I was stunned when I walked into the classroom of Carmen Wilkinson at Jamestown Elementary School in 1975 (all names are actual people and places). In my first year as Arlington (VA) school superintendent, I had already seen hundreds of elementary classrooms. This was the only one I had seen that had mixed ages (grades 1 through 4) and learning stations in which 50 students spent most of the day working independently and moving freely about the room; they worked in small groups and individually while Wilkinson–a 27-year veteran of teaching–moved about the room asking and answering question, giving advice, and listening to students. Called “The Palace” by parents, children, and staff, the class used two adjacent rooms. Wilkinson teamed with another teacher and, at the time, two student teachers. She orchestrated scores of tasks in a quiet, low-key fashion. Wilkinson’s informal classroom was unusual at Jamestown–I did discover a few more in other schools–in the 500 other elementary classrooms in the Arlington public schools.
Wilkinson began teaching in Arlington in 1950 and came to Jamestown in 1957. She taught first through third grades. She was one of the first teachers in the County schools to try and then embrace “open classrooms” in the late-1960s. Parents vied to get their children into “The Palace.” Local colleges sent their student teachers to Wilkinson where she trained them in the different ways to construct and run an “open classroom.” Her know-how and commitment to this type of teaching and learning garnered her many requests to lead workshops and seminars both in out of the district. In 1987, Wilkinson was named Teacher of the Year in Arlington.
While I wish I had my smart phone in 1975 to take photos, sadly I have no snapshots of “The Palace.” So here are a few photos of “open classrooms” that exist today that remind me of what I saw decades ago in Wilkinson’s room.
As a superintendent, I was delighted to see Wilkinson’s “open classroom” not only because it was uncommon in the district’s elementary schools but also for making three points which I believed strongly in before I served as superintendent and continue to believe now.
First, in listening to Wilkinson after the lesson and subsequent visits, it was clear that she deeply believed in building and strengthening students’ decision-making skills and giving them choices in what and when to learn, all within a framework of the district’s curriculum standards for content and skills in the primary grades.
Some readers may ask: “I wonder if her students did well on state tests?” In the mid-1970s, state tests were mandated and, yes, her students and those in the entire school did well on such tests. Keep in mind that Jamestown was also a neighborhood school that received students from many white middle- and upper-middle class families.
Second, creating and sustaining an “open classroom” requires a great deal of planning, reorganizing classroom furniture, coordinating a variety of simultaneous activities and constant scrutiny of individual children as lessons unfolded. She teamed with another Jamestown primary teacher of similar beliefs and recruited annually student teachers from nearby colleges who wanted to learn this way of teaching.
Third, gusto for teaching in this veteran teacher–she had been in Arlington classrooms for 25 years when I saw her the first time–was both evident and deeply rooted in convictions of how best to teach young children. After a quarter-century in classrooms, Wilkinson’s enthusiasm for teaching, as I observed over numerous times over the seven years I was superintendent, remained high-pitched. Jamestown parents and former students who visited her often appreciated what she had accomplished in “The Palace.”
Wilkinson believed that reading and writing went together even for the youngest of students. She consistently taught writing to her second graders. A Washington Post reporter watched her teach in 1991 and wrote:
“The children are responsive. They feel they are more successful. They’re enthusiastic; they have more confidence,” said Carmen Wilkinson, 70, Ashley’s teacher, who has been helping children learn to read for 42 years.
An end-of-year project she has assigned her most advanced readers will be a research paper using books from the school library, on the sport of the child’s choice.
At a biweekly writing workshop that Wilkinson runs with second-grade teacher Susan Swift, students write and revise three stories, then “publish” their collected pieces, illustrating and displaying them in the classroom for other students to read.
Wilkinson retired in 1995 and continued to work with student teachers in local colleges while volunteering to teach writing to elementary school students. She died in 2006.
I offer these vignettes of Wilkinson’s teaching in the mid-1970s and early 1990s to underscore her commitment to the “open classroom,” as she defined it. I make the simple point that there are many ways to teach and many ways to learn even within the seemingly inflexible structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”
For all of these reasons, I admired Carmen Wilkinson and had the utmost respect for her as a teacher.
*My personal journal of the years I served as superintendent.
*Obituary of Wilkinson in Washington Post at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2006/06/03/obituaries/bb69a701-9f6d-44be-bf8a-4cf283cedd7d/