“What do you do? Is your job hard?” –IVs Students
This year, as in most years, the IVs asked me some big questions when I visited their classroom. I tried to give an answer that felt satisfying for them and for me, but it was challenging to explain my role in ways that would make sense to them. Most of my job as Principal is opaque to the students, and aside from a few tangible examples I could give, I replied simply that, “My job is hard and busy, but also something I love doing.” I left hoping that they weren’t disappointed by my description.
My conversation with the IVs led me to reflect on the Jobs the VIIIs–XIIIs have in our School and why they are such an important part of our curriculum. Unlike my role as Principal, these Jobs are fully transparent: all the required elements and tasks can be understood and done by the students. When the VIIIs run the Post Office or the XIIIs create the Newspaper, they are able to perform the entirety of their Jobs—very little adult or machine work is done in the background. As Caroline Pratt wrote in I Learn from Children, each Group, “should have a whole job, with the adventure of planning and the glamour of accomplishment, no less than the necessary drudgery which is part of all work. And the job must be real. It must be of actual service or the essence of it is lost.” We don’t task our students with their Jobs in order to train postal workers or printing press operators or shopkeepers. We choose these Jobs specifically because the students are able to immerse themselves in the activities, master the relevant skills, and through them, gain deeper insights into the complex systems that make up a community. The experiential learning that happens in our Jobs program and across our School is at the center of our curriculum and pedagogy precisely because it supports our students’ innate desire to understand the world around them.
In the younger Groups, block building serves a similar purpose to the older students’ Jobs. Children begin to represent the world around them in their structures, recreating in miniature what they see and experience inside and outside their classrooms. Through building and experimentation, they are able to explore what they observe and reconcile what they already know with what they learn on trips, in books, or from experts. In this way, blocks are a tool through which ideas from Social Studies become more transparent and more tangible to them. As in the Jobs, the experiential learning that happens in the block program enables students to grapple with new concepts and skills in a way that imbues them with greater context and meaning.
These experiences are essential to having children become deeply engaged in their own learning. Technology, for all the opportunities it presents, can also act as a black box. It often obscures process, focusing our attention on inputs and outputs rather than lending itself to deeper explorations of causality and interdependence. Our children’s opportunities to see all aspects of a complex system are increasingly rare, making these transparent-process experiences so much more important. Giving children reason to believe that they can understand what they observe in the world—and participate in it—feeds their curiosity, strengthens their agency, and encourages their development as thinkers and problem-solvers.
I see this dynamic at work outside of my office door four days a week, when the School Store is open. PenEx, as it is called this year, carries all of the essential items that C&C classrooms and offices need for their daily functions. With a line of customers waiting, the IXs must total sales and write receipts. If a customer is buying four pencils, the IXs need to compute—quickly—$0.38 times 4. As they do so, they see the practical value of multi-digit multiplication, gaining facility with this skill both during Store hours and in class. It’s important that the IXs keep the line moving and compute totals accurately—if they aren’t able to get to the IIs Teachers at the end of the line, the IIs might not be able to paint that day. As the day-to-day operations of PenEx have unfolded, I’ve also overheard thoughtful discussions about how to measure profit and loss (per item or per day?), negotiations over daily responsibilities, and spirited sales pitches to prospective customers—all of which were student-led.
The School Store is just one example of how each child’s daily work at C&C is rooted in meaning-making. The need to engage in problem-solving comes from many sources, far beyond specific requests from the teachers. Whether it’s the VIs’ working together to build and understand the School through blocks, the Xs’ quest to communicate important information to everyone in the community, or the XIIs’ close relationships with the IVs for whom they are responsible, I see how a sense of purpose—and the accountability it engenders—provide children with the opportunity to recognize their importance to the Group and to the School. This learning calls on our students to approach their work with ingenuity, commitment, creativity, and perseverance, and I am always impressed by how they rise to meet each new task.
Our students' work at school is challenging by design; it is also deeply engaging. We combine experiences that are relevant with processes that are transparent, and in so doing, we are able to tap into students’ intrinsic motivation and enable it to become the driving force in their learning—one of the core tenets of progressive education. While my role as Principal may be destined to remain opaque to the IVs for now, I know that their C&C experiences in the years to come will give them the tools they need to understand this and the many other, more complex mysteries that they will surely encounter. The transparency of this learning process—to me at least—is part of what makes my job so extraordinarily rewarding.