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Teaching the Whole Child: Longfellow-Augustana Partnership Brings the Liberal Arts to Primary Education PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Tushar Rae   
Wednesday, 29 July 2009 15:13

A classroom in the 'new' Longfellow

Students stepping into Longfellow Elementary in Rock Island this school year will notice physical changes: a new media center and library, a new cafeteria, and a renovation that has added four new classrooms. But a more important change will be the school's new formal partnership with Augustana College.

The relationship will bring a liberal-arts-based curriculum to Longfellow - a contrast to the No Child Left Behind-forced shift in primary education that emphasizes reading and math skills to the exclusion of other subjects. Though the content of the curriculum will still conform to district standards, the way that content is presented will change: The focus will move to collaboration among students, small-group and individualized instruction, interdisciplinary learning, thematic teaching that attempts to make the coursework relevant, and the fine arts.

A No Child Left Behind-influenced curriculum "doesn't have anything to do with creative problem-solving, imagination, collaboration - all of these skills we need to survive in the next millennium," said Pat Shea, an assistant professor of education at Augustana who was part of the planning team for Longfellow. "If we don't get those things taught, it doesn't matter how many facts we know. ... We are so off-target about what it means to be an educated person, and I think we as educators have the first line of responsibility to start speaking to that."

Investing in Longfellow

In early 2007, Rock Island/Milan School District Superintendent Rick Loy was deciding which elementary schools to close because of the district's declining enrollment and rising costs. Familiar with the informal partnership between Augustana and Longfellow (the schools are less than five blocks apart), Loy approached Augustana President Steven Bahls and asked the college to make a capital investment in the school.

Bahls declined, and in September Loy proposed a partnership without a capital investment. Bahls presented it at a faculty meeting the next day to a warm reception.

The school district and college formed a planning team that in November visited Thomas Metcalf Elementary School, the lab school at Illinois State University. Metcalf is used to model educational methods and theories, and to conduct educational research. During the visit the planning team interviewed faculty members, parents, and students, and saw how teacher candidates can be used in elementary schools. "After we left that place," Loy said, "we were more determined that not only could we make this work, that we will make this work."

In January 2008, the planning committee gave way to a development team of teachers from the Rock Island school district and faculty from the Augustana education department. The group began work on a liberal-arts-based curriculum and eventually helped select the teachers for the new Longfellow.

Moving Beyond Testing

Superintendent Rick Loy (front) and Principal Dave KnuckeyElementary schools were the last bastions of a holistic education, Loy said, but the "sad reality" of No Child Left Behind is that even primary education has become more test-focused. Instead of providing a well-rounded education with a healthy dose of the fine arts, he said, schools are fixated on making adequate yearly progress in reading and math - the subjects on which students are tested.

Longfellow has met its adequate-yearly-progress goals and won the Illinois Spotlight Award - an honor presented to high-poverty schools that are closing the achievement gap - for four consecutive years starting in 2005.

Longfellow Principal Dave Knuckey said he thinks the new partnership will build on the school's already strong test scores. Students "will be able to think for themselves and work out the problems, no matter what problems they face on the test," he said.

Shea, a former elementary-school principal, said test scores might dip initially but should recover within three years. A short-term drop is typical with any new venture, she added. But she emphasized that the success of the new partnership should not be measured in test scores.

"If we are only looking at that one score, we have done a grave disservice to what the whole vision of this project is about, and that is the whole curriculum for the whole child," she said.

Chuck Hyser, Augustana's director of elementary education, coined the phrase "the whole curriculum for the whole child," and uses it to describe the purpose of a Longfellow education. He said the new approach will serve Longfellow students intellectually, physically, and emotionally - a parallel to Augustana's mission of reaching the mind, body, and spirit.

The partnership will most directly affect how things are taught. A liberal-arts curriculum means focusing on connections between subjects instead of divisions, said Augustana Director of Secondary Education Mike Schroeder. "I think we, philosophically, in the department, have a real aversion to an overly structured curriculum that puts up false partitions between the disciplines," he said.

Teachers will use broad themes to emphasize how things are related, and how disparate subjects can inform each other.

For example, students will study the rain cycle in many ways, Shea said - reading about rain, studying changes in rainfall patterns for math, and looking at how countries with little rainfall have been affected for a social-studies component.