Parent-taught minicourses: one school's answer to a long lunch hour

Can you imagine your children happily volunteering for an extra hour of school once a week? And can you imagine elementary school courses that are not designed especially for the ''exceptional,'' ''gifted,'' ''remedial,'' or even the ''average'' child?

Last January, 265 first- through sixth-graders at our local school signed up for an experimental lunchtime minicourse program. The only requirement for acceptance was interest. The only limitation was available space. The 30 parent volunteers who taught the minicourses accepted the students on a first-come basis. If first choices were filled, then second or third choices were granted.

Deciding upon one of the 18 classes wasn't easy for some. A variety of parent talent was offered in such classes as origami, introduction to German, French folktales and songs, aerobics, advertising, creative story-telling, science tricks, China studies, creating dollhouse accessories, and Mandarin-style Chinese cooking.

Other classes, such as fun with computers, were offered because of high student interest. Consequently, the parent teachers for some minicourses needed training ahead of time.

When the minicourses ended, one class, newspaper writing, had become so popular that it was established as a continuing project. Twenty-five junior editors had reported, written headlines, and handled layouts for the first issue of the Travell Times, a school newspaper with students' stories, poems, artwork, and even a ''Dear Tina'' column. Now new editors are at work to develop a second 12-page issue.

The children's general opinion at the conclusion of the minicourse was, ''It should continue every week!'' One fifth grader moaned, ''I wish I were in FIRST grade now with all these great classes starting!''

The parents admit that building such a program took weeks of planning and detailed scheduling. Some of the logistics were solved as the program unfolded. Parents were recruited through a school newsletter explaining the interest in offering enrichment during the extra-long lunch hour (70 minutes). The idea was to tap community resources to usefully fill the nearly one hour between finishing lunch and the restart of classes. Volunteers signed up not only to share a specific ability, but also to get acquainted with their child's school. Some parents, who endorsed the program but preferred not to teach, contributed their time by assisting a parent teacher in the classroom or babysitting preschoolers. Some parents were ''floaters'' during lunchtime, providing supplies or conveying messages.

The question of ''what to do'' when a child misbehaves was discussed at a parent/administration gathering beforehand. Some of the 24 ''Tips on Maintaining Discipline'' included:

Do not judge misconduct on how it annoys you.

Do not ''pick'' on every little thing a child does. Sometimes it is wiser to overlook some things.

Follow up all cases that have been disciplined. Be certain that you have the respect and confidence of the child.

Never hold a child up to public ridicule. It is the surest way of creating a discipline problem.

Set a good example yourself.

The few discipline problems that did come about were solved quickly. The combination of self-selected classes, an informal atmosphere with bag lunches, and a variety of ages added up to a generally high level of student interest and cooperation.

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