Dear Mr. Dewey

by Alison O’Connor

Dear Mr. Dewey,

I was very pleasantly surprised by the layout of sixth grade class I observed at The University of Chicago Lab School, as it served as an ideal model of your philosophies on education, and on how children learn by doing and exploring subjects for themselves. The teacher, Ms. Allen, was very supportive and accommodating of the students, as she allowed for all of the students to ask questions about the different materials they were working with and how to use them, going around and helping the different students with their respective tools while also standing back and allowing them to use their materials as they pleased, and to design artwork from their own imaginations and patterns, instead of any imposed models. Ms. Allen also allowed for the students to experiment with brushstroke patterns, finger-painting, various methods of shading and coloring with pencils, and with sculpting materials such as metal and clay without any enforcement of strict and constricting rules of how the various materials should be used. She was encouraging and extremely supportive of whatever plan or art concept or project idea the different students proposed, and did not make any alterations to any of their plans. She provided the students with what help they may have asked for, while giving them complete freedom over how they wanted their projects to turn out and how they went about making art. 

Furthermore, Mr. Dewey, the classroom is not simply rows of art tables and straight lines of easels, but is a very spacious room with generous amounts of light which comes from a wall of very tall windows, and one door leading out into a small garden outside. The room itself is deskless, and there is instead one round large circular table on which students have their sheets of paper of all different sizes and textures, and so that all of the students who prefer to work with others may convene with their peers and communicate openly and share ideas. If students do not prefer the confines of the room, they can take their drawing pads, sculpting materials and easels with them to the garden outside to make their art in an open, sunny environment without the feeling of being enclosed.

There are numerous cabinets stocked with paints, crayons, colored pencils, extra sketch pads, craft supplies like pipe cleaners and googly-eyes, and many different packages of clay and straw and scraps of metal, all for experimentation and all to be accessed at will by any student. The students in this art room aren’t limited to one specific type of art and are instead encouraged to choose what materials they like and that best suit them, and to use the art supplies how ever their imaginations ask them to be used. They are encouraged as well to at any time move from project to project, dabbling in all kinds of different methods of art-making, drawing, painting and sculpting.

There is also an adjoining reading-room, with a vast library and various comfy looking bean-bag chairs for sitting inside the room to read, unless students choose to read in the garden. The books are primarily fiction and are from the perspectives of many authors and narrators of different classes, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender identities, so that students aren’t limited to only one voice and the representation of one race, class, gender or sexuality, and can engage with their communities on a more global scale. Books are also not given an age-requirement, so that the students can read whatever book they choose and at whatever pace best suits them and their needs. In-class reading is encouraged, though not mandated, and certainly not forced if a student does not learn the most effectively through reading to themselves. If a student likes or is really passionate about one passage, quote, chapter or even one book, they can read aloud from their favorite part to the class, and everyone listens respectively and politely, taking turns sharing their favorite parts of literature, and the voices they have become most inspired by.

The class schedule, though primarily art-oriented and centered around creative interpretation, is impressively flexible and the students can shift between the arts, sciences, mathematics, humanities and language arts at will and are encouraged to creatively explore all of the possibilities of materials and actively ask questions of themselves and of the work they are doing and that others are doing. The students are able to voice their concerns and engage in productive and active discussions and dialogue that really helps the class to thrive. Voices are raised, sometimes arguments arise, but students are able to cooperate and discover essential skills of communication and community that actively help them to become more understanding and compassionate humans and learners, and to form effective and lasting relationships with others as well. There is even a daily newspaper student-run and student designed, that allows for the kids to share their comics, editorials, experiments, reviews and engage in a very positive and enriching experience of sharing opinions and ideas with one another that helps to bring the class together and bring a very positive vibe to the class as a whole.

As such, there is no homework, as homework, in the words of Ms. Allen, is inefficient and unsatisfying and altogether stressful and anxiety-inducing, especially by traditional means of assigning information to be memorized and spewed back only to be forgotten in a matter of months. No, the only thing reminiscent of homework in Ms. Allen’s sixth grade class, is that they can bring various art projects and books from the classroom to and from school, and only under the condition that the students are still very much engaged with the material they are taking home with them, and working productively with the items and ideas and books in question. Students are also very strongly encouraged, though, to bring to the classroom each day different questions and observations they collected from the world and the communities outside and around them, which always allows students to bring to the table and communicate on topics and issues most on their minds and that they are most itching to speak about, really building back off that strong sense of open-mindedness and open-endedness of the materials, projects and discussions that makes for a very positive and effective community.

There are indeed occasional speakers, in fact, one every two weeks, who can be anyone taking new risks and experimenting with new methods and concepts in their fields such as a poet, a visual artist, a novelist, a scientist, a doctor, a mathematician, an actor, a singer, a community organizer, an activist, a health worker, or an architect, someone with a strong voice and point of view who can get others excited about their field and the work they do, and who make students really want to be better and further grow in their studies of interests and their experimental means of learning. Ms. Allen very thoughtfully chooses the class-speakers and makes sure they are diverse, open-minded and thought-provoking representatives of their fields who will lead the students on exciting new paths.

The students are also, every other day, taken out to different areas of the Hyde Park community to get more in touch with their community and the local areas of learning, and learn to explore the sites around them. Such field trips, as I’ve witnessed and had the pleasure of tagging along to, have been to the Hyde Park Art Center, The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, the DuSable museum of African American History, various park spaces as well as a particularly striking local park that juts out into the lake known by locals as “The Point.” The students also visit local community gardens in which to study, observe and draw from in their respective art projects. Such frequent trips as these for the sixth grade class thoroughly engage the students with the area around them and all the members of the community in Hyde Park that are contributing immensely and collectively with their fellow artists and historians and gardeners and volunteers. These field trips also help the students prepare for their art in not only just their visual art-making but also help the students to get inspiration from the social history of Hyde Park and the art around them as well.

In conclusion, Mr. Dewey, the sixth grade class at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools that I had the immense pleasure of observing really brings your ideologies and principles of teaching and learning-by-discovery to action. The students are thoroughly motivated to keep working productively and freely and experimenting in different means of creation and absorbing information. Ms. Allen is a very thoughtful, liberal and open-minded teacher with her lessons and instructions catered directly to the students and with the individual needs of each one in mind while also giving all the needed space for independent learning and self-discovery. She goes above and beyond the standards for teaching you have set so high, as does the class she teaches and the students she enriches, as consequence. You, and all the work you have done, have really done wonders for Lab School and for this excellent classroom that is, in my humble opinion, the most visual example of a democratic and open learning environment. 


Alison O’Connor

Back to Dewey Opens Experimental School