What I Didn't Do at School Today


Today, a five-year-old boy came looking for me. "How do you spell bandit?" he wanted to know. "B-A-N-D-I-T," I told him, then found a scrap of paper and printed it out. He took the paper back to the office, where he was working at the computer terminal with a six-year-old girl.

About ten minutes later, he came looking for me yet again, this time with pen and paper in hand. "How do you spell cinnamon?" he asked. Then back he went to the office, leaving me to imagine the plot of a story that had both bandit and cinnamon in it.

Obviously, both students were learning spelling and composition, as well as how to use the computer and to work cooperatively. Arguably, the boy was also developing planning skills: note that on the second trip he thought to bring supplies — pen and paper. For all I know, the girl was, too; she could have sent the boy to learn how the words were spelled. Both of the children were learning, as they would at any well-functioning school.

At schools committed to self-initiated learning, adult behavior is what looks the least familiar. I neither assigned nor scheduled their activity. I didn't grade what they were doing, even to say, "What an interesting story you must be writing!" I merely answered the question I was asked, replying, "B-A-N-D-I-T" instead of countering with "Bbuh — what letter do you think bandit begins with?" Had I been busy when the boy addressed me, I would have said so, and continued with what I was doing. In printing out the words, I was consciously doing what contemporary pedagogy suggests, that is, combining visual with aural information.

Other staff would respond differently, and their ways would work, too: motivated students will make good use of whatever comes their way. Though essential for the operation of the school, staff members' specific skills are less relevant to students than the relationship between staff and student. The bandit/cinnamon authors may have asked me to help them because they know that I, too, write stories, or because they like me — or simply because I happened to be nearby when they needed to know how to spell bandit.

Nan Narboe is a founder of Cascade Valley School in Portland, Oregon.