Over the past two weeks I had the unique possibility of jobshadowing Ms Nora Studley, devoted 2nd grade teacher at the Arthur Healey elementary school in Somerville. Ms Studley, her principal Jill Geiser, and all teachers and specialists, allowed me not only to have a look in their classrooms, but also provided me with all the necessary background information about the Common Core, the (ELL) students, and all there is to know about Sheltered English Immersion. I have nothing but respect for Ms Studley, who does a great job teaching the students in her class. There are 16 students, 11 of which are ELL students.
Additionally, I had the chance to attend classes at two elementary schools in quite priviliged areas. I can say the teaching practice of the teachers there differed a lot from the reality of Ms Studley and her colleagues…
So what if it would be possible for me to copy any aspects of Sommerville’s public education and transfer that to the Netherlands? What aspects would I love to see back in Dutch education? First of all, the small class sizes. I feel the money available for education in Somerville is well spent: small classes, classroom assistants, specialists, nurses, counselors…
The average Dutch class size is around 30 students throughout elementary-, middle- and highschool and in most of the classes there’s no classroom assistant. At the Healey and the other schools I visited, a nurse and a counselor are available fulltime. In our country, a nurse only comes to school on a monthly basis only and so does the counselor.
Another aspect of the Somerville public education that Dutch teachers could only dream of, is the presence of specialists. They certainly bring music, art and PE to a whole new level! In the Netherlands, teachers need to teach all these subjects themselves, and depending how talented the teacher him or herself is she succeeds to a certain degree in teaching that subject or not. The music classes of Mark Hecox (at the Kennedyschool) and Cathy Ward (at the Brownschool) inspired me to dive into the John Feierabend Curriculum for singing and solfege as soon as I will be back.
I understood schoolbusses and the cafetorium use up a lot of the budget at Somerville schools. Yet, our students come to school by bike, on foot or their parents take them. At our schools, we neither serve breakfast nor lunches. If children eat at school, they bring a packed lunch ( a couple of sandwiches mainly). however there are schools in which a limited number of students would come to school without breakfast. The teacher would provide some by bringing in some extra bread if she would notice… For snacktime, Dutch schools recommend parents to let their children take fruit with them. Unhealthy snacks like we saw some of the children eat while we were here, like chips or chocolate covered cookies are not allowed. But I understand that things are different in MA. I love how Somerville provides decent meals to all its students, so hunger or a bad diet could never be the cause of any problems at school.
There is more I would love to copy from the Somerville teachers if I could. Ms Studley and her colleagues manage to create a respectful and friendly social emotional school climate, in which she call her students ‘friends’. When she refers to the choices a student is entitled to make for himself, it mostly is enough to let them sit up straight again, or to stop interfering with the teacher or any of their classmates.
Also the importance of literature in both your literacy and writing classes is inspirational. In the Netherlands we teach children reading comprehension by a selection of fictional and non fictional texts that not only do not always seem to appeal to students, but also would treat just a small part of a book. Not only students go to a specialist library teacher twice a week, also at some of the classes students learn to have a look at different characters and how they are described, and they learn how to implement this into their own writing.
Is it all praise I am singing? Or are there any things I would love to be able to hand over to the friends I made amongst the Somerville teachers. Well, yes, in fact, there are! We would love to take away the pressure the standardized testing and common core benchmarks the state of Massachusetts imposes on the teachers. It is clear how much it affects their teaching and therefore their students. Of course, teaching is to be taken seriously, but if the standardized testing prohibites us to learn through play, have fun while we learn and have the time to process what we learn, it can’t be the right way to proceed. The instructions I saw meet the requirements, but they leave their students too little space to think critically, because the instructions are long and complicated and there’s always the pressure of time. Furthermore I think in most of the instructions the verbal input is way to high. Which might cause that the students hear so many words they might not be able to pick up the academic vocabulary needed for maths or English. I also wish i could bring some more visual support to the classrooms by the use of a smartboard, pictures, mindmaps, so the will mainly appeal to the auditory strong learners (which ELL students in most cases aren’t (yet)).
According to me, the solution lies in project based learning. If only the teachers would have the time (and support of the whole team/principal?) to meet all the aims and goals required by the curriculum by integrating them in a meaningful and motivational kind of education you would wish for any child…. I think it would lead to bigger student participation, cooperative learning and therefore more time and space for the teachers to differentiate and while children explore, process and learn by doing things themselves, teachers could give small group instructions to the students who require more help and those who need to be challenged more.
Actually I saw a great example of Project based learning about sustainability in Healey’s 7th grade. As well as aspects of it in the poems, stories and artwork on fossiles in Ms Studley’s class. However I hoped to see more of it than I did in Pre K (where I met such a great and enthusiastic teacher who did an amazing fingerrhyme I will definitely teach my students as soon as I ‘ll get back). Or in Kindergarten and throughout the different grades.
In the Netherlands, most Kindergarten teachers do a great job in setting up appealing projects for their 4-6 year old pupils, that would be very meaningful to pre K and Kindergarten as well. I saw kindegarten working on Community workers, but in the Dutch classrooms everything would evolve around that topic, all the x block work, free play in corners, math and language assignments, picturebooks and songs we would use…. But Dutch teachers in 2nd grade and up complain they have not enough time and fear not to have the complete overview when they enable project based learning and all children do different work. There are some schools in the Den Bosch district where I teach that promote project based learning throughout the curriculum. I would love to invite Ms Studley and the other teachers back to the Netherlands and see what they would like to take home with them. I can’t thank Nora Studley, Jill Geiser and all the teachers at the Healey, the Kennedy and the Brown, Paul Brockelman, Vince Mc Kay, their families and colleagues and my host, Brandon Wilson enough for making this opportunity a once in a lifetime life long learning experience!