When most teachers speak of “getting their hands dirty” it is meant as a metaphor.
When award-winning early educator Helen Schroeder uses those words she is speaking quite literally.
A peek inside Schroeder’s art classroom, on the third floor of United South End Settlements’ (USES) Rutland Street schoolhouse, may reveal many things not readily associated with education—like a bin full of living earthworms and sliced vegetables strewn over a light board.
There are troughs of colored water. Painted artwork covers a large portion of the walls.
This is a hands-on classroom.
Digging through soil with bare hands, she produces several worms and places them on the floor in front of some of the kids, who all indicate approval with squeals of delight.
It takes about 30 seconds to realize this is no ordinary pre-school classroom, and even less time to understand why the Boston Association for the Education of Young Children (BAEYC) decided to honor Schroeder as an award winner in the category of “Physical Environment” at the 11th annual Early Educators Awards Gala in Randolph on April 13.
“In early childhood in general, the physical environment where kids are is such an important teaching tool,” said Schroeder. “That’s something that’s known across the field, but especially important to me in my practice.”
She was nominated for the award by a supervisor, Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education at USES’ South End House Sarah Hammond, and a parent of one of her students.
"[Helen] quickly demonstrated her creative and artistic abilities while working with USES as a student through Northeastern University. She took the initiative and was always proactive about creating new tools to enhance the environment,” wrote Hammond in her nomination. “[She] has the unique ability to think outside the box and use non-traditional resources when others are not available to create the best possible environment for the children. Helen's ability to inspire the children and enrich each environment inspired USES to create a new position just for her. Her inventive curriculum, which is always developmentally appropriate and differentiated, is consistently supplemented with new and exciting resources, most often recycled.”
Schroeder, a Brighton resident, graduated from NU in 2010 with a self-designed BA in Art for Social Development through the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, and began working full-time at South End House in 2010, following an internship there, and currently teaches two programs at USES—pre-school art classes, and the Children’s Arts Centre.
One of the things that prompted the award nomination was the initiative she displayed in creating something from nothing. She designed and outfitted her third-floor classroom from scratch, turning a storage closet into a useful and productive classroom.
“When I was hired, that was a storage room ... Nobody ever went in there, it was just unused space,” said Schroeder. “Last spring, I was able to transform it into the place it is now. We were able to get volunteer groups in to paint, and our parent council donated vinyl flooring.”
While the work put into converting the old storage closet into a classroom certainly played into the nomination, the environment the finished product provides for the kids is the real impetus behind Schroeder’s award.
The philosophy behind Schroeder’s approach to early childhood education has its origins in post-World War II Italy, in the villages surrounding Reggio Emilia, when parents realized the destruction of the war called for a new, quick approach to teaching children and believed that it is in the early years of development that children form who they are as individuals.
This, at the time, radical philosophy gave birth to what is known as the Reggio Emilia Approach, the school of early educational thought to which Schroeder belongs.
“In Reggio Emilia schools there is this kind of mantra of the movement that says the environment is the third teacher,” explained Schroeder. “The student is one teacher, the teacher is one teacher and the environment is a teacher. I took a lot of inspiration out of Reggio environments and what they are trying to promote through openness.
“The cutesy teacher stuff isn’t really my aesthetic of how kids learn, and what puts them in a calm space where they can engage in learning ... I really tried to make the place as calm and serene as possible.”
Sitting in on Schroeder’s classroom, it seems a sound, logical approach. Every child appeared to be attentive and fully engaged. It looks as though they are playing. As Schroeder points out, they certainly are.
“Kids learn through sensory experiences, and that’s one of the greatest tie-overs between art and all of the other disciplines,” Schroeder said.”The overall goal of my program was to look at the six different disciplines we are supposed to cover in our classrooms ... to use the kind of thinking that happens in the arts as a method for working through in all the curriculum areas.”
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed.
“[Schroeder’s] ability to incorporate sensory play and materials into her curriculum benefits many children who crave this type of learning,” wrote Hammond. “Her classroom is an oasis for all children, and the curriculum and environment she creates fosters learning, growth, and calm even during the most chaotic days.”
According to Schroeder, her experiences as an alumnus of Americorps’ part-time Jump Start program during college, working at a pre-school in Egleston Square, awakened her to the “need this country has for effective early childhood education and the opportunity for the arts to really be the crux of things.”
As she pointed out, kids at this age don’t learn by sitting still through presentations or looking at chalkboards, but rather with their hands, and the arts are conducive to that.
Talking to Schroeder, she gives off the distinct impression she genuinely enjoys what she does.
“I pinch myself every day,” she said with a smile. “Even on hard days. It’s really true.”
More Than Just Day Care
One of the challenges for Schroeder, and anyone else in her position, is the thought process that says pre-school is little more than glorified day care, and merits little consideration or funding. This school of thought is not confined to those outside the field of education either.
“Early childhood is at the bottom when it comes to pay, when it comes to respect across the profession,” she stated. “Even when it comes to public funding ... It’s proven time and time again, that the inputs, in terms of money, invested in early childhood have the most return. Seven-to-one in terms of productivity, lower crime rates, lower rates of being on welfare ... Across the board, the benefits of early childhood education are just astounding.”
It is staggering to think how much money and effort this country expended prosecuting the so-called “war on drugs” and how little attention is paid to early childhood education, given the fact an excellent case can be made that the latter represents, and always has represented, the true front lines of the former.
That is one of the truly great aspects of the work Schroeder does, and the work that United South End Settlements has done for years. As she pointed out, programs like the one she runs are often found in fancy, upscale and expensive pre-schools, but rarely in those that serve low-income families—as USES does.
It would be no problem to fill the USES classrooms with full-paying families, there is a wait list some 300 families deep, Schroeder said. But the school is kept 50-50 between those who can afford the full tuition and those who can’t, and must rely on a state voucher to foot the bill.
That fact is crucial, as without a voucher program, families would need to rely on the Head Start Program, which figures eligibility based on federal income standards, especially tough for families in states such as Massachusetts with higher minimum wages than other states.
“One of the goals of the settlement movement, which are the precursors to social service agencies and non-profits across the country, is to create mixed income communities,” said Schroeder. “And that’s something that has really continued to the present day. Creating those relationships across class lines and income lines is one of the huge goals of this program.”
Not All Fun and Games
As far as the methodology goes, not everyone gets it Schroeder says, but she is working hard to spread the message.
“Your child isn’t just playing with blocks. He’s learning math skills, he’s learning spacial understanding and relationships, learning sequencing,” she points out. “He’s learning all of those things that are going to be absolutely crucial for him when he gets to kindergarten.”