Active Learners Blog



A young unicycle rider

This past spring, graduate Anna Williamson decided to honor Bill Mullins during his tenure at Antioch School. She and Liz Griffin put together a wonderful video collage about the many wonderful and innovative things Bill Mullins did during his tenure as teacher at Antioch School.

Quite a few Antioch School children and graduates came to honor Bill, but many of the Older Group children were not at Bill’s celebration to see it. I thought they would love the history and to see the many things that have stayed the same at Antioch School over the span of 50 years, encompassing Bill’s career. They did indeed love it and had quite a few questions about some of the things we have done in the past, especially participating in parades.

“What? You mean they got to ride unicycles in parades?”

“Absolutely, often several parades a year.”

“Why don’t we do that now?”

“Well, because we stopped having enough children who wanted to participate. It seemed like soccer and other weekend activities interfered too much. It was sad when we stopped participating in parades.”

Three images of children at The Antioch School

I teach creative writing courses at the Individualized Master of Arts (IMA) program at Antioch University Midwest. In the program, adult student writers take an array of foundational courses in small groups, and then, with expert guidance, design the rest of the curriculum for themselves. Within a graduate school frame, this model allows writers to dig into work they care about, driven by their curiosity and interests. It’s kind of like the Antioch School for adults.

I realized this when I was at work, listening to IMA students and faculty talking about how they do what they do. My turn came, and I mentioned my daughter’s school, which, I said, “is kind of like the IMA for children.” As I said this, I realized that student-led learning is so natural in my experience that it doesn’t seem remarkable. In great part, it’s natural to me because of my foundation at the Antioch School.

Children playing outside

The children play outside at The Antioch School – in autumn’s golden sun and warm wind; on the frozen creeks of winter in Glen Helen; in the springtime puddles. The summer playgrounds belong to mother deer and her babies. Free times are spent on the Cycle Circle Side, the Tire Swing Side or the playfield to the west of the stone wall that Antioch College graciously has loaned to the children.

The Cycle Circle Side holds the clatter of the tricycles, the hum of the roller blades and the quiet passing of the unicycles. The big swings are here and the yellow playhouse built by Kindergarteners now in middle school. The traditional jungle gym stands guard while the children play on tunnel hill. Streams, tunnels and castles occupy sand hill and the hand-over-hand provides both strengthening of the upper body and a place to play a ball game named Over the Top. The east wall of the Nursery is constantly bombarded with tennis balls during Wall Ball.

Nursery school children standing on a stumpA round the end of September last year, the Nurseries found a little bird lying on the walk in front of the OG west windows. Was it sleeping? Its eyes were open. Was it dead?

There were many theories and ideas. It wasn’t moving. They thought it was dead. But how? Two children said that birds crashed into a window at their houses and were dead. Maybe it crashed? One child thought we should get it a drink of water. Another child, straightforward and gentle, said, “ Well, we could, but it probably wouldn’t drink it.”

They wanted to DO something. I asked, “What should we do?” They all thought and then in unison they said, “We should cover it with grasses and leaves.” A few seconds passed and there were grasses and leaves beginning to cover it.

Thinking practically, I said, “You know, I think we should find it a place where no one steps.”

They were ready to pick it up and carry it. I suggested a scoop. A few seconds later and there was a red scoop with many hands wanting to carry. We carried it off.

There were several suggestions about where no-one-steps would be: near the tire swing? under a packing crate? next to the tree stump by the sand box? Still being practical, I suggested, “What about a place that’s so bushy that no one could step on it?” Okay, they decided, but it had to be in a place where they could see it and visit it.

The 2014 Younger Group Winter Olympics

Two YG'ers sledding down a hill.

Inspiration for children’s thinking and creativity can be found in many places. Following the interests of children and developing possibilities for learning, research or teamwork can come from a song, an interaction with nature or even the observation of a current event.

This year’s Younger Group (YG) class dove into all types of learning inspired by the 2014 Winter Olympics. It was a type of special occasion that this teacher could predict as an inspirational possibility, yet not know the full direction the children would take until their excitement jump started the momentum that would direct their learning.

It was February, a weekend had passed and the opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics had been viewed by most of the YG children at home. When we entered the school day, there were exclamations of,

“Did you see the snowboarders?!”

“Did you see the American flag?!”

“Did you see the Olympic rings?!”

The Older Group with their musical instruments.
The Older Group with their musical instruments.

I always start the year finding out what the children want to learn and wish to accomplish during the course of the school year, so I can plan lessons around their ideas and incorporate them into the flow of our school days.

I love doing this because it gives us unlimited possibilities. Responses often include things like learn geometry, learn new unicycling tricks, learn about countries, learn to play the ukulele, learn to cook; responses are as individual as the children. It is so interesting to find out what the children want to learn and discover and such useful information for planning a rich and eventful school year. I also have many ideas for the Older Group (OG), as do Sally, Bill, Brian, and this year Dennis as well. Looking back over this past year, it is amazing what a vast amount of things we have experienced, learned, and accomplished, having tremendous fun while we did. When Antioch School children come home and report that they played all day, in a sense they have. When everyone is involved in the planning, when we play with concepts, laugh and cry over good books, play music, hike, learn, explore math, reflect in nature, are fully engaged, and approach learning with joy and enthusiasm, it could be described as play.

Around the campfire
Each year in the spring, the Kindergarten plans a day of camping to celebrate Cc days. The Kindergarten my second year here made the first plans. They decided that a school day of camping was enough for Kindergarten and every group since has agreed.

The Younger Group has its overnight camp here at the school. The Older Group has three days at Kiser Lake, and Kindergarten has their day of camping.

This year the children were excited to make their camp plans. I filled them in on what had been done by past groups — how we usually camp past the Cycle Circle Side of the playground where you can’t see the school, but can still walk back to use the bathroom, how I bring a very large tent and everyone helps put it up, and how we usually have a campfire.

They unanimously chose to roast marshmallows for our camp day afternoon snack. Then they quickly decided they wanted to stay at camp all day — for both snacks, lunch, songs, stories, everything! There was some discussion about camping on the Golf Course, but ultimately they decided to camp in the traditional spot beyond the Cycle Circle Side of the playground. They agreed to make trail mix for morning snack, selected several stories to take with us — Freckle Face Strawberry and The Tales Julian Tells (which we were in the middle of reading) — and figured out that no one could bring a warm up for lunch since our microwave is inside. Lucy and Henry volunteered to bring their teepee, assuring us that they could set it up themselves, and everyone could play in it. They also wanted to bring our class kite and stomp rockets. 

Snake eggs.
Snake eggs
In recent years a movement has been established in the United States often referred to as No Child Left Inside, which pokes fun at the concept of No Child Left Behind. The basic premise of this movement is a rejection of the increased focus on testing, coupled with a concentrated effort to reintroduce the out-of-doors as vital to the healthy growth and development of children.

In addition to the many daily opportunities for outside play, most of the children at the Antioch School go on a weekly hike in Glen Helen, the 1000-acre nature preserve across the street from our school. Our hikes are made up of walking, exploring, playing games, observation and self-expression through writing and drawing.

Kindergarten at Antioch School is the group with the smallest range of ages. At some point in the year, each student is six. Kindergarten parents and I spend a good amount of time during conferences talking about what it is like to be six. I often refer them to Ames and Ilg’s series of books about child development, which starts with Your One Year Old and goes to Your Twelve Year Old. When I went to the school library shelves to Find Your Six Year Old, there were no copies left, although I know we had re-ordered a couple within the last few years. The books about two-year-olds and four-year-olds were also missing. In case any parent of a two, four, or six-year-old is in need, I re-ordered copies of all the Ames and Ilg titles for those ages. It is hard to be six (and two and four), as the Ames and Ilg books attest to—dusty copies for ages one, three, Five, seven, eight, and on up remain on the shelf year after year.

It’s always been fascinating for me to observe how the children will want to re-experience the bits and pieces of the Nursery they have enjoyed and, in so doing, will pass these bits and pieces along to the next year’s group. It’s really an Antioch School culture they are creating and building on and passing along. As visiting Kindergartners or returning Nurseries, the children often carry their funny routines, jokes, ways of doing things, favorite songs and most loved stories forward into the following year’s Nursery group — and then those children on into the next, and so on, and so on, year after year.

One of their long-running favorites is what they have named the “Kindergarten joke” also known as “Ann, there aren’t any apples. . . .”

Two Kindergarten snack helpers walk over to the Nursery and say: “Ann, there aren’t any apples. . .” 

The past school year began with two memorable endeavors arising from and belonging solely to the children - a sudden burst of unicycle and stilt use. The renewed unicycle interest continued until the arrival of cold weather with the stilt walking pursued until the warm winds of spring. The unicycles rest on pegs along the outside wall of the hallway — always present and used faithfully by the children throughout the year. Over the course of my five years as school manager, I have observed that typically the challenge of learning the unicycle begins during the Kindergarten year with sporadic periods of interest throughout a child’s years at the school. The desire to ride a fve foot unicycle or learn complicated maneuvers may encourage increased use for short periods of time. The autumn months brought an unprecedented wave of unicycle learning and interest. Older Group children who began in the Nursery as well as those new to our school were suddenly challenged to learn. Two additional five foot unicycles were purchased and immediately put to use. Our older Nursery children took down the smallest unicycles, carried them to the porch, held on to the bar along the porch wall, mounted and tried over and over again to move forward. It truly was a marvelous time to quietly observe from the office window.