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Pushing Out the Walls of the Classroom

by Maura Joyce, Head of School | From the November 2018 issue of The Post

Walking around Post Oak this week I was reminded of how we intentionally have a lot of windows. These big windows are there to bring the outside into the classroom environment. We have more windows than walls as Dr. Maria Montessori intended. Montessori dedicated her life to designing classrooms that would meet the needs of the children who worked within them. She was particular about details, fastidious about its arrangement, exact about materials, and ensured that it was complete in its design. No matter how famous her classrooms became, she was wise enough to know that she needed to keep the “walls” of the classroom “open.” Montessori created a place for children to have many, many experiences, but she knew that all the work inside the classroom was simply a preparation for a bigger classroom. Montessori’s main purpose of education was to prepare the children for the time and culture in which they live. She recognized that the classroom was not limited to the four walls and materials inside it. Children need experiences beyond that; they need to get out.

At Post Oak, our youngest students in Young Children’s Community and Primary use the outside environment as an extension of their work. Toddler-aged children on the playground digging in the sand, walking on the brick path, swinging in the swing, are continuing the very important work of coordination of their movements. In the Primary classroom, students work both indoors and outside in the garden, which is designed to meet their physical and intellectual needs. Pulling weeds in the raised bed, picking greens for a salad, observing a caterpillar, sweeping the leaves, or just sitting and listening to the sounds of the birds are part of their experiential learning environment. This often leads to more work inside, as children will choose to draw and write about their experiences outside.

Once in Elementary, the older child begins to move outside of the school. Field trips are organized by the teachers in Lower and Upper Elementary offering a variety of experiences: performances, museums, botanic gardens. These are full of all sorts of lessons beyond the focus of the learning objective—traveling in a bus or car with a different adult, sitting quietly, applauding appropriately, waiting in a line, interaction with other people in a public setting, are important things to practice. Elementary teachers also schedule these all-class field trips to give the students an idea of places where they can further their studies.

As their independence grows, Elementary students venture even further, enjoying a different type of field trip—something called “going out.” A “going out” is organized by the students and is related to their work and interests. When I first began teaching, I was not quite sure of the “going out” concept myself, but quickly learned what it was all about at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, where I was teaching.

Six of my students had decided to study the history of transportation and organized a “going out” to the Transportation Hall at the museum. My students called to find the hours, looked up which metro route we would take, got permission from their parents, and brought money for the train. We got on the train with notebooks in hand and an agenda—Casey would be looking at boats, Matt had trains, Max took horse-drawn vehicles, and Sam would handle anything that flew. We came up from the metro to see the large museum building, surrounded by many large yellow buses. We were not the only students visiting on that day. Later on, as my students sat quietly on the floor, sketching canoes, writing about steam engines, and estimating the wingspan of gliders, a large group of 30 loud, talkative elementary students walked through the hall at lightning speed, pointing to a few things and following the teacher’s cry of “Move along everyone, move along.” These two groups of students had two different experiences. My students used the museum as an extension of the classroom.

At Middle School, the work of the adolescent takes them even further afield. The Blackwood Land Institute provides students with a two-and-a-half-day intensive course, learning about sustainable farm practices, locavore cooking, animal husbandry, and the science involved in keeping this land lab functioning. A week in Washington, DC, gives them the opportunity to learn about law and government, and students choose activities from a menu of topical experiences. Each of those events, for example, a visit to the Supreme Court, directly relates to their work in the classroom, e.g., they are getting ready for a mock trial that will take place at an appellate court here in Houston. Read about the DC trip in their own words starting on page 9.

Lastly, at High School, we see that final preparation for the world outside of school through our internship program. Fifty-eight percent of our High School students currently have an active internship. This time spent outside of class provides the student with the practice of holding a job, interacting with adults who are specialists in their field, and trying out an area of interest to see if it will serve them in the future. Most importantly the students get to practice soft skills, like self-awareness and problem solving, which are much more effectively experienced during an internship than a class lecture. We could teach math all day long, but until students see math used out there in the world, they won’t appreciate the fundamentals of their coursework and the use of it across so many disciplines.

This is how Post Oak extends learning beyond the walls of the classroom. This is how we prepare our students for their world.