There are some kids who would be outside all day if we’d let them. They are the ones who sit by the window, gazing wistfully outside, not able to focus on their work. Or perhaps they are the kids who have so much energy, and they are exhausted trying to keep it together for two more hours. You know the kids I’m talking about. You may even have one yourself.
Faced with the prospect of four of these kids, this year we began the Outdoor Academy. Taught by Behm Williams, these guys head outside in the afternoon while others are doing Spanish, art, and projects. Each day they begin by setting up a tarp together, both to give them shade and to practice working as a group. They have read a variety of books together: My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Where the Lilies Bloom, Lost on a Mountain in Maine, and The Other Side of the Mountain, all books that focus on living and surviving in the outdoors. They have discussed these books and written about them in their journals.
Practice in knot tying, fly tying, and fishing kept them engaged and worked on fine motor skills. They have built different kinds of outdoor structures together. They’ve learned about plant identification, cleaned up the property, and played outdoor games. And sensory experiences abound.
We have found that they are much more able to focus on their morning classes knowing they will be outside and active in the afternoon. It’s all part of our thinking outside the box approach to each child’s needs, and it’s served these guys well.
Today I stopped by a former workplace and visited with two of my favorite colleagues. They asked about the school, and since I love to talk about JRA, I launched into an enthusiasm-filled spiel. One listened and then said, “I see. What you offer is an artisanal education.”
The more I think about this adjective, the more I like it. Wikipedia tells us that “An artisan is a person engaged in or occupied by the practice of a craft, who may through experience and talent reach the expressive levels of an art in their work and what they create.” This stands in contrast to the mechanization of goods produced by a factory-type setting.
Most private schools interview the children who apply to see if they fit their program. We listen to see if our program can fit the child. Our belief is that children want to learn and they want to be successful. If they are not, they will generally show us that by their behavior: acting out, shutting down, withdrawing, being defiant. It is up to us to determine what the problem is and how we can get past that. Our teachers delight in ferreting out where the learning blocks are, what each child’s gifts are, and what will help each child be successful. The teachers know to check their egos at the door; this is not about what makes them look good but what makes each child soar.
After all, each child is a unique work of art and deserves to be treated as such. A mechanical one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t pass muster. If a child needs assignments broken down into smaller parts, that’s what needs to happen. If he needs a great deal of movement, we offer running at the Eno, active games, swings and a trampoline in the hall that can be accessed at any time. If a child needs one-on-one reading tutoring, five of our staff have the training to do that. If she is advanced in math, let’s put her in a book that challenges her. Our outdoor classroom may be just what the squirmy kid needs.
After two years we can say that this method, which just seems like common sense to us, works. On their end-of-year tests (the untimed, write-in-the-book, no-stress ones) the kids showed a great deal of progress. Many of their behavior problems have settled down and their social skills have improved. Some of our kids, for the first time ever, report that they like school.
This is what we can do for your child. We have a couple of slots left, grades K through 10. Give us a call.
If you have been wondering what we’re about, stop by and visit on Saturday, March 24, 2012, from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm. It’s a chance to meet teachers, parents and students and to hear what we can do for your child.
Our address is 3717 Murphy School Road, Durham, NC 27705. Our phone number is 919.932.0360. Come have a preliminary visit and come back again during the week when we have kids.
At present we have 19 students and hope to expand to 25 for the next academic year. We take kids from third grade through ninth and will add the tenth in 2012-2013. Presently we have students coming from Raleigh, Cary, Wake Forest, Fuquay-Varina, Durham, Chapel Hill, Vance County, and Chatham County, so the car pool possibilities are endless.
Here’s a sneak preview of some of the activities that go on during a school day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AxUSbne9iM&feature=player_embedded
The story is told of a man who found a chrysalis. He hung it up and watched it eagerly. Finally the time came for the butterfly to emerge. It struggled mightily to free itself from the hole in a process that took hours. Then it stopped and seemed to be able to go no further. The man, being a kind man, took scissors and cut the remaining cocoon off, allowing the butterfly to emerge. He was surprised to see that it had a swollen body and shriveled wings. He waited for the swelling to go down and the wings to expand, so the butterfly could fly out into the world.
It didn’t happen. What the man didn’t realize was that the small hole and the insect’s struggle to get through the opening were designed to force fluid from the body into the wings. Without the struggle, this didn’t happen and the butterfly was unable to fly.
Our first academic year at Just Right Academy is coming to a close. We promised less stress and anxiety, but we never promised a struggle-free time. Our students have worked so hard this year to overcome academic and social difficulties. Students worked in language arts and math, going back to the areas that had been skimmed over and relearning that material, sometimes going over and over and over it, sometimes learning it easily and moving ahead. In Achievers class, our older students argued and listened, learning the interpersonal skills that will help them be successful in life. A wonderful occupational therapist and a speech and language pathologist from A Place to Grow came twice a week to work with students who needed this support. Reading tutors worked one-on-one with some students. Our Japanese neighbor came to teach a weekly Japanese class to four students. Social studies, science and Spanish classes helped us to make sense of the world we live in. And every fifteen minutes, our kids received feedback in three areas: following directions, being kind, and participating in a positive way.
It worked. The child who couldn’t follow a direction if he tried, now does—most of the time. The quiet one, who hid his work because he knew it was wrong, shoves it at me confidently and waits for me to check it. Students have learned that apologies don’t have the word “but” in it, but sound like this: “I’m sorry I ____; what can I do to make it better?” One seventh grader finished pre-algebra in three months and is making his way through the algebra book that he and his teacher chose together. Calling students on every unkind remark now means that they have begun to monitor themselves and each other.
One child’s story is an example. She came with an attitude that wouldn’t stop and regularly had a number of dots on her point sheet. She was disrespectful and perpetually angry over her work—it was either too babyish or too hard in her eyes. She would slam down her book and stomp out when we “picked” on her. Her academic skills were woefully behind her grade level and she had developed a number of behaviors to keep from having to show those underdeveloped skills to the world. Working with her was exhausting.
A twice a week reading tutor trained in the Orton-Gillingham technique was our first prescription. The tutor also became somewhat of a mentor to her and gave her a great deal of encouragement. A speech and language pathologist worked with her on pragmatic speech. We took her back to the beginning in language arts and math and practiced, practiced, practiced, until she had learned the missing skills to automaticity. Our art teacher found in her a gift for art and nurtured it. Constant and consistent feedback, structure, and lots of positive reinforcement address her behavioral problems.
Our post testing shows that she has gained about three years in reading and made significant progress in math and language arts. She has a new confidence and has developed real leadership skills. She enjoys working with the younger students and often seeks them out during group work. She is a joy to be around. It hasn’t been an easy time for this child and she will continue to develop her newfound talents. But then learning to fly is supposed to be a struggle.
Come visit us at our upcoming open house on Saturday, May 21, 2011, from 9:00 am to noon, and see if your child might find JRA a place that both challenges and supports him.
I realized this week what an odd mixture we are of traditional teaching and cutting edge. Many of our techniques are tried and true, traditional and old school. Grammar is but one example. Having a clear understanding of the parts of the sentence and what goes together and what doesn’t is critical to good writing. So we talk about subjects and predicates and dependent and independent clauses and why you’ll never find the subject or verb in a prepositional phrase. We diagram, especially helpful for our visual learners. We have a daily “caught ya,” an ongoing story about an evil language arts teacher, doled out in sentences rife with punctuation errors. They try to catch me by finding all the errors and correcting them. I try to catch them by providing particularly nefarious mistakes. “Aha!” a student yelled today. “You thought we wouldn’t know to capitalize Minotaur! Well, there’s only one of him!” They caught me that time. And then we write . . . on an iPad.
Our school’s whole computer lab fits in a tote bag. Students compose and correct their compositions on the iPads and can then put them in my drop box to be printed. They can also practice proofreading with the app iSentence, which requires them to make sure they have the correct lookalike word. They improve their vocabulary by using the app Textropolis when they are finished with their other work. And we can download any of almost 25,000 books in the public domain and read them right on the screen.
In math, you’ll find Saxon math books, multiplication bingo, pre-algebra, and off in the corner, students practicing those skills using Hot Dots (talking pens that allow students to correct their own work) and the iPads. In science, students learn about polymers and make crystals. They research constellations and make posters and Hot Dots cards about their constellation. And then they can look at the planets from an iPad virtual planetarium aligned to our school.
Once a week a volunteer comes and teaches conversational Japanese. She helped me find a free online Japanese dictionary which was downloaded to our iPads. On the floor, one child lies and practices his Japanese characters, while across the room another child is receiving individualized Orton-Gillingham reading tutoring from the teacher. One child, who loves worksheets, has a stack in front of him. Two other children read Harry Potter, one from a book, the other from her Kindle.
And every day we read to the kids, from The Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables or another book. We’ve finished Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Egypt Game, and The Hundred Dresses. Every day we have silent reading, students and teachers alike, because nothing replaces the joy of being lost in a good book.
We have no need to be original. What we do want to be is best practice, honing our curriculum and teaching methodology to what our students need. Sometimes that is something that’s been done for years. Sometimes it is something of our own invention. And other times it’s something that’s new and exciting. But it is first thought-out and reasoned, and we build and scaffold on existing skills so that a student is always successful and moving forward.
When you have a school for students with untapped brilliance, academics are too important to leave to chance. We use every tool we can find to help these students succeed. It doesn’t matter if it’s old or new; the success is what matters.
One of the questions we are often asked is how we deal with a multi-age classroom. My question in return is how do traditional schools deal with kids with such different abilities from such different backgrounds, with such different home situations, and with such different expectations for their futures?
Our classes may have four years of students in them, but because it’s individualized, it doesn’t matter. We do some whole class teaching, but we use several methods to make sure each student gets what he needs in the way he learns best. One method is Sue Patrick’s Workbox System. Each of our students has four workboxes in math and four in language arts. We may do a whole-class teaching, and then students will look at the daily agenda to see what workboxes they are to do. Inside they may find a puzzle, Hot Dots to drill math facts or subject/predicate, a worksheet, or a book to read. While they are working in their workboxes, the teacher is able to provide attention to individuals or small groups. This also allows us to put more challenging material in the boxes of students who need more difficult work.
Another method we use is stations. Today one language arts class went to five different stations, all dealing with subjects and predicates. One was our Sentence Staging station, where parts of a sentence are arranged on a platform divided into subject and predicate. Articles are pictures of heralds blowing a trumpet, because articles mean “NOUN COMING!” Nouns are small toys, while verbs are written on one inch tiles. Conjunctions are on small cubes. Prepositional phrases are green Model Magic strips, with a place for a preposition-bearing butterfly, an article or adjective, and a platform to put a noun for an object. Adjectives are flags, which, like articles, are on lollypop sticks and go into the holes drilled in the platform. I’ve not introduced helping verbs, linking verbs, adverbs or interjections yet. The students can now sit down at the Sentence Staging table and write the sentence, identifying the parts of speech. Today’s sentence was “The turtle with the red hat eats a hamburger in the volcano.” Other stations included a Schoolhouse Rock video, a Hot Dots teacher-made activity where they showed they could tell a sentence from a fragment, a worksheet, and a sentence puzzle. We’ve also used the station format in math, social studies and science.
With both of these methods, kids appreciate the opportunity to move around and to not have to spend what seems like an infinite amount of time on any one activity. If one activity is a worksheet, they know there will not be an endless procession of worksheets; a puzzle or building activity is coming up next. This also ensures there will be an activity that will support the learning of a visual, auditory, kinesthetic or tactile learner. We also use a lot of manipulatives and drama.
Because we are small, we can individualize. Because we are private, we have the luxury of parents who want their kids to have a better education. And these are not just children with wealthy parents. We are committed to having a large percentage of lower-income children, and those children have parents who have gone the extra mile to get them there and to support us in our work—sometimes literally, as one third of our student body drives from Wake County and another student comes from Chatham. Because we don’t have homework or EOGs, we don’t have to worry about struggles in that area and students can learn at their own rate.
I really do believe we have the easier job.
I was asked this week if Just Right Academy was just for special needs students. One answer is no. A child does not have to have a diagnosis or difficulty in school to apply and attend. Some parents may choose this option because they are tired of the pressure and demands of homework or hate the direction that end-of-grade tests are taking our schools. They may feel that their child needs more movement or a hands-on way of learning. Other parents may appreciate the teaching-to-mastery philosophy for reading and math. Others are drawn by the small class size and student-to-teacher ratio. Many of our students have been bullied and are looking for a safer environment.
But then, a different answer would be, yes, JRA IS for special needs kids. Because aren’t ALL kids special needs? All children have their unique learning style; sometimes that fits in a mass production model, often it doesn’t. They have their interests and needs. At JRA, a child doesn’t need an IEP to make sure she gets the individualized instruction needed. This week we started math pretesting to make sure each student is ready to start at his level; some will need a great deal of remediation; others will require more challenging material. Reading pretests will follow in August.
Our philosophy is that sometimes the school needs to be willing to accommodate the student instead of always expecting the student to be the one to change or try to fit in. If you have a student who would like a a different environment, let’s talk!
The other day I talked to a potential student who has failed in several schools despite his obvious intelligence. He worried that we would try to turn him into someone he was not. I thought a lot about his comment. We say we are Just Right, but obviously there are some behaviors that cannot be allowed, either at our school or in society. How do I help him understand that?
Inside this fearful, angry child is an amazing, intelligent human. But he has developed habits that prevent his real self from being seen. Rude comments and constant interruptions hide his thoughtful ideas, keen intelligence and love of animals. Being a computer expert is who he really is. Being kind to younger children is who he is. Antisocial behaviors are like torn clothing that keep people from seeing the royalty underneath. The same is true for those with academic problems. Our society uses reading as an intelligence test and those who struggle are seen as less bright, even though that is often not true.
Our mission as a school is to guide students toward their true selves and to help them present that self to the world. Teaching social skills and helping students learn to function in different and difficult situations do not make them into something they are not, but allow who they really are to shine through. Teaching them to read and write and spell is not changing them, but giving them a skill that will allow them to use their unique gifts for good things.
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” – Shel Silverstein
Too many of our children hear these words every day. “You mustn’t talk. He won’t do his work. We have never done it that way before. Don’t run around. That’s impossible.” And much to our despair, they start believing it. Soon we hear, “I can’t.”
One of my students is a brilliant child. A sixth grader, he can’t spell, he reads on a second grade level, he’s not capable of sitting in a chair for 45 minutes. But he has one of the most original and clever minds I’ve ever seen in a student. If he is allowed to show what he knows by telling it or doing it, his brilliance shines through. But if you ask him to write it or read it, he shuts down and no spark of intelligence shows.
This is one of the students that Just Right Academy was made for. Even a good school plays to his weaknesses and overlooks his gifts. I couldn’t stop thinking about an environment in which he could shine. So I asked him and other kids who were unsuccessful in school what would help them be successful. I asked teachers what they would do if they didn’t have to worry about end of grade tests. I looked at a lot of different schools and took good ideas home with me. And what I came up with didn’t look like any other school I found.
So what DO you do with a student like that? Well first, you accept him as he is. He’s not wrong, he is just different. Obviously he needs to be helped to gain skills to function in our world. You let him stand to do his work and you keep a pile of Legos on his desk. You give him intense remediation in reading, and extra challenge in math, which is one of his strengths. You make sure he gets plenty of time to move and you don’t bother with homework because he is fried at the end of a long day. You teach him how to advocate for himself and the social skills he needs to be successful. You recognize all the things he does right and give him opportunities to be the star he is.
And then you get out of his way, because anything can happen. Anything can be.
Welcome to Just Right Academy.