Monday, August 10, 2015

Milburn T. Maupin: A Catalpa Model School

August 12, in Jefferson County, Kentucky, the Milburn T. Maupin: A Catalpa Model School opens. 

The Jefferson County School District in Kentucky recognized that their schools were not producing the desired results. In 2014 they created a contest to find innovative approaches to education that could meet the students’ needs. 92 proposals were entered. On August 11, 2014 two winners were chosen - and one of the two winning innovative programs was a proposal championed by four dedicated Jefferson County teachers in collaboration with Kentahten Waldorf Teacher Training ( The Catalpa Model is the developmental and multi-disciplinary approach of Waldorf education and meets the Kentucky’s Core Academic Standards in creative and innovate ways. The school district chose a facility and teachers were given the opportunity to join this historic initiative. On August 12 students will arrive and start a new school year at Milburn T. Maupin: A Catalpa Model School - a Waldorf public school in Louisville, Kentucky!!!!

I feel honored to have been part of the summer teacher training for these dedicated teachers, I worked with the early childhood teachers for two weeks this past June. What an amazing process we went through together. At the start of the two weeks, one of the teachers put it so well, “We have to do a lot of unlearning.” And together we did plenty of unlearning and lots of learning.

A central feature of the kindergartens in the new school is that the program is play centered. Play is a developmental ground for the capacities that will be needed for later academic learning. Unstructured creative play for the young child is the laboratory where the child’s own body can develop, where nature and science can be explored and where the social world can be experimented with. With ample opportunity for social interactive play, the children can develop social skills and a deep understanding of the way the world works.

The teachers all described a process of letting go of the way they had done things previously and learning how to be open to the children in front of them. Their previous experience in the kindergarten classroom was of academic lessons and much time spent sitting at desks and teacher ‘presentations.’ In all Jefferson County classrooms, including kindergartens, “smart boards” are mounted on the wall next to the chalk board. A smart board is a large, interactive computer monitor mounted on the wall next to the chalkboard and is used for lesson presentation. In the kindergartens of the new program there will be no smart boards and no chalk boards. Chalk boards are waiting for the students when they get to first grade. Academic lessons are first presented in First Grade in the new school. Kindergarten teachers are focused on creating an environment of opportunities for self-initiated learning of the kindergarten students.

In our two weeks in June, the focus became how to understand and work with the principle of imitation. For young children, imitation is the natural way of learning so what sorts of examples can the kindergarten teachers offer for the children to imitate? The approach of explaining and instructing is not effective yet it is something we all have to unlearn because it is how adults tend to operate in the world. Learning how the neurology of the young child functions and how to support neural development is key in all of this. A key neurological developmental feature is that the prefrontal cortex is the last portion of the brain to fully develop and it is not finished and mature until one’s late 20’s. This means that young children do not develop complex decision-making and planning skills until much later in their development. With young children (whose prefrontal cortex is barely developed) adults might be spending a lot of time trying to explain to them, even though their brain is not ready for the type of understanding the adult is expecting. 

I am on my soapbox again; the part of the brain that is key to reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, and impulse-control is the prefrontal cortex. These executive brain functions are needed when we have to focus and think, mentally play with ideas, use our short-term working memory, and thinking before reacting in any situation. Adults tend to assume there to be a more developed neurology in the young child than is even possible. Many educational philosophies also assume this capacity to be present in the young child. These experienced teachers had to unlearn many past practices and grapple with the reality of neurological development, and how best to address that in a kindergarten classroom setting.

Alongside learning how to be an example for the children, we considered what sorts of enrichment for their developing imaginations we can offer. Stories and the songs and poems of circle time can offer inspiration for play. Circle time also offers the children opportunities for integrating their senses and developing more freedom of movement 

Are there ways to engage the children without telling them what to do? Learning only happens when we do it ourselves - it can’t be force fed. So the art of educating young children becomes creating an environment where learning can happen uniquely for each of the children.

Congratulations to the teachers and staff, and the students and parents who have chosen to be part of this new educational opportunity. The road ahead will surely have challenges and the rewards will be worth the struggles.