Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Open Areas: Failure or Success?

Recently I was invited to join a facebook group that consists of graduates from Lord Byng highschool, class of ‘81. This was the first high school I attended in Vancouver, BC. I was only there for my 8th grade year, then my family moved up the coast to Powell River and I eventually graduated from Max Cameron Senior Secondary. When I accepted the invitation to join LB’s 30th reunion group I didn’t feel worthy. After all, I never really graduated from that school. But I was also curious. I had lost touch with all but a handful of people from those days. What were they up to? Do they remember me? It turns out they do! And many have been up to some very interesting things.

Lively discussions ensued where we shared old childhood memories and eventually someone brought up our Elementary school days at Queen Elizabeth Elementary School. Many of us were products of what is now considered a “failed” experiment. The Open Area Classroom model.

I had always known my elementary school days were unique. We did not attend a traditional classroom. For 1st thru 3rd grade I was part of the “pod” a group of four classrooms circled around an “open area”, with it’s own private art room, bathrooms and lunch room. We were kept separate from the rest of the school and only joined them for assemblies and special events. Children were grouped together by abilities so that often you would see kids working together in groups of mixed ages. In 4th grade I was moved to a “regular” classroom. I hated it. So when I was once again chosen to attend the open area class for 5th grade, I remember begging my mom to let me join. So for 5th, 6th and 7th grade I was once again in the “experimental” classroom.

Looking back on this now, I have come to realize that this educational model has shaped how I teach my children, and has been instrumental in my choice to homeschool and ultimately unschool my children.  And in discussing my experiences with former classmates there are many of us who were deeply impacted in a positive way. One former classmate says “When I look back at the Open Area, knowing what I now know about myself, I realize that I was able to thrive there because it was a less structured and more creative environment than sitting at a desk all day staring at the blackboard. Strange that it was considered a failed experiment from the seventies.”

So what did we do in an open area classroom? I remember a lot more group activities. We were always being divided up into groups. And it was easy to tell how the divisions were made. Badgers, Beavers and Bears. Badgers were the “smart” kids (I was in that group), Beavers were the “average” and Bears were the, well, ones that needed more help. I remember being placed in 5th grade in the same group as my brother who was in 7th grade. He was not happy. The implication was that we were on the same level of learning. But the truth was, it was all a peer mentoring experiment. The idea was the older kids in the groups were supposed to help out the younger kids. There was no distinction between age and grade levels. We were like one big happy family – reminiscent of the one room school house days, but with 4 teachers to control the group and with only 3 grade levels to deal with. Art and music were emphasized and writing was encouraged. I can honestly say that Mrs. B. was the teacher that got me interested in writing.

I researched why they think this classroom model was a failed experiment. The only research I could find centered on low income classrooms in large cities in Chicago and how the teachers had no control of the kids, and that the classroom environment was “loud and chaotic”. I don’t remember it being that way. But QE was not in a “low income” neighborhood but was decidedly middle class.  Maybe that was the difference. Or we just had a good team of teachers. And student teachers. We had a lot of them. 

Things changed when I headed off to high school. Classroom segregation, the mingling of several elementary schools into one very large high school, teen age drama as we entered our years of puberty. Bullying. Cliques. Mean girls. Indifferent boys. School was just never the same and I longed for the good old days of QE.

It’s been noted that there is a high number of teachers or people in the field of education that gradated from that class. I wonder if the freedom we had in learning in that environment, helped instill a love of teaching in us all? I know for me, the concept of allowing a child to pursue his/her talents came from those days. I was encouraged to write and to create in art and to explore my interests in science. We had a lot of hands on activities. I remember one teacher came across the skeleton of a deer and brought it back to the class and several of us were allowed to try to piece together the bones to recreate the deer. We had password competitions and talent shows. We sang and danced to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph”. We wrote our own version of the Canterbury Tales. We were encouraged to read and read and read. My favorite corner was a pile of beanbag chairs where one could snuggle with a book and read for what seemed like hours at a time.

Sadly “back to the basics” educational philosophy tore the Open Area classrooms down. Walls were put up and as far as I know QE no longer has this classroom style. Thankfully as an unschooler I don’t have to worry too much about it. But it saddens me to think that educators do not interview those of us who are products of this “experiment” to see how we have all turned out. I’d be very curious to interview all the “kids” from those days and find out just how many of us attribute who we are today to the benefits of this classroom model.