One must remember the quivering thing, the living thing.
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
In 2001, in a rural town in the mountains of Vermont, we started a small school. It was for grades seven, eight, and nine.
We had neither money nor expertise. We were one teacher, four parents, and one town citizen. We started with ten students in a rented house with a dirt driveway in the village of Ripton in the Breadloaf Wilderness, a mile from Robert Frost’s summer farm.
What few books and materials we had were kept on shelves made from plywood we scavenged from construction sites. Our school had one bathroom, one wood stove, and numerous red squirrels that made frequent appearances during morning algebra class. Our science teacher had never taught science before, our math teacher had never taught math, and I, the head teacher, had never before run a school.
It wasn’t much of a school in the beginning. Often we wondered if it would survive.
But the little school in the mountains of Vermont did survive. There is a story in a book about it—the book is called A Room For Learning: The Making of a School in Vermont—which recounts how we made the school out of a dream of what a school could be. We believed, contrary to prevailing theory and practice, that if we gave the students responsibility and freedom, they would make a school that was an expression of their most vivid dreams and highest ideals.
We wanted a school that the students felt was theirs, where they could learn from each other, the outside world, and from what they created together. We sought to develop their capacity for love, wonder, and openness—to help them grow to their brightest, biggest, most full versions of themselves, no matter their abilities. We wanted to find the balance between teaching the knowledge and skills of the various disciplines, never losing sight of our primary concern with each student’s growth towards becoming more caring, loving, creative, compassionate, courageous, individual.
The central pedagogy, if there was one, was simply this: the voices, energies, and aspirations of the students would be more than enough to create a vibrant, living school.
Over time, the school grew to twenty-seven students. We wanted to keep it small, intimate, close. A modern-day one-room schoolhouse, all of us learning together as best we could.
We moved out of our rented house and built a new school-house up the road from the Ripton village, near the end of the paved road. The Green Mountains surround the school. A trapezoidal-shaped soccer field stretches towards the woods. A stone wall, overgrown with ferns and blackberry brambles, runs along the length of the field. There is a stone patio, a small herb garden, plantings of perennials, and an iron school bell on a post. Behind the school are a unicursal labyrinth, a bread oven, and a nature trail, all constructed by students over the years.
It is a remote and bucolic setting for learning. The woods are filled with maples and beech trees. When the wind blows, or when rains pound on the metal roof, or when crows call over the field, we hear all of it.
This book is about this little school in the wooded mountains, about school as a place where learning is an experience of high adventure, where the experience of growing and living is wild and joyful, deep and transformational, where we never know exactly what might transpire on a given day because we create it as we go. A school of mystery and possibility, where old ideas about learning and what school should be are decimated by the colossal tenderness and fierceness of children reckoning with and discovering what matters most; where the students come and go to school thrilled with what is happening to their minds and hearts, each of them learning to believe that something great, something as big as their lives, is reachable.
For more information, visit https://heartsofthemountain.com/ or order Hearts of the Mountain from your favorite bookseller.