Tuesday, October 13, 2009


After months of spending the majority of my work time searching for funders (all right guys: "come out come out wherever you are!") and learning more about what other educators and film makers are contributing in this area, today I began participating more actively in the editing of our video. Ah! Yay!! Tom has pretty much completed the third step in this very complex project. First we narrowed 300 hours down to 100, next we made a stab at picking out some highlights for a 45 minute sampler and a 7 minute sampler, both of which we have used to get feedback. Now he has narrowed 100 down to about 12. He has created assemblies that define a range of activities and themes, and we started reviewing them alphabetically!

Today I saw sections on Afternoon meeting, Animals, Arrivals, Art, Assessment, Bird calls, Bonking, and Campus cleanup. It shakes up my thinking to see the footage as elements to play with, rather than chronologically, as we did with our first pass through. My mind is racing to the next stage, of course, where we create a basic structure for the film, but Tom is helping me learn patience and the importance of careful craft. The sections will not stay in their current forms but they are edited enough to be able to feel their essence, and I find myself picking out easily the parts that matter most to me: shots that show the character of the student, or catch for me that mysterious quantity called "authentic learning."

I can see that I will have my work cut out for me coming up with just the right amount of commentary to explain the contexts and purposes without making the film too wordy. Tom had just a few shots in the Assessment category, as he also has sections for Math assessment, Reading assessment and Writing assessment as well as Self assessment. He used this section for shots of the small group of students who took the STAR test that is mandated by NCLB and the State. Most of the parents in my class opt their students out of this test. I am not in favor of high stakes standardized tests, and find little value in standardized tests even when they aren't attached to rewards and punishment. How will I talk about that? How much importance should we give it? Guess I better make some written rough drafts of my own.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Tom was recently editing a scene where two girls confront a third about saying something mean. There are many levels present in the scene, including the social pecking order that tempted L to say the mean thing: wanting to ingratiate herself, but having the opposite result.

What I am pondering right now is the moment when L, crying and overcome by the way things have spiraled out of control, emotionally admits she made a mistake. All present then acknowledge that at one time or another they have also. I say: “I’ve made more mistakes that you can possibly imagine!” The girls all nod, with R adding something to the effect that at my age I have had many more years to make mistakes. So true!!!

Well, last week I really made a dumb mistake that I am still recovering from. I was left in charge of the school barnyard while everyone was away on a camping trip. Thumper, the new bunny is very hard to catch, and in the process of getting her to go into her hutch, I tried to corner her in the chicken cage. By the time I finally got her put away, I had forgotten that the chickens’ gate was still open. I didn’t remember until I returned to a scene of carnage the following morning. All 4 of our sweet pet chickens had been killed. It was an awful moment.

I dreaded the children returning. No matter how much I told myself that these things happen, that I needed to forgive myself, I was not getting there. But predictably when I came to be with them on the day they found out, while they mourned the loss tearfully, they forgave me easily. When a child, who has a much bigger loss in her own life, put her arms around me and just held me silently and kindly, I felt the guilt wash off.

I would not wish this on anyone, and yet now there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind that I make mistakes, and that I can be forgiven, as can each of them. Whew.

Friday, October 2, 2009


I have been corresponding with Howard Katzoff, who has a website called Mr.Katzoff.org He reprinted there an article that was published in Newsday in April of 2008, about the exciting middle school that he taught in in the 1970's http://mrkatzoff.org/2009/09/once-upon-a-time-in-shoreham, Why did Shoreham Wading River and many successful schools like it die while others, such as the one I taught in, remained?
Standford emeritus professor Larry Cuban views what happened as “yet another skirmish in the ideological wars that have split educators and the public since the first tax-supported schools opened their doors in the early 1800s.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. School Boards reflecting political agendas probably closed down many of the progressive experiments. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they did it in concert with the huge educational publishing business, which would not have been making nearly as much money if schools had stopped buying all those tedious textbooks. Perhaps the testing mania started as a new income source? One that would “prove” that we needed to go back to textbooks?? I hate to be so cynical, yet there can be no doubt that corporations have benefited from this particular skirmish!
In my internet perambulations I have located around 50 public schools whose websites describe programs that sound like our Open Classroom. I have developed a bit of communication with about a dozen of these public schools going against the current. A great majority started in the 70’s, although there is a mini resurgence, usually calling themselves ‘constructivist’.
In our case I think there are some clear reasons why we still exist. First of all, we are located in a very liberal area, and our school board continues to support us. From the beginning there was a decision to create school programs that reflected what parents wanted. So there was not just an open classroom, there was also a back to basics program. Conventional self- contained classrooms were also offered. As time went by, the back to basics model melded with the self contained classrooms, and called itself Academics and Enrichment. Then along came a group of parents who wanted Montessori. They drummed up support, paid for the first year of training a teacher, and convinced the board they had many parents who wanted that.
Eventually A&E dwindled, but the open program continued to draw nearly half of the new enrollees, with the rest going to the Montessori program. A few years after A& E disappeared, at a moment when total school enrollment was down and there were empty classrooms, along came a group of parents who wanted a Waldorf inspired approach. They also raised money, and lobbied hard…and now this tiny community with a total school population of a bit more than 300, has 3 elementary school programs, all of which are unconventional, plus a middle school that all three programs feed into.
Second of all, our staff had longevity, and continued to put in the energy needed to support this approach. The founding teachers stayed a very long time, did not all retire at once, and even after retirement have stayed involved in the school, mentoring and volunteering–even attending school board meetings.
Third of all, the community model, including an emphasis on parent participation, worked in our favor. I notice that is a part of several of the schools that have survived. The teachers did not get isolated once the founding parents moved on. The use of consensus for decision making may not always be pretty, but it keeps people invested.
It may also help that we are an elementary school. I notice it is harder to build community in middle school. There are too few years, the parents tend not to be as involved. The schools I’ve found that go further than 6th grade usually go all the way through high school, and that may be why the middle school has survived: the threat that somehow you have to toughen kids up with lots of tests in middle school to prepare them for high school is not there.
Interestingly, in the private school sector some version of progressive education has always had wide acceptance. Several versions are experiencing rapid growth right now, probably pushed by how regimented public schools have become. Alfie Kohn contends that there never was much of a progressive movement in the public schools. It was so small, given such a limited time to prove itself, that it never got off the ground. but I would add that many of the good ideas did drift into more conventional classrooms, and are only now being stamped out by the testing machine.
How do we turn the tide? Maybe the severity of what has happened via NCLB will do it for us. We’ll have to get more people speaking up if that is to be so!