GOLD HILL ELEMENTARY: Learning a new way

Pillows, stuffed animals and classical music part of the scene

Toya GrahamMarch 17, 2009 

Madison Bellof, a first grader at Gold Hill Elementary School, hits the floor for some flashlight reading during center time last week.

Grace Uloth, 7, grabbed a brown pillow and her writing and headed to her spot -- a haven under a desk.

"It's dark, and I can get more stuff to snuggle with," said Grace, a first grade student at Gold Hill Elementary School.

Grace settled in her spot as soothing music traveled across the room, but it's not bed time. It's school time.

"I actually do my work," Grace said.

Cuddling up with a clipboard for writing in a quiet place or at desks with classical music playing in the background is the norm in Carol Claypool's class of 17 students. It's what Claypool does to reach students, emancipating them from their desks.

"They all have clip boards and they can travel anywhere they want to write," Claypool said. "My desk is a hotspot. Some of them want to write under my desk."

Others gather to write or read on a love seat. There's room for two on a chair that resembles a futon. Still others travel near a computer station and bunk down atop pillows or lay on plastic storage tubs -- all in the name of learning.

The teaching style is one that's practiced by all of the teachers at Gold Hill, Principal Terry Brewer said. Jane Hooper, an assistant principal, agreed.

"We have a nontraditional school," she said. "You may see five students working on computers and some in reading centers sitting on pillows. We do this and more to help our students learn. It's a tradition at our school."

Fort Mill Superintendent of Schools Keith Callicutt applauds the effort.

"Anytime a teacher utilizes the latest research to improve instruction and in turn student achievement, then it's worthwhile," Callicutt said.

Education: Tailor-made

Students grab a book and a stuffed animal or pillow and read. Some opt to read by flashlight in a somewhat dark area in the classroom.

"It's a big deal," Claypool said of the much celebrated flashlight reading. "They can take the light and shine it on a word. The darker the little spot they find, the better. It's fun."

The effort makes students accountable and enables them to take ownership of their learning, Claypool and student teacher Jena Curry said.

"If you give students the choice of where they are learning, you give ownership of learning," Curry said. But, "when I went to school, I sat at my desk."

That's not the case in Claypool's class. Nontraditional learning coupled with mobility is a move that's quickly gaining favor with the students. Conor Pulliam and Avery Vidt grabbed books and headed to the love seat.

"It's soft," Conor explained. "There's lots of pillows."

Six-year-old Justin Roen also has a favorite niche: the futon-looking chair.

"It's more comfortable," he said.

For Avery Vidt and Madison Bellof, freedom to move around the class and learn is a good thing.

"We can read wherever we want," Madison said. "I usually go under the table. It's really dark, and I can read with the flashlight."

And sometimes the six-year-old is partial to another spot.

"Under the teacher's desk," she said. "A lot of people go under there. It's fun."

But it's more than fun. Mobile learning at 10 different centers, including the library, breaks the norm, students said.

"I like going to centers because if you're at your desk all day, it's kind of boring," Luke Halcom said as he worked at the art center.

Yet, some students weren't completely sold on the idea.

"Sometimes, I go to the centers and sometimes I work at my desk," Emily McNamee said as she studied a deer's jawbone.

Staying desk-side keeps at least one student grounded.

"I like working at my desk better," Jack Cridlin said. "I don't get tempted to just sit and do nothing."

And that's OK in Claypool's class.

"It's all about choice," Claypool said. "Everybody has a learning style. I try to create an environment for them."

For Claypool, nontraditional teaching is personal.

"I'm a nontraditional leader," Claypool said. "I struggled in school. I had a teacher who came alongside me and showed me I could learn. I just learned differently. I had to touch things and explore them before I learned."

That discovery came decades ago, when Claypool was a third grader. The lesson was one she never forgot even though she spent early years teaching traditionally.

Making the change

"Teaching traditionally worked for many," Claypool said. "It didn't work for everyone. Some of my little friends had a glazed look; They weren't getting it."
So, Claypool changed her teaching style. She embraced guided reading, where students read on their individual reading level as opposed to reading from a specific book.About the same time, Claypool designated a section of her class as the library. It's the spot that is anchored by an orange rug, love seat, futon-looking chair and lamp.
"Just to give the classroom a homey feeling during readers workshop," she said of the room, where a wall is painted in a soothing teal blue.
About three years ago, Claypool and fellow teachers started allowing students to keep water bottles at their desk for impromptu water sips.
"Children get thirsty," she said. "Water hydrates the brain. Having it available all day, allows their brains to stay hydrated."
And there's an another plus guzzling water brings, she said.
"The water helps them to keep thinking," she said.
Tyler Auton can't get enough water, he said.
"Sometimes after recess, I'm thirsty," he said. "Sometimes, I have two bottles, and I drink both."

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