Tuesday, November 30, 2010

the letter-to-the-editor effect

Rick Posner alerted me to Thomas Friedman's article in the Nov 21 NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/opinion/21friedman.html It's a mixed bag. On the one hand he quotes Tony Wagner, the Harvard-based education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” saying "...the three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate." and he note that parents need to be part of the solution. But then he agrees with Arne Duncan that "...using student achievement data in calculating salaries, ...increasing competition through innovation and charters — is not anti-teacher. It’s taking the profession much more seriously and elevating it to where it should be." Hmm...critical thinking that is measured exactly HOW from the data garnered from standardized tests?

What is most interesting to me is that a week later the Nov 28 Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/opinion/l28friedman.html printed an assortment of letters all of which addressed concerns I had when reading his piece, and not a single letter expressing confidence that Duncan was on the right track. The letters were written by a former teacher (Connecticut parent of two teens), the principal and assistant principal of NYC's East Side Middle School, an associate professor of English at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and a professor emeritus from the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education (Stephen Krashen, the only name I knew): a nice range of backgrounds and experiences.

Whether anyone in positions of power is listening or not, more voices are joining the Stephen Krashens, Alfie Kohns and Deb Meiers of the world. We need to keep our eye out each time there is an article about so called "reform" in a major news source, so that the names attached to the letters are varied, and the depth of the dissatisfaction with the current assembly-line solutions can be seen. Even if just the 340 folks who like AUGUST TO JUNE's Facebook page agreed to write one letter every 6 months we could have an effect. What do you think?

Monday, November 15, 2010

thinking talking thinking doing

We have had such a full piece of time. The Coalition of Essential Schools had a conference in SF this past weekend. While we were unable to attend the conference, we did go to San Francisco on Friday evening for a free talk given by Rick Posner and the staff of IDEA, and brushed up against some other exciting educators.

I met Rick through my meanderings online googling things like "open classroom" and "holistic education." His book "Lives of Passion, School of Hope" about the Jefferson County Open School in Colorado, and the repercussions it has had in the lives of the graduates, is fascinating reading. Some of those graduates were at the gathering, and we got to talk to several. I had wondered how the school was able to do all the complex trips to places like the Middle East and New Orleans, and now I know. Colorado gives all its high schools a good amount of money to fund sports programs. The open School uses the $50,000 it gets for travel instead, and their students who want to play sports either play at other schools or informally at Open. They still have to raise money for the trips, but the costs are not insurmountable.

If you haven't looked at IDEA yet, I think you will find it uplifting. With so many of the progressive educators I meet at retirement age, it fills my heart to find a younger generation ready to take the torch. Scott Nine, who leads the group, is dynamic and thoughtful. I loved their presentation...and of course afterward the networking was dizzying! My favorite conversation was with a young IDEA intern named David Loitz,who was full of...ideas!

The next day Rick, and his former student Corinne, who is now a video journalist, came out by ferry to meet some parents and teachers for an informal chat at my favorite local cafe. The concerns and ideas were flying every which way! Two parents who are also teachers talked about their dismay at how easily parents seemed to willingly accept a more traditional mindset when they left our open elementary school for middle school--tied in again to grades and standardized testing. A high school teacher who teaches in a very interesting 9-10 program talked about her wishes to go further. She feels encouraged by how successful the program has become, but its very success has led to the school becoming more fixated on high tests scores! When Rick talked about his high school not ever having given grades, Mary expressed her wish that she could make that change, while others at the table were skeptical it could happen where she teaches, as there are so many parents fixated on getting their kids into Harvard.

On Sunday I went to a Move-On meeting that will probably lead to a stronger progressive political presence in our community! This just gives you a taste, but you can see how stimulating things have been beyond the film work, and the film work continues in high gear! I made a to-do list today that will take me a Looong time to accomplish. But I head into it feeling great about our finances as a result of the latest round of fundraisers. We may not have buckets of cash, but we have enough.

Friday, October 22, 2010

John Merrow puts us on the map!

It's so interesting how networking works. Early on in the life of this project I contacted some of the educators whose writings I respected and asked if they would look at a 45 minute compilation meant to span all the areas we could possibly develop in the film. Alfie Kohn and Deb Meier were among those who responded, giving important initial feedback. Deb also sent information about us to a number of her colleagues. As a result Brenda Engel was among those who helped us define our direction. A year later, with a much more developed work, I asked another of Deb's and Alfie's contacts, Monty Neill to help us screen the first rough cut. He suggested that Brenda Engel might invite Jay and Helen Featherstone.

The group of a dozen or so people who watched the film in Louis Kruger's Northeastern classroom all sparked our energy with wonderful comments, and the Featherstones began corresponding with us. When Jay asked what he could do to help us, I asked if he knew anyone in media--for example John Merrow, long time education reporter on PBS.

It turns out Jay was one of John's thesis advisors at Harvard! He wrote a wonderful letter suggesting John view the film. To our great pleasure John also found value in our work. This led to a phone interview, which led to John's blog about us at http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/

That review has multiplied our network by many factors!! Requests to screen the film, ranging from a teacher's union in Des Moines to Stanford's Governor's Corner Office of Residential Education, arrive each time I open my email. My "outreach learning curve" is being challenged, and I'm paddling hard to be up to speed with their requests, but we couldn't be more delighted with the opportunities that are arising. When 60 Minutes called, I nearly fell off my chair! Fingers crossed that when they see the film they will find it calls to them as strongly as it did to the thread that led them to us: Deb and Alfie to Monty and Brenda to Jay and Helen to John.

It seems to me that no matter what 60 Minutes decides, the pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction. As parents join the mix, it won't be long before the voices for meaningful education are louder than the voices of the test pushers.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fast and Furious

Responses to Waiting for Superman are all over the media world. Some of them drive me crazy, as they accept his assumption that we have figured out how to measure "good schools" and "good teachers" with standardized tests, and could give every child a "good education" if we just made more spots available in charters. Many echo my own response to the film: I'm glad that people are talking about what needs to be changed in our schools, but: Whoa Nelly! Take a closer look before thinking that galloping down the charter school path in and of itself is the answer!

Here are a couple of articles I particularly appreciated:
This youtube video: (some of whose information could have been very useful to balance Guggenheim's questionable factoids) http://www.waitingforsupermantruth.org/

So then here we come, trotting behind a well-financed and publicized film like Waiting for You Know Who. By showing that learning is not like that dreadful animation of a teacher pouring knowledge into the open heads of students, can we make use of the momentum Guggenheim has created to "initiate a gigantic, messy, national conversation that would take place in every neighborhood, every barrio, every ghetto of every city and every town, to raise the questions: "What knowledge and experiences are most valuable? What makes someone an educated person? How do we make that knowledge and experience accessible to all students?" (Bill Ayers words from a recent Truthout article)? That is our challenge.

Every day I find new allies online. Some are voices that have been there for a long time, but that I hadn't run across, but also there are teachers and parents who are just now ready to speak out.

A few months ago we were told (in so many words) by the Fledgling Foundation that they couldn't fund us although they loved our film. They felt the education community was so divided that the time wasn't at hand where a film could have much impact. I think I will write to them now and see if they still feel the same way.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

guess how many hours the credits took

Well, I can't actually tell you how many hours the credits took, but I can tell you it was MANY MANY MANY more than I would have imagined. First of all there was making sure we had the names of everyone who we needed to thank--days and weeks on that, checking spelling, locating who to credit for songs, and getting their website addresses. Then there was our first attempt at designing a nice way to show them on the screen. There are certain traditions: some categories get a screen of their own, some get larger type than others. There are still a lot of possible variations. We wanted to thank everyone who gave us any kind of help (up to the cut-off date of when we had to have the credits finished). Oh gee, I hope we got them all! We also wanted to work with two pieces of music, and be done with the credits when the music finished. That meant some names were going to be pretty small. Work, rework, work, rework: days. It was looking pretty good when I remembered a song we hadn't credited! Last minute email to Doug Goodkin, phone call to Ashley Bryan in Maine (87 years old: such a nice man!!) rework again. Show it to Kim Aubry at ZAP who tells us we are out of broadcast framing for our most tightly packed page. AGH! Back to the drawing board, come up with a new design. Kim writes back that we might want to do it differently because of interlacing. Interlacing is a video issue that didn't cross our minds because Tom works on digital screens. Interlacing sometimes makes small words bouncy and blurry. Kim suggests we consider rolling credits. We spend hours looking at all the videos in our possession to see how other people have done it. No consensus. Some are way worse than ours, some better but done so differently it is hard to apply them to our situation. Tom decides he has to actually create rolling credits so we can compare. This involves using a new program that he doesn't know well (this means several trips past GO without collecting $200). We look at the new version...and there are pros and cons. Different screens give us different impressions. Are they easier to read? Size-wise yes, but they go by too fast. Tom's program doesn't seem to allow them to go slower.

We finally decide we like the original design with static pages better. We tell Kim. The next day Tom has second thoughts. OY!

To find out what we ended up with you'll have to wait til the end of the film :)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On the same page with the Dalai Lama

I noticed in the SF Chronicle that the Dalai Lama is giving $50,000 to the University of Wisconsin's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. They will use it to see if positive emotions such as kindness and compassion help a person's brain be more resilient to life's hard knocks. While the Dalai Lama is thinking about meditation, and its effects on well being, I immediately thought of the more active work that can be done in school to foster kindness and compassion. There are so many times in a day when opportunities arise, from taking care of a school pet, to looking at a conflict from the other person's perspective. One of the parts of being in a school where all the ages have daily interactions that I love is how it allows older children to be involved in the lives of younger ones. On our playground one often sees a younger child turning to an older one for help. When younger ones join a mixed age game, more often than not the older students are encouraging and tone the game down to work for the younger ones. And when that doesn't happen, or a younger child feels unfairly treated, it can very quickly come to the attention of an adult who knows the older child, and can bring the parties together--taking the time to build understanding, and compassion. This requires Time: when children are playing and talking with each other, involved in activities together. Unstructured time is an important part of the mix, as well as a common understanding that working with "feelings' is part of what happens at school. i understand the Dalai Lama's focus on meditation, but I hope the folks in Wisconsin also study other pieces of what makes for healthy children's minds. I'd like that to include the difference that creative outlets make and the presence of situations where children can learn how to be kind and compassionate.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Turning around "reorganizing"

I "attended" a Teachers Letters to Obama web roundtable called Turn Around This Policy,a few days ago. First of all I am still pretty amazed by how these technologies bring people together. 42 of us from all across the country were listening to speakers, seeing their slides, and exchanging our reactions at the same time. The "discussion space" could have held 100, but if the speed that the comments of 42 is any indication, I would never have caught the comments if a hundred had been typing their thoughts. So while I would wish more people had been present, it was a good number for interacting.

The four speakers each had been affected by school "reorganization' in one way or another. Chuck Olnyck from LA's Fremont High, a school with 4,600 students(the first mistake) was labeled failing and teachers made to reapply for their jobs. Chuck refused, and now is looking in from the outside at what the results have been. As far as he can see it's mainly disruption of some promising small schools within this monster that were making the kinds of changes most likely to turn the school around. There will be more first time teachers. Some might view that as a positive, but without good support those new teachers may join the large ranks of those who quit after 3 years.

Nikki Barnes teaches at a KIPP middle school charter that has a very high rate of college acceptance for its students. She has been there 12 years, but many of the teachers around her have only stayed for their 2 year Teach For America contract. They put their all out for those two years, but Nikki questions this strategy of burning through young idealistic teachers, as well as wondering about the definition of success in KIPP and other schools. High results on standardized tests are seen as basic. More is demanded than that, but still schooling sounds very limited to what will look good on a college resume. Some of the practices she described dismayed me, but I was impressed by Nikki's objectivity. She does not dismiss KIPP, and will continue to teach there, but see the faults. Is there a way to incorporate some of the positive student-centered KIPP practices into other settings?

Sabrina Stevens Shupe has a blog called Failing Schools. Her explanation of how labeling a school as failing increases the likelihood it will get worse, was very persuasive. I hope she is reaching policy makers!

The last speakers were three teachers from Detroit who are starting a teacher led elementary school. The school is a three year experiment, which all who commented felt was too short a period. Perhaps they can negotiate a longer trial, and broader measurements of success. Right now it is limited to the rate that they raise test scores. Whatever the shortcomings, the fact that teachers are taking (and sharing) leadership is big. They are getting some of the support they will need in the form of planning time. I hope we can get updates as to how they are doing, and if I do, I will report about it.

This roundtable was just one more reminder of how much is going on in education right now--positive and negative. Helping to "unleash the positive" is my goal!

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Three pieces about teachers came my way today. There was an editorial in the SF Chronicle blaming teacher's unions for California not getting Race To The Top funding. I read Alfie Kohn's piece called Turning Children Into Data in Education Week (http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/data.htm) and then I listened to an American Radioworks program called Testing Teachers (http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/testing_teachers/index.html)

The good news is that all three agree on the importance of good teachers.

But there is discouraging news too. The Chronicle editorial continues the straw man of blaming unions for the sad mess in our inner city schools. It lauds the LA Times for their plan to link teachers' names to test score results. I can't imagine a worse incentive for creative teaching than that. What young teacher would take the chance of not teaching to the test with that stick looming? How many experienced teachers would choose a low performing school knowing they will be compared in that way to teachers in wealthy districts? What union would allow their members to be treated so simplistically? The Chronicle's editorial writers seem to think that embarrassment makes people perform. hmmmm.

The American Radioworks program was more of a mixed bag. It began with a focus on the work of economist Eric Hanushek, who uses data from standardized tests to prove that some teachers uniformly get better results than others. Hanushek's analysis was also used in the film Waiting for Superman. He believes that "teachers are born, not made," so the emphasis should be on removing "bad" teachers. Also as in Waiting for Superman, Michelle Rhee's slash and burn approach to the Washington DC schools was portrayed sympathetically. But as the program goes on, it mentions that even Hanushek thinks the weight given to test scores is misguided.

In the second half of the program they feature the changes made in the Chattanooga city schools by offering "sustained long term training and support" to all teachers by mentor teachers who were still active in the classroom. In the process they discussed the importance of focusing on the needs of individual children! Yes. Now we're getting somewhere. But in my view they left out major pieces: the range of basic training we offer teachers and the importance of enlisting parents as partners.

It seems so hard to get people to realize how little is learned from test scores. Alfie Kohn's article, which is subtitled "A Skeptic's Guide to Assessment Programs" makes that point as well as several other salient ones about who is profiting from the so-called "reform movement." I would feel much better about the possibility of recruiting and retaining good teachers if the folks in the Obama administration, Public Radio, and The Chronicle were reading Kohn!

Saturday, August 21, 2010


The site is up! I've sent messages to my Facebook folks, and received lots of positive responses, plus some very helpful critiques. Only two misspelled words!! My daughter Keja, who teaches college level English composition gave my writing style a brutal once over. I was attached to some of my phrases, so it isn't her fault if there are still too many gerunds and a few misplaced commas!

Hopefully some of the work I did for the website will be transferable to my next project--designing the DVD package. Once again a former student is coming to my rescue. Reuben Raffael, a wonderful graphic artist with many projects to his credit, has volunteered his expertise. His one caveat: that I come with all "the nuts and bolts" in working order. So on Wednesday, when we come back from a brief (but well deserved!) backpacking trip, I will start getting nuts and bolts in order!

And then there are two upcoming fund raising house parties, figuring out how we will debut the film and celebrate with the school community, plus lots more outreach work ahead of us. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 16, 2010


After weeks of work we are about to put on line our new website. I worked closely with our web designer, Brindl Markle, who I have known since she was two years old! Her sister Kendra was our daughter's playmate, and Brindl attended the Open Classroom as did her two brothers and Kendra. So it was easy to explain what I wanted to get across with the new site: something upbeat, stressing the kids and their creativity.

The tables were turned and Brindl became the teacher. Her first assignment to me was that I look at other sites and tell her what I liked. Whenever something is on your mind, you know how it is, everything seems related to it. Not only when I was on the computer scanning websites, but everywhere I went I saw design elements, and how they were put together. Pretty quickly we decided on a basic framework, using some of the portraits that are integral to the film and creating a quilt effect with them.

Just as has been the case with every aspect of this project, there was more to learn, and details that force me to slow down and pay attention! Who knew there would be so many decisions simply around what we would include in the menu? But yesterday Brindl and I sat in front of the computer and she talked me through the process of adding and updating content. After she left I spent some hours using what she taught me so it would sink in. Even so, when I came back from a hiking break with my friend (and former classroom aide) Gabi, I had forgotten stuff.

Remember that, teachers. You can't stuff gobs of new information into the old brain (or the young one) and expect it will all stick! But I have tools!! I used almost all of them, and figured out most of what I needed to know. Then I sent an email to Brindl saying "HELP!" As soon as I sent it I figured out most of the rest:)

Today Brindle emailed me back. Like the good teacher that she is, she didn't just do it for me. She cheered me on for trying things, told me the book I need to get and read...and, after all, gave me some clues that would get me back in gear. By tomorrow the site will be ready for action!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


There is lots of singing in AUGUST TO JUNE because there was lots of singing in my classroom, and in our school music is a major element. Early on it was mainly parents coming in, playing music very informally with kids who wanted to stand around the piano and sing. After a few years we hired Sarah Whitman, who introduced us the work of Carl Orff. Orff-Schulwerk builds on folk traditions, dancing, rhythm instruments, xylophones, and improvisation. We’ve since raised money to train later music teachers in Orff techniques, and have been very happy with the interactive lively music sessions it produces. Our plays always include child produced songs that are supported by the improvisation students experience in music classes.

One thing that happened as a result of such successful music classes was that for a while there was less music in the classroom! Teachers unintentionally left it to the music teachers. One day a parent complained to me that there wasn’t enough music in our school. I started to protest, when I realized what he was saying. I wasn’t singing with my kids, parents were rarely playing music with kids: it had been “relegated” to a large extent to the music class. I can’t thank that dad enough for pointing that out to me! I immediately began singing with my students! Such a treat! My fear that they might not want to sing with me was gone in a minute. Kids love to sing!

We had had a special birthday song for quite a while, but when music teacher Kate Munger, came on board, she loved to develop songs with kids that reflected their experiences. Some songs became “our” songs for saying good by to a student who was leaving, for singing at certain times of year, for welcoming the day, or going on a hike.

When I made a list of all the songs sung in the film I was shocked at how many there were. Some had been with us for so long, and come to us so circuitously, that the current music teachers, Tom Finch and Anny Owen, were unclear who the authors were. Thus began a months long search. Each time I thought I had them all covered, it would turn out that one I had thought was in the public domain actually was written by a modern musician. Slowly but surely I have located just about all of the composers/lyricists of the songs in the film, and almost all of them have been very gracious about letting us use their material at no cost. We will credit them with pleasure!

The one exception was the only song that is very well known. We’d used 11 seconds during a music class with Anny Owen where the kids were practicing “Moonglow.” We liked it for many reasons. It was an upbeat lift after some serious classroom interactions. Ivan is wearing a shirt we see him silk screening in an earlier part of the film, and he is participating easily in the class, a great step forward for him. Even though the kids have made a mistake, and Anny has to stop to correct them, everyone is very involved, and you feel their ease working through something that requires repetition and refinement.

Whether is was my inexperience, or the way the Internet is used by music companies, it was not easy to reach the companies that owned the rights to “Moonglow.” Eventually I found out that one company owned one third of the rights, and another two thirds. Many emails followed, but while everyone was very nice, the bottom line was that we were offered a two year contract for $500 for 2/3 use, and would most likely be paying $250 for the other 1/3, plus we couldn’t get a clear answer about what would happen after that.

I investigated a documentary concept called “fair use” which means that the use is part of a reportage, and not meant as a performance, but it is a very fuzzy area, and in the end the best informal advise we got was not to use the footage unless we paid for it. And so we very regretfully cut “Moonglow.” Sigh!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Today was the first day of the Alternative Education Resource Organization conference, and I am sitting at the computer at 11:15 pm not quite able to go to sleep with so many images in my head. The biggest one is of over 400 people from all over the US ( and some from other countries) smiling and welcoming and curious about what the others were involved in. Many young people! A few black and brown faces. More public school teachers than I had expected, but of course lots of home schoolers, unschoolers, and folks representing a variety of other education approaches and philosophies. The first person we met was Rick Posner, whose book about the alumni of the Jefferson County Open Classroom, Lives of Passion, School of Hope is now in my backpack. I knew from a phone conversation that we’d had a year ago that I’d like him, and I did. He introduced me to one of his former students, Ian, who is here with him, and who struck me immediately with his sense of humor and astute observations as we watched a video conference with Herb Kohl.

Herb was full of piss and vinegar, chiding the Alternative movement for not being activist enough, and for deserting the public schools. He didn’t pull any punches, and I am sure agrevated a bunch of the participants with his negative comments about home schooling and the elitism he sees. He went overboard, as is his wont, but much of what he said was valuable. One quote I liked was “schools need to embrace the vision of a decent world>”

At a workshop on maintaining a positive school culture I discovered that there are a group of teachers here from the independent school in LA where I taught in 69-70! Play Mountain Place is probably the oldest Summerhill based school in the US. I was so pleased to talk with two young teachers who brought me up to date about how the school is doing. It sounds like it has stayed true to it’s original mission of incorporating ideas brought forward by Carl Rogers about the emotional needs of children. I hope i get to talk more with them tomorrow.

This evening we saw a film called The War On Children which traces all the inhumanness that has entered the public schools--from zero tolerance policies, to medicating for quiet classrooms. the film had many interesting and important points to make, but I am not comfortable with its conclusion that we need to toss out the whole public school system...the two videos of the day were in stark contrast on that point!

Time for bed. Tomorrow we show our film!

Friday, June 11, 2010


I went to two graduations this week, and enjoyed them both. Celebrating the achievements of young people is such a satisfying experience!

The first graduation was of the 15 students leaving the Open Classroom for middle school. It was held in our barnyard, under the pine tree we planted some 25 years ago which is now huge, and providing shade that is often needed on hot June graduations, but this year it was cool, and I chose to sit in the sun. From time to time during the ceremony small children wandered by me trying to catch Thumper the rabbit, who calmly nibbled on nasturtiums and yarrow except when a small hand reached out and she zipped away.

The graduates took turns speaking or singing something they had prepared. Then their parents, teachers and friends had an opportunity to appreciate them. The level of earnest sincerity always brings tears to my eyes. Parents looking their young fledgling in the eyes and saying “take wing!” Younger students remembering the kindness or creativity or craziness of their older role models. and most of all the many small and large moments that the graduates recall.

This group was unusual in one sad way. Along the way two of them lost their fathers--something that affected a third child too, as the men who died had both been surrogate fathers for him as well. Some of the tears I shed were for the dads who did not get to experience their daughters becoming young women. Then there was also our first Chicano student who started with us with no English. His speech was not the longest one, but his parents sitting in the audience were beaming, and so were all of us.

The ceremony went along a t a leisurely rate--starting at 10 and ending at 12:45. Everyone spoke who wanted to speak. Every child had his or her moment in the limelight. Last of all was Skylar, who told me later how hard it was to sit there so long, knowing he would be last, but you wouldn’t have known it from his calm demeanor. In the tradition of his two older brothers before him, he sang a moving original song about his years in the open. A perfect ending.

Many families were graduating their last child. Often it feels harder for them to say goodbye to the Open than for the students, who are so ready for new adventures. This is when I realize how important it is to have a school that welcomes the parents as well as the child. I look around at these adults and can see how much they have grown too. There were tears and hugs.

The second graduation was the next night. The eight grade graduating class was my last 4th grade---half of the class in the film. In their tuxes and strapless dresses they hardly looked like the scrappy young ones who tumbled all over me that June afternoon four years earlier. Tom got quite a kick out of trying to figure out who was who, and ran around photographing them as if he was one of the proud parents!

They had blended easily with the students from the other program and done well in middle school, and they were well represented among those who got up to perform for the several hundred people gathered on the blacktop. This was a group that loved to sing, and they still do.

All but two of those who had come from the Open were given awards. While they certainly deserved the awards, I felt twinges of regret that this is still part of the rite of passage. The ones who didn’t get an award were given a certificate where some special quality was addressed, but it feels to me that the act of giving awards diminishes the certificates, even though I know the teachers tried very hard to avoid that.

But that one off note could not take away from the idealism and confidence you could feel coming from these young people. They belted out their songs, danced around on the stage, and generally and delightfully strutted their stuff. I think I will always come to graduations, even when I don’t know the graduates, just to breath in a bit of that optimism!

Thursday, May 27, 2010


For months I’ve known that I had to develop a new website just for AUGUST TO JUNE instead of sharing it with Tamalpais Productions. It needs it’s own domain name, and it needs to more fully represent the finished film--which is getting nearer and nearer to reality! the problem has been that my plate is just way too full with the other aspects of the project to do a good job--especially with my level of computer savy.

So today I met with a former student of mine, Brindl Markle Stugard, who has a business called Moxy Media, as well as being an accomplished musician/songwriter--a stellar example of what a broad education can spur! I laid out my ideas, she explained much about what would be possible, and why one would do certain things. Diane Phillips asked good questions, and we all left the meeting feeling optimistic! Yay!!

Friday, May 14, 2010


I’m spending more time on our facebook page, and less time here. I have no idea if anyone reads what I write here, as I am too internet illiterate still to figure out about page hits. But here I am on a Friday night, just finished making a list of film festivals to apply to, and with a bit of time to update the blog before we go out for Indian food.

As part of preparing to submit to festivals I am starting to gather testimonials from educators and policy makers. They inspire me, and hopefully will make others curious enough to go see the film! Here’s what I have so far:

“At a time when a wave of standardization is turning our schools into test prep programs and impoverishing our visions of what schools can be, this film reminds us that powerful, engaging, child-centered, curriculum-rich, community-rooted schooling still lives. Never shouting or preaching, this film is both a detailed depiction of a year in the life of a vibrant learning community and a quiet call to arms to defend and expand authentic education for all children.”
--Monty Neill,
Executive Director The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)
and chair of the Forum on Educational Accountability

“The film provides concrete evidence that this kind of education is not pie in the sky, or only for the very rich. It’s being done and needs to be done more. As a parent, my heart aches to think how many more children could have access to that kind of exciting, stimulating, nurturing environment but still don't.”
--Lisa Guisbond
Outreach Coordinator Science of the Eye – Bringing Vision into the Classroom Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“As a County Supervisor, I am treated to many rewarding presentations of art in all of its media forms. What moved me to single out this work for your consideration is its quiet, forceful illustration of children’s natural capacity to become informed, considerate participants in all aspects of life. That is achieved through the filmmaker‘s patient perspective, capturing seemingly routine class encounters as they blossom into individual discoveries and a social framework that will serve the students throughout their lives. The film welcomes all viewers, requiring no formal understanding of the educational theories at work while exquisitely illustrating the full spectrum of human emotion that accompanies the learning process. As the work progresses, it clearly avoids showcasing shining stars, opting instead to reinforce the potential that lies within each of us when encouraged and supported.”
--Steve Kinsey,
Marin County Board of Supervisors

"August To June is an inspiring documentary film about one classroom across one year. With its close attention to all the different ways a teacher works with children, both singly and in groups, the film portrays the full complexity of expert teaching. It also shows how much a teacher can do to support the growth of children as emotional, social, and intellectual beings when parents and school agree to throw off the shackles of standardized testing.”
Helen Featherstone,
Associate Professor Emerita of Teacher Education Michigan State University, Adjunct Professor of Education, Brandeis University, editor:Transforming Teacher Education: Reflections from the Field
Helen and her husband Joseph have been writing about open education since the publication of Joseph’s seminal book Schools Where Children Learn in 1971

Saturday, April 10, 2010


We took a 2 week break to rest and refuel...well, we actually brought along the laptop and worked on grant proposals when the weather was bad, but it was a break none the less. We showed the latest rough cut to French friends involved in education and had very lively conversations. While they felt that French audiences would be aghast at certain cultural things (wearing a hat inside, table manners) and envious of others (the amount of open space we have) mainly they felt the film’s message is as important there as it is here. Their public schools also are dealing with more testing and less room for creativity in the classroom.

Today I spent 2 hours with Carol and Steve Rebscher planning fundraising parties at their house. In the process I shared about some of the resources for progressive educators I have discovered as I have researched for the film: The Coaltion of Essential Schools, the Deborah Meier Institute, Tghe Prospect Descriptive Processes. I am struck by how little we know about what has happened and is happening in progressive education across the US. Schooling is a local affair, and most teachers do not have time to look beyond their own community once they leave college. At least that was my case. I read trade magazines (that hardly touched progressive issues) and occasionally caught a book by Alfie Kohn or Jonathan Kozol, but I had almost no contact with other schools teaching the way we taught. Several groups have sprung up that may act as a bridge, but the recognition that progressive public schools have commonalities that are worth exploring is just reaching a larger conciousness. Perhaps that’s another way this film can help: letting folks know that they are not alone.

Monday, March 8, 2010


We got 25 responses to our query about the title to the film! Fifteen people felt strongly we should stick with AUGUST TO JUNE, most adding that a subtitle would be good--with lots of variations on what that should be. The next most popular suggestion was Learning Beyond Measure with 4 people preferring that, then Doing School, with 3. The other titles that one or two people preferred (sometimes a single person suggested several of these) to AUGUST TO JUNE were:

In Defense of school
Real school
What you can't measure
The case for a meaningful education
Open minds open classroom
everybody in
these children, this place
our school, our lives
one class one year
A vibrant place of learning

We got a few thoughts beyond our list:
Life, lettuce, 4 square, school was suggested by Sara Tolchin
A Whole Child's Learning World
The Joy of Teaching the Whole Child
Passionately Teaching the Whole Child
A Place for Educating the Whole Child
Educating Whole Children came to us from Liz Lauter
Freedom Learning
Free To Learn 
Learning With Joy were all suggested by Mia and Jasper Thelin, but Jasper prophesied we would be sticking with AUGUST TO JUNE...and thanks to all the feedback, we are!

We had a great time the other day at school with 4 younger siblings of kids who are in the film, writing the title and subtitle on the white board: AUGUST TO JUNE, Bringing Life to School looks great when written with many a decorative twist, and then sped up by Tom so that it pops onto the screen. Ta da!

Thursday, February 4, 2010


I stored this quote a while ago, from the explanation of Open Education in the Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.com:

'Dewey believed that... The school is a microcosm of society, not to be separated from the child's familiar context of family, community, social norms, daily life–all areas that children need to confront and comprehend. Education is a process of living in the here and now, not
a preparation for future life.

If each child is brought into "membership within a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious," Dewey wrote (Dewey on Education: Selections by Martin Dworkin, p. 49). Throughout, he emphasized the value and importance of childhood and the influence of social environment upon individual development. All this reflects a long-standing American faith in the civilizing power of education via the common school.'

Yes! But then the article goes on to discuss how and why Open education didn't take hold in the mainstream, although it did make many inroads. ..basically not everyone wanted what Dewey saw as the crux of education.

Fast forward to the sticky issues that never got resolved and are coming up so intensely today. A few days ago there was a wonderful op ed piece in the NY Times by Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams College, called Playing to Learn http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/opinion/02engel.html
The article is the best piece I have seen in the mainstream media in a long time to describe Dewey's (and my) understanding of what we are about. So, are we any further as a society in terms of agreement about the goals of education? If you look at how the Obama administration is going about things, you would have to say the answer is "no."

One more piece for your "to do" list of reading material: The New Yorker" article on Arne Duncan.


You can see where the man comes from. We are so close, and yet so far apart! How do we bridge that gap, which leaves us going round in circles about the acheivement gap?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Oy oy oy I wish I knew if we have chosen the right name for our film! I've gotten used to AUGUST TO JUNE, but we've gotten mixed reactions to it. For me, it has a lot going for it. It rolls very nicely off of my tongue. I like that many people will recognize that it refers to the school year, and yet it is vague and open ended. But a title is also an opportunity to say something about the content of your ideas. AUGUST TO JUNE doesn't address that at all. Should it? Well, for the record, I'm going to list all the other titles I've come up with, to see if any others rise to the top. If anyone reads this blog and wants to give me feedback, you can comment here, or write me at amylvalens@comcast.net or engage with me about it on AUGUST TO JUNE's facebook page!

Here's the current list. I've divided them into three categories, but many fit into more than one:

clearer message ones:
To teach the whole child
instead of tests
No two the same
A small message of hope
Real school
whole children
Consider an alternative
What you can't measure
Learning beyond measure
Educating for joy
What we can teach
No bubbles to fill
Education As American as Apple Pie
learning all the time
The case for a meaningful education
see them learn
learning is messy
educating for democracy

poetic ones: (maybe subtitled: bringing life to school)
with their hands in the dirt
poems, portraits, and chickens
the inner life of a classroom
Poetry Chickens and Blob Tag
Loving School
Cus all birds sing
In the fullness of time
curiosity, creativity, and compassion
los grandes amores de muchos colores
A learning world
everybody in

neutral descriptive ones:
a place of learning
these children, this place
our school, our lives
Reflections on a last year of teaching
A year in an open classroom
A year in a classroom
one class one year
26 plus
26 kids
a learning community
portrait of a classroom
We were 8, 9 & 10
Amy's last class

Sunday, January 10, 2010


The screening in Boston was in a brand new building at Northeastern, filled with very comfortable chairs. Lou Kruger, director of the School Psychology Program was our host, and Barry Chung, the chair of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology, came by to welcome us. Our son Jesse came with us, and we relied on him several times, as he guided others to the room, helped with the computer set up, and trouble-shot during the screening at one point.

We lost a few folks to an important hearing on education at the state capital, but still had a great turn out: Ayla Gavins, principal of Mission Hill Pilot School, Monty Neill and Lisa Guisband of Fairtest, Jay and Helen Featherstone --authors and professors of education who have written widely about the english primary schools and progressive education, Emeritus professor of education at Leslie College and longtime consultant on Open education, Brenda Engel, Harvard professor and student of Piaget, Eleanor Duckworth, Berklee College teacher Dave Scott and his wife Renee, film maker Ed Howe, and Center for Independent Documentary director, Susi Walsh.

People were so positive, it blew us away. Here are some of the comments that people mailed me in the days following the screening:

Ayla Gavins "What a privilege it was to view your film. I loved it! My first thought when the film ended was that I wanted to watch it again."

Helen Featherstone "It was terrific to meet you and I really really like your film. We talked about it a lot on the way home and then again this morning. One other thing that your film does that is important is that it dispels the notion that teachers in progressive schools have no standards and tell kids that every thing they do is WONDERFUL: I was very impressed by the way in which you pushed kids, insisting that they really do the assignment. But of course that is just one little thing. The main thing is that you and Tom have succeeded in showing what a school year looks like, for kids and for others."

Jay Featherstone "I really think it's a wonderful film, and will be happy to write recs or whatever."

Monty Neill "It was a pleasure to see the film and be with folks. I'd be happy to dialog with you re: intro, closing, text, narration to help with 'political location' as it were. And I'd be pleased to provide a quote, etc."

Lisa Guisbond "I'm percolating my thoughts about the film, which I found beautiful, engaging and profound. I'll email them to you soon. What an idyllic world you created for those adorable, incredibly fortunate children. Seems like an educational garden of Eden. Feeling a bit sad that neither of my boys have had such an educational experience, or only in little morsels here and there, not as a daily diet. Sad that so few children have had this"

Louis Kruger "The film was excellent, and very well received by the group."

Feedback included wanting more subtitles or improvements in the sound, so that important conversations weren't lost, more clarity as to who was a teacher and who was a parent, wishing that we had filmed a teacher meeting to give more of a sense of how the team works together, and (the biggest subject of conversation) where and how to elucidate simply and without sounding smug the need to move away from standardized tests and one size fits all education. Several people felt that the first 20 minutes were confusing, and that the film didn't take off for them until around the winter holiday section, but others said that complexity mirrored what was going on for the children, and was why the later parts of the film were able to be so compelling. Susi Walsh was effusive about the beauty of Tom's images. People talked about the way Tom has captured children's expressions and the way we see them develop in the course of the year. There was a wish that we could show more specific examples of how one or two children had grown academically. Some people hadn't caught that it was a public school.

Everyone present seems willing to give us glowing endorsements. Jay is already thinking of ways he could use the film as he works towards creating a charter school with an arts focus. Helen suggested I try WT Grant foundation for funding, and although it seems like a long shot, I will pursue that, especially as she has received funding from them, and is willing to write on our behalf.

The following night we showed it to Tom's extended family (including two young cousins who sat spellbound to our great surprise and pleasure). Much praise, and many questions followed. It is clear that we will need to have some explanatory material about the school and the district--maybe as part of the dvd package, or as a written insert.

Our daughter and son both gave us excellent suggestions and feedback. Suddenly this feels like a family effort! Keja made a comment that I have been thinking about a lot. In terms of what we want the film to accomplish, by having me the subject of the first and last scenes, we give the message that this film circles around the teacher. If we don't want that to be the message, the first scene needs to change. Hmmmm. That is certainly part of our message--giving teachers the wherewithal to teach well is crucial, but is that the main message? I'll get back to you on that!

Saturday, January 9, 2010


We got to Brooklyn on December 21, and it has been a flurry of activity ever since. At 3 pm on the 22nd I found myself waiting in a drizzle in front of Junior's restaurant across the street from Long Island University. Howard Katzoff and Fred Spinowitz were meeting us there, but Tom was still at LIU dealing with projectors that wouldn't show our video! Luckily for us, the technician at LIU hadn't gone home yet, and Tom joined us before the cheesecake arrived. I have been corresponding with Howard for several months, since discovering his website, mrkatzoff..org, which is sponsored by the Orion Society's Whole Child Education Initiative. Meeting him in the flesh was like meeting an old friend. When we started talking, it turned out that Fred (who is a former middle school principal, and now supervises student teachers when he is not painting) had just visited the junior high school that I attended! The conversation flowed flawlessly from memories of Brooklyn in the 50's and 60's to the politics that surround teaching. The pump was primed for viewing the video, and we strolled over to LIU, where the group grew larger with the addition of Lynn and Michael Hassan, and Marita Downes of LIU. Jerry Mitnz of AERO was delayed in traffic, but arrived about a third of the way through the screening, and right after him, my former student, Sara Hotchkiss. Jerry brought two students with him, who also contributed to the conversation.

Tom recorded the feedback, and I will be interested to hear it when I get back to California to see how well it jives with my memories as I am recording them after three more screenings, and may be mixing them up, but here goes. It has been very gratifying to see how much people basically enjoy the film, and relate to the children, the teacher, and the subject matter. Marita had to leave early, but as she left, told me it had been a privilege to watch the film. Jerry Mintz wanted more information about the structure of the school, and the community, but he missed that part of the film. For his philosophy of education, the school we show is not democratic enough, but he saw the value of showing what is possible in a public school setting. He would like more narration, and more comparison--wondered about using a student to narrate his or her perspective on what was happening.

Everyone felt my narration was appropriate, and that the more personal narration was the strongest. Fred would cut some of the social/emotional content. He and Howard disagreed on that point, but agreed that we need to find ways to spell out more clearly the context of the film in today's narrowing of instructional practices, but do it unobtrusively, and without an ax to grind. Lynn spoke strongly for keeping the social/emotional as a major component. Howard talked of the fine line we have to walk, between creating a dramatic and artistic product, and advocating for relevant education. Sara was pleased to see how similar the school was to the way it was when she was a student, and applauded Tom's photography. She reminded me that her dad has been involved in fundraising for the Ojai Society's school, and I will contact him when I get home, in case he might have some leads for us. We left this first screening feeling awed and buoyed by the experience! Guess I'll have to write about the other screenings another day, as it is almost midnight!