Every year when public school kids are hunched over the FCAT, the students at the funky SunFlower School in Gulfport are putting the last touches on their production of a Shakespeare play.
For Molly Barnes, that juxtaposition says a lot about the differences in philosophy between the public school system and the private school she co-directed for 25 years.
"We believe that every child is gifted and respectable, worthy of the greatest efforts we can make every day," she writes in A Good Day for Uncle Elmo, her new self-published book. "We think children learn best through active involvement just as competent adults do. We believe that education must be a joyful and creative experience."
At SunFlower, an elementary school with about 60 students, you're not in first grade or second grade; you're in Maria's group or Linda's group. You don't receive letter grades, but the staff has frequent conversations with your parents about how you're doing. Instead of gym class you get lots of play time. The focus is not on rules but on responsibility and cooperation. Kids write and draw every day and routinely go barefoot.
Barnes, the wife of former St. Petersburg Times chairman Andrew Barnes, retired from SunFlower in 2005; Uncle Elmo is her memoir of her time there. "Children are messy, full of contradictions, irritating and direct," she writes. "I loved going to work with them every day. I love the people they are and I love imagining them as the people they will someday be."
The $19.99 paperback is available at Bayboro Books in St. Petersburg and www.xlibris.com; search on the title. Here are excerpts.
Mike Wilson, managing editor/enterprise
The phone rings about 8:30 in the evening. A deep male voice identifies itself as belonging to the father of one of my 10-year-old students. "On that problem about how you dropped your purse from the top of the Washington Monument and it was intercepted by a flamingo . . ." This person is very seriously asking for help on how to explain something on the home- work to his child. I mention our current investigation of the Pytha-gorean Theorem and similar tri- angles. Immediately this dad knows what to do. Never does he miss the slightest beat to wonder how in the world I came up with such a wildly improbable story problem on the homework sheet.
From time to time, a student or parent will call in the evening, and I will know from the questions that this particular child is temporarily lost on the homework and probably didn't understand the class work in the first place. I tell the child to do something else and we will unravel the mystery in class the next day. Undoubtedly, if one child is having trouble, there must be others in the same state of confusion.
From personal experience, I know what it feels like to struggle to understand mathematical concepts, especially when the teacher has a different style from the student's. So I spend a lot of time and energy trying to give my students ideas for different strategies which will work for them. First, each child must be comfortable enough in class and with me to be able to say honestly that they don't get it or that they get it but the concept flickers in and out like an old Charlie Chaplin movie. For those who need a lot of visual input to understand a story problem, I draw pictures and have them draw pictures. It works for many kids who seem overwhelmed by enormous numbers to restate the problem using tiny simple numerical quantities and solve the problem with that, then see what they did, then apply that concept to the original problem.
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Children, always interested in food, love the menu problems we give. Sometimes we copy real menus we get from restaurants and then make up problems to accompany them. Other times we invent bizarre menus of our own. The kids love to see such menu items as "limp lettuce and snails" for an appetizer, or "fried giant squid on a bed of kelp" for an entree. We discuss tipping and how to make a fast calculation in one's head for 15 percent. Then they must add tax before checking the change from a $100 bill — "Geez, Molly, I NEVER even saw one of those!" Unfortunately, the waiter accidentally sets their uncle's hat on fire in the restaurant so the restaurant deducts 50 percent of the bill for causing trouble. Now, what's the total?
We also have the oldest children run their own school store where they have a small amount of cash to stock pencils, notebooks, folders and other basic necessities. They keep records of inventory and what they sell. They buy store stuff at discount and sell it at a very small mark-up. They love having promotions and sales and raffles of small items. On school store day, they lay out their inventory on tables, and the other kids come to see what's there and buy what they need. Kids love to shop.
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In three days, everything will be ready. All the tissue-paper flowers will be wired onto the bare branches already nailed to boards placed on the stage. All the players will have their costumes pinned, sewed and imagined into place. Each child's props will be stowed in their brown paper bags and labeled in magic marker with their names. All will know their lines, and the father who will do the lighting will have as many extension cords as necessary. Darrell, the music teacher, will have all the sound equipment in place. It's spring and the time is at hand for our annual play.
At this point in a play production, I am not sleeping well in the hours before sunrise. I am making mental lists and worrying out of all proportion about tiny details: Should there be strawberries in the punch to be served after the performance? During the day I sit in the darkened rehearsal hall, marveling at these children who, at ages 8 through 11, are staging a real Shakespearean play. I think for the hundredth time that this is truly one of the best three things someone can provide in elementary education.
Just give me a pile of sand, some bags of clay and a play script — I have a whole curriculum. For the play script, Shakespeare is far and away the best vehicle — even for children so young.
Word for Word is an occasional feature excerpting passages of interest from books, magazines, Web sites and other sources. Text may be edited for space.