So what sets Free Union apart? Who better to ask than our students—experts on all that happens inside and outside the classroom. Twenty students weighed in on all that they liked and disliked about their school. Here is what we gleaned, with some grown-up extrapolation:
- Our 6-acre outdoor campus,
- A passion for active, hands-on, brains-engaged learning, and
- A collaborative community where kids learn from and with each other.
Our Outdoor Campus
To the kids, it’s recess. To us adults, it’s the growth of independence, confidence, creativity, and a sense of self. It’s practice making decisions with peers, solving problems, showing empathy, honing motor skills, and taking initiative. At Free Union, being outside is for playing, creating games, exploring, helping others, growing food, experiments and research, nature trail exploration, running freely, and having snacks and lunch. Throughout its history, Free Union has used our outdoor setting as key to the emotional, behavioral, and intellectual development of children.
Learning by Doing
In every grade, kids are involved in their day-to-day learning as they play basketball math, research local heroes, use physics to divert water on the playground, build benches and bridges and fairy houses, and write poems about the natural world they experience every day at school.
Play, math, problem solving, collaboration, community service, and motor skills refinement all came together in a spontaneous fifth grade project. In response to an ankle-deep run through a marshy area, and emboldened by the skills they learned in a makerspace, students gathered the tools and materials they would need to construct a bridge for safe dry passage to class. (Note their comments in “what they love about school.")
A Collaborative Community
Kids can learn a lot about themselves and others when they are part of a functioning community — one that acts and serves its members. Working together and deepening friendships allows all to know each person's value and important place in the school community. Fastest runner, expert bird watcher, comforter of friends -- our students, teachers, and staff come to know each other deeply.
Collaboration takes many forms. Deciding on and organizing student-led food or clothing drives, fifth graders heading up the great tally of pizza slices and subsequent delivery, writing letters about the economic and geographical hardship of food insecurity, working with friends on public speaking presentations, or just slowing down a fast-paced game to include younger students, we see value in working as a community and creating a good place for all.
Learning by doing and project based learning are not a repudiation of facts and skills, but rather a way of learning in context, organized around questions and problems and projects, rather than around facts and skills and separate disciplines (The Schools Our Children Deserve, Alfie Kohn).
Below are the responses of first and fifth graders to the question: What do you like and dislike about Free Union Country School? From their responses we drew conclusions about what makes our school distinctive.
11 6-year-olds (first graders)
|Being outside a lot||Only two recesses|
|All the colors, the flowers||When the flowers are gone|
|Recess||I like everything|
|Tangents class||I don’t like recess|
|Friends I have here||Poison ivy|
|Lots of greenery — I love this place||Pricker bushes|
|Tangents class||There’s nothing I don’t like|
|New friends to play basketball with||Math journal is hard (math games good)|
|Playing and eating with friends||Naturalist class|
9 10-year-olds (fifth graders)
|The kind teachers||I miss the play structures
(They'll be back. The Mgmt.)
|I feel trusted. Ronée wants us to lead admissions tours||COVID|
|Freedom to do things like explore the nature trail and build forts there||Nothing|
|We learn to use power tools and we built a bridge over a runoff stream||Nothing|
|I’ve never been to a school that doesn’t have a rule for everything.||Nothing|
|It’s like they trust us but they’re always watching from behind a bush.||Nothing|
|Love exploring in the stream||COVID|
|There’s no meanness here — people help each other out||Nothing|
|Fun projects to learn from and everything else||Specials (tangents, art, drama, naturalist) too short|