When I first taught at The San Francisco School, back in the day when the word Google didn’t exist and the only person who used lower-case “i” was e. e. cummings, the elementary school was one giant open space with mixed grades— 1st-2nd, 3rd-4th, 5th-6th. As the years ticked by, the thin Indian bedspreads defining the spaces became tall bookshelves, 1st grade succeeded from the Union and became it’s own self-contained class, later followed by 2nd-3rd and finally, last to go some ten years later, 4th-5th. Those bookcases were now genuine walls and each class had its own space, its own curriculum, its own identity.
As the music teacher, the mixed ages worked okay, but I was happier to focus more specifically on the developmental needs of each age and not introduce recorder two years in a row. And truth be told, within those mixed age classes, kids still congregated according to their age, some deep human need to be amongst their own and create some kind of pecking order, no matter how mild. Yet because we came from those roots, the kid culture was accepting of hanging out at recess with kids above or below your age. And still to this day, singing time is all the kids from 1st through 5th grade.
The first thing I admire about going to a culture is the level of integration amongst the ages. In a Balinese or Ghanaian village, everyone hangs out together. Yes, the kids may be flying kites, the adults busy with work, the elders hanging out playing cards, but they’re all together in the same village compound. It’s a marked contrast to the old age home, retirement village, teenage hang-out, pre-school where we sequester each age group away from the others. People in our culture of isolation suffer greatly in this arrangement, especially the old folks needing the sounds of children’s voices and the young folks who only visit the elders on scheduled occasions, if at all. If in our schools and institutions there is a logic to the same-age-gatherings, we would do well to have sliding Japanese screens instead of fixed walls and locked doors.
All this on my mind because of a music class yesterday with 1st grade and 3-year olds. Such a joy! So good for the older kids to learn how to be a guide and teacher to the younger, so great for the younger kids to play with someone 3 years older instead of just someone 60 years older (that’s me!). What a difference it made for both groups! Later, the 2nd graders sang with the whole preschool and occasionally, I have the 8th graders join me in a class with the 5-year olds. Such pleasures!
Lately, my daughter Talia, 1st grade teacher, has been coming to Singing Time and sitting up front with me. She who used to sit on the other side on the rug for her five years as an elementary student is now my young colleague singing Side by Side with me while she is side by side with me. It doesn’t get any better than that.
And so let’s keep the spirit of the one-room school house and the feeling of the village compound alive in our contemporary culture. I believe we all would be refreshed.