Monday, February 08, 2010

The Turning Sun School

***Update: 12. 14. 2011

I'm adding a little more information here about why Anton no longer goes to Turning Sun (previously known as The Atlanta Progressive Preschool).
Read more at the bottom of this article.


After a long and patient search for a better school for Anton, Doug and I believe we've found the right one. Check that. We KNOW we have. Below is my story and review of the Kingswood School:

Anton was previously going to The Kingswood School here in our Dunwoody neighborhood, located inside the Kingswood United Methodist Church. It was recommended by a neighbor and was conveniently located 2 miles from home. Never having been a parent before, I didn't do much searching into researching schools back when he was only 2. I assumed because I was a Christian (at least I thought I still was) that he'd be safer and warmer in a church school and I liked the daily trip to the chapel as part of his routine there - liked the idea that he'd be exposed to spirituality.

Well, now that I'm not a Christian anymore, my notion of spirituality has drastically changed. And since I've been in therapy with Debra, an Emotional Intuitive, we've done lots of digging into my past, through my body, to unearth all kinds of notions I had about life that no longer serve me. In fact, they've started really hurting me. One of those, was my tie to the church. NO, it's not a bad place at all. Just my idea and deep knowing about God is so much larger than one religion can picture and preach. So I left last summer and began healing some pretty deep self-inflicted wounds in the process. Yes - I aim to take full responsibility for my life and choices. Everything that hurts was initiated by me at some point. And NO, I'm not there yet fully. Just on my way and trying to trust the process.

So. Back to Anton. He did just fine as a 2.5 year-old at Kingswood. By the mid-year parent/teacher conference, though - he got very low scores on their checklist of what they thought toddlers should be able to do and our teacher (her first year as a teacher/no teaching degree whatsoever) suggested he be tested. This left a really bad taste in our mouths. Anton acted just like all the other kids his age did and he was happy. So we shrugged their assessment of him, especially since before the end of that year - he was doing all the things on their list they said he couldn't. I remember his teacher telling me "we're no experts." And I wondered at why they'd give an expert opinion if they in fact weren't.

The very same thing happened this year. We had a first time teacher assess Anton with her list and suggest he be tested and asked if I was concerned. I said no, that I had trust in Anton's timing of things. She said he reminded her of her son and that both of her sons had Aspbergers (high-functioning autism.) I asked her then if she was suggesting Anton had Aspbergers. "Oh, no. I'd never attempt to diagnose a child." And with that statement, she gave herself away.

I was then struck with the memory of a conversation I had with the director of Kingswood. She told me how much progress Anton had made and reminded me of the fact that I'd first walked into the school carrying him. (And she thought this was bad. He was two. TWO.) She told me that because Anton was not yet verbal, he was controlling us and his world with grunts and sighs with the correct inflection, but that this was somehow a bad thing.

Guess what. Anton talks now. Just fine. And I know lots of boys who have delayed speech, etc and just get there at their own sweet pace.

There is a shimmering hum of panic and judgement at that school. At every turn, I was told Anton was a sweet boy, but not smart enough or fast enough. He never measured up. At least not at their dictated pace.

And I thought to myself, "Why am I sending my son into a learning environment that is mostly worried about measuring up?" He's being assessed. All the time. And not just Anton, but Doug and I as parents.

In comes my chance encounter with the Turning Sun School. Well, not by chance, really. But by God, I really believe. I walked into the Director's office and nearly cried. I told her my story about Kingswood and she assured me that she and many other parents had been down my path. Anton just wasn't in the right school. And no one was happy.

I, in particular, was smothered by this sense of doom that I wasn't giving Anton enough at Kingswood. I was sending him to a school that looked, felt and preached just like the ones I went to in the 70's. By now their approach is archaic. Nothing about them was new. Nothing was different, nothing revolutionary. No real story or process about this pace caught my eye or intrigued me or tugged at my heart. I was bored. So was Anton.

There are so many different schools out there with different histories, different agendas, different beliefs, different philosophies. Not every school is right for every kid or every family. And the process of finding the right one can be really scary. It was for me.

At the Atlanta Progressive Preschool, Anton's experience has been profoundly happy with just two visits and one full day as a student there on Friday. He sings a clean up song now and woke up this morning, listing all the fun things he did at the school after his first full day.

I spent an hour at a seminar Friday morning about an introductory lesson on the Reggio Emilia Approach, which the school has now officially adopted. Its history is as fascinating as watching the process occur today. Listening to the stories of teachers, parents and directors, I had to keep from crying - it resonated so strongly with me. This is the parenting/educational approach to Anton's young life that I have been looking for.

One of many reasons why Turning Sun is thought of as progressive is that while other schools MOLD, DICTATE TO and CORRECT children as they learn. They very directly teach kids information to memorize. The TS teachers watch with wonder as the kids learn and they support each child's individual approach to an activity, find a way in and act as a guide and facilitator, not as a dictator. None of them say to the kids, "Watch and learn. This is how it's done. Do it my way." Which is what most of us grew up with. These TS teachers, (who I'm beginning to think really are angels) watch and learn the kids themselves, and then construct projects of learning that the entire class can take part in. If the kids are all about dinosaurs, then the teachers facilitate a very thorough exploration of that subject of infinite lessons, realizations, philosophies, etc. Check out the mind map at the top of this article. It's one of the many in the older three class. And they explore all of these avenues!!

Here's a powerful statement from the Reggio Emilia site:
The Reggio Emilia approach to education is committed to the creation of a learning environment that will enhance and facilitate children's construction of his or her own powers of thinking through the combination of all the expressive, communicative and cognitive languages.

It's magical because guess what - that kind of freedom to say, "I'll learn about life through my own unique interests and what makes me tick. That's what turns me on and what turns me on, I'll get good at and that'll be my gift to myself and my community" is how we adults, the most successful and happy ones, live our own lives. And poof, before you know it, I'm a person with a lifetime of knowledge and experience and love that all started with the fertilization of my unique seed of wonder.

After Anton's first full day of school, his teacher remarked in wonder and enjoyment to me how cool it was that he was more interested in the wheels and construction of the Sensory Table (lots of sparkly rocks and pebbles and beads inside this deep table) than in the contents of the table. She thought he was mechanical. And she loved this.

So, OH MY GOODNESS, he's in the right place. He is SEEN. He is noticed. He is appreciated and supported for what makes him tick. He's not measured. And the atmosphere in all the classrooms is so magical. It is peaceful and exciting at every turn. Even the 3 year olds are baking muffins and cookies, they plant gardens, they compost, the recycle, they spend time in the "studio." Anton calls this the "Art School" which really makes me cry (in a good way!). Talk about full circle! And parents are required to provide 15 hours of service for the school in whichever gift you'd want to share most. They want you involved and believe we add to their diversity. Their approach is so different. And I need these teachers as parenting models as much as Anton needs support learning.

I feel like a different parent. I really do. I see more opportunities now to really lengthen Anton's perceptions - to find out who he really is - to aid him in his discoveries. To celebrate his assumptions, not to correct them when he's wrong. When you correct, you halt the flow of discovery - the chance for him to find his own way. You promote the cycle of negativity that our culture is so reluctant to let go of.

So wow. There is a reason for everything. And this new adventure I'm on as a parent JUST became infinite fun. Anton won't be the only one with an enlarged and ever-budding sense of wonder. His mom will, too.

PS: At Kingswood, they used to take Anton's hat off after I'd dropped him off. And he's a hat person. We have an ever-growing collection of his hats that hang on hooks in the foyer. He picks one before going out each morning and reaches for one if his head is without one. And guess what. Anton still had his hat on when I picked him up at APP. No one ever made him take it off. :) Rock ON, little man. You're an amazing boy at an amazing school.

***Update: 12. 14. 2011
I'm adding a little more information here about why Anton no longer goes to the Turning Sun School.

After about a year at TS, we had Anton tested and realized that he had speech delays. A few behavioral problems started cropping up and after further testing, we discovered that Anton had SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder.) So we were searching for a new school for him AGAIN. We found one. Coralwood. Fabulous place with just the right mix of structure, guidance and love. Turns out TS was a bridge for Anton, but not the right school for him, especially for kids with sensory issues or special needs. We found the environment to be incredibly supportive and warm, but ill equipped (as was I) to help Anton out with his sensory issues. 

Turning Sun's organic (child-led, teacher-supported) structure made Anton feel even less secure than he was already feeling. The free-form playtime he interpreted as overwhelming chaos and he had no space to call his own. For a child with both sensory seeking and sensory sensitive sensitive behavior, the Reggio Emilia approach was lost on him, especially in such a young school (they were just 2 years old when we arrived at The Atlanta Progressive Preschool (Turning Sun's original school) whose grasp on the Reggio concept was still in its infancy. Anton was lost. And it was really tough to watch him struggle.

In retrospect, I think TS is super fabulous for parents with typically developing kids. And the community of parents there is really fun and engaging, too. I've made great friends through the school and loved the creative and nurturing approach to parenting and community involvement many of us share. But I believe it is not the right place for many kids who have any kind of social anxiety, shyness, or sensory sensitive issues. The sensory opportunities given to Anton were done in an environment suited for a broad range of children. Turning Sun really isn't set up for one on one work with kids with sensory sensitive issues. We had begun to brush Anton, but the school wasn't able to brush him, or could allow me to come in and brush him. They did the very best they could for him, with the limited resources they had available. And that is really the most I could ask of anyone.

Anton also needed to have all of his activities presented to him framed within the opportunity to make the "better choice." He needed to be presented with the idea of consequences, rather than punishment. TS does not condone the idea of "punishment" and neither do I. But his mind and body were so out of control at the time, he really needed boundaries spelled out to him in ALL CAPS so that he could think clearly while trying to "make the best choice." Most typically developing kids don't need that kind of guidance at every opportunity. And this was ultimately why we were asked to leave TS. It just wasn't safe for him or his friends anymore.

Leaving the TS was gut-wrenching - for us and for the school. And not the way we would have wanted it to happen. We were all crying by the time we said goodbye. The school was very compassionate and kind, as they had been all along during this process, despite their argument that more structure was never the right answer for any child. It certainly was/is for Anton. But I'm still glad for the experience. I learned a valuable lesson, which is that EVERY approach to education has value. They are all different, all useful, and as a parent, you've just got to take the time to research each school and their platforms to find the right one for your child and your whole family. Listen to your gut. LISTEN to your child. Though it might make you uncomfortable, the Truth is always the right answer because it is tailor made for your life, coming from your source of inner wisdom. 


Veggiemuse said...

Bravo to you for searching and helping your child. We are a "Montessori" family which sounds very close to what you are experiencing now.

My son is now 10 and a "4th year" and has been in that supportive, child centered beautiful space since pre-school. What a blessing.

I wish you joy on your journey!

Anne Elser said...

Thanks for the warm blessings! Very nice to meet you.

stpatti said...

Anne, that's wonderful & amazing! I went through similar experiences with my younger son when we moved here. Had I been more acclimated to the area & assertive with his father, I would have put him in a Montessori school, & had the Catechesis been in place, I think his years of struggle might have been quite different! The pain of what might have been isn't easy. Happily, he did find his niche & is using his creativity & passion for justice well, but I still mourn that he thought he wasn't "good enough" for a long time. I'm thrilled for Anton & you!

Anne Elser said...

I hear you, Patti.

Wish we could find the perfect solution sooner - but the trip getting there is meaningful, too.

George's Blog said...

Thank you for writing this. I read it to my 6 month old with my wife and we ended up in happy tears.

puggerhugger said...

Anne, very brave of you to put so much of your journey online. So glad to hear you advocating for Anton and I know you are a wonderful mom! Interestingly, a girl I know from the shop, a college student, told me a few days ago about her own struggles in school and she has SDD! Have you ever googled Indigo Children? Hugs- J

Anne Elser said...

I once had an health food store employee take a look at Anton and suggested he was an Indigo kid. Who knows! I've looked into it, but not too deeply.

These days he's getting the services he needs. So grateful he's in the right place for him now. :)

Thanks for your support!