Saturday, May 18, 2013

One-Room Schoolhouse

One of the stranger things we do in our schools and culture at large is segregate by age. The first thing I notice when I travel to more village-centered cultures is that all the ages hang out together. Families often have several generations under one roof, kids of different ages are out playing clapping games, teenagers are working with their elders and so on. Meanwhile, our kids go through some 20 years of schooling hanging out almost exclusively with their peers. The grandparents are sequestered away in old age homes, the newly retired moving to their gated retirement communities, the parents close in age are chatting on the soccer league sidelines. In the long view of human culture, this is just plain weird.

But there is a logic to it. First, that deep-seated drive to be amongst our own. From the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria to the boys on one side of the circle and the girls on the other, to the white-haired folks chatting in the lobby of the Garrison Keilor talk, we are magnetically drawn to those who share some of our experiences and age is certainly a valid category for that. I love hanging out with folks of all ages, but when I start making references to F Troup or the 1910 Fruitgum Company and am met with blank stares, I suddenly crave my peer-group companions.

When it comes to school and a calibrated curriculum, the logic runs yet deeper. My school began with mixed grades—1st-2nd/3rd-4th, 5th-6th. It had a few advantages, but it was difficult to teach a sequenced curriculum and when push came to shove, the pecking order of Nature’s law prevailed and mostly kids hung out with their same age. In music class, there were many activities that worked just fine with mixed ages— folk dances, singing, anything involving creative exploration. But to introduce recorder in a mixed- 3rd-4th and yet again the next year made no sense. I think all the teachers ended up being happier to focus on one grade at a time and the kids as well.

However, we did much in mixed groups— the daily singing time, the end of the year camping trip, a few years where we tried out school families across the grades. And I believe because we began with that flexible grouping, the school culture was less obsessed with identifiying solely with one's peers and kids crossed ages at recess and in day care in what felt like—and still feels like— a healthy way.

All this comes to mind because I just had a week of mixed music classes with elementary and preschoolers— 5th grade with 5-year olds, 4th grade with 4-year olds, 1st grade with 3-year olds— and it was simply wonderful. Just sitting in a circle with a young one in-between each of the older ones was sheer delight and as they partnered-up, the pleasure increased. In some activities, the older one was guiding, in some the younger was teaching the game they knew, in some both were learning something new at the same time. The usual behavorial routines in each group were broken up and everyone was more attentive than ever.

So a reminder to enjoy the clarity of the one-grade-per-age school structure while taking care to habitually mix it up. The Japanese screen door model over the firm concrete walls. And bring the grandparents in more often and go the Old Age homes more often. The healthy human community is a snapshot of all our different ages and stages co-inhabiting the same sacred ground, giving a live human model of what lies ahead, a live human reminder of what we’ve left behind and each age contributing from their particular stage of genius.

And on top of that, it’s a lot of fun.

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