... and the rabbit bobs past!
By Barbara Whyte
… and the rabbit bobs
Christine Charteris is a j.2-3 teacher of 32 children who
teaches in a developmental style at Hillcrest Normal
School. Fundamental to her way of thinking about teaching is the belief
that the teacher shouldn’t hurry learning; that children should have plenty of time to work things
out; that they often need to go back to activities – though always with the requirement that they
eventually be completed. For all her patience and child-centredness, though, Christine could be
called a tough teacher in that and other respects.
While some children may not cover as
much of the curriculum as children in other classes do, her preference always is for quality
thinking as against coverage of a subject area. The boys in the corridor, for example, will keep
coming up with ideas for exploring force. Christine’s teaching strategy will be to challenge the
children to discover different aspects of the same concept, and to give them time to follow lines of
Allied with all this is a belief that learning should be
integrated into real situations. Earlier in the year, the matter of calendars had arisen and the
children were soon involved in a range of activities to do with time and how it can be represented.
Time and calendars since then have become a regular topic. Christine has found the children keep
returning to a number of topics like this – topics that have arisen incidentally as an outcome of
chance daily interactions, or as a matter of intention by the teacher.
And then there
is the big developmental characteristic of allowing children to work at a pace that suits their
learning. If children have the ability and inclination to go on, Christine doesn’t hold them back by
making them wait for those who don’t.
Teacher questioning is the main
strategy she uses in helping children toward learning insight. The two groups of children working on
calendars, for example, will be seen to function at a different pace and at a different level. One
group quickly recognises that by establishing the first day of the month, the rest of the month can
be worked out in patterns of seven day cycles. As a result, the children in that group quickly
complete the drawing of the grid and the filling in of days and dates. The children in the other
group, however, will be seen to be still at the stage of having to copy each day and date, one by
one, off a calendar.
Christine never segments the children’s day, but does segment
her day. This means, as far as the children are concerned, that a topic can just carry on. For
example, she is generally especially available for language all morning and for maths between
1.00-2.00 p.m. but will help out at other times if needed. Her intention, though, is to have some
kind of coverage of most curriculum areas every day.
Christine’s classroom is about
problem solving. Her task, as a result, is not so much to give answers as to provide more questions
and problems to investigate; to make full use of both planned and spontaneous teachable moments;
and, in this way to help the children to make linkages for themselves. For example, in the forces
work referred to above, the investigators come across the concept of pulleys which she leaves them
to explore for another three or four days. Meanwhile a girls’ group moved in different direction,
possibly a less fruitful one for the moment, but Christine’s expectation is that the two groups will
eventually arrive at a similar degree of understanding.
An example of a spontaneous
teachable moment occurred earlier in the year when a dog came on to the school grounds and, to the
horror of the children, attacked one of the class hens. With the hen at the veterinarians, the
children busied themselves writing indignant letters to the city council about the ‘dog
When a new topic is decided, Christine gathers before views
and gets the children to write a question they would like an answer to; then she lets them think of
ways of finding answers. A typical response might be to write a letter; use the internet; phone or
fax someone who might know the answer; gather a range of resources.
In the morning
programme to be described, the topic of force has been introduced, but other options continue from
previous topics and interests. For example, rocks, which has been an earlier topic focus is still
being pursued, though it is also linked to force and time; work on ‘Rata’s Tree’ is continued; as is
the writing of autobiographies, and painting and drawing from observation.
day’s programme in action
The morning programme
The situation and setting is a single teacher classroom (with a mezzanine floor) for
j.2-3 children. It is a city school and the teacher is
The rectangular-shaped classroom is divided asymmetrically.
There are a series of barriers (screens, shelves, desks, cupboards, pigeon-holes, bookcases,
pinboards, and tables with legs cut off) at various angles to create personal cubbies. The room
appears full and from no direction can all the children’s work areas be viewed from a single vantage
point. Carpet squares cover some of the lino. The overall effect is not of a pretty room but of a
highly interesting one reflecting the children’s personality as much as the teacher’s – a room
developed incrementally from the accumulated outcomes of children’s learning.
Papier mache hot air balloons are suspended from ceiling wires; children’s paintings
of themselves doing activities look down from the walls; there are large, fat cushions; pot plants
line the window sills; and, constructions in the process of development are scattered around the
room. There are goldfish in a tank; birds in a large cage (outside in the sun today); and a rabbit
roams the room.
A science table with a sloping display board at the back
(covered with observational drawings) is set up with generous shelf and table space. It carries a
variety of materials – a range of levers (crowbar, drill bits, cogs, drills, nut crackers, hole
punches, scissors, bottle openers); a rock tumbler rotating; and books, including a hanging set of
There are two computers in two different parts of the room; a
bookshelf for displaying enlarged books; a wet sink area with a lino floor; shelves for art
equipment and resources; and a rock collection displayed at the back of a wall created by a
cupboard. Access to the mezzanine floor is through a set of wide steps (themselves useful as a form
of seating); the mezzanine floor displays books and language charts, and provides facilities for
The morning begins. Sitting around the edge of the carpet, the
children face the teacher and the whiteboard. With the money for lunches collected, the teacher
gives it to a child to work out. The teacher oversees what has been done, and the child proceeds to
organise the order form for the class. A prayer in Maori led by the teacher is followed by a waiata.
The roll is called with the exchanges in Maori. Children who need help in this are quickly and
positively helped by the other children.
The teacher outlines the
morning programme, reminding the children of some of the ‘bits and pieces’ that still needed
finishing. The current topic is a science one on force. Around this, other curriculum areas are
incorporated. A series of options is provided. The children can choose from regular ongoing
activities such as reading from individual reading boxes or the library corner display of ‘force’
boxes; or from completion-tasks such as writing (hand and word processed), the painting of Rata’s
tree, and painting and observational drawings. Other options are to experiment with the tools on the
science table or a new resource box placed near the science table (the contents are not revealed but
they are referred to as being of possible relevance to an investigation of force); to put rocks that
have been drawn and written about into the rock tumbler; and to make a wall calendar covering the
next two months to help in the tumbler monitoring. The children volunteer suggestions about how
paintings can be improved (one suggestion was to apply crayon over the paint), and how observational
drawings can be given roundness and shape with shading.
‘Sort yourselves out and go’,
says the teacher.
The children select their first activity, gathering the gear and
resources they need. Painters lay out the plastic floor coverings, clamber to get paints and brushes
from the paint shelves, bring in the partly-finished work from the corridor, discuss what they plan
to do, and then begin the task.
The rabbit takes the opportunity to bounce over the
is on stage three of her large observational painting of two birds in the cage. She had painted the
birds with wings out first, then, after the paint dried, had painted the cage and its bars over the
top of the birds. Now she was carefully filling in the background as it would be viewed through the
Writers sift through the pile of
writing books to find theirs and then a place to work. Some share what they have written with a
friend before continuing from where they left off, others begin writing immediately. A girl is
writing her autobiography (written autobiographies being one of the spontaneous ideas that have
become part of the class’s repertoire). As she works at one of the word processors, she occasionally
stops to show a passer-by her baby photo album.
Another girl, sitting alongside the
tumbler machine on the science table, is contemplating the written description and observational
drawing of the small rock she completed following a recent field trip. She decided to try to find
out how many revolutions per minute the tumbler is rotating her rock. A boy with a digital watch is
enlisted for her help. A girl close by is making an observational drawing of one of the tools on the
table. The pair observing the tumbler agree on who is going to do the timing and who the counting.
They finally agree on the start-counting-now spot on the tumbler. After three false starts the
counting begins. Thirty-seven revolutions per minute are counted. As the teacher passes she suggests
they might like to consider how long one revolution takes. They reflect on this and decide ‘it’s a
A group of children making ‘machines’ stand around their
constructions discussing progress. They plan their next move, and then disperse to gather
rabbit bobs past.
Some boys rummage through the gear in the mystery box (see above) and try to work out what
‘those things are’ (spring balances), and what they are used for. One suggests the dial hand looks
like a clock and could be for measuring something. Another notices the dial hand moves when you pull
the hook. They list variations of pressure on the hook and note that the harder it is pulled down,
the more the dial hand moves around. The teacher joins them and listens to their discussion. With
each suggestion they make, comes a response from her to extend their thinking. Eventually they
decide that the ‘things measure force’. The teacher suggests they might like to create loads of some
kind to demonstrate different levels of force. The boys respond enthusiastically and search around
the room for objects they might use.
As the children become engaged in
their tasks, the teacher circulates. Two pairs of children have decided on the wall calendar
activity and negotiate together which pair will do the current month and which the following one.
The children concerned get two large sheets of paper, some felt pens, and a metre ruler, then locate
a calendar near the whiteboard which they study intently. They start measuring and dividing the
paper into squares. One of the pairs finds it is too slow with just one ruler between two calendars
and tries to find another. They ask the girl writing her autobiography at the computer where they
are kept, but she is concentrating on the keyboard and, in an irritated manner, says she doesn’t
know. The two hens suddenly push out of one the art cupboard doors and peck around, heading for the
Two children sit in one of the large cubbies created by desks
and buddy-read. They discuss the story and work out an inferential meaning for the last part. They
have an even longer discussion about the dried fruit one of them is munching and decide, after it
has been nibbled by both, that it does taste better than the ‘fresh stuff’.
In the writing corner on the mezzanine floor a number of children are hard at work.
About a third of the class are studying rocks and writing detailed descriptions so they can make a
comparison when the rocks come out of the tumbler in six weeks time. The girl writing her biography
is now ready to respond to the question about rulers asked of her earlier. She shows the boy
concerned where the rulers are neatly stashed in a tube behind one of the screens.
child is doing a careful outline of another who is lying on a long piece of paper on the floor.
Three children are sharing the drawing of a very detailed crayon picture of a tree – it has
exquisite detail on the bark and with every leaf a separate work of art. They talk about the ‘Rata
and the tree’ legend they are illustrating and wonder about the ‘force’ of the tree as it falls and
whether the insects had to use as much force to get it back up again. They decide it would take
‘more force’ because pushing up is harder.
On the mezzanine steps a
child is reading quietly to herself. As the teacher sits down beside her, the child spontaneously
starts reading louder. They discuss the rabbit as it tries to wriggle under the bottom steps, and
then continue reading.
The boys carrying out the spring balance investigation rush in from the
corridor to inform ‘everybody’ that they’ve ‘discovered something’. Their faces are flushed with
excitement. They invite a couple of children out to the corridor to have a look.
One of the investigators returns to the classroom to report progress to the teacher
and especially that the slippery nature of the lino is affecting their ‘research’. The teacher
focuses the investigator’s thinking with an open question and he zips back to experiment further.
She resumes listening to the reading until a scraping noise gets their attention. The teacher and
the child discuss the rabbit underneath them and how it likes going under the stairs to a hidey-hole
to sharpen its teeth by gnawing the backs of the wooden step slabs. As the rabbit moves under the
bottom step and bobs away, the child finishes reading. The teacher takes the opportunity to remind
her of the three rules for coping with unknown words, and then joins the corridor
A child working on one of the
calendars has suddenly become aware of the large group of twelve children working on the mezzanine
floor. He calls up to them to ask what they are doing. They appear slightly at a loss how to answer,
looking at each other and raising their shoulders as if to say ‘we’re just working, what’s the
problem?’ Satisfied he’s not missing out on anything, he returns to his
A child who has decided she is ready to publish, checks her
work with the teacher and together they decide the writing is ready for word processing. While
meeting the corridor investigators, the teacher had offered to read them something related to their
findings. By the time she has finished getting the computer operational, the boys have lined
themselves up in a row of chairs in the science corner and announce they are ready for the
‘reading’. She suggests they move on to the carpet and that they fetch another boy to join them as
‘he’d probably be interested in the book’.
Sitting on the large cushions
they listen while the teacher talks to them about ‘rough and smooth’ from the ‘Science Alive’ book
‘Gripping and Slipping’. A painter who overhears the teacher’s questions joins them and contributes
to the conversation that follows. The painter helps to link the corridor investigation to the tree
in the painting of Rata’s tree. While these children discuss a question posed by the teacher, she
turns to read some writing (about a huge hole being dug in a nearby street by a digger) passed to
her by a girl. Half listening to the boy’s discussion, she asks a question about the
that moment the rabbit bobs past.
The painter contributes some more information about the hole (which happens to be
near her house as well). The writer decides to add this further information. Meanwhile, the teacher
gets back to questioning the boys about ‘rough and smooth’. The boys say they want to try the idea
they gained from the teacher’s questioning, but the teacher insists they think of the possible
answer before they do this. The teacher reads them the text which they discuss before moving on to
friction and its relevance to the picture of skates and rollerblades. Other children come over and
ask the teacher the whereabouts of items (especially the stapler and a rubber). They are told to
find them for themselves. A child wandering by is invited to join the discussion by the teacher who
is starting to read aloud about skates and rollerblades. Questioning by the teacher prompts
predictions from the children. This, in turn, allows the teacher to ask more questions. The bell
goes for interval, but nobody seems to notice so the teacher shoos everybody outside.
The teacher returns from the staffroom, noting as she passes that the tray of water has, once
again, been well used by the children during the interval. The plastic bottles, funnels, tubing, and
frothy water have been organised into a complicated connecting system that has water moving up,
down, and across different levels.
The two hens are outside for
their morning scratch-about in the playground and are scavenging leftovers from the class rubbish
bin. They don’t find much so they return inside. The children are back at their activities but
things are a bit noisy. After a request by the teacher
about reducing the noise, the children continue with their activities. Some are taking up where they
left off, others have started new activities.
The teacher staples the
computer-published piece of writing produced by the tumbler observer on a wall in the science
corner. Included in the story is the solution to the maths problem the teacher had posed
One of the corridor investigators has written a statement on the
whiteboard about blocks and friction which he reads to another child. They join the rest of the
investigators who have resumed their activities in the science corner; before long, though, they
return to the corridor. Different lengths of wool attached to piles of blocks and the spring
balances are being tested.
Two boys are using magnifying
glasses as they do observational drawings of some of the lever tools displayed on the science table.
Three girls reach up to the corner shelves in the wet area to get dyes to finish off their tree
Some children are still writing descriptions of their
Neisha: My rock is orange. My rock has teth marks on it. My
rock is five sentemetres. My rock whighs seventy five grams. My rock feels raf. My rock is hefy. The
shape of my rock is actogon.
Kirsten: My rock has got
some red and bluwy green coluer and my rock is crystal. It weighs 90 in a hafe grams and its width
is 4cm. my rock has bumps on it. My rock is rafe and bampy. My rock is hard. My rock is an
The teacher wants to do some guided
reading with a few of the children but her inquiries are deflected by several of them who don’t want
their activities interrupted. They ask her if they can ‘do it later’ when they are finished. She
does, however, manage to entice two children from their tasks. A child brings his story and a
‘Spell-write’ dictionary to her. As he self-selects his spelling errors and checks them in the
‘Spell-write’, the teacher writes some of them into his spelling notebook.
Just then the rabbit bobs past.
One of the corridor
investigators reports in. The teacher invites him to bring everything back into the classroom for a
sharing session. He says that it is going to be difficult ‘to bring all the findings in, as the gear
‘takes up a lot of room’ – including somebody’s full and heavy schoolbag ‘which they needed to use’.
Eventually, though, the transfer is made and a group gathers around to hear about their
They have the first string balance attached to a zip on the
bag, and the second between the long string and a shorter string. By opening or closing the zip,
they have found they can have an effect on how far the needles on the spring balances move when the
block is pulled. They thought the two spring balances would show the same amount of force, but they
didn’t. Would it matter, they wondered, if they held the bag in the air instead of having it on the
floor? They want to draw and write about their discoveries, so they go off to find some
One of the two calendar-making pairs has finished. This pair has
decorated their work with a coloured koru patterns and backed it with a larger piece of black paper
to form a frame.
The child writing her autobiography with her photo album is
trying to work out the year she was born. She is given help by the teacher by means of a backwards
scale started on a piece of paper.
1994 – 8 years
1993 – 7 years
Except for the pair who have just finished dyeing their
koru-decorated calendar, most of the children are still working at their activities. The teacher
asks the children who haven’t gone back to their paintings to pick them up and put them in the
corridor. The calendar-making pair, knowing the bell will be going soon, start to pack up. Some
other children also start to pack up, but others remain engrossed in their activities. The teacher
listens to a child reading, and then quietly calls the class to the mat.
A child shows the teacher a calendar she has made for herself in her ‘white book’
(the rock writing book) to enable her to track her own rock’s progress. The teacher praises her
initiative and then gets the children to problem solve how many weeks they think there are in
August. Using the work of the first-finished calendar-making pair, the children work this out. The
children who understand, help their peers to realise that the number of days over from the full
weeks have to be accounted for. The finished calendar is stapled to the wall in the science
The teacher reminds the children to continue with their
autobiography time-lines after lunch. She then reintroduces the idea of working out their year of
birth using a backward scale. There is a moment of indecision when they try to work out the year
before 1990. Options offered and written on the whiteboard include: 1999, 1980, 1989, 1995, 1677.
After much discussion, the teacher covers the thousand and hundred columns of 1990 with her hand to
help the children understand. They agree on 1989. The teacher rubs off the scale before lunch,
urging the children to work it out again later.
… and the rabbit bobs past!
[Concluding comment by Kelvin Smythe:
The similarities between
Christine Charteris’s teaching and Elwyn’s are clear: the patience displayed with children allowing
them considerable time to observe, explore, reflect, act, and express; but associated with this
patience, a demand for children to be rigorous in their thinking; the central pedagogical place of
problem solving; the willingness to listen to the children and closely observe; the emphasis on
observational, anecdotal evaluation; the opportunities for children to share their learning and
learn from each other; the determination to make the curriculum serve the children not dominate and
distort what they do; and, the teaching to goals providing both the necessary structure for the
informality of practice, and the desired for freedom.
Differences between the two can
be detected, for instance, Elwyn emphasised the imaginative link between the natural environment and
creative expression; Christine cognitive demands in relation to a wider view of science. And in her
problem-solving demands on children, she used a wider curriculum canvas. Elwyn in written and
artistic expression was superb.
If I had to place Christine in
the context of a particular philosophical approach, I would choose Dewey’s. This is not say
Christine has read Dewey, she has more ended up there in a pragmatic way, also through people around
her who have absorbed the Deweyan tradition. Dewey saw humans as intelligent organisms whose
understandings are reconstructed in response to certain problematic situations, and that society to
develop beneficially needed these reconstructions to be positive ones. The school, as a result, had
a crucial role in both identifying what is best in society and then providing problem solving
opportunities for children. She also falls into the integration category but, then, all
developmental teachers do; it is where they end up as a logical extension of sharing classroom power
– it is the best kind of curriculum integration.
Teachers looking at the two
(Elwyn and Christine), however, should be inspired by them, not ape them in detail. There are
curriculum learning detriments in both approaches (mainly to do with the need for more philosophical
depth in problems set), greatly outweighed, of course, by the gains. The kind of principles outlined
above should be acted on, but in ways that reflect teachers’ personalities’ and professional
abilities and enthusiasms.
A look at how Christine
became what she became is illustrative. The influences on her flow from the collective mind map of
liberal education philosophies derived from people around her. The main influence was the well-known
Hamilton educator, Edith Ryan. Edith
was Christine’s junior class leader and later taught at the teachers college. She instilled into
Christine the idea of child-centredness and working out your practice from there. The influences on
Edith were all the usual suspects: the New Education Fellowship Conference; Susan Isaacs; A.S Neill
and Summerhill; John Dewey; John Holt; Elwyn and Sylvia, of course; Beeby; Lex Grey of playcentre
fame, who needs much more recognition; Ruth Trevor; Dorothy Blumhardt; and Gordon Tovey. Then there
were the people who kept the flame of the myth going, people like Jack Shallcrass, Keith Fox, Anton
Vogt, Barry Mitcalfe, and Bruce Hammonds. But, above all she was from that magnificent and, as we
see it now, heroic group of junior class leaders, who did it, with due recognition to their
influences, their way.
These same influences also worked their magic on other people
who affected Christine’s way of thinking, people like the remarkable Anne McKinnon who taught so
brilliantly in the Hamilton area, and later went on to be the driving force for BSM; the charismatic
Stan Boyle, one of her principals, and very much in the tradition of Elwyn Richardson, indeed, his
name pops up in Elwyn’s book; Pam Halls, another of her principals, who believed in her, and gave
confirmation to her practice; and Barbara Whyte, a lecturer at the school of education and the
writer of this article, who did the same.
In relation to Barbara Whyte comes
the main point I am making in this conclusion. If you look on my web site under ‘Curriculum’, you
will find listed a posting, ‘Essence: Learning through drama and other things’, which recounts
Barbara Whyte’s transformational encounter, in the ‘50s, with an inspiring teacher who mainly taught
through drama. This teacher had a short though brilliant life, but whose influence continues in
Barbara Whyte to Christine Charteris, and through her to Edith Ryan and to those in our liberal
education pantheon. So if you are out there, a developmental teacher, striving for the kind of
brilliance that comes from the those who are part of our education myth (the stories liberal
educationists tell about ourselves), and wondering if the education world around you has gone mad,
take heart, you are not alone, the myth will endure, and you are contributing to it.]