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Small Schoolhouse Renews Kids' Interest In Learning

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Brightly-painted green and yellow walls greet you warmly as the door opens into the Slauson "small schoolhouse." Teachers sit relaxed on top of their desks as seventh grade faces peer eagerly forward. "We're going to base our grading on your own individual progress," explained one of the team teachers. "And we won't be giving you letter grades as an evaluation because you will not be compared to anyone else in your class." She then asked the students if they had any objections, and if so what were their reasons. From the discussion, it became obvious that each student feit a part of the class because each feit a sense of involvement in the decisions being made. Using the Ann Arbor School Board's recent "Humaneness In Education" report as a directional g u i d e , the small schoolhouse concept came into being at Slauson this fall. Paul Siano, a counselor at the school, said that during the past summer, a group of four Slauson teachers worked together to form the program. The teachers - Diane Davis, Jane Bridges, Toby Butcher and Betty Green - began work on the program last June. Keeping in m i n d the students' transition from elementary school to junior high, the four teachers (two teach unified studies, one teaches math and other other teaches sciencé) decided they should develop the program to allow students to get to know each other well enough so that the size of the school would not overwhelm them. "Problems arise when kids don't really feel part of their learning environment," said Siano, "and one of our goals was to get 7th graders to know each other and their teachers." Another aspect of the small schoolhouse was to get students to actually like both school and their teachers. Siano said the team wanted the students to see other dimensions of education apart from the routines of math, science, or English. The student's self-image was also considered important, in establishing the program. "During the summer, a letter was sent to the parents of incoming 7th graders," said Siano. "From the interested responses, a random selection was made reflecting a crosssection of sex, race, feeder schools, achievement potential and problem students." There were 100 students selected for the program. According to the counselor, numerous other students and parents have since indicated interest in the program even though it must have a limited enrollment. Classes in the small schoolhouse are divided into 20 minute modules. The first four periods of the day are spent in the small house, with the remaining two periods designed for electives in regular classrooms. "We have adopted a flexible modular scheduling system instead of being confined to or relying on the set bell periods," explained one of the teachers. There is no extra time allowed for moving from one period to another since the students do not follow Slauson's regular bell schedule. But they do get a 20 minute break period which allows them to relax without any classroom pressure. Another dimensión of this system is that the activities vary from day to day. One week may involve two lecture modules on Monday, a field study on Wednesday and a class project on Froday, for example. "But there is no option in math and study skills," added Siano. He said reading is also emphasized in the program. Although the small schoolhouse is not run as an open classroom situation, Siano noted that it is freer than the traditional classroom. j "We offer the students a lot of options, including unified projecti and library use," said a teacher in the program. Each Thursday, the students - who are divided into four groups of 2 each - make-up their own schedule by deciding what type of activities they want to particípate in the following week. There are weekly labs for math, r e a d i n g and other learning s k i 1 1 s which are available to students who elect to receive additional instruction or help in one of these áreas. Individual counseling is also available. "But in case a student doesn't choose to go to a lab and a teacher feels that he should be getting some additional help, h i s teachercounselor schedules a lab for him," explained Mrs. Butcher, who has had 30 years of teaching experience. The decisions t h a t are reached are decided upon by the four individual teachers cooperating as a team, although these decisions may involve parents and community resources in the program. "This allows students and parents to relate to them (the four teachers) as individuals instead of having to deal with a school or a system," said Siano. "The teachers have more control over their students and classroom situations." Since the teachers have great leeway in establishing the classroom learning environment, they have scheduled "volunteer time" during which such current issues as the Attica Prison revolt are discussed. "We all share our skills," explained Mrs. Davis, who has also taught crocheting along with reading improvement projects. One of the current class projects was making barrels to sell as tables. The small schoolhouse experiment also provides the students with creative writing experiences, mnui' se,s.sions and mSürous multi-media {esentations. "It was fuii developing this Although at first it was eonfusmg to schedule the classes witIea:ee."anPlaneaChweek twhLLteachers aI1Pointed out that the youngsters seem to yenjoycomingtoschool at the smaÏÏschooïhouse "They talk freely and feel like they are people," commented Mrs. Butcher. "We all feel closer to óur students and beeause they have a more integrated curriculum, everyo n e - including us - is more interested in school." All four instructors stressed the positive approaches they can take with their students. In turn, most of the students have positive attitudes and are committed to their studies, the teachers agreed. Because of the great success they are experiencing, the teachers stated they would have a difficult time returning to the traditional classroom setting. An extensively evaluation process is presently underway for the program. The success of the small schoolhouse will be measured through observations, testing, attendance records and behavior patterns throughout the program's first year. It is also possible, Siano indicated, that the planned fifth junior, high school in the Ann Arbor School District will be organized similarly to t h e j small schoolhouse. I ïoitft Pge