Small Schools Have a BIG Influence

 

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Humans are born needing connection. We cannot thrive without relationships and the encouragement and accountability they bring. Humans have family units and close circles of friendship. We seek community in order to learn, grow, share our joys, and be sustained in hard times. So why then do we send our young into huge institutions to sink or swim, fend for themselves, and figure things out?

Small schools are very counter-cultural in today’s society — a society where bigger is better! And bigger can be better when economy of scale matters. However, when it comes to relationships, connection, people, and emotions, bigger can be overwhelming, cold, imprecise, and ineffective.

smallschool1To be loved and not known is comforting, but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. To be loved and known is what we all want more than anything. [Tim Keller]  What small schools lack in options, they make up for through connection and that connection allows big things to happen. In a small, healthy environment, a student can be both loved and known — an incredible environment for them to safely face the inevitable challenges, joys, and struggles of growing up.

smallschool10Imagine a school where children (even teenagers!) see all their teachers as allies.

Imagine a school where children have the same teachers for consecutive years so they truly get to know one another.

Imagine a school where the teachers know each child’s writing style so well they can spot it as soon as they read it.

Imagine a school where assignments are tailored to the personalities and passions of the group so that necessary skills can be developed in a context where the students *like* the work (even teenagers!).

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Imagine a school where the students follow the vast majority of rules because the rules make sense to them because they’ve had a say in creating them.

All of this is possible in a small school.

When students like their teachers and feel liked by them…

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When faculty aren’t so overwhelmed that their calling becomes their burden…

When daily work isn’t dictated by politicians in offices far away…

When everyone has to get through problems and frustrations together…

When the whole community knows each other and shares similar values…

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When children (yes, even teenagers) feel known AND loved…

That’s when magic happens.
That’s when learning happens.
That’s when growth happens.

Small schools have a big influence.

I encourage you to explore small schools in your city, county, state — wherever you might live. And if you live in the St. Louis, St. Charles, or Franklin county areas in Missouri, I personally invite you to come explore The Fulton School, a school small by intention.

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How Do You Teach Character?

How do you teach character?  My answer is always through practice, practice, practice.  “By the time children are 4 years old, they often know certain values–that stealing is wrong, for example. Because kids tend to know values, they often feel patronized by lectures about values or just learn to parrot back what adults want to hear.” (Richard Weissbourd). We practice character education through our behavior, our expectations, and our discussions.

Every adult at the school aims to behave with the characteristics we are trying to impart to the children.  We talk to the students about our behavior transparently, we allow the kids to hold us accountable, and we take responsibility when we fail.  Kids have a keen eye for sincerity, so the character of the faculty and staff cannot be faked–it has to come from our hearts.  When it is genuine, it will color and shape the entire organization, and I believe we all feel the positive effects of the collective character within the organization.

We also expect the students to behave with character.  Holding our expectations high — whether that is through asking a 3 year old to put away his work or asking a high schooler to help a parent carry boxes into the school — creates a status quo of kindness and respect.  The stronger the parent partnership, the more continuity the students will see between the standards at home and the standards at school, and the stronger the students’ clarity will be about how to be a person of character.

Lastly, discussions are essential because morality and ethics are rarely black and white. There are trade-offs, ambiguities, and conundrums.  The more we work through these with our students, the more mature their moral logic becomes.  The more time we give to discussions and practice, the more we solidify our identity as people of character.

This article is a short summary of a great book, The Parents We Mean to Be by Richard Weissbourd, and addresses the type of character education I’m describing if you’re interested in reading more.

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No Ceilings. No Hiding Places.

In our society we often believe that bigger is better. Actually, bigger is often better.  Bigger schools have more course options, larger social networks, and more money available for the “extras.”  But smaller has advantages too.  We are flexible and nimble, offer relationships over bureaucracy, and know your child very well.  We describe this space we create as one that has no ceilings and no hiding places.

Children at TFS have the opportunity to shoot ahead in math, to write their hearts out, to play sports that they often wouldn’t have access to (or thought they were interested in), and to develop communication and leadership skills that would likely lie dormant or unnoticed in a larger environment.  This is what we mean by no ceilings–we cannot offer every possible elective, but we can offer a chance to race against yourself.

Quieter students, kids who don’t fit in the “box” of traditional education, or children who are hesitant to take risks for a variety of reasons will often try to hide from their peers, their teachers, or even their own talents and skills.  Our small, nurturing environment creates a safe, well-lit place for kids to emerge. This no ceilings atmosphere is contagious, and those kids who used to hide will find themselves thriving beyond what they thought possible.

Our small size becomes our advantage, creating safety and nuance for our students to blossom and become the person they were meant to be.

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Preparing for Life

We talk about being both college preparatory and life preparatory at Fulton School, and we differentiate it from being college “application” preparatory. Our culture can get distracted by the application process, focusing on college admissions while forgetting to prioritize what happens after the students matriculate to college, live on their own, begin working professionally, and making relationship choices along with a variety of decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

After students have chosen their colleges, they need the skills to be successful in a very independent environment.  Teaching a student how to learn is one of the most pervasive goals here (and fits snugly in the middle of valuing process over product and treating each child as an individual).

Some of the most important character skills your child can learn while they’re here are: self motivation, self discipline, self advocacy, delayed gratification, working through difficult relationships, sticking with something when it’s hard or boring, getting along within a group, and developing a solid sense of self.

Academically, we want students to have solid writing, critical thinking, and mathematical skills (versus regurgitating data they’ve memorized and no skills to do anything with that data).

Skill development is more of an art than a science.  It is an imprecise dance that changes a little with each student and teacher.  It is counter-cultural, so there is little training for teachers and little precedent for parents. Because of this, our partnership with you (the parent) is important. Your buy-in to the program is critical.

The more we all work together, the more we see the gradual transformation of our children into confident, enthusiastic adults, ready to tackle college and life with purpose and capability.

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Process Over Product

In January I’m focusing on our mission through TFS “mantras” — phrases we use or you might hear that represent our mission in an informal way.

Last week I wrote about being a forest rather than an orchard. This is not an easy feat; it is an art rather than a science and it is counter-cultural.  Even when we want the forest with our rational minds, most of our habits and cultural pressure are orchard-related.

The primary way we resist this pressure is by focusing on the process of learning and growing rather than focusing on the product of our education.  This does not mean that the product (college admissions, character, content mastery, success) is not important. In fact, we believe the product will actually improve if we have an extremely solid process for the student.

So we focus on the process every step of the way, whether it’s showing math work instead of just the final answer, developing preschool finger strength before writing, allowing the 6th grade store or Chicken Middle to make mistakes, or grading high school students on whether they brought their books and pens to class.

Practicing each of these steps along the way forms the content of our character (work ethic, perseverance, resilience, mastery, self advocacy, communication skills, self-discipline) and so we take the time to reflect on and attend to every step with the long view in mind, even if it includes some risks and failures and messiness along the way.

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The Forest vs. The Orchard

With the usual January buzz in the air about goals and resolutions, I’ve been thinking about priorities and change.  Educators are actually on a cycle where new plans and new changes kick off in August, so quite often January is simply a reminder of where we’re going and what we value.

There are a number of “mantras” that serve as the unofficial mission and philosophy.  They are quick metaphors or catchy phrases that are in line with our mission, but are easier to remember and repeat than the carefully worded and somewhat cumbersome mission. Listening in on the strategic planning discussions last week, I never heard the mission or philosophy directly quoted, but a number of these came up spontaneously.

forest vs orchardA forest rather than an orchard. This is a powerful metaphor because it sends an enormous message about our educational philosophy and our view of children (humanity, really) in a mere six words.  We are cultivating an environment where everyone can (and will hopefully) learn to be comfortable in their own skin, even proud of their own uniqueness, and where we are celebrating different strengths, different preferences, different time lines, and different needs every day.  This is in stark contrast to an orchard, which many more traditional environments model, requiring everyone to grow the same way, produce the same “fruit”, at the same time and those who don’t perform like the other trees feel marginalized in some way.

I believe we are successfully providing a safe space for kids to discover who they are and to find peace with it. (Our school is far rarer than I wish it were.) This takes years to accomplish. There are many bumps along the path, but the seeds take root, grow, are nurtured, and finally they blossom.

On Thursday I listened to our alumni speak with Dr. Shahan, and the recurrent theme in their reflections was that TFS gave them the confidence to discover and be who they are.  This theme came up through several different topics, from adjusting to a large university environment to dealing with situations and people who are very different, because our self-confidence is a major thread throughout our adult lives.  Growing up in a forest is simply the best way to develop such self confidence.

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Child Development: Week 5

Adolescence, Part 2

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Montessori observed that one goal of adolescence is social independence (physical and mental independence come during the first two years).  Jean Piaget wrote about the process of growing out of egocentrism (the childhood cognitive state of not seeing multiple perspectives). The awakening from egocentrism happens in several stages, but the 12 to 18 year old is discovering and learning to live with self consciousness–being conscious of his existence.

If you imagine a child dancing around happily in a field without much worry or pressure as a metaphor for the first 12 years of childhood (the eight year old rarely questions the significance of their piano or soccer skills in the universe, or the way mom/dad dresses as a representation of their identity), self consciousness is something that washes over a young adolescent as if a curtain has dropped and he realizes he is not alone in that field… and never was.  Instead, he was on a stage.  At first, adolescents are mortified and embarrassed that people were noticing them and judging them without their knowledge.  They have to do an inventory about every possible shame to decide how to file it all away and to gauge how embarrassed they should be.  Every detail matters.  As they process their new situation, they have two choices: to hide or to perform.  Both choices have the same disadvantages; they grow exhausted and lonely.  We were not made for a life on a social stage.

As kids head into the latter half of adolescence, they need to transition from the “stage” into a community.  They will gradually find a balance between feeling like everyone is looking at them and knowing they are in a group who is largely going through the same thing.  They need to strip off the costume and the performance, and let people accept them–or not–for who they are.  Again, this is a process and everyone is on their own developmental time schedule, but this transition will largely occur by 18 years of age. As adults, we will still struggle with this now and again for sure!  Some psychologists argue that this stage is currently elongated in the USA, and many of our adolescents are not reaching the final stages as quickly as previous time periods, and other cultures.  The more we help them disable and invalidate the “stage,” the better our childrenwill accomplish the tasks of adolescence and be prepared for the tasks of young adulthood.  As they head into the last official phase of childhood, we want them to have made peace with the idea of community, understand how a variety of relationships work, and their identity within those relationships.  We want them to be as confident in their roles with others as they were tying their shoes at six or practicing their trombone at 11.

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Quality Time (Not “Perfect” Time)

As I perused Facebook during break and scrolled through the photos of projects and travels and get togethers, I was struck by two seemingly contradictory messages coming from parents.  The first was how many clearly wonderful things were happening: fathers and sons building lego rocketships together, children using their free time to create blanket forts and put on concerts for parents, families creating memories together that appear almost Hallmark-channel ready.  The second was how exhausting kids can be: their stubbornness, whining, arguing, and ungratefulness at times.  As I reflect on the time I spent with my family over this winter break, I realize that they’re the same message.

beautyAlmost 20 years ago, I listened to a speaker talk about quality time.  A dad in the audience spoke about how he had created a special evening with his son after a long stint of business travel and some difficult life events.  Both the father and son were really looking forward to this time: a baseball game together. They arrived at the game and after an inning the child was bored and wanted food.  The dad bought some.  The child got whiny and wanted something else.  At some point the dad said no.  The child had a tantrum.  The dad lost his temper.  They left the game early.  Both were hurt and frustrated and disappointed.  This dad asked the speaker about how he failed at creating quality time.  The speaker disagreed, saying that this man’s evening was absolutely quality time.

The mess, the struggle, the discipline, and the disappointment are all part of a real relationship, and we can’t get to the deep, authentic, and unconditional levels of relating without evenings like theirs.

Life is a beautiful mess, or a messy beauty, and a meaningful time together doesn’t usually mean a perfect time.

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Child Development: Week 4

Adolescence, Part 1

For the last three weeks I have been writing about the phases of childhood.  Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the Planes of Development) from birth until 24 years of age. Dr. Montessori said that children are creating their person the first six years, elaborating on the mind and personality from years six to 12, then creating their social identity from 12 to 18 years, and elaborating on that from 18 to 24.  She uses the language of creation verses elaboration to distinguish between the upheaval of the first six years and the relative calm of the next six; the upheaval of the adolescent phase, and the relative calm of the last phase.

3ccc65d3-f493-4b84-ba03-a182bfa75645Adolescence is a phase that perplexes us.  We don’t always feel that we know our child; sometimes they act like they don’t remember us (their family, their roots). There’s drama, withdrawal, mood swings, and frustration from a child who was likely calm and enjoyable a year or two before.  Dr. Montessori (and many other developmentalists) argue that it’s not a whole lot different than the turmoil of the first six years.  The child is growing and changing tremendously, so there are lots of hormones (the chemicals that produce change in the body).  She is creating herself in some way, which requires a separation/distancing of sorts from you.  Her highs are very high, and her lows are very low (you will never be as upset as you were at two or 13 again, but you may also never feel quite the same thrills as you did at those ages either).  Her tantrums can be similar, but she is much more articulate, and she knows you well enough by now to lash out with sophistication–right where it hurts.

But they are still kids and they need you after the drama as badly as your three-year-old did.  They are trying on various identities, figuring out who they are, but they need you to remind them who they are.  They are pushing the boundaries to test their strengths, but they still need those boundaries.  The tricky part is that the six-year-old emerged ready to dress himself and make his lunch, but the adolescent will emerge ready to have a job, live on his own, manage relationships and school, etc., which often scares us. The stronger his core sense of identity is going into adulthood, the better set he will be for the stresses and demands of relationships–both intimate and professional.

So the tumult is all worth it, if it creates the adult that he will become. YOU have to be the calm in the storm, where he finds rest and remembers who he is.

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Child Development: Week 3

6 to 12 Years Old

Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the planes of development) from birth until 24 years of age. The past two weeks, I spoke about the first six years. In the second phase, between ages six and twelve, Montessori described the major goal to be mental/cognitive independence.  Freud called this period latency (because it’s so calm). Erikson said that the subconscious goal of this age group is competence — kids will either develop a sense of industry or a sense of inferiority.  These developmental tasks should resonate with what you observe in elementary students, and they all dovetail off of one another.

Six to twelve year olds frustrate/confound parents, teachers, therapists, etc. less than any other age because this time period of developing skills fits in beautifully with what society is asking of them.  They want to develop competence, and we want them to develop competence. We want them to go to school and work on typing and math and reading; in general, they want to go to school and work on typing and math and reading!  They want to play soccer and learn to play the guitar and take dance lessons; we view all of those activities as healthy, constructive needs that we want to meet.  Our goals for them work in harmony with their natural developmental goals, so during this period we usually feel pretty good about our kids, our parenting skills, and their school/teams/activities.

An ever-present thread, however, is Dr. Montessori’s theme of independence.  Physical independence (dressing themselves, feeding themselves, climbing, running, etc.) has been mastered, and is therefore no fun.  Skill mastery is the new thing, and the freedom to experiment with and tackle new skills is the next step in building their identity, but it has to have a measure of independence for it to be truly theirs.  When we “over parent” and push them too hard in these areas, we not only take the fun out of it, but we also take the independence out of it.  The result?  They don’t develop the confidence and identity they need to continue to build through their industry (hard work).  They will need a strong sense of competence–and identity–before heading into the next very tumultuous period–adolescence.

Stay tuned for next week: Adolescence

 

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