We, the team from Yogyakarta State University (UNY), Ayu, Unik, and Yosita, are very grateful that we were able to join the participants in USAID's University Connect at Michigan State University, USA, between 1 February and 26 March 2016. We could see for ourselves how primary school students are educated in the land of Uncle Sam. There are many interesting things that we can adapt and use. Here is part of the story.
My Class, My Palace
“My class is my palace”—perhaps this is the spirit that makes the teacher work hard to design lessons which are as matched to the needs of the students and also within the capabilities of the teachers themselves. How come? The teacher and his or her students will be in class from 08:00 until 15:30. The class feels like the venue for a birthday party, crowded, almost no empty space on the wall and even the door is filled with writing that motivates the students.
The blackboard, has a touch screen, and a laptop has been prepared in the classroom to support the activities the students will engage in. In every class there is a rug on which the students gather to listen to stories or just talk and discuss. Lightweight chairs mean the students can easily move them around according to the activities taking place. The teacher tries to keep the students from getting bored and keep them interested and eager to learn.
Strength of Literacy
Lively classes with lots of books are typical of classrooms in America. A large variety of books is provided: there are story books, textbooks, and reference books. The students are expected to love the books. Teachers not only provide books in the classroom, but also use a variety of teaching methods so that students are always coming into contact with books.
It is a firm belief of teachers that, if students succeed in developing their literacy, they can be successful in other fields. Classrooms are filled with writing related to literacy. Each student also has a book basket. Once a week, students choose 5-7 reading books from the class library that they would like to read. The student writes the story in their writing book using their words (not summarizing it). Each time the student has finished reading a book, they rewrite the story and tell the story to a friend, their work partner. Then they earn a gold coin from the teacher and put it into the savings box for gold coins.
Students are regularly trained to write, as we saw in a grade III class. The teacher asked the students to write about the results of their field trip in the form of a research report. One student reached 32 pages in his own handwriting. He was able to write as many as pages as that about a topic that would not have been an easy one for students who are not accustomed to writing.
Turning High Level Arguments into a Habit
Interesting learning activities, apart from taking place in a room that is cheerful and comfortable, and where the teachers are fun, tend to involve students being accustomed to answering high level questions from teachers such as 'why this?', and 'why that?' Setting up debates in lessons began in grade I and was presented attractively. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photographs of the students doing these activities.
An overview of the lesson is as follows. There were 24 students in the grade 1 class, and they were divided into two groups, which then formed two circles, one inside the other, with the students facing each other in pairs. The theme of the debate on one occasion was about "felling trees". One student in each pair had to give the reasons why he had to cut down a tree, e.g. for industrial purposes. The other student had to argue with their partner about stopping the cutting down of trees with good reasons.
Every five minutes, the students who were in the outer circle moved clockwise to change partners and conduct the same debate. The reasons given by the students of grade 1 can be extraordinarily clever. Some saide that if the felling of trees stopped, then there would be many unemployed people as many people would lose their jobs. The opponent said if the tree felling continued, many animals would lose their homes and eventually they would attack humans.
To make the grade I students think like that definitely requires habituation. We should familiarize our students with arguing at a high level starting in the early grades. Let's hope that good habituation becomes entrenched in our educational environment. Amen.