Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Narrative

I posted the following bit to a parents' listserv that I am part of in Ann Arbor (arborparents, it's great!) and thought I would add it here even though it is only a little slice of what we do and was in response to a previous poster's question about independent schools.

Our fantastic new parent, Karen Godwin, noted the other day that we don't spend enough time on the story of what happens with children at Summers-Knoll in our materials and publications and she is so right. Amazing, funny, excellent stories abound here every day. Each child has his/her own path that led to S-K, and each has his/her own story of learning that is waiting to be told. The stories are most alive in the teacher blogs and in Joanna's posts, but we don't hear from parents nearly enough.

So over the next few months we will be asking for and celebrating the stories of our families and children in order to give more life to our narrative and let our community know what a unique and special place this is.

"Magical"as Karen describes it.

I couldn't agree more.
Posted on Arborparents on January 5th, 2010

I love more than anything hearing about parent's great experiences with independent schools in the area. Ann Arbor is lucky to have a number of really great school options, each very different from the next. And, because I am a shameless promoter of the wonderful school my son attends, and because this is the season when parents are getting into thinking about schools, I wanted to throw out the value of looking at a school like Summers-Knoll.

My son started at S-K last year after having been at a Montessori school for a couple of years (and aged out). The transition to S-K was extremely smooth. Teachers at S-K are amazing and have a facility with multiple modes of teaching. If a child needs something sensorial, they may employ Montessori techniques or pull from Reggio Emilio or Waldorf. Because the school is not tied to one pedagogical practice, teachers can be fluid with the needs of the child. The school is fundamentally a progressive learning environment, meaning that children learn through hands-on work and experiential learning. The emphasis is both on community learning (learning as a community within the school and breaking down the walls of the school to learn in the larger community and globe) and individual mastery. The community learning piece is huge piece of what makes the school so special. Not only do we have multi-age classrooms, but we have an integrated learning environment that engages the entire school body on monthly themes and encourages children to transfer learning between disciplines. For example, September's theme was North Africa and within that theme, children worked with math, language, science, culture and history--and all of these beautiful synergies happened like studying the geometric forms dominant in Islamic art and discovering the movement of language across the northern continent and the like. The month then culminated in the children researching from N. African recipes, harvesting vegetables at Tantre Farms and producing a feast for 196 people with Alex Young of Zingerman's Roadhouse, really breaking down the walls of the classroom to take learning into the community. Because of the truly small class sizes (capped at 12-14 per class) and talented teachers, there is a lot of discovery and flexibility that happens in the classroom and the children carry those threads from one experience to another. In another month where "farming" was the theme, the 4-5 class teacher introduced Shakespeare's "As You Like It" for its pastoral scenes and the students themselves took off with it and produced and presented an entire production of the play at the Kerrytown Concert House before the break.

S-K is a school for bright, creative and gifted students which, like Chris noted for Emerson, means that we have children who learn at different levels and have different talents in different areas.  One area that this shines for S-K is in our math program. We use Singapore Math, which is a fantastic self-paced program that allows children to race ahead if they need to or to work at grade level, whatever their need, as the backbone of the program as well as all sorts of different hands-on, creative, real-life, exploratory math that utilizes different resources as appropriate (Montessori, etc) . All kids do math at the same time, so children move to other classrooms to work with their learning peers and we have a fabulous Phd who comes in to do work with kids who are learning at a really accelerated rate. The value that this brings to children is immeasurable. Parents have told me that their children say "I don't have to wait to do my work" and "I can work as quickly as my mind wants to". This is where the "individual mastery" of the program comes in. Children learn solidly across all disciplines and are able to explore and dig deep in areas that give them exceptional excitement. There is a love of learning in that school that I have never before seen in my life.

We have a phenomenal Orff-based music program, an art program that rivals any I have seen in highschool (figurative model making in 4th grade, ceramics, drawing--you wouldn't believe how cool it is) and an exciting and engaging french and Latin program starting in Kindergarten. My son still muses about the Muses that he discovered in Imogen's class as a Kindergartener. We are also an urban campus (right off of Washtenaw near Trader Joe's) on County Farm park, so we utilize the best of both the natural environment and what Ann Arbor has to offer. Being on the park and such a part of the city demonstrates to the students that they are stewards of public goods and that they have a responsibility to work for and care for what the community offers to them. This is not a fancy or flashy school. 30% of our kids get some form of financial aid and the emphasis is really more on using what you have well, something I really appreciate.

I could go on and on, obviously, but the other thing that I will finally say about the school is that it is like a family in many ways. One parent commented that S-K is "like homeschooling on steroids" and I really agree with him. The school, for our family, is an extension of our family's personal values and the truly personalized attention that my son gets is unmatched in any school around. The children are engaged in a environment that asks them to understand themselves both as individuals and in the context of community. Community service is a big part of the curriculum as is teamwork, leadership, compassion and diversity. The 2/3 class works deeply in "tribes", learning about differences and similarities, about solving problems and handling conflict. The school believes that the child's emotional, social and interpersonal development is every bit as important as the intellectual challenge they find at school. In other words, you can be the smartest kid in the world but if you can't work well with others, you will never be able to achieve all that is possible with your talents. It makes me want to go back to grade school, something I never thought I would say in my life. A friend whose son started K this year describes S-K as "magical". She's watched him race ahead in math, french, writing in ways she never knew possible in just a few months. He dazzles her daily with what he knows and runs into school every morning, eager to start his day.  She's kind of in love with the place, just like I am. :)

So, I truly believe we are lucky to have all of these fantastic schools in A2, each with their own, distinct personality. I think you know when you walk through a school what culture would work for your child. We visited S-K first and came back to it after looking far and wide, and really took the time to see it through the eyes of an elementary-aged child. The tight-knit parent community, the fact that parents know the names of all the children walking through the doors, the connected relationships with the teachers that parents have...these were all important to us and very much a part of S-K's DNA. It's also a really wonderful place for a child to land if a family is moving to A2 from a different community mid-year. The children embrace new children, as does the parent community. It's a safe spot and a wonderful transition into a new space.

I'd be happy to speak to anyone about Summers-Knoll and what led us to our choice and can elaborate on things like financial aid, our explorations classes, after-school enrichment activities, etc. Obviously I am biased but I truly believe that the choices out there are wonderful and it is really a matter of what is the best fit.