Our school is very different from most. Children at The Patchwork School spend their days engaged in hands-on, self-directed activities of their own choosing. They learn through play, and they work hard at it as they negotiate with children of various ages, learning how to communicate their feelings and needs. Teachers and students explore new ideas together through field trips, conversations, research, and trial and error. The community creates its own rules through group discussion and consensus building, while each person learns how to lead and how to listen. We learn to take care of one another and our world with kindess and compassion. We teach people how to stand up for themselves and each other. Ultimately "Patchwork" means we have woven together various philsophies to meet the children where they are at. It also means that each day we work to "patch" together this unique community so we can live and learn together.
We are practicing Democratic Education, while we also utilize aspects of other philosophies, primarily Humane Education as well as aspects of Reggio Emilia and even some components of Waldorf and Montessori.
We beilieve that community is the ultimate goal. If we can learn to become not just independent, but interdependent then we can both give and receive freely. Rather than being dependent on rules or authority, we can be self-regulating.
We believe that children must have freedom in order to learn and that learning is a natural process, so we do not utilize grades or testing and children are always allowed to choose if they would like to participate. This means they will experience both success and failure, and learn how to accept both and move forward.
We also believe that with freedom comes responsibility to one's community, so that it is not a "free-for-all" but that children learn how to respond to others' limits as well as the limits of their environment so that everyone is safe. Children are also included in creating limits and holding themselves to their agreeements.
We believe in teaching and modeling compassion so that children learn how to lead, to follow and to resolve conflict with non-violent communication. These are essential skills for this 21st century world.
We believe that people should be able to create their own education, to define success for themselves in order to reach self-actualization. This means that we will get to know each child, meet them where they are at, and see them as a whole person. They will experience self-direction, meaning and joy.
We believe that when we offer children tools and opportunities to speak thier minds, they will learn to stand up for themselves and each other, allowing them to become agents for change in the world.
Do you have grades or tests?
No, we don't have grades (on papers or to separate students) and no tests.
How do you assess what children know?
We get to know them very well, through observation, through conversations with the families, and by building relationships.
Will they ever learn to read and write and do math?
Yes! When we value the "life of the mind" and we expose children to it, they eventually pick it up, just as they learn to walk and talk. Often they pick it up more quickly than when we try to make them sit down to be taught!
How do you promote learning in this philosophy?
Learning happens all the time! At Patchwork we encourage it in a multitude of ways - through peer interactions and relationships, through provocations set out by teachers, via offerings hosted by students, teachers and community members, and by allowing students time to observe and experience life!
I have heard the environment can be chaotic, is this true?
We don't consider chaos to necessarily be a bad thing. Sometimes life is chaotic and messy, and it's better to acknowledge that fact and learn tools for how to manage stress than to pretend it doesn't exist. Also, we would rather have a fluid environment that does allow for hectic moments than attempting to control every moment by having people unnecessarily stand in lines or have to wait until everyone is finished.
What happens if they transition to another type of environment?
Everyone leaves Patchwork eventually, and we recognize that regardless of where they go there will be differences. We work with the children and the family to acknowledge the transition, helping everyone to prepare for what may lie ahead. Research and experience has shown that this type of philosophy develops resourcefulness, confidence, and excellent communication skills that help the child adapt easily to any new challenge that comes their way.
Democratic Education is the term used to describe an approach to education where every individual is actively engaged in the learning process. Rather than passively receiving information, children and teachers in democratic schools act as co-constructors of knowledge, working together to build an understanding of the world, fueled by their interests. As evidenced by the alternative approach to conflict resolution, wherein children take responsibility for themselves and other members of the community, there is a strong emphasis on self-regulation and the importance of owning one's experience of the world. Additionally, there is an understanding in democratic education that emotional and social health are of utmost importance. We cannot attend to children's minds unless we first attend to their hearts. "Democratic Education is an education grounded in meaning, relevancy, joy, community, love and human rights," as defined by the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).
Humane Education is an approach to education that is primarily concerned with each person's awareness of humanity and our collective impact on the world. We exist in relationship to each other, to animals and to the world, so we nurture kindness and compassion in our children and ourselves. From the Institute for Humane Education:
Humane education includes 4 elements:
- Providing accurate information about the issues of our time so that people have the information they need to understand the consequences of their decisions as citizens.
- Fostering curiosity, creativity and critical thinking so people can evaluate information and solve problems.
- Instilling reverence, respect and responsibility so people have the motivation to face challenges and to act with integrity.
- Offering positive choices that benefit oneself, other people, the animals, and the Earth, and tools for problem solving so that people are empowered to create a more humane world.
Reggio Emilia is an approach to education which began post-WWII in Reggio Emilia, Italy, when a group of mothers decided they wanted an education for their children that would allow the children to think for themselves. What emerged from their efforts has become an inspiration to early-childhood educators around the world, including those of us here at The Patchwork School.
In Reggio Emilia, an image of the child as a competent and capable contributor to the community is held by all. Children are viewed as having many "languages" in which they communicate their understanding of their world, so there is great emphasis on symbolic representation in the learning process. Curriculum in Reggio Emilia, just as in Democratic Education, is emergent, meaning that it arises from the interests of the members of the community. There is a strong belief in the power of group-learning for children, as well as the wisdom of co-teaching, where teachers always have one or more peers with which to share ideas and questions about the children's interests and process. Check out our Emergent Curriculum page for more details.
When we founded Patchwork, we were intentional about our desire to create real and meaningful community for the families who choose our school. It seems obvious that schools should be places that bring people together because this is where we see each other each day, where we hear about each other's lives and where we care for each other. We have watched Patchwork grow into a hub where people gather to talk about important matters, feel supported in their growth as parents and individuals, ask hard questions and be heard.
We also serve as a living resource for the larger community in Boulder County. Through various projects such as our raised garden beds built with the help of Project YES volunteers and Transition Louisville, our Halloween Parade for the elderly residents at local senior homes, and our Step Stool Project for local businesses, we work to build real community while advocating for children's rights to be seen and heard.
As we venture out with the K-12 children on our Field Work Days it is apparent that we are not the only ones who want children to be visible in the community. We have received a hearty welcome from several members of the community, including the friendly people at In Season Local Market who let our children help put food onto the shelves of their soon-to-open store. We also collaborated several times with teachers and students at Louisville Middle School, who invited us to a retelling of the Declaration of Independence, specially written by 8th graders for a younger audience.
When we use the term "freedom", we are referring to the right that every person has to think, act and feel the way they prefer. We are not saying that a person, at every stage of life, should always be allowed to do exactly what they want, but rather that freedom should be preserved in accordance with a person's development. A 3 year old, for example, should not have freedom of choice regarding whether he or she sits in a car seat because that is not a freedom they would handle appropriately at their current stage of development. However, the same 3 year old could handle (with relative ease) the freedom to choose what to do with an unscheduled block of time. They might draw, play with trains, talk to a friend, read a book or sit quietly, each of which could be exactly what that individual child needed in that moment.
Why is freedom important? Because without it we are unable to develop an inner compass. When we are allowed to be free, we are afforded the opportunity to look closely at ourselves and to self-actualize (be who we truly are). When we create a free environment like the one at Patchwork, we are saying that we trust children. We offer them freedom because we want them to practice choosing how to spend time within a safe, supportive environment. In essence, we want them to practice being free as a child before they are free as an adult. As adults, we often don't know what to do with our freedom, because for the first 18 years of our lives, it wasn't a regular part of our reality. Learning how to navigate one's life early and often sets the groundwork for a confident and centered adulthood, reducing the likelihood that one will spend early adulthood trying to "find themselves."
It is important to clarify that the free environment we create for children is within the context of our school community. This means that there is a big difference between being "free" and having a "free for all". Because we balance freedom with responsibility to the community, my rights must end when they start to infringe upon yours. Another way to say this is that we provide the children with a strong "container." This allows children to feel the natural limits that are present within a community. The container is present for any age group, but as a child grows within Patchwork they become better at noticing when they are bumping up against the edges of the container without needing as much support from their community.
One simple example is that the children are free to sit wherever they choose for lunch, eat whatever they choose from their lunchbox and to stop eating whenever they are finished. However, each child is expected to help clean up their own lunch, otherwise the community would be burdened with quite a large mess. Some of the younger children require more help with cleanup and with remembering this step in the process. As the children grow they become quite adept at cleaning everything up on their own and even helping other children as well.
Much has been written about the importance of being kind to each other and we see the heart of compassion as just that: kindness. We encourage children, through modeling and scaffolding, to consider each other's point of view or do what is known as "perspective sharing". Through the practice of listening to each other and being heard, we watch as children become more and more skilled at caring communication, laying the groundwork for a life of compassionate interaction with others.
We also want children to have real experiences that provide opportunities to feel compassion for animals and other living things. In addition to having the children help us plant and care for our garden, we also adopted our rabbit Poppy Seed who lives at school during the week and goes home with a different family each weekend. Poppy is a wonderful pet and a living, breathing practice in compassion.
Self-direction is a term we use to refer to a person's inner compass which is the guide accessed when all barriers are removed. Most of the systems we encounter present us with many barriers. Our society usually does not encourage us, especially in childhood and even often in adulthood, to exercise our inner compasses. At Patchwork we are therefore attempting to reverse this trend.
What we need in the world are conscious humans who are accustomed to asking hard questions and taking a stand when things do not seem quite right. We need innovative thinkers but more than that, we need people who can trust their hearts and have cultivated their ability to think for themselves.
When we are directed by our inner compass we find meaning in what we are doing. To say that we "find meaning" in something is to say that we feel a certain truth in our experience. When someone else creates an experience for us we can feel the truth that might exist for them, but when we create our own experience of the world, we feel the truth that exists for us. We are able to say, "That felt right; that felt meaningful to me."
This means that we try to have "nothing out of context," meaning we do not teach the letter R on Tuesday just because it is letter R day. Instead, we write Ryan's name on the white board during morning meeting because he has an idea to share with the group, and thus end up modeling (in context) the usefulness of the letter R. Imposing arbitrary constraints on learning only serves to hamper the natural process of learning. Since we know that children are wired to learn, we trust that they will encounter knowledge (like the letter R) when it is meaningful to them and within context.
Joy is the experience of truth which is freeing because nothing is hidden. Joy is felt when there is no hidden agenda or ulterior motives for our actions. When we find meaning in what we are doing, we feel it in our hearts, where we don't get away with any facade. Joy comes very easily to children, and at Patchwork we are committed to ensuring that everyone's experience of joy is wild and abundant.
Joy is often found in play, the natural work of children, so children will be found playing all throughout the day, and will likely say that they just played all day. We believe this is a good thing, as learning doesn't have to be painful.
Agents for Change
People who can trust their hearts and think for themselves are the same people who will take action when it matters. Regardless of age, a person can be an agent for change in the world. To be an agent for change is really to be a citizen, or a true, engaged member of a community. .