The Rug: Teaching to the
In the new book “Loving Learning,” noted educator Tom Little and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Katherine Ellison reveal the homegrown solution to turning American students into lifelong learners.
To the doctor, the child is a typhoid patient; to the playground supervisor, a first baseman; to the teacher, a learner of arithmetic. At times, he may be different things to each of these specialists, but too rarely is he a whole child to any of them.
— From the 1930 report of the White House Conference on Children and Youth
A Magic Carpet Ride
A dozen six- and seven-year-olds sit and sprawl on the ten-by-ten-foot forest green rug in Susan Erb’s first-grade classroom at Oakland, California’s Park Day School. Half of them manage to hold still, but the others are constantly moving. They rock back and forth, play with their hair, bump into each other, and, gasping with impatience, wave their hands to get Susan’s attention.
On the floor between the students and the teacher lie two plastic hoops, each no bigger than a child’s head. One is labeled “Needs” and the other “Wants.” There is also a pile of blue index cards, each written with a single word or phrase, including: “Air,” “Clean Water,” “Clothes,” “Dogs,” “Toys,” “House,” and “Love.” Taking turns, the students pick up cards and decide whether to put them in one hoop or the other.
Guided by Susan, whose cheerful charisma seems as fresh as it was on the day I first watched her teach nearly forty years ago, the students are learning about several things at once. Most obviously, they’re figuring out the difference between needs and wants — with lively ancillary discussions about whether people always die from lack of shelter, how much easier it is for animals to bite you if you don’t have clothes, and how many days someone can live without food. They’re also learning about Venn diagrams, since by overlapping the hoops — thus creating a small, new space where cards may fit in both hoops at once — they can see how some needs are also wants, and vice versa.
Most important, however, these children are learning about attention, self-control, and empathy. For all their restlessness, they’re already a strikingly well-behaved group of first-graders, instantly responsive to Susan’s subtle coaching. They raise their hands instead of interrupting, and at least most of the time make obvious efforts to listen to each other.
Instead of calling out, they use silent hand signals: air quotes for “ditto” to show they agree, or air-slicing motions to show that they don’t. A third signal, a thumb to a forehead, means “I need a brain break!” — a request for permission to go jump on the trampoline outside the door. Susan has signals of her own: she’ll put a finger on her eyebrow, for instance, to silently encourage a child to “think!”
In a half-hour stretch, there is only one minor conflict, after one little girl hesitates to move aside to let another come back to her place after taking a turn.
When this happens, Susan stops the lesson immediately.
First, she reminds the class of their mantra: “If you see a problem, do something.”
Then, she turns to the girl who has been blocked and who is now hugging her knees as if to make herself seem smaller.
“How did it feel when a friend didn’t make a space for you?” Susan asks.
“Not good!” comes the muttered reply.
The offender, a pint-sized fashion plate in leggings and tunic top, glances at her classmate’s face, taking in the impact of her behavior. She freezes, appearing to be in distress.
But Susan is ready with a remedy. “Shall we rewind and replay?” she suggests with a smile.
The entire group of children looks relieved; the offender grins and scoots aside, and the class promptly returns to a fervent debate about whether sharp arrows could pierce through a house and kill you, which may or may not mean the house is a need and not just a want. . .
In 1928, Mary Hammett Lewis, the founding headmistress of a different Park School — this one in Buffalo, New York — rhapsodized about the impact of a simple change to her classroom: the addition of a “big, friendly rug on which we might sit together for close companionship and comradely sharing of our interests.” She had hoped that the rug would reduce the formality of the “rigid chairs and desks,” but it did much more than that. “It became a sort of magic carpet in my adventure,” she wrote. “The attitude of the children changed completely the moment they set foot on the rug. Language lessons became confidential chats about all sorts of experiences. One day the rug became early Manhattan Island; another day it was the boat of Hendrick Hudson.”
Although Lewis probably wasn’t the first teacher to provide a classroom with a rug, she clearly conveyed why this cozy addition became a hallmark of progressive educators — the most vivid symbol of the idea that teachers are obliged to attend to students’ emotional well-being if they wish to encourage their intellectual development. Everything we do stems from this notion of teaching to the “whole child,” which, as I intend to show you, is as pragmatic in its impact on learning as it is compassionate.
In my travels to progressive schools throughout America, I found only a few classrooms (and mostly just for older students) that lacked a rug where students gathered daily. The tradition traces back to the ancient wisdom of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel, who urged teachers to consider children’s physical, moral, and spiritual needs — their bodies and hearts as well as their heads.
At Park Day School, most teachers start the morning with a meeting on the rug. It’s here where the daily schedule is reviewed, where kids report on how they spent the weekend, and where many of our classes join in a morning meditation session. It’s here, too, where students work out social problems that have come up at recess, where rules are reinforced, and where each new group starts to see itself as a mutually supportive team.
A comfortable classroom is key for the youngest students, who are still getting used to leaving home each morning for the new daily routines of school. Yet comfort is also a powerful tool as students grow older: consider how the ease of a college seminar room, with sofas and coffee tables, may inspire entirely different behavior, and thinking, than a lecture hall, where students sit passively, taking notes. Like the rug, the seminar room tells students they can let their guard down. That leads to trust, which leads to strong relationships, which in turn can motivate risk-taking, creativity, and learning.
At Stanford’s School of Business, Jonathan Berk, the former Park Day parent you met earlier, says he was inspired by watching children on our rugs to seek ways to help make his graduate students more comfortable as they study the art of critical thinking. “Most of us do not find it easy to have an open mind,” Berk says. “That’s really pretty much against human nature. So anything that helps students to relax physically can reduce that rigidity, making it easier to really listen to each other.”
As Susan’s virtuoso performance with her first-graders subtly shows, this is no simple task. Teachers’ jobs would be much easier if they could limit themselves to making sure children were competently memorizing spelling, formulas, and historical dates. The best teachers strive to integrate those basics into an ongoing effort to build academically important skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, while progressive educators are specially trained to also keep in mind group dynamics and each child’s unique personality, developmental stage and progress, fears and anxieties, and social standing at the school.
The teachers mustn’t overreach, particularly given that most have no formal therapeutic training. (Susan, a rare exception, began her career as an art therapist in a children’s psychiatric hospital in New York City.) Yet neither should they ignore a century of best practices — nor, more importantly, the needs of their students. They understand they’re obliged to bring their own hearts, as well as their heads, to their craft.
I don’t mean to imply that conventional schools routinely disregard children’s emotions. Many teachers, regardless of their schools’ formal philosophies, will go out of their way to try to help kids cope with disputes on the playground and even problems at home. On a broader level, awareness of the potent link between cognitive and emotional development has dramatically increased over the past two decades, leading to considerably more teacher training in “social-emotional learning” (SEL) strategies to help students cultivate “emotional intelligence.” Such awareness has grown considerably since the mid-1990s, when Daniel Goleman published his eponymous bestseller Emotional Intelligence, arguing that cognitive skills such as self-restraint and empathy can matter more than IQ in determining success and happiness. At present, forty-nine states have set standards for social-emotional learning programs for young children, while a bipartisan group of U.S. congressional representatives is seeking to increase SEL programming in public schools.
Even so, progressive educators are in a class by ourselves in having a century-long track record in teaching emotional intelligence. We’re old hands at this, and have hundreds of thousands of emotionally skilled graduates to show for it.
Stop the Stress
Over the past century, ample research has helped justify the whole child approach at the core of progressive educators’ practices.
Much of it boils down to a simple finding. Stress interferes with learning, diminishing focus and memory. Whether you’re a soldier in Afghanistan or a second-grader, you are hard-wired to react to a perceived threat with the well-known “fight-or-flight” response, a phenomenon first documented in 1932 by the Harvard Medical School professor Walter Bradford Cannon. As part of this reaction, stress hormones flood the brain, shutting off non-emergency functions, including digestion, to help prepare the body for immediate action. In the short term, that can thwart high-level, nuanced thinking, learning, and memory. Repeated too often, it can cause long-lasting harm to the hippocampus, one of the brain’s centers for learning and memory.
Now students, at least male students, need at least some stress to keep their eyes open and to focus. Two Progressive Era scientists, Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, described this phenomenon in 1908, in what became a classic experiment. They found that giving rats mild electrical shocks would motivate them to run through a maze. Yet raising the intensity of the shocks past a certain level caused the rats to run around randomly as they helplessly tried to escape. The scientists drew a bell curve illustrating what came to be known as the Yerkes—Dodson law, conveying that there’s an optimum level of stress needed for peak performance, after which focus and learning decline precipitously. (Interestingly, Tracey Shors and Amy Arnsten have shown that female rats and monkeys may do better without any stress at all. Adele Diamond’s studies in humans may show this holds true to women of our species as well.)
Unfortunately, many children report feeling chronically overstressed and even threatened at school, whether it’s from being teased or bullied, having to compete for test scores or grades, or being pressured by teachers who themselves are under pressure to raise their classes’ test scores. This is particularly worrisome given that the impact of chronic stress is much more harmful to children, whose brains are still rapidly developing, than it is to adults, according to Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, a leading expert on stress who also happens to be a graduate of the John Dewey High School in Coney Island. “Everything I just told you about adult stress on the brain — multiply it ten-fold when you think about a ten-year-old’s brain,” Sapolsky has said.
It’s sadly ironic that in our hopes for improving students’ performance, particularly in math and science, we’re setting many of them up for failure.
Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychology professor who spent her first three years of school at Park Day, gave me a striking example from her research. Beilock, the author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, said many U.S. kindergartners today are already suffering from “math anxiety.” “There’s something to be said for lowering the pressure in those years,” she noted. As a conscientious scientist, Beilock refrained from extrapolating from her own example, but she added that she was grateful for having spent her earliest school years in an atmosphere free of standardized tests.
Connectedness Is Key
More than a century ago, progressive educators clearly understood that when students aren’t under excessive stress, they can be powerfully motivated by more positive emotions. For example, since learning is almost always a social pursuit, strong relationships with teachers and classmates can inspire students like little else.
For several years now, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has been encouraging schools to improve students’ sense of “connectedness,” which the CDC defines as a belief that adults and other students at school care about them as individuals. The agency’s research shows that a sense of connectedness improves students’ grades and test scores as well as their lifelong health. At Park Day School, as at other progressive schools, we continually strive to create these healthy bonds by building communities where children feel valued and respected, and are considerate of each others’ needs.
Plenty of additional evidence supports the benefits of this practice. Beginning in 1994, as part of the largest and most comprehensive long-term study of adolescents ever undertaken, federally funded researchers extensively and repeatedly interviewed more than 12,000 adolescents in grades 7 through 12, while also questioning their family members, fellow students, and school administrators. They found that students with strong relationships at school not only do better academically but are far less likely to drink too much, abuse drugs, skip school, bully other kids, and be sexually promiscuous. They’re more likely to wear seat belts in cars, and less likely to carry weapons and have suicidal thoughts.
Stacey Wellman is a national authority on the power of strong relationships in school. Armed with no less than four master’s degrees and up-to-date knowledge of research on brain science and learning, she’s a full-time speech and language pathologist at the Winnetka Public School District in Illinois — America’s only entire public school district that calls itself “progressive” — and a frequent lecturer to parents and educators. Wellman’s bottom-line message is that children’s academic as well as emotional development depends on strong relationships. That’s why she recommends that teachers spend the first three weeks of each new academic year focusing on strengthening their classroom communities.
The advice makes even more sense if you recall the list of skills that employers say they’re looking for these days, including creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. All can be encouraged by an environment where it is safe to take intellectual risks. And the earlier the better: in Susan’s first-grade class, a stuffed snake doll hangs from the ceiling with a legend saying, “In this classroom, it’s okay to make missnakes,” with the second “s” crossed out and replaced by a “t.”
Wellman says she helps create such environments in the classes she teaches in part by knowing when some students, particularly the younger ones, are still too shy to raise their hands and participate in class discussions. Rather than cold-calling on them or trying to catch anyone off guard, she sometimes hands out paddles that students can write on with erasable pens, so that only she can see their comments or questions. “This is how I know immediately how many in the class are getting what I’m telling them,” she says. With high school classes, Wellman sometimes lets students Tweet her. It’s a much more collaborative model than that of most classrooms today, and one that also implies that a teacher can learn, in real time, whether his or her teaching is effective.
At Park Day School, we’re constantly seeking a balance between the need to challenge children intellectually and the need to make sure that they feel emotionally safe. As Susan demonstrates with her first-graders on the rug, we encourage students to use language that reflects this intention. We teach them from the first day, for instance, to refer to each other as “friends.” We don’t expect they’ll all become best buddies, but we do want to encourage an ethos of friendly behavior. That’s why, when Susan confronted the failure of one of her first-graders to scoot aside for a classmate, she chose her words carefully, asking the aggrieved little girl, “How did it feel when a friend . . . ?”
On the first day of school, each Park Day kindergartner is assigned to a new friend from sixth grade. The older children show the younger ones around, eat lunch with them, and stay in close touch in subsequent weeks. Come the winter holidays, the sixth-graders, who have been steadily collecting interesting information on the new students, write fictional stories in which the kindergartners play starring roles. They then bind and decorate the books and present them to their young friends on the last day of school before the winter break.
Another way we help our students feel welcome is evident on our walls, which are virtual museums of children’s artwork. You could easily spend several hours looking at the drawings and photographs, and reading the poetry and essays posted amid bulletins and class agreements.
Teachers’ greetings and motivational mottos also take up a good deal of wall space. A sign on the middle school director’s door promises visitors: “I will ask questions to try to understand you.” Nearby, there’s a chart with a list of brief details about every Park Day teacher — conveying a level of transparency that would have shocked the nuns at my old elementary school. The signs say: “I Bring Who I Am to Park Day School.” Each of our staff members discloses his or her preferred name, ethnicity, fears, hopes, likes and dislikes. (One says she fears “injustice,” while her “hidden talent” is making “delectable red velvet whoopee pies.” Another confides her fear of her children moving far away “like I did to my parents in 1976.”)
We’re also big on blatant reminders that we expect our students to behave in ethical and emotionally healthy ways. A note on the sixth-grade humanities classroom vows: “I will take time to breathe deeply and I will remember to be grateful.”
In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that our caring and focused community was “the ultimate medicine” for Saleh Khalaf, the nine-year-old boy who was maimed by a cluster bomb in Iraq. Khalaf attended Park Day School for a year on full scholarship while he endured multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel in his body and brain. Weeks before he arrived, many of our students had already made his acquaintance, writing get-well cards to him in the hospital after seeing him on TV. Once he got here, they were so solicitous that Khalaf made close friends long before he had a basic command of English. Dictating in Arabic to an interpreter, who translated for the rest of his classmates, Khalaf described how he used to catch fish in the river that ran by his house back home, and how he’d see hyenas and wild pigs at night. Last I checked, Khalaf and his father had permanently settled in California, and he had gone on to high school. Every student he met at Park Day School was enriched by our year of getting to know him.
Letting Kids be Kids
The conservative English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who was born at the turn of the twentieth century and attended a progressive elementary school, wrote that “good schools bestow upon their graduates a recollection of childhood as a golden satisfaction . . . not as a passage of time hurried through on the way to more profitable engagements, but, with gratitude, as an enjoyed initiation into the mysteries of the human condition.” These words may sound awfully quaint today, as our society’s demands ramp up the pressure on children as soon as they leave kindergarten. Among these are increasingly competitive environments — a topic I’ll explore in depth in chapter 3 — and increasingly crowded classrooms, which I’ll tell you about right here.
We’ve known for years that smaller student-teacher ratios help children in a variety of powerful ways. As educators, we see that smaller classes make young children feel safer and provide them with more nurturing attention. But these benefits were also borne out in a landmark study launched in Tennessee in 1989, involving 6,500 students in 339 schools, which concluded that smaller classes contribute to better relationships between students and teachers, fewer discipline problems, higher student motivation, better academic performance, fewer high school dropouts, and better teacher morale. They even lead to better long-term health for students, on average, since high school graduates tend to live healthier lives than their counterparts. Yet despite the strong evidence in their favor, as a rule, smaller student-teacher ratios unfortunately remain mostly a privilege of well-funded private schools, with class sizes for the vast majority of public school students fluctuating in parallel with economic booms and busts.
Beginning in the 1970s, many U.S. states responded to researchers’ findings and invested in reducing the ratios. By 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, the public elementary school student-teacher ratio had fallen to 15.5, compared to 12.1 for private schools. (A caveat is that this federal statistic covers all certified school staff, including special education teachers, meaning that actual classroom ratios will be higher.)
Since June 2009, however, in the wake of the Great Recession, more than 300,000 teachers nationwide have lost their jobs, increasing the student-teacher ratio by 4.6 percent, according to a 2012 White House report. The report predicted the trend would worsen even more, and from what I’ve heard, it has.
Park Day School is an exception to this rule. We have managed to maintain an average student-teacher ratio of 11 to 1. We cap class size in K–3 grades at sixteen, while for older students, the class size never exceeds twenty students. This, we know, is a privilege of many private schools: our high tuition rates allow us to hire more teachers to keep class sizes down. (The fee for parents paying the full cost at Park Day ranges from $20,000 to $22,000 a year.) That’s why I’ve been so impressed to learn of some progressive public schools that make smaller student—teacher ratios a priority even when it means sacrificing on other fronts. “When we develop our budget, we start with the child at the center,” says Ayla Gavins, the widely respected head of the Mission Hill School, a small, pilot pre-K–8 public school in inner-city Boston. “We ask ourselves, what do our kids need most? And then we go from there.” Mission Hill has no assistant principal or full-time PE teacher, but limits its class sizes to eighteen students at most.
Maintaining low student-teacher ratios is particularly important given all we’ve learned from neuroscience breakthroughs in recent years about the enormous variability in the way students learn. This encompasses not only the most extreme learning differences, including children on the ADHD and autism spectrums, but comparatively run-of-the-mill variations in children who learn at different speeds, regardless of their ages, and in different ways — for example, depending on whether information is presented through words or pictures.
It takes a lot of extra attention from teachers to understand how each child learns best and to individualize curriculum at least to some extent. Park Day School’s reputation of being able to personalize teaching methods helps explain why nearly 30 percent of our students have some documented learning or behavioral challenge — more than twice the national average. In many cases, these children are enrolled by parents who are making considerable financial sacrifices to find a safe place for their kids to learn.
As head of school, I’ve made it a point to be aware not only of children’s documented learning challenges but of the more routine developmental progress of each of our students — sometimes to the surprise of their parents.
About a decade ago, Michael Pollan, a writer, and his wife Judith Belzer, a painter, enrolled their son Isaac in our fifth-grade class, after the family moved to California from Connecticut. Part of Isaac’s work over the next couple of years was to adjust to the unfamiliar west coast culture. He came armed with an east coast sarcasm, which by sixth grade had contributed to a clash with his Spanish teacher. I invited Pollan and Belzer to my office.
As Pollan would later remind me, they had expected me to come down hard on their son, and thus were taken aback when I began the meeting by assuring them that Isaac was “doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing,” considering his age and circumstances. He was naturally inclined to rebel at that age, and his Spanish class was a safe place in which to do it. That didn’t mean his behavior was appropriate or that he didn’t need to make amends. We made sure he apologized to his teacher. But I wanted his parents to know that our policy at Park Day is not to turn children into villains.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This is our ambition, as progressive teachers, since we must continually weigh the needs of the institution — including teachers’ needs to manage classrooms — with those of the child.
“A big part of what kids learn in school is how to become cogs in a bureaucracy,” Isaac’s father, Michael Pollan, recently told me. “If you’re trying to do something more interesting and complicated than that, it’s much harder.”
Naturally not all teachers are on board with the degree of consideration for the needs of the child that we practice at Park Day. It’s a value that requires a lot more communication between teachers, parents, and the head of the school, so that everyone’s feelings are understood and respected. Over the past twenty—eight years, I’ve spent countless hours in long, involved meetings, considering multiple points of view, communicating, compromising, and ultimately, when we get it right, collaborating for the good of every child.
I’ll confess I’ve had a secret that has helped me get through it. For most of my time at Park Day School, I’ve moonlighted, weekends and evenings, as a high school and college basketball referee. The job was a perfect counterpoint to my Mister Rogers role at the school. A referee never needs to seek consensus. He blows his whistle, and that’s it.
You might chalk up my enthusiasm for this blessed release into a world of black and white and snap decisions as a part of my own “whole child.”
Excerpted from Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison, published by W. W. Norton & Company.
“Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools” by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison is available wherever books are sold.
“This is the book we’ve all been waiting for: a vision of what schools can do to guide children to become happy and engaged learners, productive and creative workers, and active, caring citizens.” —MADELINE LEVINE, PHD, New York Times best-selling author of Teach Your Children Well