Working together to help children learn and grow in a complex world
Jan. 20, 2020
5 questions to ask when considering a school
By Caroline Walker, Director of Admissions
It’s our busy admissions season, and nearly every day I’m touring prospective parents around Canterbury’s campus. While parents are always interested in our dress code and options for hot lunch, I’ve found there are other matters that get to the heart of a school’s educational philosophy.
To help you look below the surface to determine whether a school is the right place for your family, consider asking these five questions.
1. How do you teach reading and writing?
It’s important to know not just what the curriculum is, but how it’s being taught, because that has the biggest impact on your child’s classroom experience, day in and day out.
Do teachers stand at the front of the classroom delivering the same content to all students at the same time? Or do they use small groups, stations, and conferencing to tailor the curriculum to individual students or ability groups?
The latter allows teachers to support students who need help while also challenging students who are ready for the next step. And when it’s done well, it’s a thing of beauty, with self-directed students moving through a series of learning activities while teachers meet with one or two students at a time to meet their specific needs.
2. How is movement incorporated into the school day?
Do children stay in the same classroom or building for most of the day, or do they have the opportunity to move their bodies? How often do they have recess and where?
Research shows that students are best able to learn when they have regular opportunities to move, whether that’s at recess, physical education classes, or simply moving around to specialty classes.
Students are constantly moving on Canterbury’s 35-acre campus through structured and unstructured active time, including two outdoor playtimes; my colleague’s 1st grader regularly logs 11,000 to 12,000 steps on school days.
3. How do students take ownership of their own learning?
Beyond the traditional academic subjects, taking ownership of their own learning is a vitally important skill for students to begin developing in the earliest grades.
With younger students, this may take the form of the stations I mentioned above. As PreK and kindergarten students rotate between learning activities, they are also learning the independence to go about tasks on their own. These consistent classroom systems and routines give children autonomy and let them take responsibility for their learning.
In middle grades, this could include independent research projects that allow students to put their passions into practice. For instance, each semester, 3rd and 4th grade students at Canterbury are asked to choose a subject that interests them, research it, and prepare a presentation for their parents and peers. Topics have ranged from comparing Romance languages to coding a robot. This kind of self-motivated inquiry is a skill that impacts lifelong learning.
4. How are behavior concerns managed?
Is the school’s behavior management system based on relationships and group impact, or is it based on rewards and punishments?
Students make mistakes. You want to know that behavior situations are handled privately and not publicly, with every child made aware of the fact that your child stepped out of line. Appropriate behavior management should be based on repairing relationships and equipping students with skills and knowledge to build them up, rather than shame and punishment. The Responsive Classroom approach, which Canterbury uses, is a good example of this kind of philosophy.
5. How does your curriculum develop an understanding of others’ worldview?
Elementary and middle schools need to go beyond teaching the three Rs to build empathy and compassion among students for those different from themselves. It’s important to know how a school builds diversity and inclusivity within its own community and how that expands into the broader community.
A key component to this is service learning. More than simply volunteering, service learning integrates preparation before the service, reflection after the service, and inclusion of the academic curriculum throughout the project. Look for schools with ongoing and regular engagement with service throughout the year, as opposed to one-time volunteer opportunities that may have only a shallow impact on student learning. Creating lasting relationships allows students to understand and appreciate others around them.
Choosing a school for your child – and your family – can be a daunting undertaking that encompasses details large and small. I’d be happy to advise your family on how to navigate your school search. Contact me for help getting started on this important process.
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