By JILL IVIE
As the doors swing open to the old brick building of what was once a typical elementary school, a more lively and changed academic setting is revealed. The hand painted staircases and walls, classrooms obviously absent of desks and parents roving the halls with freedom indicate this is not like traditional elementary schools. This is the scene of an alternative learning program called the Open Classroom held at Washington Elementary School in Salt Lake City.
The Open Classroom program has been operating in the area for 27 years. Parents of children in the program are required to volunteer three hours in the classroom per week per child, with a maximum of six volunteer hours a week per family. They are also required to serve on at least one committee over the course of the school year.
“It is a district optional program, which means that it is not a traditional classroom,” said Jason Olsen, public information officer for the Salt Lake City School District. “Parental involvement is required, requirements of students are a little more stringent and the teaching philosophy is a little different as well.”
Students in the Open Classroom program are granted greater freedom to determine and navigate their own educational course while the teacher supervises the plan the student has selected. A typical morning in the Open Classroom begins with circle time. In this circle the teachers, students and volunteers discuss what needs to be accomplished for the day. Each student has his or her own planner and is able to prioritize tasks for the day. It is a self-directed, life-long learning program whose aim is to educate the whole child and not just the academic child.
The teaching theories of the Open Classroom are based on the phenomenal logical approach, which takes learning beyond the textbook to teach children to trust their sense and be free thinkers.
The increased presence of parents in the classroom provides a number of benefits for both the students and the teacher. The parents volunteering in the classroom each have their own strengths and interests that can be incorporated into the curriculum for the year, increasing their exposure to what their children are learning. It also increases the time parents spend with their children, making them more incorporated in their student’s educational careers and creating a closer relationship between parent, child and teacher.
“I know what they’re learning,” said Geoffrey Nielsen, parent of three current Open Classroom students. “I know who their friends are. I know the other kids. It is very beneficial to both the parent and the child because the Open Classroom is very much like a family.”
The structure of an Open Classroom is noticeably different from a traditional classroom learning environment. There are no desks in the rooms except for a small teacher’s desk pushed into the corner that serves as a functional storage space more than a distinguishing workspace. Each room is equipped with a reading loft, which consists of a hand decorated tree house-like structure, and bathtubs filled with pillows. The children’s learning and work spaces are several round tables in the middle of the room that function as rotating learning centers.
Children are free to work at their own pace and are not assigned homework. If a child is excelling in certain areas, they are able to join other grade levels for these subjects to prevent stagnation or boredom. Many classrooms combine to contain as many as three different grade levels under one teacher.
The cultivation of artistic freedom and physical proficiency is an important aspect of the open curriculum. To accomplish this, frequent field trips are planned and every Friday is sports day. Guests and parents are brought in to teach the children skills such as rock carving, archery, karate, rock climbing, belly dancing, cooking and knitting.
The autonomy and freedom Open Classroom offers children is designed to improve students developing communication and problem solving skills. Graduates of the Open Classroom program most often report an increased ability to verbalize their feelings and level of comfort working with adults.
“The child to adult ratio is much more workable than a traditional classroom,” said Amy Nielson, parent and public relations director for the Open Classroom. “The individual attention the children receive makes all the difference in the world.”
The demographics of the Washington Elementary School student body contribute to make the Open Classroom a unique academic environment. The Open Classroom is located in an annex building adjacent to the main buildings and is connected to the rest of campus through a shared playground. The rest of the student body, which encompasses a blend of suburban to inner city residents, creates a unique campus dynamic.
“We have to eliminate stereotypes and mindsets and move on from there,” said Joann Price, principal of Washington Elementary School. “Integration is slow but it is making headway. It will come when teachers form relationships with each other. You don’t know someone or something until you have a relationship with something.”
It has been a priority of Price to integrate both sides of her school as much as possible since she became principal two years ago. Efforts such as the annual school-wide Shakespearean play, buddy readings and combined field trips are an effort to expose the co-existing dynamics of the school to each other as much as possible.
“Both schools can learn from each other,” Price said. “We want to infuse things from the Open Classroom to the traditional schools and vice versa. We are really working on bridging the experiences. There is a more realistic view of life in the traditional schoolrooms. We just have to remember that there is not one way to address the needs of the children.”
There are currently six classrooms operating under the Open Classroom structure. Next year, the open classroom will expand to include one new kindergarten and one new first grade classroom. The goal of the program is to continue growing until a second open classroom program can open up at another location.
“If you’ve ever explored one of those computer-generated Magic Eye pictures where at first glance all you see is a million dots, squares, or flowers–but people tell you there is a deeper image too–you may have an idea of the challenge involved in deciphering the deeper structure of the kind of learning environment I’m describing …” said Leslee Bartlett, a teacher at the Open Classroom in the book she co-authored about the program, “Learning Together.” “Most children seem to quickly get beyond the seemingly chaotic nature of a learning community to be able to work within its structure. They become so directly involved with the process that they are, in a very real sense, part of the picture.”