Learning Community at Catlin Gabel

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By Allen Schauffler & Jonathan Weedman

From the Spring 2010 Caller
Community is not an elusive quest at Catlin Gabel. It is the granite cornerstone of our foundation. We can reach back into the school’s earliest history and find references to community woven throughout Ruth Catlin’s writings. In the mid and late 1960s, when the influence of the Black Mountain College group among the faculty provided foundational ideas about community, the school as we now know it took shape. Ideas about community have come from many sources since then, but those two influences are the driving forces behind what we teach and model today. From Beginning Schoolers, where community is taught and experienced as concrete cause and effect, to Upper Schoolers, where community becomes an internalized and essential ingredient for living, its teaching is intentional and direct. Beginning with the littlest children, both in the classroom and outdoors on the playground, one can hear the mantra “Be Safe and Be Kind” over and over. In the Lower School that mantra becomes the essential question when a child is learning behavioral expectations.
By definition, a young child enters Catlin Gabel as a somewhat egocentric being. It is the primary job of the preschool to lead a child from the exclusive notion of “me” to the seed of understanding about what “other” might mean. The underlying philosophy behind this is that we strongly believe that the learning of content cannot begin and is meaningless unless there is a firm foundation of social conscience. As we watch children progress through the developmental stages of play and learning, the move from being merely a cooperative player and learner to a truly collaborative being is crucial to success at the school. In order to thrive as an experiential and process learner, one must be internally driven to be open to the riches that flow from the ideas and experiences of others. The goal is for children to embody, “I am made better by those who surround me.” Taking this as a given, then, we begin with simple guidelines that ease children into the experience of being a group learner.
Raise a Quiet Hand and Hand on the Arm are the first lessons for a preschooler. These teach that interrupting another person, whose ideas are important to one’s own and the group’s learning and understanding, is rude and unkind. Stop, Look, Listen, and Respond is the behavioral expectation when someone speaks your name. Speaking to someone is not an idle behavior; it demands respect. When the conundrum of group problem solving emerges in the classroom or on the playground, younger children are often befuddled by what to do. Talk, Walk, and Squawk provides an accessible place to hang one’s hat. First you try to talk to the person or group. If that doesn’t work, you can try walking away. If the problem persists, you must squawk to the nearest teacher or grown-up, who can help untangle the issue by providing vocabulary coaching and by scaffolding a conversation. But first, the child must have tried to talk. These simple mnemonic devices provide easy and accessible tools for young children as they wind their way toward a deeper and more practical understanding of community. This also sets the foundation for successful problem solving; a fundamental element of a fruitful community.
As children move through the grades we use both implicit and explicit interventions to further set the stage for community development. We teach kindergarteners the fundamentals of working in a group and how to get along with others. They are taught to discover if the choices they make are wise and ask themselves, is it safe? Is it kind? Is it honest? Is it fair? A good problem solver is a good community member, and from this early stage of their academic career children are taught the steps to problem solving, through stories, coaching, or through a tool called Kelso’s Wheel, a list of strategies for conflict resolution. Learning to be a good friend is also imperative as a kindergarten Eagle. Children spend time Fishin’ for Friends and discussing the components of good friendship, such as empathy, taking turns, problem solving, sharing, and helping each other. In fact, children learn that being a good friend helps their classroom and ultimately the entire community work well.
In 1st grade and onward through the Lower School, children are surrounded by messages of community and being a good community member. Through service, tradition, and class instruction children learn that being a community member is a requirement of Catlin Gabel. Children donate time to the Oregon Food Bank, host a food drive during Harvest Festival, and implement programs about sustainability such as the recent “1 oz. Campaign,” a plan led by 5th grade students to reduce our school waste. Children celebrate their community each week by attending Community Meeting, where they sing songs, read poetry, and celebrate holidays such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The Lower School shares community through its traditions, whether it is the rolling of the oat cake or partnering 4th graders with 1st graders as school buddies. Finally, classroom instruction is an explicit form of teaching community. First graders are taught about community, making choices, and healthy and unhealthy play, as well as using helpful and not hurtful words. Second graders learn the value of diversity, friendship, and conflict resolution. They discuss resiliency and the characteristics that help them “bounce back” from hard times.
In addition to the children of Catlin Gabel, a parent body that embraces the school and its ideals is imperative for successful community building and to further solidify community engagement. We encourage parents to participate across the school in official and unofficial capacities, carry over classroom lessons to home, and serve as extended eyes and ears of the faculty while supervising children on the playground and on class trips. Elected Parent Faculty Association representatives for each grade strive to relay communication between parents and teachers. Unofficially, parents celebrate community with their children by attending Friday Sing in the Beginning School and Community Meeting in the Lower School. They volunteer across the school in a variety of capacities and are essential for successful completion of fundraising initiatives, conferences, and special events. Engaged parents model to children the emphasis on community and demonstrate a desire to make it a stronger and better place. Parents are asked to help each other’s children, to intervene in conflicts, and to help children understand that every adult at Catlin Gabel is there to support them.
We know from experience that children who have achieved compassion for others and have absorbed and live these ideas of relationship make a firm and constructive community. A child can achieve almost anything when he or she has internalized community and can use it as both a cognitive and behavioral tool to contribute toward future good. Each June, graduating seniors who started at Catlin Gabel between preschool and 1st grade are invited to come to the Beehive “lifers” ceremony with their parents, teachers, and other community members. We sing together, and each senior gives the younger children in attendance a piece of advice or talks about something he or she learned at Catlin Gabel. Inevitably, the advice and the important experiences they speak of are centered on their understanding of what this community is about and the way it has shaped their experience and, more importantly, has shaped them as young adults. We hear statements like, “be kind to your friends: they will be with you for a long time” and “take care of your business, and if you have trouble there is always someone there to help.” They say things like, “there is life beyond homework” and quite poignantly “being a friend and keeping a friend is the most important thing you will learn at Catlin Gabel.” It’s always exciting to see those early lessons in community come full circle.
Preschool teacher Allen Schauffler has been at Catlin Gabel for 42 years. Jonathan Weedman is the Beginning and Lower School counselor at Catlin Gabel. He has worked with children, youth, and families in the Portland area for the last 10 years.