Sunday, February 9, 2014

The RAD School: Brooklyn, NY

Brooklyn RAD (Revolutionary Artistic Development)  is housed on the first floor of a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The self-described “home-based educational program” was started in 2007 by visual artists Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton as an alternative to the hustle in which many parents compete for the openings at Brooklyn’s few art-focused public elementary schools. As the school expanded, they split into two groups: RAD (6-10 year olds) and MiniRAD (3-5 year olds), in neighboring Clinton Hill.

The school employs a lead and an assistant teacher to work full-time with the 10 children, while a number of parents and other adults volunteer their talents regularly. One father teaches Spanish, and one mother who is a reading specialist, works with a group of readers when the class splits for English. Class size is small by design (no more than 10 students) to enable near-daily explorations outside of the classroom: parks, museums, shows, gardens, factories, work spaces, etc.

I arrived before the children and scoped out their cozy school space. The entire first floor is one large open area. Immediately through the front hall cubby area is one room, which houses a reading nook full of pillows, an upright piano, and shelves of toys and learning materials. The middle area bottlenecks to accommodate a tiny bathroom and a desk with the teacher’s workspace, and opens into the back room which is set up much like a traditional classroom: two tables surrounded by chairs, a whiteboard, and other classroom accoutrements like a code of conduct, bins of student work and poster boards of class projects.

Children trickled into the classroom; their teacher told me that despite her efforts, a firm start time has eluded them. The first academic class of the day started at 9:30; children split into three groups by ability. I spent a little time with each group: a bit of a book club around Charlotte's Web, some focused work on crafting a piece of creative fiction to complement whimsical drawings, and a word game involving Scrabble tiles. 

"I've got one! Egotistical!" 
The other children seemed impressed. "It means you only care about yourself," he added helpfully. "I learned it in a book." 

After a snack (fresh fruit and wildly popular seaweed strips, provided daily by a rotating cast of parents), children were given a piece of yarn, a short demonstration, and paired off to work on collecting data to show proportions in the human body. This lesson is exactly the type of hands-on, whole body learning activity that is possible with small groups and an inspired teacher: children were all over the classroom, inventing new ways to measure the distance of their forearm against that of their whole body, or their nose as compared to their face. 

After this morning of focus, the students had a full hour of outdoor play at a nearby park, a lunch and rest time, and free play in the afternoon. However, the schedule varies greatly each day of the week. On Tuesdays, parent carpoolers ferry the children to a Makerspace where they build and tinker for much of the day. Other days feature art, music, dance, or Spanish. The walls and shelves of the classroom were full of displays of student art: drawings, paintings, sculptures and mixed-media colleges like this awesome Butterfly.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at RAD, and was thrilled to see such a thriving mixed-aged classroom. Thank you for your hospitality! 

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