Trying to find the words that I want to say about the experiences of my first year at Willow Tree Community School is very hard because it requires me to express my emotions about my family, my students, and to reflect upon my past teaching experiences.
I must start at the beginning.
Four years ago, I was introduced to Charlotte Mason and ChildlightUSA through Dr. Jennifer Spencer. She was my mentor and co-worker during this time. As I began to read Charlotte Mason’s books and to listen to speakers at the ChildlightUSA Charlotte Mason Conferences, I knew that I was not instructing my students in a way that was either best for them or respectful of their personhood. The more I read Mason, the more I knew I had to make a change.
There were several factors that were causing increased anxiety for me. My husband and I had been praying for a school for our children. We wanted them to be in a place where they were accepted as persons and not for their abilities or for their test scores. I have had experience teaching in both public and private schools. As I read Charlotte Mason’s books and learned from the sessions I attended at the ChildlightUSA conferences, I felt a pull away from the teaching paradigm I was used to in both public and private schools. I even felt at times that I should leave the teaching profession, if I couldn’t teach the way I felt I was learning through these experiences. Then a wonderful opportunity presented itself.
The opportunity to teach alongside Dr. Jennifer Spencer at Willow Tree Community School opened in the summer of 2012. My children and I left the familiar to enter the extraordinary. I have had the privilege and personal challenge to work with Forms 3 and 4 in most subjects, instruct science and architecture to all forms, teach Spanish to the first year students, and work with emergent readers.
I learned a new idea during this first year at Willow Tree. It came from our reading of Ourselves in our Charlotte Mason Study Group. Here it is: “The Courage of Capacity-the courage which assures us that we can do the particular work which comes in our way, and will not lend an ear to the craven fear which reminds us of failures in the past and unfitness in the present. It is Intellectual Courage, too, which enables us to grapple with tasks of the mind with a sense of adequacy.” This living idea has served me well this year and reminded me to keep moving forward with “Courage of Capacity.”
We have read so many wonderful living books in the last two terms and have had great conversations about these books. The concept of reading in little bits, talking about the selection, and then returning to the next short passage another day were all new concepts to me. Giving the students the opportunity to share their thoughts about what was read, heard, or studied opened my eyes to how much a teacher will talk and not listen. Don’t get me wrong, the children don’t run the show. But, they are equal partners in learning.
And, just as interesting as watching the children learn in this way is the connections they make to previous learning. It is amazing to see how the students connect with what they have already read or learned in the past with the present text or event. They talk about these connections, the various points of view, and then they frequently come to conclusions on their own.
I feel like my past experiences were to beat the text to death in hopes that the students would be able to read it aloud and answer some simple questions, which we had already covered in previous days. In essence, feed baby student, burp baby student, and then baby student throws back up what the teacher thought was important. This does not require students to labor with their minds, a major requirement in a Charlotte Mason education. I don’t want to ever go back to the former type of teaching again. It is so demeaning and stifling. I also feel that it is very disrespectful of the personhood of the child.
Giving exams at the end of the term instead of weekly tests and grades was a big change for me. Writing the examination questions was not hard, but the thought that the students will have to explain in writing what they remember for the whole term was overwhelming. The joy was reading their answers to their examination questions and seeing how much they remembered and how what they read, heard, and studied affected them.
Here are some quotes from my family and a friend that we feel are the signs that my husband and I had followed the direction of the Holy Spirit and made the right decision for our family by joining the Willow Tree Community School.
Our daughter, Abigail, said after the first term of school: “I want to do more Math. I get it.” This was an amazing answer to prayer for us! Abigail has struggled with math since kindergarten and has stated daily her hate for Math since second grade. Even with help from her parents, teachers, and outside tutoring, Math was never an easy subject for her. Today, I can say that she likes Math, is able to understand it, and is able to tell my husband and me how she knows her answer is correct and how she came to her answer.
Our son, Christian, said after the first term of school: “I like Willow Tree because I don’t get made fun of. Our school has rules that we follow if we have problems with one another. First you sit down and say what you feel happened. The other person gets to say how they feel. We each talk about what we did right and wrong. Together we come up with what we should have done. We ask each other for forgiveness for what we did wrong. Then we go on with our day, not bringing it up again.”
My husband, Chris, said after the first term of school: “Christian and Abigail enjoy school as evidenced by their daily success, recounting their joys in learning, and exploring different subjects. Their love for reading has grown even more and they have no stress, worries, or frustrations about grades or tests every Friday or every nine weeks. In previous years there was stress about homework, tests, and projects and other school-related events. In addition to school requirements and church, family, and other activities there was no time for our children to play, discover, and explore. At Willow Tree Community School our children are able to be themselves and use their gifting to learn. Our children have played, explored, and learned at school and at home this year more than in all the previous years at other schools. I look at The Willow Tree School website and see the pictures of our children and others with smiles on their faces as they explore and learn and I know this is what learning should be about. There is a peace at our house since my wife and kids are at the Willow Tree. Thank you Willow Tree that my wife and children are happy again.”
My son’s piano teacher, Pam, said after the second week of school, “Christian is like a different child. He can sit and play without complaining about school. He has really grown in his understanding of music theory, various pieces of music, and he is able to enjoy what he plays. I look forward to our time together each week.” This is a huge change for Christian. He has had a bent for playing piano since he was in second grade. He spent the previous year using his piano instructor’s time to complain about school, homework, and about being tired. Last year his piano teacher was frustrated with him every week during their thirty minutes together, plus he didn’t want to practice daily.
As you can gather from this blog, our year at Willow Tree Community School has been a huge improvement over our past school experiences. What a privilege it is for me to go to work each day and for my children to go to school.
© Wendy Wilson 2013