In the beginning of the North Branch School, we believed, contrary to prevailing theory and practice, that if we gave the students full responsibility and great freedom, they would make a school that was expression of their most vivid dreams and highest ideals. The central pedagogy, if there was one, was simply this: the voices, spirits, and aspirations of the students would be more than enough to create a vibrant, living school.
From the start we discarded controlling curriculums and external dictates. We asked students to build a their school around what mattered to them. We asked them become seers and seekers of beauty and truth. Truth, and the beauty of the truth, was not to be found in a textbook, on a test, or in a chapter summary. Lesson plans, final exams, Power-point presentations, the internet, even instructions from me—none of these were necessary. Truth and beauty would be found in the full amplitude of lived experience and in talking about and recording what we found. And so meanings made in the classroom came from experience as it was born from the heart and the mind, from the human relationships that bloomed and prospered.
Typically schools are thought of as places where preparation for life occurs. We conceived school as a place where life should be happening, a place of high adventure, where the experience was so deep, so affecting, that none of us knew exactly what might transpire and, given that mystery, the students would walk out of school every day thrilled with the prospects of what might be coming over them. Then they would believe: something great, something as big as their lives, was reachable.
In 1965 George Dennison published his exhilaratingly powerful and hopeful The Lives of Children, a description of one year at the First Street School, which he ran on a virtual shoestring in New York’s Lower East Side. The school had no money, no campus, no equipment. They made do with what they had and the resources available from families, the city, and themselves. In the school they created there was virtually no separation between living and learning, life and school. He wrote
There is no such thing as learning except in the continuum of experience. But this continuum cannot survive in the classroom unless there is reality of encounter between the adults and the children. The teachers must be themselves, and not play roles. They must teach the children, and not teach “subjects.” The child, after all, is avid to acquire what he takes to be the necessities of life, and the teacher must not answer with mere professionalism and gimmickry…
…The experience of learning is an experience of wholeness. The child feels the unity of his own powers and the continuum of persons. His parents, his friends, his teachers, and the vague human shapes of his future form his world for him, and he feels the adequacy and reality of his powers within this world. Anything short of this wholeness is not true learning.”
Schools, Dennison implored, should not be places where we deposit children for seven hours a day to fill them with what we deem important. “Core Standards,” external imperatives, political dictates, mandates from people who do not know our children or our communities, cooperation with an emotionally remote and ponderous educational system, even subject-centered classrooms—these could be discarded so that children might begin to discover the “experience of wholeness.”
The core that matters is the one inside the children. We believed our school’s sacred obligation was to bring that core into the light of the world. Only then would there be a “reality of encounter.” Only then would the necessities of life come to the center. Only then would we enable individual children to freely find the reality of their powers and create the experience of wholeness. Only in the dance between self and soul would the student’s mind and heart be deepened into what we might call the “wholeness of true learning.” The teacher’s role then could be simply to encourage, call forth, support, and amplify that process.
How then do teachers move past standards-based approaches to get closer to the “wholeness of true learning.” When we began the North Branch School, we found our partial answer in the belief, enacted every day, that the whole life of the child should enter seamlessly over the threshold of the school with the child in the morning, and the life of school—actively and delightfully bubbling inside—should depart with the child in the afternoon. We believed that the full seriousness and profundity of life should be actively and experientially constructed in school, and anything that occured in school must necessarily be related to the inner emotional lives of the children in it.
Every day at North Branch we asked essential questions: How could we deepen the experiences of the children, allow the powerful emotional and creative worlds in them to manifest in our classrooms, and so create a “reality of encounter?” How could the “necessities of life”—as defined by children, whatever their age or developmental stage, become the center of learning? How could we go beyond merely teaching “subjects” and teach children? How could we help the children find the true reality of their powers beyond simply mastering sets of skills and facts? How could we, the teachers, free ourselves to extend beyond mere professionalism to be ourselves and so authentically meet the children to create that experience of wholeness?
How, then, to transform school into a place of authenticity, of life and real conversation, where we found a reality of encounter? How could we make school that is truly alive?
Over time, in a virtual one-room schoolhouse, we discovered this: school can be alive and joyful every day, and what happens there is worthy of being told again and again because it is wondrous, moving, and instructive. Our school evolved into place of unbounded, unbridled creation, a place of academic rigor, high spirits, and infinite possibility. We got there by not having a plan, by not knowing, and by trusting the process we built together. Our school became a place where children wanted to be simply because we allowed them to live out, and out of, the full spirits living in them. The measure was not, nor should ever be, a test; we asked them to set the standards—for themselves, and for the school; who they wanted to be, and how they would get there.
The work done by teachers in our nations school system is unassailably noble. But in practice, most human contact between students and teachers is, even over many years, shallow, fleeting, impersonal. In so many schools students do not truly come to know or learn about each other because they rarely talk about or engage in the process of discovering who each of them truly is, beyond groupings based on superficial differences. Teachers driven by mandates to test or teach to prescribed standards do not have the time or inclination to enter into the manifold beauty and richness of their student’s full lives. Students spend great amounts of time together to learn about concepts and things, but not about the hopes and dreams of the classmates at the next table.
In American schools students are rarely asked to delve into the topic about which they have the most interest and know most intimately—themselves. They are asked to write about great books, but they are discouraged from using a personal perspective. The lived experience, the lessons of life, are treated as alien or even disruptive to the subject at hand. Students are asked to write about Huck Finn’s journey, but their own miraculous journeys are somehow not considered valid subject matter. It transpires, incredibly, that preparation for SATs or learning how to locate the subjunctive clause is more important that an individual soul’s development.
The greatest need of any student is to be known and seen, to feel that her voice matters, that his soul is recognized. Yet school administrators and politicians who must prove their commitment to “excellence” become ensnared in the quest to quantify and measure student achievement, an aim often at odds with these most fundamental needs of children. Administrators are driven by standards and politics and scores and political judgment. The words “failing school” are in the lexicon, and schools, like students, are identified as “failing,” which is most insidious and negative. Value is determined by test scores, which may be an an important measure in some respects, but does not measure what students may need as growing humans. Tests certainly can not tell whether students and teachers are engaged in meaningful, inspiring relationships or whether a child’s life has been changed for the better.
The current practice to achieve “high standards” is driven by tests made at a remote distance from the children who are tested, by test-makers who have not set foot in a classroom, and by educators who have not asked the first essential question: who is this particular child before me, and what does he or she need? Core-standards, because they must apply universally, can not take into account the infinite variety of the students who must master them. The standards are not personal to the hearts of minds of the students. They are external, imposed from without. It follows then that the children are alienated, even insulted, sometimes enraged, when they find themselves filling in the ovals for days at a time in a silent room, answering questions that have been completely severed from human context and emotional meaning.
Meanwhile, a discussion with the children in school about what is most important to them occurs rarely, if at all. No one asks them: how should we structure this community? What do you want to learn? What are the most fun and inspiring ways learn it? Students enter school and are put on the pre-designed treadmill. These topics, these skills, these terms. This is what you will learn, at this pace, in this order. The system is fixed and at best students are given only token chances to participate, set the course, articulate the standards, and define aims. The children should be the mind, heart, and soul of the system—yet they are given the least power to shape it. We should not be a surprised if children appear only marginally invested in what happens in their schools.
There is another way to measure achievement: by the initiatives of the students themselves. I am not thinking of institutionalized groups like student government or volunteer activities in the school community. I am certainly not talking about standardized tests.
I am talking about a living school—where the children feel the currents of life, where true conversation and community is created—a school that is a living organism, where the richness of life is present and ever possible.
After all, shouldn’t a school be wondrous and alive, a place of infinite possibility? If we are honest, that’s the only standard worth aiming for.
Whenever someone asks about the governing “philosophy” of the North Branch School, I can only say, none. We follow what happens. We grow and learn from what appears. The lives of the students, the events we create in the school—these are the text. The collective and individual spirits of the students illumine and chart the path we follow. We stay open to those moments when the truth of a child comes clear; when the evolution of a mind or heart is revealed in the living experience of school.
But how to create such schools? The answer is radically simple: First, keep it small. Break down and atomize the education monolith; get rid of the layers, the apparatus, the jargon, the consultants, committees, the initiatives, the isms, the technologies, the destructive obsession with standardization and uniformity, the dependence on labeling, the vast numbers of people who do not have authentic contact with children—maybe even get rid of the principals, the superintendents, and the school boards. Reduce it to what a child can feel—something slightly larger than a family but quite smaller than a system—child-sized communities where human-to-human relationships are paramount— a few teachers, one building, and a few dozen kids which might become a laboratory for learning and life. In a smaller school, children feel important and they are important. Their actions make things happen. They can see and hear themselves. They can know each other truly and deeply, They see, to their delight, that they are the school. When they take ownership, the school comes alive with the spirit of children who are inspired, powerful, and excited.
Second: Make it personal. Ask them how to make school real and relevant to them. It’s a new year every year. How would you like to feel, and what do you want to know? Initiate real conversations about what matters and then listen, follow, and guide. Watch their faces and motions, laugh with them, sometimes cry with them, push and cajole, be crazy, be absurd, be flexible. Do not repress them. Let them be free, allow mistakes to happen. Believe in them, then give them the autonomy to change or make their school in their image: a place where they can freely feel and move. Let their work be sculpting their school into something as gloriously and uniquely imperfect as they are.
I promise they will rise to the challenge. Because shaping the environment is far more interesting than being passively shaped by it, and what children want and need most is to discover the reality of their powers to direct and create their own lives. All we have to do is ask the kids, and they will come alive in their schools, and they will take us further than we ever dreamed.
If they know that school is to be about them, if they know that the agenda is their lives and needs, they will give devotion to their work, compassion to their classmates, and respect and love to each other and their teachers. We only need to invite them into the room, a maneuver which does not require the planning or skills and educational degrees of a twenty-year veteran. Most certainly it does not require lesson plans or syllabi or phalanxes of administrators. It only requires faith—that in the crucible of the classroom the truth and beauty of the children will emerge. If they are invited to give their minds and hearts, they will give everything.