How We Learn
Phoenix revolutionized education almost forty years ago when the prevalent teaching methodology was turned on its head, and students were given an active voice and role in the classroom and their education. Today, we continue to pioneer with our innovative, experience-driven learning community. Phoenix provides students with the tools, ideas, and encounters to help them be the best versions of themselves. With teachers as their partners in the PK-8 education equation, students learn to emphasize process over product, executing project-based learning through a robust curriculum. Phoenix helps students think critically, explore deeply, work collaboratively, contribute globally, learn from failure, and celebrate success. Our core values are creativity, perseverance, citizenship, innovation, and empathy.
As a school located in the heart of the vibrant city of Salem, MA, the world is our classroom. Learning happens everywhere: at school, at home, out in the world, near and far. At Phoenix, we spark the love of learning by fostering a mindset of curiosity and interest and provide an environment of exploring and questioning at school that weaves learning and life experiences together. A staple of a Phoenix education is helping develop an understanding of themselves and their role in their local and global communities and that their learning is a lifelong process that happens everywhere they go.
In practice, this means leaving the school frequently and easily when the need or opportunity arises and welcoming outside experts and community members. Within the school, students are organized in mixed-age bands and are encouraged to pursue projects with partners of different ages, genders, and skill levels.
Challenge Based Learning – Learning through action
Much of the students’ work, even day-to-day, is done in the context of multi-age teams. This provides abundant opportunities for all students to understand and practice leadership, teamwork, and respect for all ages, genders, and personalities. Students form groups every week to address assignments in subjects such as Spanish, Science, and Art, with members from K-2, 3-5, and 6-8, and everyone’s input is valued. Different groups are formed for longer assignments. One year groups worked on the interdisciplinary assignment to invent their own country, complete with geography, demographics, government, and political system. Another example is the annual Holiday Revels show, an original production which the school writes and stages: multi-age groups come up with ways to theatrically represent ideas around a theme such as the Harvest or the Environment. All students participate in developing the ideas, dialogue, costumes, and sets, as well as acting the show out for the Phoenix Community on stage.
Preparing Students for the Challenges of the 21st Century
According to a public opinion poll on Perceptions of Independent Schools commissioned by NAIS, what makes independent schools different from other schools is: a well-rounded and challenging curriculum, quality faculty, more individualized attention, small classes, values, discipline, a safe environment. and parent involvement in their child’s education. As an independent school, Phoenix provides all these things. But Phoenix goes beyond it, in unique ways.
We take very seriously the need to restructure education to meet the needs of a changing world. No longer are the skills that led to success in an industrialized society sufficient to meet the demands of the knowledge-based 21st century. It goes without saying that academic excellence is a given, but there must be more. Our current students will be part of a work force who, according to Sir Ken Robinson, senior education adviser of the Getty Corporation, “need to make good decisions in times of uncertainty, who can adapt to new opportunities and respond creatively to change.” We would add that the future workforce must include people who can collaborate and cooperate with a wide range of people and ideas, who can communicate effectively in many different ways, and who are technologically literate. Industry today is having a hard time finding employees with these skills and often is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars training current staff. It makes no sense to wait that long when it can begin in kindergarten. Come see a 21st century curriculum in action at The Phoenix School:
• A Small School, Big Ideas and Opportunities .
• The World is Our Campus
• The Arts are Everywhere
• A K-8 School Community in One Room
• Leadership and Collaboration Begins in Kindergarten
• Learning Maps Vary
• Younger Kids Benefit From Older Kids’ Advice
• Kids Can Make a Difference
• Reflections Enhance Thinking
A Small School, Big Opportunities
What opportunities does a small school like Phoenix provide that a larger school may not? Here are a few. In a small school, there is greater flexibility. Because subjects usually taught by specialists at Phoenix are woven into the curriculum where they fit, we are better able to follow a student’s, a group’s or the whole school’s interest in a particular topic, rather than cut off an investigation because the bell rings to change classes. Having a flexible daily schedule that changes depending on events helps students learn how to handle the unexpected, to be ready for whatever might happen on a given day, and to enjoy the surprises that inevitably come up. A small school allows students and teachers to build strong personal relationships that support learning, risk-taking, and personal growth, relationships that grow stronger over time as a student moves through the school, not having to change teachers every year. A small school is a place where everyone knows one another. This builds a solid school community that supports the struggles and celebrates the successes of every person as well as gives each member a feeling of belonging. It allows teachers to be on top of situations that in a larger school might lead to bullying or personal conflicts. In a small school, it is easier to empower students to take an active role in their own education, working side-by-side with peers, students of different ages, teachers. In a small school, parents are usually more actively involved in their child’s education and in contributing their time and expertise in ways that enrich the school.
Yes, Phoenix is smaller than what many might consider a ’small school,’ but that only heightens the advantages.
The World is Our Campus
Our home base near the heart of downtown Salem is just that — our home base. Rather than a campus that provides all the facilities needed for the curriculum, we have chosen to integrate the world around us, near and far, into our campus.
The Arts are Everywhere
We are often asked, “How do you produce such amazing artists when you don’t have art classes or an art studio?” or “How in the world did you create that performance in four days without a script and with every student having a part?” or “How do you interest kids in classical music?”
In a small school, we value the ability to integrate the arts into the total curriculum rather than segregate them in special rooms. We view them as much more than a means of expression, although that is certainly one important aspect of an arts curriculum. They are also a means for assessment (the child who drew a picture of a mill girl in the looms room with an electric light bulb over her head had missed the fact that the mills were powered by water). They are also a means of communication (“a picture is worth a thousand words when taking notes,” we often say). They are an essential vehicle for documenting information, especially for right brain learners who process information better through drawing than words. They give students an opportunity to use higher level thinking skills when they apply knowledge in different creative ways — a PowerPoint presentation, or the creation of an original play teaching about the Renaissance.
A K-8 School Community in One Room
In one large space divided into smaller learning areas full of books, materials, and technology, students of all ages explore, learn, and discover. The arrangement of the room allows them to easily find whatever tools for learning they need and they don’t have to wait to go to the Library or Computer Lab, to the Art or Music Room in order to be able to access the equipment and materials. It also allows them to be more independent in the use of the space, knowing where to find what they need and where to put it back when finished with it. Here students in grades Kindergarten through grade 8 work and learn together — sometimes independently, sometimes in partners or in teams, Sometimes they might be divided by age, sometimes by ability, sometimes working altogether. Each experience has a purpose, but in the end, what results is a strong community of learners who understand one another. This is what allows us all to go away together at the end of the year for our All-School Trip to some place in New England. It’s like going away with your family–which is what we are — a Phoenix family.
Leadership and Collaboration Begins in Kindergarten
I’ll show you where the Geo-strips are. I used them yesterday.” “Let’s figure that out together.” These are typical comments that five year olds have been heard to say as they try to find a role for themselves in a busy K-8 schoolroom. Their best day of the year might be when the nursery school kids come for the Halloween Party and they get to be their ‘big partners.’ Otherwise they are open to the small steps that begin leadership and collaboration. When they are in 3rd-5th grades they become ‘packing partners’ responsible for a K-2 partner at the beginning of the day and end of the day. They might be their reading partner each morning for ten minutes or a leader of a K-5 project learning team. By the time students are at the upper end of the school, they are ‘team leaders,’ teachers of the after-school courses, coordinators of all-school teams for creating a piece for Revels or for an all-school problem-solving project. By 8th grade, we expect them to be the leaders of the School — our representatives to the local community, should they choose to accept that responsibility. This is very different approach from one-day-a-week Reading Buddies.
Learning Maps Vary
At Phoenix, we recognize that everyone is different. This is especially true here, with our diverse population of students. Each comes with his/her own learning map developed by the range of experiences each has had. They are not all in the same place in their learning, even at the same age, so the most effective teaching approach is not to give everyone the same information at the same time, up in front of the group. At Phoenix where teachers are facilitators, we view our job as that of opening many different doors for different students. With our guidance, each must learn what best fits his/her needs at a given point in time, and learn the best approach for accessing it just as the teachers learn what works best with individual students. The daily and frequent dialoguing that goes on between student and teachers as they “check-in” throughout the day is probably the single most important vehicle for learning and teaching that goes on at Phoenix because here students reflect on their work, teachers asks questions to help clarify what was meant, new directions might be given or a mini-lesson to tidy up a specific skill or a new challenge presented. Gone are the days when students receive a grade and that’s that. At Phoenix we follow most pieces of work to its end–one that reflects the abilities of each child, not the same expectation for everyone.
Younger Kids Benefit From Older Kids’ Advice
The opportunity for older students to see where they have come from and for young students to see where they are going is an integral part of the process of building self-esteem and empathy for others For an older student to stop by a younger student struggling over an academic project and hear them say, “Don’t worry. Just stick with it. It will get better. I know. It happened to me too.” makes much more of an impression than the support given by a teacher. for the younger student could not imagine that competent 8th grader even struggled. It often is an important recognition on the part of the older student that they had struggled, worked hard, met the challenge, and moved on to the next.
Kids Make a Difference
Learning the importance of giving back to one’s community as well as the satisfaction one feels for doing something for someone else is an integral part of our curriculum as it is in many other schools. We started the first Early Act Club, a community service club for elementary school students, in New England, sponsored by the Salem Rotary Club. When we began this relationship, we were one of 24 clubs in the world. What makes it different is that the students are the club: they are the ones that evaluate projects, organize them, and carry them out. They run the meetings, bring up ideas for a vote, and involve the whole school. They provide both service within the school (helping someone else, being a reading partner), local community (collecting items for a Joy Toy Drive. the NorthEast Animal Shelter, the Crombie St. Shelter for the Homeless, etc.), and the world (donating money to charities of their choice). Each experience makes a difference in different ways, but one of the most special aspects is making the decision together as a school for where to send their donation money. One year they heard about different needs in the community and world from local charities and area philanthropists, then voted on their choices. Another time the club’s officers evaluated charities and presented a proposal to the rest of the school for consideration. The ensuing discussion was memorable. Every dollar was carefully considered in terms of which would make the most difference, and their final decisions met everyone’s satisfaction, K-8.
Reflection Enhances Thinking
Part of being a good thinker is the ability to reflect on one’s thinking and learning. Metacognition is a $100 word that students at Phoenix love to use to describe the reflections they write or share with a teacher at the beginning, middle, and end of all important pieces of work. Reading or listening toThe students describe what they liked best about the work, or how they could make it more challenging, or how did their current discoveries connect with previous work, always including the word “because”.
The World is our Campus – Learning in the context of the real world
In The Neighborhood
Community service has always been an important part of the Phoenix experience. The school’s presence in Salem’s downtown area and its flexible curriculum have positioned the Phoenix to respond to many opportunities in support of the local community. The Phoenix offers an annual Halloween party for young children during Haunted Happenings, joins with the Salem Rotary and Chamber of Commerce to host students from Japan and Ireland, and has worked with the Council on Aging, Help for Abused Women and Children (HAWC), Headstart and local food pantries.
On the Bus
Each year the entire school heads off as a great big family for a four-day educational program that may incorporate a theme we have been studying all year or reflect the site we visit. It is a reward after a year of hard work, but it is also a unique opportunity to live and learn together. We have studied on the sand dunes of Cape Cod, in the woods of New Hampshire, in the tide pools of Maine, and on a working farm in Athol, Massachusetts. In recent years, we have gone to a summer camp in western Massachusetts to create a circus or a production to be performed on the Main Stage at Salem State College.
Around the World
In early spring, students in grades 5-8 embark on a travel study trip to a location of geological, historical, cultural and/or scientific significance. This week-long adventure has taken students to the Florida Everglades, Mammoth Cave, Carlsbad Caverns, Crow Canyon in Colorado, Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Tortola in the British West Indies, the Netherlands and even Italy!
All students deserve an active voice and role in the classroom, their education, in a space that is innovative, experience-driven and supportive.