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Productive 'Gossip' At An N-12 School

by Young Un
A school with student ages ranging from 3-18 means something a teacher says to one class can get around pretty quick to another!  But there are advantages to this type of campus connectivity as this latest blog post reveals.
I was having brunch with a good friend telling him about my recent visit to Mr. Goncalves’ fourth-grade class to talk to his students about my first teaching job: demystifying the English language for Vietnamese refugees. The class went exceptionally well; not because of my teaching, but rather due to the curiosity and imagination of the students and the hard work that their teacher put into designing and implementing the unit. At one point in the class, I told the students that they were smarter than my eighth graders. A week later, while I was teaching my eighth-grade class, one of my students raised his hand asking somewhat snarkily, “Mr. Un, did you tell the fourth graders that they were smarter than us?” Without a pause, I replied with an equal amount of snark and a heavy dose of affection, “Yes, I did because they are.” The class and I shared a laugh and then continued to discuss the Chinese revolution. I think the eighth graders were in a way proud of their young counterparts.
My friend said I should write about the interchange with my eighth-grade student because it reveals something about community. I can guarantee you that if you go to any school’s website you will see many mentions of the word community and you will see visual and verbal definitions that skim only the surface of this complex word. I think in a micro-sense, the fact that an eighth-grader heard a micro-story about my fourth-grade class reveals more than the typical website illustration of community.
Wheeler’s N-12 community, unlike other larger N-12 schools, intentionally creates interactions between the youngest and oldest students. Since previous campus master plans wisely emphasized the need for open spaces like the turf field and playground, the net effect is to concentrate the human interaction of almost 1,000 people on the eastern third of the campus. People have to interact and interact they do. With this level of proximity, people recognize each other, young ones look up to older students, and the older students have to “succumb” to the civilizing effects of the Lower Schoolers knowing they have to be their better selves. And sometimes these interactions and interchanges lead to productive gossip. “Did you hear that Mr. Un said that fourth graders were smarter than eighth graders?!?”
It’s one thing to have concentrated interaction of nearly a 1,000 people; it’s another to have a level of comfort, informality, and joy in these interactions. This School is a place where it is common for a middle school principal/teacher to share a life story with fourth graders or to have a panel of parents and a group of students share stories of their dyslexia. It’s common for fourth graders to be so engaged with a teacher whom they don’t know well because a climate of trust has been established in the classroom. And it is expected those fourth graders might tell a story to eighth graders and then for the eighth graders to be comfortable with school administrators to ask a playfully snarky question and to expect that administrator to respond honestly and playfully. (It’s also unfortunately common for an eighth-grade student to ask a completely unrelated question in the middle of class.)
Skeptics might ask how any of this is relevant to teaching and learning and they’d be right to ask. My answer is as quick and honest to my eighth grader who heard about my fourth-grade comment. There is a deep connection between learning and emotions. As a Wheeler person, I believe a joyful, invigorating, playful, and interactive learning community yields deeper, more meaningful, and rigorous learning, sometimes to the extent that a bunch of fourth graders proves smarter than their eighth-grade counterparts (at least for one period) and the eighth graders are OK with that.
216 Hope Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02906-2246
Phone: (401) 421-8100
FAX: (401) 751-7674

Founded 1889

The Wheeler School is an independent coeducational college preparatory day school for Nursery, Pre-K, K-Grade 12 serving Providence, RI, Greater Providence and Greater Boston. The Hamilton School welcomes Grades 1-8 with language-based learning differences.