No one works in isolation. Everyone is called upon at one time or another to mentor and to listen, ask questions, share knowledge, explain thinking and build upon the ideas of others. Everyone has something to teach and something to learn. Just as we find in the real world, every individual has skills and knowledge to share as well as areas of challenge that need to be developed. One student might explain to a friend how to draw a butterfly, another student might be the expert on what letters make the /ch/ sound, and another may be writing a sentence about his or her picture using best guess spelling. A teacher might work with a student focusing on identifying the beginning letter sound in a word or facilitate another student’s exploration of punctuation and capitalization.
Teachers are also learning as students explain in great detail which super villain fights Spiderman and what colors a poisonous snake would be and disclose what they understand and what they plan to do next. Anyone observing begins to realize that teaching and learning roles are shared and that who is teaching and who is learning changes according to circumstance. It appears that each member of the school community is both a learner and a teacher.
Teaching at UCDS has often been described as coaching or mentoring and attributes of both are infused throughout the UCDS experience, inside and outside of the classroom. With the overarching goal of supporting and guiding the personal growth and development of all its members, the community strives to increase capacities for self-direction and decision-making.
Teachers at UCDS take advantage of the diverse community within the classroom by inviting students to take an active role in mentoring each other. This does not mean that older students mentor younger students. Rather, every student is expected to take on both roles of mentor and protégé at various points in the day. Teachers spend a significant amount of time thoughtfully creating small groups for children to facilitate this practice. In the course of a single year, students are members of a wide variety of large and small groups of different children. Students are given opportunities to take on a variety of roles in the groups in which they work. Through regular reflection, students progressively understand how individuals support the group. Students are guided to set personal goals regarding their abilities to support and lead groups.
Literature Groups, for example, provide countless opportunities to underscore the many skills involved in reading. A student who is still working on unlocking the secrets to decoding text may have astute insights to share with the group about a story that has been read to him. As students reflect on the many skills needed to be successful at Literature Circles, such as listening, summarizing, predicting, making connections, utilizing prior knowledge, it quickly becomes apparent that we all have room to improve, and sitting among us are peers who can help us by sharing their knowledge and perspectives.
Just as teachers mentor the children’s growth, they work to help each other grow in an energizing and stimulating work environment. Each year the teachers brainstorm and eventually choose a broad theme to explore. They innovate and create curriculum that integrates the theme across subjects. Teachers work together before the year begins to consider starting places based on the year’s theme. As the class begins this journey initiated by the teacher, limitless opportunities are encountered where the teacher can model discovery and inspire others to question. Teachers are mentored by their colleagues to venture outside their areas of expertise and, thus empowered, are able to direct learning in ways that make it relevant to the interests and experiences of the students. Because students are expected to actively pursue their interests as participants in the journey, their questions and wonderings often lead the group to deeper understanding. Students are routinely asked to reflect on their understanding and set goals for future learning. Through these reflections, teachers are able to assess individual progress and support the learning for each student.
Teaching at UCDS is dynamic. With the theme changing every year and curriculum expected to be responsive to the unfolding understanding and interests of the class, teachers routinely create new lessons. If the task of creating new lessons was taken on by an individual, it would indeed be daunting. At UCDS however, teachers work in teams, making the task exciting, interesting and invigorating. Children’s classes with specialists are scheduled to allow teachers from the same grade level two hours each week to plan curriculum. As we see with children, each teacher has unique interests and skills to share with the group. Teachers collaborate with colleagues in a variety of groupings, from grade level teams to cross-school committees, and receive feedback and inspiration from their peers. Collaboration is an essential feature of the mentoring relationship; the time given to teachers to meet with various teams of peers clearly indicates that collaboration is highly valued at UCDS.
For a teacher who is new to UCDS, teaching as part of a team can take getting used to. A system is in place to support and assist a new teacher’s personal growth with a focus on long-term personal career development. During a teacher’s first year, he or she is paired with an experienced member of the faculty. This mentor guides the new-to-UCDS teacher to define areas of personal strength and to clarify areas where the teacher desires or needs to grow professionally. Mentors listen, model community behaviors, attitudes and values, and make suggestions without stipulating outcomes. This is done informally through many daily, informal conversations. In addition, a formal meeting is set aside for these mentoring pairs for one hour each month. At these meetings teachers tend to identify or define very broad goals that the mentor helps pare down to a more specific goal that lends itself to a workable plan of action. Key to the teacher mentor program at UCDS is the understanding that individuals are responsible for directing the course of their own lifelong learning adventures. Teachers are encouraged and supported to actively advocate for their own professional development and personal career goals and to initiate courses of action. Teachers use the Teacher Profile, developed by the teachers at UCDS, to guide the peer mentoring process.
During the next two years, the new-to-UCDS teacher continues this process with the same mentor; however, the pair now shares roles, each giving as well as receiving support and feedback from the other. Because individual teachers are empowered to set professional goals, the process continues to be relevant and powerful. Over the years, for example, teachers have set goals ranging from documenting children’s work to learning new technology to completing advanced degrees. Division Heads closely guide the teacher mentoring process, and each teacher at UCDS also meets with the Head of School to discuss goals and evaluation throughout the school year. The school supports the mentoring process through workshops, in-service training and continuing education opportunities.
Back in the classroom, the young boy is listening to Eleanor read her story. As Rob poses his question, “Could I do that? Could I write a book?” the teacher grins and asks, “What will you write about?” “Snakes,” he says, “or maybe spiders. I’m not sure yet if it will be a true story or if I’ll make something up!” She imagines guiding him to include detail to his drawings that depict the habitats of the creature he decides to write about. The teacher envisions the drawings he will be able to create of these creatures he knows so much about. Spiders and snakes are accessible to Rob’s emerging fine motor skills. She realizes that his process will look quite different from Eleanor’s. His enthusiasm will fuel a story plan that he will need to dictate to the teacher. Each day he will dictate his sentence, with the teacher writing all but the last two words. Writing two words each day will be a new challenge for him and the teacher is excited to capitalize on his determination, coaching him to work toward writing more words and eventually his own sentences. She turns to him with complete confidence and answers his query, “Of course you can!” Rob’s teacher will guide his progress through the writing process; he can also call on Eleanor, now an experienced, published author, for information and feedback as he works through the writing process. Tomorrow a new author will begin his book.