A Good School

I have ideas about what a good school is, ideas which should apply to any school, from pre-K to college. Kids should be happy there most of the time. Happy times should be intermixed with measured amounts of tears, doubt, confusion, turmoil, tension, and mystery. A visitor, upon entering the school, should be able to hear shouts, laughter, singing, and conversation. There should be few or no phones. There may be computers, but there should also be  hammers, saws, brooms, cleaning supplies, pencils, measuring devices, knives, tape and other building materials readily accessible. Computers should be no more or less or important in the school than a dustpan or duct-tape. People should be moving about, inside and outside. There should be messes of a wide variety—paint, cut papers, crumbs, clay, paste, dirty dishes, machine parts and electronics. The tools of work—paper, marking instruments, glue, containers, hand-outs—should be visible. At the end of a day or a class, there should be evidence of what happened: scissors, glue, scraps of paper, smells of materials, open books. Moreover, at the end of class, more than a few students should be mentally or emotionally agitated to the degree that they need to talk about what happened the next day.  There should be many things on the wall–art, posters, memorabilia, postcards, photos, printed words. There should be projects or art hanging from the ceiling, on the floor, in hidden corners, works that both the teachers and the students have arrayed there. The objects hanging or displayed should be the work of the students as well as representations of the work of the other thinkers or artists the students study.  The whiteboard or chalk board should filled with lists of things happening, to do, or wild, scrawled utterances of a certain moment and circumstance that may be a mystery to others in the school.

There should be evidence of daily living— food, eating, cooking, and clothes. Students’ own belongings should be mixed in with the school’s detritus. This indicates a merger of the lives of the children from outside of school with the matters of life inside the school. At any moment there should be a great number of things going on and a wide variety of activity–from the pointless and child-like, to profound, mind-bending, or poetical-metaphysical. In classrooms there should be laughter intermixed with searching and serious work.  There should be a base standard of excellence with which everyone is familiar, and which is defined each year by the given class of students, towards which everyone is actively working. Each student should feel his or her importance in the school, and should be able to speak articulately and excitedly about what happens there each day. Each student should feel a sense of attachment, belonging, and responsibility to the school. Each student should feel like he or she is seen and known by the teachers, and each student should be engaged in an ongoing conversation with his or her teachers that focuses both on the personal and extra-curricular life of the student as well as on the discrete academic projects or skills the student trying to master or complete. In a good school teachers will make a conscious personal connection or conversation with every student every day.

The students should learn something new each day. They should be able to look back on their time in the school, over months or years, and be able to see how they grew, changed, expanded. Mistakes should be an everyday part of the learning, and there should be no shame in mistakes, but a willingness to look at them, think about them, and learn from them. Problems in the school should be everyone’s problem, and those problems or issues will be dealt with with all of the students together, openly, with everyone having a chance to speak. The school should be small enough, or be able to be broken down into small enough groups, so that normal conversations can be held in class, like a large family around a dinner table. There should be argument, debate, disagreement, and friction, as these lead to the development of new ideas and understanding. Assent and agreement should also be sought, and when assent is attained, the moment must be captured and slowed down so it can be felt and remembered. The students will know what that assent means, why it is important, and how it came to be. There should be hundreds of questions asked every day, by both students and teachers. Breakthroughs—emotional, intellectual, artistic, personal, psychological—should be celebrated vigorously and discussed broadly and at length. A large part of the thinking and discussing should be about thinking and thought. All the feelings that one encounters in life will also be present and felt in the school. No feeling or idea should be alien. And the feelings of the students, the emotional and developmental undercurrents that course through them or sweep them along, will be central to the collective pedagogy. The subject will not only be subjects, but the children themselves.

There should be a history of the class that the class knows and is actively involved in making. When things go badly, that must also become part of the learning, and so become part of the school’s history.  The students should feel that they are part of making history, making thoughts and creations that have never before been made. A visitor to the school should feel they have entered a different country, where there are customs and traditions which, while strange or incomprehensible, seem to leave the participants in them in state of joy and excitement. The visitor should be able to feel the particular energy and affections between the students, and wonder how it came to be.

There should be a “head,”an organizing leader or spirit-guide, that undergirds the whole enterprise, and this head must participate in every aspect of the school, do the projects, experience all the feelings of the students, practice the same disciplines, suffer the same hardships, learn along side of the students. The leader and teachers must also be as vulnerable as the students, work as hard as they ask the students to work, and be willing to be openly self-critical. The teachers will both love and be intolerant of the students–love them for what they are and are becoming, intolerant for when they come up short or don’t exert their powers as they can. The students and teachers will feel safe in bringing in aspects and truths of their lives from outside of the school into it, so that life and learning are seamless. The teachers will be humans in the process of learning and growing as well, not mere technicians or facilitators of a discrete and confined subject.

At the end of a day, the students should feel a little reluctant to leave, and they should feel a little excited to come back the next day. And at the end of it all, the students should feel that they are part of the school, that their school was vital; that they gave themselves to it; that they swam with a school of other beautiful fishes, that they were an important dog in the pack, big or little, that the herd needed them and knew, appreciated, and loved them for the contributions and the person they were in the school.

If you walk into a school and sense that all the above-listed items are happening and true, you have walked into a good school.

Last week Henry Black brought his gas-powered remote control car to school and Henry Swan explained to Isa how the throttle works. Will made a pasta car that looked like a rhinoceros and which he named “The Pablo Escobar Cocaine Cowboy Mobile,” because, he explained, he’s been watching documentaries about organized crime. In the process of making pasta cars students burned their fingers and while making stained glass they cut their fingers and while grouting their tiles they roughened their fingers.The students climbed around in the woods and deep snow and came back into class with clots of ice in their hair and left puddles of water by the door. Everywhere there were bits of broken spaghetti and bow-tie pasta and glue guns plugged into the walls. Vivian took her Pasta mobile down from the shelf and held it up and said, “This car is going to win,” and then, as she spoke, the entire front axle and wheels fell off and broke on the floor. We all laughed and shouted, “instant karma!” and then later Vivian came to me to proudly show me how expertly she had repaired her car. Lena and Syd, along with two eighth graders and two seventh graders, made a pregnant snow-man-woman. Apparently, Lena cared very much about making sure this pregnant snow-man-woman had properly formed body parts of all kinds.

All of us were moved by Henry Swan’s character sketch of Isa, as he tried to understand this feeling of love and crushes and coming into the world of being a social animal. The class took care of Henry Black’s dog, Hazel, laughed when she whined in lit class while we were discussing freedom of expression in 1984, and marveled at Hazel’s back flips when they tossed her snow-balls in the field.. Up in the woods Ethan pretended to be a Vermont logger. Henry Swan was drilling a hole in a leaf-spring down in the basement, which made an infernal noise until he got a proper drill-bit. Henry was converting the leaf-spring into a meat cleaver, an idea he somehow conjured up after talking to Celeste, whose dad makes knives. Tal, Rose, Phoebe and Iris watched from the science room windows as the couples and pairs of friends went hand-in-hand into the woods across the snowy field; and then saw Henry Swan emerge from the woods in his Russian military overcoat, and then collapse face-first on the frozen field, like he had spent himself to the last during the Battle of Stalingrad.

We all waited while Lena sang the Hebrew prayers over the menorah each morning of Hanukkah, and laughed a little when the matches snapped off and the cheap candles kept going out, and we listened to the sweetness or her singing the three-thousand year-old prayers. Phoebe told Syd that she was good at art and that made Syd feel good, and later Syd said she “felt oddly but extremely happy for no good reason.”  We all came up with our own trees of life, trees that no one had ever seen before in the history of the world until we drew them at 2:45 on a Thursday afternoon. Syd learned that Phoebe loves her, and that she (Syd) can’t always protect people and that sometimes “you just have to step down and leave them to figure it out for themselves.” We talked about helping. We have to help those who are doing the things that everyone should be doing. Henry Black said: “The mysterious things I experienced? Math, drawing rocks, watching Swan draw tree-roots, learning and thinking about crushes.” Someone else asked: “Why did I draw my tree the way I did?”

Phoebe watched Isa and Henry hug and remembered it.  Phoebe learned from every science project and tried to be looser around people and love them. There was mystery and excitement, she wrote, to see each Tree of Life that each classmate drew, and she realized that if you set yourself on a path, and it’s good one, try to stay on it.

Someone noticed that Creed got up to get Ethan water when Ethan’s voice was getting dry during his project on Buddhism. Ethan told us about the eight-fold path and the four Jewels. Ethan told us that we could all be Buddhas, that we had it in us to take the teachings and make them our own. Iris worked making a pastamobile that’s a Christmas Tree delivery truck with little Christmas trees and lights, but she misspelled the word “Chrismas” (sic). Vivian was happy and joyful when Iris came into the school calling her name and telling her to come out into the snowy woods, and she loved that Henry Black drew a teetering pile of rocks for his tree, while she carefully drew her own, an ornate rose plant emerging from an open hand.  And meanwhile, she was thinking about why we live, how time passes and how we continue on. “What’s our purpose? Do some people live their whole lives never speaking up and die without making a mark? Did their life matter then, make a difference, was it a life worth anything?” Then Vivian said that in a a conference, after hearing his beautiful sketch, she learned that Henry Swan is trying to become a better person and that to do that he needs to not be protected, and he doesn’t want to be protected. “He’s figuring himself out, so am I. But he has a better idea. And that older siblings have a lot of control over their younger siblings, and they can move them to be better people.” 

Nate and Joe were talking about man-boobs, which made some people laugh.  Vivian and Wagner and Geeta built a tunnel in the snow. And when everyone went to make Quinzees, everyone already knew how to do it. Geeta asked Rose to help her pull her glove over her coat-sleeve. “I know I’m being like a five-year old, but I hate snow in my sleeve,” said Geeta. Wags gave a piggy-back ride to Celeste and found out how light she is. Wags was struck by how in a dystopia like the one in 1984, people would be “heroes” for being spies against their own people, designing grenades to kill the most people, and blindly following a leader.  Will kept up with his “what if” questions, like, “What if I was attacked by ten bears but was wearing a mummy suit?” and Oscar answered the questions seriously. The three big mounds of snow in the field were evidence of a group of people who built a thing together. According to Lena, Elise wielded sarcasm deftly and sharply, responding to Lena’s incessant bragging about how good the ninth grade quinzhees were by saying, incisively and deadpan, “Good for you.”

Someone realized that everyone has to find a way to excel. We talked about how we may not understand everything perfectly, but we have to find a way to do what we each can do in way that is excellent. Una showed Creed and Phoebe her way of drawing, and she liked sharing that. Then, by random chance, she found a book on the shelf about anarchy by Emma Goldman. “I can’t wait to read it!” she said.  And she found excitement and pleasure in being able to make references and talking about “the Wall’ with her friend Isa—finding points of commonality and something to share.Henry Swan remembered to ask me if I had listened to “There is No Sun” by Sun Ra, and when I said I had not yet, he remembered to send it to me again.

Tal told Joe that in school activities he, Joe, sometimes does less than others, and that while others were pushing wheelbarrows of snow, he was throwing snow-balls at the snow mound. Joe responded. “I need to pick it up. Not everything is perfect. Life can’t be your fantasy.” When we talked about how to be a great older sibling, Isa said she realized she had power to help her sister ease into the world, and Maddy learned more about how she can be a better big sister. Then Maddy wrote Phoebe a long list of real compliments and told Phoebe that Phoebe is a good friend. Sasha carried his “101 Greatest Science Fiction Movies Ever” book around. Sam felt pride when he made great pasta-mobile wheels, and worked in the basement shop with Tal, Oscar, Will, and Iris. We discussed Net Neutrality. Some of us wanted to make Molotov cock-tails in response. Ben and Henry Black and Oscar knew a lot about it. Declan finished his car and used a better wheel and axle arrangement (and plans to use powdered graphite for a lubricant), than Tal, who bragged a lot but then accidentally destroyed his car at the very moment when it was almost complete.

We learned that Leonardo knew things no one else knew. Geeta made a poster about Leonardo that set the standard and included the quote from Leonardo’s notebooks, “Life without love, is no life at all.”  Some of the things we came to know: that Star Wars can have spiritual meaning.  That every person can never be fully known. Wondering what does it take to change somebody? And asking, “Why do we find that we ourselves give up our voices; Or, why would humans want to let go of their voices, give them up?” as seems to be the case in 1984. Someone else realized that everyone has hidden parts of them, an inner shyness, no matter how extroverted.  And realizing that seeing the good AND bad of a person or thing is okay—it is wrong to see a thing in only one light—everything has multiple facets and it is better to know this. Someone else learned that everyone, it seems, has to belittle others in order to make themselves look better.

Swan said in meeting that he was sick on Thursday night, and in the old days he’d be like, “Please, I’m sick, don’t make me go to school.” But this time he convinced his mom that he HAD to go school, because he WANTED to go to school. Ben told about a lady on the bus who told him about how she had gone to a small school like ours and she told him to treasure it and take care of it. Tal said that it was hard to make a school like ours, and a lot of time they don’t survive. It’s hard to make them live, even harder to make them soar. Celeste said our school was soaring, and then she proclaimed, “Hallelujah!”

2 thoughts on “A Good School

  1. Dear Tal — Every one of these essays is a miracle of blindingly lucid writing and what I can only describe as deep thoughts about education. Can’t wait to hold your new book in my hands. Burgess


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