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What does it take for a child to learn? The answer, of course, varies from child to child. Teachers and administrators spend their lives working to get the lesson across, but sometimes it takes that special spark to ignite a child's love of learning and help educate a classroom. That's why some schools have turned to unusual methods for reaching their students. Here are three examples of teachers thinking outside the typical classroom toolbox:
Babies on Board
Roots of Empathy, a Canadian non-profit group that also works in the US, has an interesting strategy to reduce bullying in schools. Through their program, students across the globe learn about empathy from an unusual teacher – a baby!
How does it work? Each class is assigned an infant who visits the class periodically with his or her parent. Students become emotionally attached to the baby as they learn about infant development and care, as well as caring interaction and emotional literacy. Children who’ve gone through the program usually transfer the caring attachment they develop for the baby over to an emotional awareness for their peers. “In helping children find the humanity in a baby as they learn to read the baby’s cues and identify words for the baby’s feelings,” says Mary Gordon, president and founder of Roots of Empathy, “children develop the language and experience base for identifying their own feelings and understanding the feelings of others.”
Teachers have observed that students are more connected, caring, and aware of their fellow neighbors after completing the program. Through learning about a baby, they build skills in reading how a person is feeling by the clues on his face, relinquishing control over people and events, and most importantly, caring about others in the world around them.
In other classrooms, students can be found learning important lessons from a dog. Specially trained facility dogs help students learn a host of tasks – everything from overcoming fears to patience and perseverance, from speech and interaction to listening and following directions. Children with special needs especially benefit from working with a facility dog each day. Brushing the dog, taking him for walks, and playing fetch all help to develop gross motor skills and reduce stress in the classroom. Children who struggle with social interaction can also find a reassuring friend in a service dog.
“The dog has a very calming effect,” says Jeanine Konoleski of Canine Companions for Independence. “It's just a different bond between a human and an animal that's amazing to see.” The organization, which breeds, raises, and trains dogs to work as service dogs for the disabled, sends so-called facility dogs to classrooms across the country, where teachers are trained to use their dog in the classroom, practicing everything from math using dog food measurements to writing with the dog as a subject.
Breaking Down Age Barriers
Eight years ago, Peter Whitehouse, PhD, and his wife, Cathy Whitehouse, PhD, founded The Intergenerational School, an inner-city charter school in Cleveland, Ohio. The premise behind the school is that learning is a life-long endeavor and can best happen when the community works together. At the school, it's common to see young students working with older volunteers, including some who have Alzheimer's disease. Volunteers mentor students in reading and writing, hobbies and arts, and are an essential presence at the school.
Experts agree that for older patients with dementia, volunteering and staying socially active can be beneficial for their overall well-being. Teachers and administrators at The Intergenerational School feel these volunteers have much to offer their students as well. “Some people say what we’re doing isn’t new – it’s old,” explains Cathy Whitehouse. “In some ways it goes back to the era of the one-room schoolhouse, where children of all ages learned together. At our school, a multi-age intergenerational community is the vehicle for learning. This benefits everyone as all generations feel valued and appreciated. Everyone is learning.”
Learning is the key. These examples prove how far teachers will go to foster learning in school. No matter how unconventional the approach, sometimes the best curriculum tools don’t come in a box.