New School Preparatory

Basics or Bravo?

Florida Primary Educator , Vol. 4, No. 2

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Ed. Note: Several months ago Orlando's daily newspaper printed a largely anecdotal essay on a new private Pre-K through Grade 8 school in Orlando. According to the paper the school was founded on the "provocative" ideas of Morris (Morrie) Sorin. After talking to Sorin and several of his teachers as well as a few students,  I came away with a distinct impression that New School Preparatory's success came not from so much a unique concept of teaching, but from a well-balanced coordinated approach formulated by, coordinated by, and taught by a hard working, self-sacrificing, synergistic staff guided by the benevolent hand of a master administrator in Sorin.

Capably supported by the small, but highly-motivated and supportive teaching corps, Sorin's "unique" approach to education focuses on small (about 15 students) classes and individualized literature-based programs for each student focusing on three areas: 1) critical thinking, 2) creative thinking, and 3) problem solving.

John Dewey said the way to accumulate knowledge is to gather information and be able to use it in a new situation. How does one - at any age - gather information that will stay with them? It's not by just memorizing, or by just reading. You only remember about 17% of what you hear, 50% of what you see and 80% of what you do. It's by interacting with the environment that most is learned, theorized Dewey.

This is the guiding philosophy of Morris (Morrie) Sorin, guru of New School Preparatory. The school's motto, "Excellence in Education Through The Creative Arts", serves as Sorin's canvas through which he and his dedicated band of like-minded educator/artists have painted a student-oriented, literature-based Pre-K through 8 Grade school in Orlando.

Sorin prefers multiage classes with no more than 15 children to accomplish his goals. He likes to quote liberally from Harvard University's John Goodlad whose research indicated that there can be up to a four-grade performance span in any given age-oriented classroom.

For instance, a second grade class will have some students performing some functions at kindergarten level, and some performing functions at a fourth grade level. With that understanding, each New School teacher has individualized literature-based programs for each student focusing on three areas: 1) critical thinking, 2) creative thinking, and 3) problem solving. Each child is assessed upon applying to the school to identify strengths and weaknesses. It is also a multi-intelligence school. "Children learn through many different ways, not just through language," says Sorin.

"When Howard Gardner published his book documenting the seven intelligences, it validated what we had been doing all along," Sorin mused. "Now there was accepted and verifiable research to show what most teachers knew instinctively all along. We are able now to focus our academic excellence program through the performing arts as an important and effective way to teach basic academics. Some say the performing arts are a nice, but not critically important way of learning. We do not! We say that for some children, performing arts is the essence of how they learn based on this school's focus of critical thinking, creative thinking and problem solving."

During lunch, everyone is together, from pre-K students all the way to eighth graders. While there is socializing at their own level, there are also many, many mixed groups. When the school first started, children were grouped at tables by grade level. But the students came to the staff and said this arrangement was unreal. Sometimes they wanted to spend time with friends in a different grade level, so Sorin called a town meeting to discuss the issue. Designed after the New England Town Meetings, everybody - staff and student alike - are equal. Students are free to raise any question they want, as are any members of the staff. For example, soccer is a popular game at all age levels, but some of the kids had a problem with the way (i.e. rules) the game was being played. The problem was there weren't any standard rules. When this problem was brought up at a town meeting, it was decided that one set of rules needed to be agreed upon so the games would be fair and fun for all. A committee was established to formulate rules for the entire school to follow. Town meetings are held at every age level. If it is a problem that involves a small group, then a small group meeting is called; if the problem involves everyone in the school, then it is resolved at a school-wide town meeting.

What the town meeting concept does for New School students is to put into practice the school's philosophy that says, "if you have a problem, we will help you resolve the problem, but we are not going to make the problem ours."  We want the student or group of students to come up with some sort of resolution for their problem. We will help get the problem out on the table, moderate discussions, and itemize solutions, but the issue's resolution has to come from the student(s).

Sorin was amazed at the universally poor vocabulary skills displayed by the typical students applying to his school. He attributed this to many public and private Central Florida schools working with controlled vocabulary basals and teachers not knowing how to go beyond workbook assignments. Math skills were also way below standard. For the most part, the kids know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply, but they did not know when or even why the formulas worked - the conceptual understandings of math, hypothesized Sorin.

"This is information they should have been given in the primary grades. In our school, we begin children learning games like chess at age four, because our early childhood programs are academic as well as child-centered. We have observed that many four year olds who it is said had behavioral problems did very well when stimulated intellectually," said Sorin.

Chess and mancala are two games played by his students beginning at age four. These games teach thinking past the immediate move to accomplish a desired goal. Sometimes, the children even make up their own games that result in some of the same goals as chess and mancala. New School's competitive chess teams are consistently high achievers at local matches.

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Quick Takes

Sorin prefers multiage classes with no more than 15 children to accomplish his goals. He likes to quote liberally from Harvard University's John Goodlad whose research indicated that there can be up to a four-grade performance span in any given age-oriented classroom.

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