The elementary program, grades 1-8, consists of three separate units, or “families”. Structure, technique and common material coordinate the units, assuring continuity between each of the three families. The families are designed to mimic three small community schools that foster a secure environment for students.
This structure presents opportunity for the teachers to know and interact with students in their family on a more personal basis. It also allows for students to be better acquainted with the other students in their family. Students pass from first through eighth grade in the same family. In addition, the grades are combined: first and second are together, third and fourth are together, fifth and sixth are together, and seventh and eighth are together. This enables the teacher to have the children for two years, instead of one. This provides security for the student and also enhances the interaction of the teacher with the students and parents. Our building is structured in such a way as to let one family (1st – 8th) be on the lower level of the building, with the other two families being housed in their own separate wings.
Each of the individual families has a “sponge” room. A sponge room contains a variety of learning materials and items for hands-on activities and is open to the students, in most cases, twice a day. The subject areas available for exploration in the sponge room include such subjects as science, social studies, reading and math. The sponge room has three instructors and may hold up to 32 students at one time. Students come to the sponge room from their classrooms as the classroom teacher is preparing to teach a particular lesson or concept that is best taught to a specific group or in a small setting. For example, the third and fourth grade teacher may send the third grade to use the sponge room while instructing the fourth grade in a particular math or reading skill in the regular classroom. This allows for a better ratio for teacher and student during times of academic instruction while giving students in the sponge room opportunity to receive guided supervision in hands on learning.
Because of this arrangement, the mix of students working in a sponge room may vary from first to eighth grades at one time. The use of the approach is an attempt to model the more natural range of age interaction in a family. It is our goal in this setting to encourage independence in the learner and to help the student see learning as a result of skill development and experiences gained over time. It is an environment that recognizes the benefits of children helping one another by giving and receiving support within a wide range of ages. In this room, it is our hope that the child can feel a more healthy developmental competition, over the often awkward and limiting, academic competition. This room, with its spirit of developmental competition, promotes and encourages experiences that bring growth through exploration and risk-taking. This is empowering for all children from those academically strong, to those experiencing learning differences.
Rote and Basics
Daily recitations of facts and lists, along with the regular repetition of basic information in a brief written format, have long been recognized as effective elements in education. It is through this use of rote memorization, both verbal and written, that we have been able to watch students develop confidence as they assertively interact and discuss information with peers and instructors.
Increased focus to class activities, better eye contact and more engagement as students respond to and generate questions of their own are just a few of the outward displays of the confidence generated in the student who begins to “know” that he knows. It is important to realize that memorization for the sake of memorization may help to exercise the mind and increase memory skills, but this should not be the end purpose. This limited use of memory work previously used in education has caused many educators to avoid using it in the classroom. To make memory work more effective, it must be seen as either a “springboard” activity for the advanced student or a foundation laid for the student with a processing difficulty. The material being memorized must be seen as a beginning and not the end.
At the Academy, we use these tools to stimulate the more advanced student to further exploration, while helping the student who needs repetition and finds it difficult to process new information establish a foundation upon which more detailed information can be built. For all levels of students, the learning experience is made more comfortable and can be entered into with more confidence when previous exposure to vocabulary and lists of key content has familiarized them with the subject.