Monday, November 12, 2007

Learning Center

All this talk about elementary education, particularly AmyP's comments about the education she has sought out for her daughter, have led me to reminisce about my own elementary education.

I was reading at age 3 (as background) and was doing well at a medium school district on Long Island (not Jericho, Syosset, Great Neck, etc.), but in second grade my teacher felt I needed to be moved up. I was on the older side of the class (December cutoff, February birthday), and in December I was moved into a 3rd grade class. This was initiated by my second grade teacher. The reasoning behind my being skipped is that there was a program beginning in 4th grade called "The Learning Center," and the idea was to move me into that program more quickly.

In the nine months between my skipping second grade and entering 4th grade, my mom got pregnant, we moved to a bigger house in the same school district (different elementary), and I got a new sister. :) Then at the beginning of 4th grade, the teachers struck! We don't cross picket lines in my family, so I was delayed a week or two, much to my mom's dismay (I think she was excited about getting me and my kindergarten-age sister out of the house when she had a newborn!). Anyway, in the end, I ended up in the Learning Center sometime a few weeks after Labor Day of 1974.

There were no desks in the room, just some chairs and couches. There were only 3 walls to the room, too--one side opened up to a multi-use room that had 2 walls, and at the end was another 3-walled room with another class, I think a 6th grade class. Across the hall were two other connected rooms, one with large tables that seated about 5 or 6 students each (I remember keeping Gone With the Wind in a cubby below my usual seat when I was in 6th grade). We were the only 4th grade class. There were 3 5th grade classes and 1 6th grade class, I think.

As this was 33 years ago, I am finding it hard to remember exactly what we did. I do remember that we were self-paced, with guidance. On a regular basis, each individual student would meet with the teacher and go over a plan of what to work on until the next conference. We would also set up a next conference date. Then we would do the work on our own, sitting where we liked. We could get a library pass and go to the library to get books. I think we also worked with other classes sometimes. Every day, the teacher would also read to us. I remember she read Charlotte's Web, a book I still haven't read myself.

The thing about the Learning Center was this: students weren't placed in the Learning Center based on high IQs/grades. It wasn't a gifted program. Yet high-IQ students were in the LC. The LC was specifically for students who would benefit from an unstructured learning environment. We had kids of all abilities in the classes. Some did not succeed and moved back to "regular" classes. But some did thrive alongside those of us with high IQs.

When I look back at the Top 11 students in my graduating class of HS, 6 of us were former Learning Center students (there were at least 3 other classes in the 6th grade): me, Amy, Deb, Eric, Ross, and Eddie.

Every year the Learning Center would do a musical. I don't remember the one in 4th grade, but in 5th grade, 1976, we did 1776. I was the understudy for Ben Franklin; my friend Amy was the understudy for John Adams. Both roles went to 6th graders--and girls, at that. Tony played Jefferson, and I think his voice was changing, as I remember him cracking on "Mr. Adams, leave me alooooone!" I got on stage once; my best friend was Judge Wilson, but she couldn't make it to one performance. I had the whole play memorized and filled in for her.

One of the highlights was International Day. The 6th grade class worked on reports on different countries, then on International Day had booths/areas where they would show off their reports and, if possible, bring in food from the particular country.

Another thing I remember is that one of my classmates' parents came in on a regular basis (in 6th grade) to work with the "special math group." Looking at the group, it was the highest performing kids--I think all of us were the students I mentioned above. Amy and I remember it vividly--the project was to create architectural plans for a house of our own design. Now, these weren't *real* plans, but we had to apply math to a real-life situation. The highlight was going on a trip to watch a house in the process of being built. I have loved house plans ever since.

I e-mailed my friends Amy and Deb to ask about their memories. Amy remembered how when we finished our work, we were allowed to go to the library and read, and we voraciously read biographies of famous people. Amy said, "To this day I remember absolute minutiae about Abigail Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc. from those kids' biographies." What I remember is that I much preferred to read about women! I still remember things about Jessie Fremont, Dorothea Dix, Jane Addams, Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, Dolley Madison, etc. that I would never have know but for those books. I also remember the ones on the figures of the American Revolution--I read lots of those. It was the time of the Bicentennial, so I was interested in the topic.

But the Learning Center ultimately failed and became less effective. Do you know why?

Parents.

Parents loved the program and were so excited about it that they demanded that the younger children of former LC students be allowed in. Administration caved. The problem is this: Just because the LC was good for me doesn't mean it would have been good for my sisters. But parents didn't realize that the LC worked because it was specifically focussed to kids who would benefit in an unstructured environment--and not all kids do.

So there is no more Learning Center. It was basically meaningless by the time my youngest sister (10 years younger) reached 4th grade. It's not there now.

Yes, I am skeptical about parents. I think parents' #1 job is to let the teachers do their jobs and not micromanage them. My question is this: is the basic concept of the Learning Center today considered a good one? Is it considered old, useless pedagogy? Is it considered too touchy-feely (elementary school kids!? Without desks!!?? I bet they wore bell-bottoms too and sang kumbaya instead of the Star Spangled Banner!).

Or is this a kind of strategy that might work again? And I wonder, would it be right for my daughter? She thrives in a structured environment, but she also isn't challenged much. Would a self-paced environment provide more challenges?

I don't know. I do know I'm thinking a lot more about elementary ed--and I'm wondering about thinking ahead for the middle school years, because that is really where education seems to fall apart.

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