Imagine a school where each day begins with a morning meeting between students and teachers, an informal get together to discuss current events, share news, sing a song, read a poem, and sing happy birthday, with guitar accompaniment, when appropriate. Students sit on pillows on the floor, some younger students sitting in older students' laps. At the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), mornings have begun this way since 1990.
“Morning meeting is 15-20 minutes,” CTL founder Nancie Atwell said. “Often parents stay for it. It's a lovely way of setting a healthy academic and social tone for the rest of the day.”
This practice, and all others at CTL, are included in Atwell’s new book from Heinemann, “Systems to Transform Your Classroom and School,” which is accompanied by a DVD in which viewers can see Atwell's practices in action.
All royalties from the sale of the book/DVD project will be put toward the school's tuition assistance program. Atwell said 80 percent of the students at the school receive a reduction in tuition.
Atwell spent about a year writing the book about the small Edgecomb school with a national reputation. Teachers from around the country, and other parts of the world, have come to the school to spend a week immersed in the Center for Teaching and Learning's approach to educating youth.
“We have so much interest in our school. It just felt like it was important to get it all down in one place,” Atwell said. “To create a record of what we stand for and put it out there for other teachers.”
CTL is a nonprofit, K-8 demonstration school run by teachers who, with their students, have created a community where every child is accepted and known. Atwell, and the teachers at the school, have developed systems that invite, encourage and facilitate learning in ways that meet the needs of every student.
Students have a strong voice within this community, including the co-creation of the school's Bill of Rights, the foundation of the school. Every five years the school holds a Constitutional Convention, where the entire school studies the process of making a nation. The standing student Bill of Rights is reviewed and/or revised during morning meeting for one week.
Some of these rights include: the right to be listened to by others, the right to be accepted and respected, the right to be yourself, the right to your own opinions and the right to ask any academic questions.
The number one right, to play with anyone and everyone, is CTL's adopted version of theorist and teacher Vivian Paley's social rule, “You can't say you can't play.” This rule removes rejection from the school day.
“Everyone has to accept everyone else, and this is something we continue to work on,” Atwell said. “Each child knows that he will not have a bad day at the hands of another child.”
Another right is the right to learn. At CTL, a “Spiral Curriculum” was established for teaching science and history. This means the entire school studies the same topic in each subject for one school year in a five year cycle. For example, students are currently studying systems in science and just finished up the human body. In history this school year, the subject is ancient civilizations. The students have just finished their study of the Romans and are moving into the Middle Ages.
“This allows teachers to plan together and share resources,” Atwell said. “And big kids and little kids work together — it's a great opportunity for a whole school to delve deeply.”
The workshop model of researcher and writer Donald Graves, and discussion are the primary modes of instruction at CTL. Students gather, always in a circle, for a “mini lesson” on a particular subject, and then form small groups or work independently. Teachers move around the room, visiting each student as they work through the lesson, offering help and/or alternative ideas and suggestions.
Discussion complements the writing, reading and mathematics; students do not “just receive information all day — they talk about it, discuss it, mull it over,” Atwell said.
Nor do students remain in one classroom all day, or one area of the school; they use all rooms in the school each day. Every day students read in the reading room: when they enter it, they become readers. When they are in the one of the two writing rooms, they become writers.
The study of mathematics places emphasis vocabulary as well as on computational skills. Without vocabulary, a student cannot think like a mathematician. Students use logs, journals to analyze equations and math problems.
Each semester, a student's work becomes part of his or her portfolio, which includes assessments and goals he or she established for each semester that are reviewed by their teachers who may suggest additional goals.
Students at CTL also lead their evaluation conference with their teachers and parents, differing from the customary parent-teacher conference. The student presents his or her assessment of their work first.
Parents are involved with events at the school, whether its attending morning meeting or coming in to share their interests or areas of expertise. One parent did a presentation on India that was followed by the students sitting down to an Indian meal.
“It creates opportunities for kids to be curious and to be informed as opposed to just being fed the mainstream culture,” Atwell said. “Everybody's learning, everybody's contributing.”
“What people don't get is you can have a rigorous school program that's also joyful. They don't negate each other. We really have high expectations of these kids, but we also give (students) a tremendous amount of support so they can reach (those expectations).”
Currently, Atwell is working on the last chapter of the third, and final, edition of her book “In the Middle,” to be published in November 2014.
The first edition was published in 1987 and the second edition was completed 15 years ago. Between the two, half a million copies have been sold. Again, royalties were used to the benefit the school, its construction and tuition assistance program.
Atwell retired from her beloved CTL in June of 2013 and a career that spanned 40 years. Maybe we should make that 41 years: She is still working on her last book.
“This is the last word — and it's OK,” Atwell said with a smile.