Libbi Malmborg and Markell McCubbin are well aware of the current buzz words in education: social emotional learning (a focus on classroom cooperation and empathy), inclusive environment (mixing children with various “abilities” and ages), project-based learning (using in-depth, creative exploration of a single theme, like hurricanes, to approach reading, science, art). While these concepts are often in practice at Children’s Synergistic Learning Collaborative, the two women who founded this educational experiment are reluctant to use the terms. Because, like so many buzz words, their overuse has made them virtually meaningless and, when it comes down to it, there’s one thing that Children’s SLC really wants to cultivate and that is a child’s natural curiosity.
Malmborg recounts the story of her own child, who excelled in her regular public school and got perfect grades, but was almost petrified by the fear of failure. “She didn’t want to take any risks,” says Malmborg. Learning, it seemed, was no longer fun and rewarding.
So Malmborg brought her daughter to the one-room downtown classroom she and McCubbin had founded, where toys are scattered in every corner and a library book loan receipt taped to the top of a door reaches all the way to the carpet. Without being pushed to complete a litany of tasks, without her progress being compared to the other children around her, Malmborg’s daughter (now in the 5th grade), alongside the school’s 20 other mostly preschool and early elementary age children, once again found her stride.
Markell McCubbin earned her master’s in Special Education and taught at the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning. Libbi Malmborg has a master’s in Speech-Language Pathology and years of observation and intervention in schools and private settings. What they both saw in traditional schools and in the Special Ed classrooms were children who weren’t listened to, children pushed to reach grade-level and curriculum standards when they weren’t ready, and children who weren’t given a safe space or enough time to practice the academic concepts, social skills, even speech and communication skills being taught. Without being able to create the change they wanted to see within the system, they decided to try something of their own.
With so much focus on self-directed learning and play, indoors and out in nature, some may wonder when any “work” gets done. “We are a very academic school,” McCubbin assures. “We make sure the important pieces fall into place, we just don’t push.”
“We are constantly aware,” adds Malmborg. “If we find a moment to insert a mini lesson we jump in and deliver a concept, but then we back away again and allow them to work with that and play with it.” — KP