The other day, I was showing a prospective family around the school and Will's name came up in conversation. 'We've heard of him,' they said. 'Our friend's daughter says he is the best teacher she ever had.'
Will started teaching in the 1980's and has worked in schools in New Hampshire, Colorado, and Michigan (teaching students in grades K through 12). He has taken his passion for education outside the classroom: he has run his own educational game company, taught teaching methods and poetry as an adjunct professor at the UM, supervised student teachers, and started a tutoring and writing services business. He is a published poet and the father of two amazing girls (one an SK alumna).
Will's goals for his students are that they should be self-motivated, playful, energetic learners and thinkers, exploring for the joy of exploration, internally motivated, confident, with a solid skill-set to take them into the future. I always say to families who are interested in SK that our goal is for each child to be the most - and best - themselves that they can possibly be. That is Will's focus and intent. So how does he get there?
Much of the work that is done in Will's classroom is project-based learning and exploration. It engages the students' own ideas and sense of direction so that they are passionate themselves about the journeys they make. 'As a teacher,' he told me, 'I know I'm doing a good job if I'm in the background, as a guide, I get to start the ball and watch them run with it, roll with it, play with it...' His role as a facilitator is to respond to the energy his students bring into the classroom. Along the way he encourages, gives feedback, develops skills. 'I help them see that there is a more difficult road ahead - one that's worth taking - you need better shoes. No cop-outs.' The result is that he has students who clamor to come in from recess so that they can continue working and take their activities further. When they find they have five minutes of time they ask to bring out other work: 'Yay, I get to work on math!'
Everything, from working on spelling to major units like the hybrid car project, involves choices that the children can buy into on their own terms, and different facets of skill-training and higher level thinking. Spelling development is based in their own work and study, and they are given creative options to enhance their understanding as well as memorization of the vocabulary. In this as in other projects, Will says, 'I'm not the one saying you have to do A, B or C. I offer them creative opportunities that give them a sense that learning doesn't have to have boundaries, which is really important for kids to experience learning as exciting, joyful for its own sake.' That internal motivation is a big part of Summers-Knoll's philosophy. It's why we don't give grades, why we de-emphasize testing. We want the children to learn with passion, not depend on external expectations.
Will's students spill out of the classroom on a regular basis, and bounce happily around the school measuring, discussing, experimenting. You have to be careful coming out of the office sometimes in case you get a helium-powered gondola disputing your right-of-way. The children come into the office too, to get what they need. 'We want to measure you!' some of them told me a short while ago, and pulled me out to stand me up against the wall. It turned out they were trying to find out where in the world had an average yearly rainfall that was equivalent to my height. They write creative poems and stories that are uniquely their own. They write letters and essays on social justice that come from their hearts. They do independent projects that give them opportunities to delve deep into their own interests. They engage themselves in their work, and their studies are in large part self-studies, explorations of who they are and how they relate to their world on many levels. Over all this, Will's gentle presence supports, encourages, questions, and laughs with them. It's a very happy classroom.
I'm honored to have Will as a teacher in this school. He is an unusual man and an exceptional educator. He is a great example of what progressive education is about. He has been a guiding light to me for most of my SK teaching and administrative career, and his values have informed and inspired the whole school. I'll never forget the moment last year when I told one of our parents that he would be teaching her child. She turned to her daughter and said, 'You lucky, lucky girl.' The child looked puzzled, and the mother said, 'You've been taught by Joanna, by David, by Catie. Now you get to be taught by Will. They're all different, they're all bring their different passions to the table. What a great experience.' For me, that summed up our faculty as a whole: each one is different, each one has something new to offer the students who enter their classrooms, and each one offers his or her interests and inspirations wholeheartedly to the children.
Next profile: Susan Carpenter! Watch this space.