Questions for Tal Birdsey about Hearts of the Mountain

    Interview conducted by Alicia Tebeau-Sherry, GWP Editorial Fellow

1. Where are you and the North Branch School, are you still teaching? Has NBS changed at all since finishing Hearts of the Mountain?

We are still going strong, beginning our 21st year. I wrote Hearts of the Mountain over several years, combining a variety of moments, incidents, and experiences in and out of the classroom to make the “year” which I describe in the book. The school continues in much the same vein as described in the book. A lot of laughter, tears, hard work, spontaneity, letting the kids in each class each year put an imprint on the school, building something rigorous, new, and unpredictable. One thing that remains consistent is we never want one year to replicate another. We want each year to be an experience unto itself, influenced by real events, the chemistry of the kids and the group and the personalities, and what our lives bring to us over the stretch of the year.

2. You previously published another book about building North Branch School and its first years, A Room for Learning (2009, St. Martin’s Press). How is Hearts of the Mountain different? Was the process of writing this one different from the first? 

A Room for Learning sketched out the dream of a school—how an idea became a living entity. It explored our hopes and ideals, even as we were discovering them. The book dealt with a lot of my own inner worries and anxieties: would it, could it work? How to make something from nothing? How will it survive? The book endeavored to show how we breathed life into something and saw, finally, “lo, it is good!” HOTM tries to show what happened when we really got going, when we hit our stride, when we were established enough to go deeper with greater confidence. It also shows some of the maturation of me as a teacher and the school as an “institution.” I had a better sense of what the possibilities were, and more assurance from the parents and kids, more clarity about the magic that can be conjured. In HOTM you find us driving more into effective educational experiences: outdoor learning, a cap-stone experience like the “ninth-grade hike,” writing our own epic plays, using poetry with intensified purpose, uniting the disciplines more effectively, delving deeper into the dynamics of the group through writing, reflection, and conversation, full days spent in the snow in winter. ARFL was about the dream and beginning. HOTM is about the fully-fledged and in-flight school, real and authentic, and exciting every day.

3. A central idea in Hearts of the Mountain seems to be how you wanted North Branch to be a “living” school. What made you think about your school in this way or what made you want your school to be this way?

If a school doesn’t have an identifiable “story” happening in it, it’s going to be kind of pro forma and boring. School SHOULD be alive, there should be a story to be told out of what is happening. School should be filled with humanity, emotion, ambition, mistakes, fumbling, and glory. It should be like life—mysterious, exciting, thrilling, sometimes disappointing, difficult and sometimes a struggle—something to look forward to, something immense, something that reverberates with value and meaning. Each year should feel like a new adventure–a seventh-grader should be coming in feeling like they are beginning a great journey. The continuing journey for an eighth and ninth grade should be equally thrilling and anticipated. Learning, building a community, discovering yourself, making your way into and through a singular and miraculous life—all of that should be some of the work of a school—discovery and making meaning. We never want our school to be like another school—it should be as unique as the kids in it and as dynamic—emotionally, developmentally, creatively, spiritually, and physically. The school should be a direct reflection of who they are and are becoming. Inasmuch as they are living and growing beings of energy and potential, the school should reflect and be super-charged by those energies. That is the sense of “living school” I meant to get across.

4. Early on in the book, you also talk about how if a student knew that school was completely for them, that they would give devotion to their work and their classmates. This seems like such a universal idea that should be a part of all schools, why do you think students are unable to recognize this in schools unlike your own?

I am not sure other schools really give the classroom—the space, the time— to the kids. Other schools are generally driven by dictates at a remove from the kids’ specific needs. The difference at NBS is we are small. We sit in one room together and see each other and listen to each other. We make the words “this school is for you” manifest. They build a structure of rules, generally from their mistakes. They define and raise the standards as they see what is possible. They push each other, make demands from each other as students and as peers.  They articulate what’s not going well, what they need to address. They are asked on the first day: “How do you want to live?” “How must you grow now?” “What is your holy grail.” “How can we make something never before seen in the history of schools.” Then they write ten pages about those questions, using their own lives and experiences as the source of their first tentative answers. They immediately see that our “text book” is them. All of this carries over into the other disciplines, to math and science. This matters. All of it matters. This is their life, their school, their time, and they feel a need and are expected to make the most of it. The very structure of the building reflects them, honors them, is very much like them: bright, textured, open, light, shambling, open doors, messy, filled with junk and words and art and expressions of self and old artifacts memorializing past times. They are allowed to be themselves—absurd, comical, afraid, ambitious, timid, changing, clueless, aspiring. They curse, cry, say stupid things, tell deep truths, share their lives with us and each other. They are safe, even when they screw up in spectacular ways and make shambolic messes. They are invited into a dynamic, fluid human community that they themselves create, and that’s a flow and a current that carries them and which we all ride together. They want to be a part of the world, each in their unique ways, and our school is scaled in a way that makes them feel this is possible. That is why they are willing to go all-in and devote themselves more fully and emotionally than one might see in a conventional school.

5. In the Fall section of your book, you alternate between stories of students and their interactions in your first days/months of class. On page 39, after quite a moving story from one of your students named Ariela, you say “when the classroom was theirs, it became a living thing.” This makes me wonder, what was the class environment like— lively, lots of conversation, less of the quiet work-time, etc? How did you balance work time versus free-flowing, sometimes completely student-led, discussions that make up many stories in the book? 

The morning starts with a free and open “Quaker-style” meeting. Anyone can say anything. Dinner last night. Something frustrating that happened in class lately. Deeper worries: my father is stressed. My sister left for college. I’m worried about X–he’s been totally avoiding me. Did you see the news last night? That thing was so cool.  Everyone is free in these discussions. We teachers participate as well. Sometimes there are awkward silences. Sometimes ribald laughter, sometimes discursive tangents. Sometimes the meeting turns and we have to grapple together with a serious issue affecting us all.  We then head off to classes. Lit for 7th graders, math for 8th graders, science for 9th graders, etc. This rotation happens in the morning. There’s a lengthy morning break. They have to move freely and without structure. The kids are free then and during lunch to be anywhere in the building or outside. More often than not the doors are wide-open. They can run in the woods and on the field. In addition to the morning rotation, each class has a class “study” period with me. It’s quiet work time, talking time, project-doing time. We talk together or I work one-on-one with a kid. They have time to get help, get work back, ask questions, finish something. They determine what work they have to do. In the afternoon it is “All Tal” which means I have them all together. This may be art, writing, reading a story, practicing some kind of skill, a group conversation about something, a kid giving a presentation to the whole class, an exercise or experience, a movie, something outside, play-writing, etc. More often than not all the teachers show up for All-Tal, which allows all of the teachers to see them in various settings. Fridays’ are a little different, in that we may do more things as a whole school together–hikes, Winter Olympics, sculpture building, an all school-science lab, a hike in the woods. In all activities we teachers are present—and if something goes awry—something doesn’t work or there is a conflict, we will discuss it, debrief it, break it down. A lot of this is process, which is infinitely more important than product. The kids will always have feelings about anything we do and we have to talk about those feelings, good or bad. We lead these discussions, but quite often the older kids have learned how to help and move things along. 

6. The story about another one of your students, Callum, and his reading of Animal Farm really stuck with me, because as you note, because of Callum’s sparked discussion about Boxer and enlarging hearts—a very vulnerable discussion if you will—the students would remember the book in a different way than just remembering it because they liked it. Are moments like these ones that made you feel like your “teaching style” was working? Were these “living” moments? What did moments like these really mean to you?

That particular moment is precisely what I mean by a “living school.” It’s those moments when something goes into the deep marrow and blood of the student, and where everyone in the room feels it together. Where we are all being changed, and seeing deeply. Where life and learning and school and a child merge in a beautiful transformative fury and cascade of revelation. I want school to never be boring—it should always be memorable. We spend so many years there! It MUST be memorable! I want them to be touched, affected, changed, disturbed—and I want them to feel and see those moments. If any of us think back onto our schooling, a precious few wonderful and terrible moments may stand out—where we felt or realized something, a breakthrough, a traumatic moment, a teacher having belief in us, a challenge we overcame—We want a great density of those kinds of moments—Every day! Every Class! We want an intense experience. Those are the moments that make teaching and me feel alive. But to create it and live it takes great energy and is exhausting—emotionally, psychologically, and creatively.

7. You dive into feelings with your students often and encourage your students to talk through what they are feeling throughout the book. Do you consider emotional intelligence or awareness as a part of what you are teaching your students? Do you think this is a vital skill all students should be learning in school?

Emotional intelligence is a powerful and transformative skill. One must be honestly aware of oneself before one can be a productive human and a good person. Emotional awareness is really a step towards greater powers of self-expression and actualization. I tend to shy from the term “intelligence”—I like “awareness” better as it’s more important simply that kids learn to feel all their feelings, to not be afraid, and see what there is to learn about themselves first. “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear./ I learn by going where I have to go./ We think by feeling. What is there to know? / I hear my being dance from ear to ear,” writes poet Theodore Roethke. The feelings and understandings of adolescents are exponentially more complex, intense, and dense than what came before. They are seeing and feeling so much. But it’s difficult and sometimes overwhelming. We give them time and permission to look at all this. When they enter into it, they then begin to see and understand each other more clearly and openly. When a kid gets clear in themselves, in how they feel, what they want, acceptance of their strengths and weaknesses and what their powers are, they become infinitely more accepting and curious about others and the world. It opens them up to everything we are studying and doing.

8. Again, the emotional vulnerability you were able to spark in your students was quite remarkable to me. How did you navigate remembering, collecting, and choosing the stories and writing selections from your students in this book? Did you write them down in the moment through the years, or are they all from memory and old classwork?

I mainly selected and wrote about what still stood clearly in my memory. Also, the characters I write about had written their stories so clearly I could see and remember and even feel the story—their story—in a broader pedagogical context. Most of what I have learned about teaching and adolescents—95 percent—has come from reading their stories or listening to them muck around in the process of creating and learning about themselves. Much better than Grad School. We put out a 350-page collection of their writing every year, a lit mag called “The Undercurrent,” so I had access to a lot of material. 

9. Much of the book is made up of the students’ writings and revelations from these vulnerable discussions you had in class. Your student Haley’s story and writing piece in particular about finding her true, authentic, beautiful self, really showed the power writing has in self-discovery. Do you think this book is as much about writing as it is about teaching and adolescence?

Absolutely. I think writing—any writing—is important for self-discovery. Kids at the age our kids are is one of the greatest and most intensive times of self-discovery and identity-building. So writing is an incredible tool. Not all the kids take to it completely. But they all do it, they all have stories to tell, they can all write beautiful sentences and truths that are their own. This sense of self-possession—of having one’s life, seeing it, holding it, treasuring it—a lot of it comes from the process of writing. It helps that I write too—I am engaged in the process they are. They see me writing, trying to make sense of things. I know for a fact that a large percentage of English teachers do not write. I think that’s practically criminal. It’s like a history teacher who does not read new history books or go to historical sites.  Or an art teacher who doesn’t practice art.  In our classrooms, we try to make it a writing community; a community of young philosophers, a community of scientists or mathematicians. Incidentally, both our math and science teachers write, read poems, create art. Steve writes and illustrates children’s books. Rose is a ceramicist and makes stained-glass. We teachers are all polymaths. That’s important for kids to see and experience—adults who are still learning and creating alongside them.

10. You reference and use poetry both to tell this story of your school and to teach your students. Has poetry always been something you used to connect with students and encourage their thinking and growing?

I majored in Lyric and Narrative Poetry. Pretty traditional. Shakespeare, Keats, T.S Eliot, etc. After college, I opened myself up to the entire universe of poetry. It was a great unfolding. Hundreds of new forms, voices, lines of artistic attack. I read hundreds of essays on the practice and meaning of poetry. I wrote poetry for about ten years, publishing in small magazines. I wasn’t that good of a poet, but I learned a hell of a lot. All of this seeped into the school and into my teaching. We end the morning meeting every day with a poem a kid has selected which is read aloud. Some days the poem is not affecting. Other days the room rings with the power of words and the intention behind the selection. The morning poem—which I describe in the book—is a ritual that Callum created and it goes on to this day. Poetry is a quick way in. It speaks of things we feel but do not have language for. It is elevated speech. It puts them in conversations with a kind of music of the heart and mind. It opens them up to the world of feeling and seeing. Often the poems chosen are about things we are studying: math, utopia, freedom, God, frogs, numbers, love, seasons, the size of the universe, history. So unimaginable connections are made which we could never plan. Most of the kids leave the school with a favorite poet that they consider “theirs” and have a handful of poems that were important to them over the years.

11. Do you have a favorite part of teaching?

Summer? Seriously. I am amused at how off-balance and awkward we are in the beginning when we don’t know ourselves yet and our days feel weird and freighted with the sense of possibility and newness. The middle is hard—a big mess and muddle—a hundred unresolved stories, unraveled threads, continuing struggles and revelations, all of the tension necessary for the group to come closer to each other and learn from each other—the tectonic movement, sometimes slow and sometimes sudden, of each of the kids growing and expanding as their year unfolds. This is where the work is—it’s gritty, stumbling, grueling, slow, and sometimes beautiful. I love the ending and the resolution—seeing them taller, changed, happy, excited, full of new understanding, proud and wistful, recognizing how far they’ve come, feeling what was created and seeing it end, then excited for what is to come. Then summer!

12. What do you hope readers take away from the stories in Hearts of the Mountain?

That schools can be so much more dynamic when they take the risk to open up, experiment, and let go of overly governed/staged educational modalities; when they allow teachers the flexibility to unhitch classrooms from schedules and systems and protocols so they can evolve into their own learning and community ecosystems; that scale and intimacy matter–there are advantages in smaller schools, schools within schools; that schools and teachers thrive when different kinds of classes and experiences and initiatives are allowed to breathe and prosper; that a full sense of humor is also necessary, healthy foolishness, retaining a childlike sense of things., where kids and teachers have space to be themselves in the ways that make them feel alive. Smaller schools foster intimacy, safety, trust, and community, all things kids this age are grappling with as they take their first steps away from the family and into the “world.” 

I hope that readers will see and feel all that from the scenes in the book. That they will find that kids contain worlds inside them–their hearts are as big as mountains. They will give more, work harder, commit themselves more fully in such a setting as described in the book. I hope readers will understand that it’s okay for schools to stop trying to overly control what “Must Be Covered” and let the kids be more fully a part of the venture. Pacing schedules are the death of true learning and authentic teaching. I want readers to come away believing that if you ask them—the kids—they will tell you where they need to go, and what they need to do, what is important to them. I wanted to show that the energies emotions and conflicts and aspirations inside the kids—sometimes latent, sometimes molten—are the key to full engagement, intense work, devoted learning.  I wanted readers to see that the secret is in locating and accessing those energies and hidden realms the kids carry within them and often can hardly hide. Allowing them free play, encouraging open, direct expression, honest engagement, straight talk on their level (not educator-speak)—this is the best way to truly honor who they are and are becoming. I want readers to come away with a new idea of what is possible for schools and kids. 

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