Child-Centered Teaching in Any Setting (Julie Bennett)

Season #1 Episode #19

Is it possible to have a child-centered approach in any classroom? Julie Bennett describes how she's done this throughout her career and the importance of a child-centered approach for every educational endeavor.

Julie Bennett, M.Ed has taught for over 30 years in both private and public schools, teaching a range of ages from early childhood to adult continuing ed. Introduced to Froebel's method in 2002, Julie recognized the practices she intuitively gravitated toward. She's a frequent presenter at Froebel USA events and lectures on Froebel methods to university education students. Support us at:


Julie Bennett: We need to instill a sense of worthiness into that child. It's too important to forget that the child is at the center. It's too important to forget that they are the most important thing. They are the main thing. And that's what keeps me coming back every day. It's because I need for those students to know that they are the most important thing.

John Pottenger: Welcome to the Path to Learning podcast, where three ordinary guys explore the world of education,

Jay Irwin: what's working, what's broken,

Scott Bultman: and what we can do to best advocate for children.

John: I'm John Pottenger.

Jay: I'm Jay Irwin.

Scott: And I'm Scott Bultman. And you're listening to the Path to Learning.

Jay: Alright, John, who do we have on the show today? Well, we don't have all of our team with us. That's right. We were trying really hard to think of a way to make the shows a little more concise and shorter. And we discovered a really good way to do that.

John: We just cut out one of the three of us.

Jay: We're missing our fearless leader Scott today, you know, for the intro.

John: But he's here with us in spirit. And in the podcast we recorded.

Jay: He'll be in the in the podcast were recorded. But what we're really excited about is that we have Julie Bennett today on the show.

John: Yes. If you haven't had a chance to meet Julie or be in one of the workshops that we put on with the Froebel conference, then you don't really realize how much Julie does, and can offer teachers and the children that she interacts with.

Jay: If you haven't met Julie Bennett, she's kind of a walking contradiction, because she's classically, Froebel-trained. Yep. But she's also an IT specialist. Yeah, she is highly creative. And she's got a passion for math. And it's like all these different things that you wouldn't you just can't put Julie in any one box. No, just amazing. And that's why she's one of our all-time heroes.

John: And I think our listeners need to know that she has the pedigree. That's kind of ridiculous.

Jay: Yes. She's been working in very traditional systems, classroom systems and school systems, but has maintained a child-centered approach through it all ... I forget how many years

John: 30 ... 30 years?

Jay: Maybe 30-ish? A long time. She's paid her dues? Yeah, she's worked,

John: I think in every single grade, except for 4th grade,

Jay: Which is amazing.

John: Yeah. And she's even done adult education, continuing ed, so ...

Jay:  and coaches and teachers, teachers, and

John: She's worked all the jobs on the boat. On the aircraft carrier.

Jay: So I think you're gonna love this, this conversation. It's really amazing. She she's gonna focus on how to be child-centered, in pretty much any environment. How she's done it.

John: Let's listen in. Alright.

Scott: Well, Julie, thanks for being here today.

Julie: Happy to be here.

Jay: Can you give us a quick run through of your whole teaching career?

John: In 10 seconds?

Jay: Yeah. And, GO ...

Julie: Well, over my 30 years, I've seen a lot of changes in the school. And I've had different opportunities to have more autonomy in my classroom and far less. And so I would say that in the classrooms, especially like my GED program, where I worked with young adults, I had the most autonomy in my classroom, because there were no other educators in the whole building. It was just social workers and construction workers, and it was just me. And so, I had the authority and the freedom to do whatever I wanted in the classroom. And we had a lot of success. And I think that experience proved that especially the Froebel Blocks in the Froebel method can work at any age with any students with any subjects. I appreciated that amount. But I think that through the decades that I've been working, it's been more difficult for me, because I see the movement, so much more toward academically directed classrooms, statistics, assessments, that kind of movement. The goal is for higher scores, but the process to get there is not the right one. And I've been kind of shouting from ... shouting to into the wind about this for a long time. And I really see so many elements of Froebel and so many elements of child-centered education being the answer to get those lifelong learners, so that in the end, they do by happenstance, I mean, get the higher scores. But it's because we've instilled this love of learning into them. And it's gone from extrinsic into intrinsic and they hold that within themselves into a sense of accomplishment and a sense of wonder. But we're skipping over a huge part in going right to the assessment, which I think is really difficult, and that's the most difficult thing that I've noticed over the decades is that we have far less autonomy and control in our own classroom than we used to. And it's discouraging.

Julie: There has to be a very foundational paradigm shift. Because I don't know what education looks like in the colleges, now. I know what it was, then. I don't know what it looks like now. But it seems when I watch younger teachers, it seems as if they're coming out of college not prepared for teaching the whole child. They're coming out of college prepared to get a score out of a student. And that concerns me.

Jay: Well, you definitely have had to learn how to take the magic that you saw in that initial Froebel introduction. And then I haven't seen anybody or know anybody who would be qualified, like you, that can morph and be flexible, and you know, it's not this rigid thing. You've been able to morph it into all these different types of classrooms and environments and situations, age ranges. Can you talk a little bit about that process?

Julie: I can, although I'm not sure ... It's so much a part of me that I don't know how to teach other people how to do that. I've had, over the years, lots of people ask me, "why don't you publish how you do your spelling program?" Or "how do you put on, you know, teachers sites," and I say "I can't because it's all personal." It's all dependent upon the children who are in that classroom. That's what it looks like, I can't put it into a book, because it's so organic. When I do spelling, when I do writing, I asked the students what they did over the weekend, it's seems natural to me, but I'm learning as I go into other classrooms that it's not natural for other people to do that. I just ask them what they did over the weekend, and that becomes our daily oral language. If you went to the Empire State Building, should that be capitalized? Sure. It should be. But they don't. Quite it's, it's hard to quantify. It's hard to put that in a book, it's hard to put that in a pamphlet, it's, you know. And when I do college lectures at some local colleges, the talk is Froebel. But I talk a lot about techniques and methodologies. And it's just a mindset. It's a change in mindset.

Julie: I took a college class, during my Masters; The Art of the Question. And unfortunately, that professor has passed away from cancer, one of my favorite professors. And Wes taught us how to ask questions, and I think that's one of the biggest missing pieces is that teachers aren't allowing the kids to be teachers. They're not allowing the kids to direct the flow of education. And we're supposed to be prepared and intentional, and we should be, but we have to be prepared an intentional for them to bring their life into the classroom. ... and I forgotten the question ...

Jay: I think I'm talking about it. I mean, so what I've observed when I've had a chance to sit in on some of your workshops, is that oftentimes what will happen in the middle of a Gift Play, or something like that? Somebody will say, "So, how did this work originally? Are you supposed to do this? Or that? You know, what was Froebel's thought about this? Did he do this or that?" And you usually answer with, "it doesn't matter. What do you want to do?" So you've developed this permission to kind of take, I'll say, the guiding principles and use them in different ways, which I'm sure you've had to do. You don't always have Gifts in your classrooms, or it's more of a mindset, I think you just so naturally, are able to turn on that mindset and apply that learner centered principle or whatever that magical thing is, and all situations, and I kind of wanted you to talk about that what you did. I'm wondering, is that something that is that caught or taught? Or, you know, is that completely missing in today's teacher training? Or is there hope that we can have that still or

Julie: I think it's both okay. And both? I think that teachers who instill wonder, teachers who question, have to be more competent teachers. They have to be more confident in what they have in the classroom, what their skills are, how to know that they can have a goal for that day, and have objectives and standards that they have to meet and know that they're going to meet those. But they're going to meet those based on what the student wants to learn, and how they learn. And they need to give themselves permission to be able to do that. I think that's how we kind of take back the profession of education is not giving away our right in our responsibility to put the child first, in all those situations,

Julie: I can't speak to today's education in the college sense. My son who's 24, two of his classmates, only two, went into education. Which I think is saying a lot. When I went into education, I think I would say the percentage was probably around 15% or 18% of students in my college were education majors. And it has dropped to six, or seven. And I think that a big part of that is, we have allowed them to take away our rights and responsibilities as a professional. You know, that's a choice that we make. I tend to be the kind of person who shuts my door and does what's right for kids. And, you know, I certainly would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. Because what comes out of my classroom speaks for itself. And I've had other supervisors who have said, "Oh, you know, I see, you're just talking to the kids, and you really need to hit the academics, you really should be in the book more." And I tell them, "if you want my students to perform in February and March and April, then you have to give me that time in September and October, to build a family to build a community to build trust, to allow those kids to be vulnerable in front of each other." Because if they don't have that connectedness, to me, and that trust, they're not going to develop into a learner. And you, administrator, you're not going to get the numbers that you're seeking.

John: Do you have more freedom in one setting over another? Have you seen in your experience? Like I guess I don't want to like between private and public? Yeah. And you don't necessarily have to identify which is which. But is there a difference? I guess, is the question.

Julie: Certainly. The larger the entity, think the harder it is to have control and autonomy in a situation. The larger school district is, the larger the organization is, it feels like the more control they want to have over that. And I think I had probably aside from the GED program where it was just me, I could do whatever I want. And I was questioned a lot about the things that I did. It wasn't that I wasn't being watched. But I wasn't really being regulated. And because I kept having so much success, they kept getting their DVDs. So they figured she's weird. But whatever she's doing is working. So I will just have here. Yeah.

Julie: And the students were ... they were young adults. So they were very uncomfortable being put in a situation where they had to come up with the questions, where they had to figure things out. And I just stepped back, most of them came away from high school dropped out of high school, because it was a lecture scenario; "I'm going to stand in front of the classroom, I'm going to dispense with a whole bunch of information. And then I'm going to give you a test on Friday, and you're going to regurgitate that information that I'm going to pass you to the next teacher." And when I came in and said, "Well, what are the similarities and differences between these things, let's categorize these. Here's all the pieces to this to fit. Yeah, figure yourself out a way, this paper bag and sometimes literally out of a paper bag." And that was very foreign to them. And they were very uncomfortable with it, because they weren't trained that way. And that's how our twos and threes and four-year-olds think all the time. And that's why they always say "mine and me" and it comes from them. And somehow in the course of their education that's taken out, which is unfortunate.

Julie: The other space in which I was given a lot of leniency, and a lot of latitude, was when I was working with homeschool students. We had a program it was a hybrid program where they would come into the classroom twice a week, and then they were homeschooled. And teachers were responsible for laying out the lesson plans. And parents would follow those lesson plans. And I say two days a week. It was technically a four-day education program, where I had them two and they had them two. But truthfully, I had them two and they had them five, right. So I had students who were spending 20 hours in a gymnastic studio, or they were equestrian riders or they were soccer players, whatever. And they had to adjust their schedule and that's why they were homeschooling. They were homeschooling is because they had other things going on. And they would adjust their schedule. But that gave me a lot of latitude because I already had parents who are who are homeschooling their kids or have the same mindset. We already agreed on so many foundational ideas about what education is supposed to look like, that it made it very easy for me to go off the rails I guess, just do weird things.

Julie: I was at a graduation party last week, I had this really, really core group of homeschool students for two years. I had these six core students for two years, and they're graduating this year 2020. So I went to the graduation party. And she came up and was bouncing and gave me a big hug. And she said, "Look at all these, remember this. And remember that and remember when we made Roman Emperor, and we stood on those chairs, and you put the little laurel wreaths on our head in the sashes," and she remembered all of those things. And those were all the things that she remembered, and she was excited about. She doesn't remember the scores on her test, she didn't remember that she scored higher. And this was a student who didn't really like economics. Athletics is what kept her through high school. But she was just so excited about those moments that we had in the classroom, where they were the most productive, I stepped aside. They were the ones who created all the Roman togas and the sandals and the food and all of that kind of stuff. They were the ones who earned that Emperor role at the very end.

John: So I had another ... the other side of the coin. I said, you know, do you have pressure from certain schools or sizes of schools or types of schools? And you answered that, so the other side of the coin is, how do you balance the pressure from parents? Or have you seen you just said a few moments ago, the homeschool parents were right on board. They understood what was going on. So maybe you could talk a little bit about in your 30 years of experience, what the differences were or have been? That's a whole other pressure, you have to balance right or is it not as much as from above?

Julie: Yeah, I've always worked in the elementary building, except for by young adults in the GED, I've always worked in the elementary building. And it really is, parents seem to be less focused on the score. That tends to come from the administration, the test scores, because they have to meet a certain criteria. And they want those high percentages on their website so that they can attract more students. They are attracting families into their community. But in the elementary building, parents tend to be less concerned about test scores, and more concerned about foundational things, at least in the school districts where I've worked. And I've been able to work in some very nice districts where there's a lot of involvement, a lot of parent involvement. Those students have so much validation from early on, from coaches, from tutors, from music, you know, their music teachers. And they've had a lot of enhancements. So I think that parents are less concerned about numbers. They're they're more concerned about foundational things. And toward the end of my time, in public school, I spent six years in young fives in kindergarten, all of those things were really foundational. So that's what we were talking about in our parent teacher conferences. And at the end of the day, when the parents would pick up the kids we were talking about, "was Joey nice today?" you know, "has he stopped hitting Mike over the head with the block?" Yes.

Julie: I was really nervous about one parent teacher conference, in ... usually in young fives. You see this "A-ha" in March, you don't see the A-ha in the fall because they're so young. So you really get a lot more A-ha, like, "Oh, they finally reached that goal at the March conference." And I was really concerned about this one child because he just couldn't sit in his seat. Like I was okay with that. He would come in every morning and like Superman just slide across one of the tables and land in the on the carpet area. That's the way he did. That's how he entered the classroom. That was kind of his thing. And at the conference, I was kind of nervous because I didn't know ... I knew that his parents were both professionals. They were both degreed people, I knew that there was a high expectation. And we sat down and she looked over at me, she said, "Well, are we done velcroing to the seat? Or do we still have to like, you know, stick them to the seat." And, and so I knew that I had her. We were on the same page.

Julie: And she actually went on to ... I think she was an ophthalmologist or did something with the eyes. She actually got trained because of some things that I was going through, and what her son was going through in the classroom. She actually went and had some eye therapy training. So she came back ... this was when he was in young fives. So she came back when he was in kindergarten and went through and tested all the kindergarteners in that whole building on this using this eye therapy and realizing that it wasn't hyperactivity, it wasn't a focus issue. It was that their eyes weren't trained. And so she was she was really helpful in that part. Looking at the left the kids in a totally different way and saying okay, "well Let's not put them on medication, let's not get them to the doctor. Let's figure out what this what the issue might be." And it sparked from her own child not being able to sit and read.

John: Wow. That's amazing.

Jay: Yeah. Maybe On that note, I love to ask this question of teachers. But how can parents work with the teachers? Do you have advice for parents, how to advocate for their kids how to form a team with a teacher?

Julie: Well, just as I feel in the teaching profession, teachers have given away that right and responsibility of really educating the child and working on lifelong learning with the students. I think, as parents, we need to be very careful about sending our children to school and abdicating that role of advocate. I have seen very, very strong ... and I love strong parents, I'm a strong parent. And I love strong parents, I don't ... I don't back away from that. And I always encourage parents to be their first and foremost advocate for their child, because they know them the best, they love them the best, and they've really seen them during the most formative years. They've seen what they've done from birth to five. And we need that information. And I think that if we can equip parents with the right words, to use when they're speaking to ... within a school situation, whether they're in a private school, public school, you know, there are all those ... I don't want to say buzzwords, but they're important concepts that we as parents need to get across to administration to let them know, "these are the things that we're concerned about. These are the things that matter. These are the things that are foundational."

John: And you're talking about non academic things, right now, when you say the "right words," can you can you play that out for us? Parents need to know the right words ...

Julie: It's hard to distinguish. For me anyway, it's more difficult to distinguish between academic and behavior, like think they're intertwined. And they should be, because what we see come out of a child naturally is what's going to help them in their reading and the writing in their math as they progress through.

Julie: I think that we need to ... and I think there was a, I was listening to one of the other podcasts. And I think it was one of the other gentlemen who spoke about how we approach advocating for our children. And stepping away from asking the teacher and asking the administration and being so concerned about the numbers And asking those more important questions; "Does my child have a sense of wonder, is he asking ... is he or she asking questions?" And not yeah, it's important to be nice to your neighbor, it's important to not kick the kid under the table. But making sure that your child is engaged, asking questions, cooperating in an academic setting, but really showing those behavioral traits that we want. And you want to ask those deeper questions of, are they progressing toward a more deep, meaningful, intrinsic learning experience?

Scott: You mentioned about parents abdicating, you know, handing these children off to the teachers. And recently, they've been unable to do that for reasons beyond their control. So you've been doing some stuff with Zoom calls, and during the time of COVID-19, what do you suppose things are headed now as parents are going to have to have more of a hands-on role in this education of their children?

Julie: Educationally, we are at a very pivotal moment. And it gives our parents a great opportunity and our school systems to step back and ask, "what is the most important thing?" You know, what are ... and I don't want to use the word essential because it's kind of a bit overused. But there are words in the vocabulary don't like anymore, but what are those pieces that we need? What are the most important things that we need to instill in our students in our children and see them grow in those areas?

Julie: And I know that a lot of people are recognizing that it's not, it's not the test score. It's not the number that we need. I think there was another speaker who, who talked about Common Core and Common Core isn't a bad thing. It's not what it is. It's how it's done. And I am on two or three different private groups, like Facebook groups for like suddenly homeschooled, where parents in all areas have had to homeschool their kids. And you're finding more that they are using what they normally do within the day. I think the most successful parents are the ones who recognize that we can use what we normally do in our day, and use those as learning experiences. We don't need a curriculum, we don't need a book, in a lot of cases they didn't have it was back in their school. So for the first six weeks, they had nothing. But in that, they realize that they really, they had everything that they needed right there. And they had to ... it's a beautiful thing is they had to rely on the child to share experiences, and to share information with them. So we were kind of forced to listen to our children instead of just talking at them. And I think that was a very positive thing that came out of this last Spring with all of the remote learning.

Julie: I know that a lot of teachers, I, my role as an intervention specialist changed because I have a lot of IT background. And I'm married to a computer engineer, so that was helpful. But my role changed as the students went home because of this situation. I was at the charter school, I had only met my small group of students for three or four days before we close down. So I became more of a teacher-trainer. It worked with them in the Google classroom and things like that. And they were so nervous about, I guess, nervous ... very apprehensive, about putting things up of like, we just have to do page 67, then page 68, then page 69. Like, you don't have to, you can step back. And if the child is if it's their birthday, and they're helping bake a cake, that can be your math that can be your science, let those natural experiences that the kids are having every day ... And again, Jay, you asked me earlier, how do we is it caught or taught or learned? That's just how I think.

Julie: So it's very difficult for me to articulate that to somebody else who doesn't think that way. Because it seems so natural to me. But as parents, it is very natural as parents.  Because we're not going to force our child to walk before they're ready to walk, we're not going to shake them and say, "why aren't you growing your teeth?" You know, "why aren't your teeth coming in when they're 8-months-old?" Right? All of those things are natural development.

Julie: So all of the learning that they do should be a natural development that comes out of the child, when the child is ready to learn. And if they're stepping up on the stool, and they want to stir the cookie batter, and they're interested in, then you just start using those words like fractions, and "let's double this" and, you know. In working with them, and I think that more parents are recognizing that the world is their classroom. Now. I mean, it has to be. And so the walks that they take, they're being much more observational about what they see, asking kids really good deeper questions about the world around them from, you know, huge sky ... you know, questions about the stars, to little things about blades of grass and things that are crawling on the ground. So I think that is, that's an important part of this whole remote learning. And I don't think that it's going to go away. So I think as we move into the Fall, we move into what this coming school year looks like. I think it's really important for parents to, in one sense, relax, and say, you know, you don't have to have a list of 20 spelling words every week, also to be much more prepared and intentional for what their child might bring to their world every day.

John: I mean, so you've done all this teaching all this amazing work, this body of work for so many children, who are now grown. Is there something that just grabs you, and that just drives you to just keep doing this work every day?

Julie: The thing that keeps me coming back after 32 years, the thing that excites me and the reason why I can't give up. any of the stuff that's stored in my garage, much to my husband's consternation, is that the most important thing is that we as adults, whether we're the parents, whether we're the teachers, the administrators, whether we're the guest speaker walking through the hallway, we need to instill a sense of worthiness into that child. They need to know before we can teach them fractions, before we can teach them what a dangling participle is, they need to know that they're worthy. They need to know that they are the most important thing at that moment, right at that time. And the fraction is an important because they'll get that the person is important. The whole whole child is important.

Julie: And if they need time to talk about their dog that ran away, you give them that time to talk about the dog that ran away, and be the professional to take that idea and work into that idea of a lost dog, or a new puppy. work that into the lesson and you get that standard, you get that objective. But always, always start from the child, you can't connect with people. You certainly can't connect with children because they're so smart, far smarter than we are. They know when you're genuine. They know when you care. They know when they're the center of whatever it is. And we as parents, we clap and smile and laugh. Every time the child babbles every time the child puts their hand in their mouth, it's too important to forget that the child is at the center, it's too important to forget that they are the most important thing. They are the main thing. And that's what keeps me coming back every day. It's because I need for those students to know that they are the most important thing.

John: I hope that the message that you heard today was as inspirational for you as it was for me, I know that for me, I wish I had had that kind of child centered, focused education and just that charge that she leaves at the end. It just gets me charged up.

Jay: Absolutely. I think that's at the heart of our passion for why we're doing all of this. So well-said Julie, thank you so much. We're honored to have you as a part of the team honored to have you on the podcast. And I sure hope that you enjoyed the conversation as much as we enjoyed having it.

John: Yeah, and if you get a chance to join Froebel conference in the future, she's often one of our presenters and can really ... you can really sharpen your skills with a lot of her experience and her ideas.

Jay: So yeah, definitely, if you have any questions about how to implement child-centered pedagogy in your system or model that you're working at, seek her out.

John: Yep. And if you're interested in supporting what we're doing here, you probably know the drill at this point. But you know, the best place to seek us out is on Patreon which is and we're on all the social media sites and everything like that. But more content coming soon.

Jay: Can't wait


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