Drinking Gourd Elementary School

Program Overview

I'm finishing the quilt I made.Small school...small classes

The Drinking Gourd School is intentionally small, with up to twelve students. The school practices Human Scale Education, a movement toward small, family-centered schools and away from giant institutions. This small size enables the entire school community to know one another and for the school to treat each student as an individual.

Class size is also intentionally small. The Quail Class has a maximum of twelve students, ages 5-8. This small class size makes it possible for the teachers to gain an in-depth understanding of each student. Students often work one-on-one with the teacher. Most lessons are given in small groups of three or four students. Teachers are able to informally assess student progress daily because they are able to observe each one as they are working. The small class size also allows students to be full participants in all lessons, discussions and games, rather than waiting for an hour for their turn to participate.


Ungraded Program

The classes are ungraded, allowing students to work on different levels in all areas of the curriculum. Quail students are generally expected to be working on a kindergarten through second grade level. Students are not divided by age or "grade level". For example, a six-year-old advanced reader might be working on typical third-grade reading comprehension activities and in mathematics be working on the first-grade concept of addition.

An ungraded program allow the teachers the flexibility to teach each student at the correct level for that student. The students do not expect everyone to be doing the same work, so the stigmas of being "behind" or "too smart" do not exist. Ungraded classes also help the students see themselves as a whole friendship-group. They do not separate by age on the playground or when choosing friends.

 Individualized Curriculum Means Challenging Academics

Each child has an academic program created expressly for that student. Students receive individual guidance and personalized instruction, which tailors the teaching to a student’s specific needs and learning style. In all areas, students are moved ahead as quickly as their progress allows. Most students achieve advanced levels of academic achievement through their years at the Drinking Gourd. Expectations are set at a high level for each child, and advanced placement is made to ensure that every child is working at a challenging level. Also, students are not moved forward until current concepts have been mastered, ensuring that the work required of them can be successfully accomplished and concepts will be thoroughly learned. Extra lessons, practice activities and alternate modes of learning are designed as specific children require them to succeed.


Learning to spin wool.Activity-Based Learning

At the Drinking Gourd School our days are busy with an eclectic, activity-based program that gives students as much freedom as possible within a guiding structure. Students spend their time doing activities that help them learn rather than filling in an endless set of workbook pages or taking tests. Our activity-based curriculum creates students who are eager to learn.


Learning is centered around theme units

Classes center their learning around theme units. Each subject of study is integrated throughout the entire curriculum. Activities involving reading, writing, math, art, music, history, science, cooking, computer skills, woodworking, sewing and drama are experienced through theme studies.

As an example, one year Quail class theme study focused on the ocean. The students learned about watercolor washes and decorated the room with beautiful underwater scenes. Everyone did a “shark survey” at home to see what their families knew, then analyzed the results statistically and created pie graphs of their results. Students researched different species of sharks on the internet, wrote an essay about their favorite species and created life-sized paintings of them. Short stories were written from the viewpoint of a crab in a tidal pool. A dance was created to accompany the song “Take Me Out to the Ocean.” Student pairs investigated a miniature “oil slick”, dipping feathers and other items into it to see what happens when oil is spilled on the ocean. They extended this investigation to try their own ideas about possible ways to clean up oil spills. A diorama of life under the ocean was created by sewing felt fish and other animals. The whole class worked on a wall-size map of the ocean, depicting the different habitat zones and the animals that live in each. A trip to the Newport Aquarium and the nearby beach rounded out the theme study.


Learning to reach consensus.Students are involved in decision making

Class Meetings are held as requested by the teacher or students. During these meetings students create class policies and agree on solutions to social conflicts using a three-step consensus decision making process. Over time each student learns to facilitate these meetings, becoming adept in group process skills such as active listening, brainstorming solutions, keeping a group on topic, summarizing, helping everyone in the group to participate, compromising to reach consensus and group evaluation of decisions.


Spanish as a second language

Students learn Spanish with an emphasis on conversational skills. The Drinking Gourd School is not an immersion program, but Spanish is taught in the context of everyday use. Some directions are given in Spanish and the language is used on a daily basis through songs, games and stories. Children already fluent in Spanish gain pride in their knowledge.


Change for student in production.Drama and music

Drama is integrated into many subjects in our program. Our Meeting Room/Library includes a beautiful stage, ready at a moment’s notice for an informal skit or dance performance or a formal program presented to the entire school. We use role play and drama games to practice skills students are learning and to increase imagination and self-confidence. The school performs each year at the Eugene Public Library and creates an extravaganza for the end-of-the-year Big Show performed at the school. Even the youngest children learn to be comfortable speaking in public and gain self-confidence through performing in these programs.

Music in the form of listening, singing, dancing, playing rhythm instruments and recorders is a part of everyday life at the school. The beginning and end of the day are often accompanied by singing. Songs from many places help bring more of the world into our classrooms. Songs from people’s struggles and the peace movement teach us about people working together to make the world a better place for everyone and remind us that together we are strong. Making our own songs empowers us and opens our creativity to many possibilities. Silly songs are just plain fun!


Meaningful assessments

Assessment is done daily through teacher observation as activities take place and through projects the children have created. Teachers also do brief skills assessments individually as needed. Students are encouraged to assess their own learning progress. No grades are given. Teachers create written progress reports three times a year. These are narrative reports which outline current skill levels, progress since the previous report, areas of strength and areas of concern, and goals for the coming period. When a student is scheduled to graduate from the Drinking Gourd, the last Progress Report includes information about the school and the child’s individualized program to aid their next teacher.


Presentation of a Golden Reading Medal brings cheers.Mutual encouragement

When describing the Drinking Gourd School’s unique educational program we use the term “mutual encouragement.” In a classroom where every student encourages their peers to learn and celebrates others’ accomplishments, children are free to try new things, state their opinions, and to learn, learn, learn! Teaching children mutual encouragement is one of the Drinking Gourd’s special accomplishments.


Celebration Points

Frequent “celebration points” where the whole class celebrates one child's accomplishment, ensures enough attention for everyone, and lots of hugs and high-five's. Our program has built-in celebration points and rituals of recognition. Recently the Quail’s teacher announced, “Da, da, da, DAH! Ashley has learned all her letter sounds!!!” Her classmates let out a cheer and streamed over to give her hugs and congratulations. Later she was ceremoniously presented with a golden reading medal, and everyone cheered and clapped with enthusiasm. These celebration rituals are just as important for the cheering students as they are for the ones being cheered, as they learn to be excited about another person’s accomplishments.



Drinking Gourd teachers make sure to intervene in social situations when children are not acting in a caring manner toward each other. The children are given a chance to discuss their feelings—and are guided to listen to what others have to say. It’s amazing how skilled they become at finding solutions that meet everyone’s needs. Caring about others and working out conflicts becomes a natural part of their everyday behavior.