Submitted by TVCS
This piece was originally published in the March 31, 2016 issue of the Teton Valley News as part of the weekly Nonprofit Spotlight presented by the Community Foundation of Teton Valley.
Teton Valley Community School (TVCS) may look different than many schools you’ve seen. Our classrooms are formed by a cluster of houses, chickens and alpacas greet families each day, and students ages three through thirteen share the outdoor play yard building castles, ships, tanks, and kitchens with wooden spools, tires, and PVC pipes.
You may also hear things you don’t hear at most schools, teachers asking students: “What do you want to study next?” “How do you think we can make your friend feel better?” and students asking each other “Do you need help with that?” “Can we work together on this problem?”
We teach academics at TVCS using a Project Based Learning model that encourages student ownership and integrates project themes through all subject areas. A class may spend four months studying skyscrapers – first learning about the history and geography of these tall buildings, moving into math and engineering to figure out how they stay upright, and practicing writing and literacy along the way. Each project culminates in a public display of work, in this case an all-school skyscraper build-off with the primary class as the foremen and the Pre-K as the judges.
At TVCS, our mission is to educate the whole child by integrating our three pillars of academic excellence, character development, and community focus. Each of these three pillars is equally important. We believe that children cannot learn important academic material without also understanding themselves and the world around them.
What does character education look like? Rather than directing a student to behave a certain way after a conflict, teachers work alongside students to discover the best way for them to solve the problem. This follows the principles of Restorative Practice theory. Teachers use this method to solve conflicts between individuals or as a whole classroom and students learn both to share their own opinion and listen to the voices of others, creating a culture of respect and collaboration. Our school day is intentionally planned to cultivate these skills through mixed grade recess, leadership opportunities with “reading buddies”, and high expectations during extended transition times between classes and buildings.
Starting at the youngest grade level, 3-year-olds learn that their voice matters, from picking project themes to using student self-reflection to lead parent-teacher conferences. Rather than imposing rules and regulations on the student body, teachers and administrators involve students in creating their own expectations at school.
For example, snowballs have been an issue for years. As a school, we have oscillated between wanting to let the students follow their natural instincts to hurl snow at each other and following our own professional and parental instincts to forbid such play. We’ve had bloody lips and frustrated complaints. This year, we put it in the students’ hands. During a monthly community meeting, the students were posed the question “How can we make snowballs a fun and safe part of recess?”
Working together in small, multi-age groups the students posed tough questions and came up with answers. Finally, after discussing as a whole school, they came up with a Snowball Contract. Upon signing, students were allowed to throw snowballs within the constraints that they came up with: in a designated snowball area, no face shots, respect time outs, no ice balls, etc. During this collaborative meeting, each student’s opinion was voiced and heard. All winter long, children ran inside during recess followed by calls of “Sign the contract! Then come play!” Peers hold peers accountable and, more remarkably, there has been not one negative snowball incident since the contract was written back in January.
At TVCS, we believe that school should not be a place to only learn academic skills. Children spend almost 40 hours a week at school surrounded by peers with different values, perspectives and backgrounds. These students can learn so much from each other. Guided by teachers, TVCS students learn to problem-solve both academically and socially, while gaining an understanding of the world around them. This educational philosophy at TVCS educates the whole child and inspires lifelong learning.
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