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A Matter of Choice


A Matter of Choice

When you're in the business of shedding light on great things going on in great schools, there are always one or two standouts that just seem to keep popping up every year on the list of places to go. This was definitely the case with The Freeburg School in Waterloo, IA. Dr. Maryann Manning, longtime columnist for Teaching K-8 and professor of Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was very familiar with the work of Dr. Rheta DeVries, professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Research Fellow at the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Dr. Manning had also invited Beth VanMeeteren, one of Freeburg's teachers, to present twice at her MidSouth Reading Conference. She was all too eager to travel to Waterloo this past October to make sure that Freeburg's story finally made it to our pages.

School hallway art

This wire sculpture of a stegosaurus was created by first and second graders and art teacher, Annette Swann.

Open doors. Time and time again we've found that truly groundbreaking schools like Freeburg are almost always born out of the simplest of wishes - to give the best education possible to the children in the school's surrounding community. In 2001, in partnership with the Waterloo school system, the R.J. McElroy Trust, Janice Freeburg-Cannon, Tri-County Head Start, Allen Health System, the University of Northern Iowa and the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education created a special model for early childhood education that would eventually become The Freeburg School. With four classrooms operating on the University's Allen College campus, Freeburg offers a one-of-a-kind education plus before-, after- and summer-school programs for 66 students ages three through the second grade, including children with disabilities. From its inception, the framework of Freeburg was designed to provide a constructivist education that involves students with activities that engage interest, stimulate experimentation with the physical world and promote cooperation. Freeburg also fosters a loving and unbiased environment in which children experience and learn the tenets of mutual respect.

Two students cooking

Order up! First and second graders are hard at work making pancakes. Freeburg's teachers have found that cooking engages kids in science, math and literacy.

Not only is the school a special place for teaching kids positive ways of interacting with their world and with each other, but it's also a place for teachers to free themselves from the constraints of traditional teaching methods. "We're about choice because when we choose an activity and choose how to engage in it, we are more likely to invest the kind of deep level of physical and mental energy that leads to true understanding," Dr. DeVries commented. "Opportunities for a considerable amount of choice is one piece that is important for children's development of intellectual and moral autonomy. That is not to say that children should be able to choose everything they do. The schedule calls for group time, outdoor time, reading time, etc., in which choice to do something else is constrained."

Among the long list of exemplary choices that Freeburg is making is the decision to open its doors to parents, researchers, pre-service and practicing teachers. The school offers frequent professional development workshops on constructivist education (Freeburg's teachers give workshops on evenings, Saturdays and during the summer) and also allows visitors to observe the incredible daily goings-on of its classrooms through one-way mirrors.

Kindergartners shake hands

Conflict solved. Kindergartners arrive at a peaceful solution.

Good mistakes? Dr. DeVries also spoke at length about how one of the main goals at Freeburg is to encourage their students to believe in the feasibility of their own ideas and in themselves as competent thinkers. "I think that we have made a terrible mistake in teaching our children that errors are not good things," she said. "In traditional education, we teach children that they should know something before they know it and errors are not something to be tolerated. I think that when we tell children that they are wrong in their ideas, we teach them not to trust their own thinking."

Not only is Freeburg dedicated to taking the traditional pressures of learning off their students' shoulders, but they also believe it's essential that the teachers are also allowed some room to breathe. The administration considers Freeburg a place for teachers to experiment with what methods will work in the classroom and fully encourage something they refer to as "error-informed experimentation" to happen. "We expect error-informed experimentation to occur in a teacher's development as much as we do in a student's development," said Dr. DeVries. "And so, what happens is if a teacher has an idea and tries something out and finds out that it doesn't work, that's not something we feel bad about. That's an opportunity for learning."

Class of four year olds

Gwen Harmon, teacher of four-year-olds, sings a song along with her students.

We'll let that one sink in for a bit. A school that looks at mistakes in the classroom as opportunities? You better believe it. "I think when we say we value error-informed experimentation, people get the misconception that we are satisfied with children's errors," said Dr. DeVries. "That's not true at all. What it does is inform us about what errors children have. And then it's our job as teachers to figure out how to set up the environment so that children will figure out for themselves that they have a misconception." This principle of teaching is designed so that kids aren't deciding something is right because it came from an outside source. They'll decide something is right because after arriving at the answer themselves, they know it's right.

Young student

A young Freeburg student is all eyes and ears.

Establishing boundaries. In addition to misconceptions about error-informed experimentation, Freeburg's staff has found that outsiders are often not entirely sure what exactly constructivist education is all about. "I think people see it as permissive chaos," said Christina Sales, Freeburg's lead teacher of three-year-olds. "We are trying to give children choice, but it is within boundaries that we give them those choices." Freeburg teachers look for opportunities to engage students in making classroom rules. In Christina's class, children wanted the rules to say, "No hitting," "No biting," and what's probably considered the Golden Rule in a three-year-old's world - "No knocking down other people's blocks."

Little philosophers. Constructivist theory is based on the work Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. He viewed children as creators of knowledge and concluded from his research that their knowledge and intelligence is constructed when their interest is captured by engaging activities and experiments with the physical world. The development of each child's personal autonomy and the importance of choice is also key, as is fostering cooperation between adults and children and among children themselves.

Among the many real-world experiments we saw in evidence at Freeburg were kids happily making pancakes and a project called "Ramps and Pathways." The students are actually engaged in physics of force and motion when they build pathway structures for marbles.

Students perform experiment

Ramps and pathways. This physical science activity never fails to fascinate Freeburg's students - or its visitors.

An easy choice. As teachers who embrace this constructivist theory, Freeburg's staff has found themselves having to explain their teaching methods on a fairly regular basis - something they're happy to do. Dr. DeVries and Beth VanMeeteren, Freeburg's first and second grade lead teacher, are presenting a paper at the Association for Constructivist Teaching that answers the question, "Are constructivist classrooms unstructured?" "Our answer is that they are structured," Dr. DeVries told us. "The constructivist teacher also endeavors to establish a relationship with each child so that the child feels psychologically safe and cared for."

For such a positive approach to teaching and one that clearly seems to be working, constructivist education seems to be fraught with misconceptions. A common one is that it's an educational privilege only available to middle-class children. Although Waterloo is certainly not a large city, it does have many of the same problems a large urban setting would have. "I wanted Freeburg to be in a low-income neighborhood because I believe that children from families in poverty deserve the best educational opportunities," said Dr. DeVries. "I think I've been supported in my belief that these children could do just as well because they've responded to this approach to education in a marvelous way."

So, after attending a school devoted to giving kids choices and building their confidence in establishing their own way of thinking, do you think the students at The Freeburg School would choose to go anywhere else? We're willing to bet, if given the choice, they would answer with a resounding "No way!"