By Robbie Long, Contributing Writer
A gap-toothed, six-year-old British boy cames up to me at recess and asked, “Mistah Long, what do you call sheep in America?”
“We just call them sheep, Archie.” “Oh. Well, we call them that, too!” Wash, rinse, and repeat with a new word twenty minutes later. I chose GO Chester for my GO Short experience, and I couldn’t be more grateful that I did.
A new program through the Susquehanna Education Department, GO Chester features two weeks spent full-time as a student teacher in a primary school in Chester, England. Through this experience, I learned more from the students than they could have ever learned from me—it was more than what they call sheep in England.
The primary school I was placed at has no more than 100 students in total, with less than twenty staff members. Its acceptance rate is less than one percent.
After siblings of current students, children of staff members, and those with special needs were admitted, there was only one open spot for the upcoming school year’s “Reception” (preschool) class, with over 100 applicants.
Why? Because this school gets results.
I spent nearly sixty hours in this school over the course of two weeks, and I witnessed children achieve milestones that American educators would normally expect from children years older than them. While assigned to a “Year 2” (first grade) classroom, I observed students reading “Matilda,” a book that Scholastic categorizes as suitable for “Grades 3-7”. These first graders were already learning cursive handwriting and spouting off the scientific method faster than I could.
One would initially think that these poor children are having information drilled into their brains all day with no reprieve. The image of a dreary classroom with children sitting in rows while a teacher lectures comes to mind.
Quite the contrary, actually. Students at this school don’t have desks. They don’t have workbooks. They don’t even spend the majority of their school day in their classroom.
During the two weeks I spent at this school, I accompanied Archie and his classmates to their weekly swimming lessons, their thrice-daily recesses, the front of the school to observe a wood carving expert, on a field trip to a local theatre, and, perhaps most impressively, on their “Outdoor Classroom Day”, where the entire school split into their four, mixed-age houses (much like Hogwarts) and spent the entire day outdoors, even in the infamous England rain.
These kids are not being drilled on their knowledge. As it happens, the only exam of any kind that my first graders were subjected to during my time there was one short spelling quiz. Instead, students are asked to create something to showcase their learning at the end of a unit.
This, in fact, is the key to success: project-based learning.
After their Outdoor Classroom Day, the teacher assigned my class of six-year-olds to write a narrative of their day in at least four paragraphs, each including multiple, complex sentences. This wasn’t even the lesson objective; knowing how to write at this level of complexity was considered background knowledge for these students. Only one struggled to perform to this level: Archie. Archie has high self-esteem and a dazzling smile, only disappear- ing when it’s time to write. Although a math whiz, science know-it-all, and trivia knowledge champion, he struggles with writing to the point where he gets little to nothing done without adult intervention.
For this multi-day narrative assignment, I was his adult intervention. Although I had never worked with this grade level and had little knowledge of the expectations of the teacher, I sat with Archie and we painstakingly wrote his narrative, one word at a time. And I truly mean one, slowly written, often misspelled, word at a time.
By the end of the third day, however, we finished the conclusion of his narrative. We dotted the “i’s,” crossed the “t’s,” and made sure his name was at the top. It wasn’t great, but it was his story, and it met the lesson objective.
Seeing his gap-toothed grin return and his hand go up for a high-five is a mental image that I hope I never forget.
I’ve been working with children of various ages for five years now. I’ve spent countless hours observing in classrooms from infancy through eighth grade. Archie is the student that reminds me why I do this.I just had to cross an ocean to find him.