Sunday, August 28, 2011

Answering Alethea

What a summer it has been. I intended that my August blog would be about the conference and demonstration we went to in Washington DC, and the energizing time we had at the Alternative Education Resource Organization Conference we attended right afterward, but then Alethea Crandell sent me an email with a great bunch of questions after she saw the film in DC at Busboys and Poets, and it became clear that answering her would lead to a meaty entry here, as well as whatever she does with it on her own blog

What follows are her questions, and my attempts to answer:

Would you say this form of education is about teaching children to self-actualize? How does the Open classroom do this?

While I don't use the term (and would have to reread Maslow to make sure I'm using it correctly) certainly one of our goals is the kind of self knowledge that might lead to self actualization. From the start of their time with us we help children reflect--asking "how do you feel right now?" and modeling using "I felt" when responding in a conflict situation, remarking on their process as they approach tasks, so that they are aware that there are many ways to do things, and that they each have their own learning style. We also encourage laughter and comfort. We are very aware of the need for children to build body awareness, and address that through a variety of physical activities. Perhaps most important is that children in our setting have time to find and pursue their own interests. They can even be bored--as sometimes that is the very thing that leads them to new discoveries.

What advice do you have for parents and educators on nurturing creativity? Nurturing curiosity? Nurturing a love of learning? Nurturing the confidence to ask questions and be engaged?

My personal experience is that listening, observing, and sharing one's own excitement without overwhelming the child is key. One offers the space for creativity to happen (this can be a physical space with materials that can be used in an open ended manner, or mental space where a child's mind is free to wander) one is there to share information when needed, and one reflects on their discoveries with warmth and curiosity, showing that their process is just as important to you as their product.

How did you come to be a teacher in this format? What are the most important skills needed to teach children holistically?

As I mention in August to June, there were many influences that led me to this format. Besides those teachers I touch upon in the film, my parents' values played an important part. I attended Antioch College, and my education course work included reading and discussing Maslow, Rogers, Neill, Bruner, Holt, Axline, Ashton-Warner, Erikson, Mearns, Betelheim...and more. All that I read confirmed a gut instinct I had about the importance of addressing the individual. When I began my teaching career I was an art teacher with an art cart moving between two inner city schools in Dayton Ohio, and seeing about 500 students a week. The following year I taught 6-8 year olds in a Summerhill-influenced independent school in Los Angeles. Each setting honed my understanding of what I had read, but frankly, just as children learn by hands-on experiences, I needed many years to meld what I believed into the way I taught. I don't know if there is one most important skill needed to teach children holistically. Certainly developing the habit of reflection and a willingness to see things from another's perspective are very important. Not being wedded to one "right way" is crucial.

How do you think American schools need to be changed to teach self-actualization? Creativity? Curiosity? Love of learning?

To teach self-actualization, creativity, curiosity, and love of learning those things need to be part of a teacher's own experience throughout his or her career. American schools need to be places where teachers are nurtured as well as students. That might include more extensive mentoring, or making time for teachers to work collegially and offer substantial support to each other to continue growing. The experiential parts of teacher training need to include experiences of these areas as well. In tandem we need to look at the separation that has developed between those studying to be education administrators and principals, and those studying to be teachers. Administrators need to value holistic approaches as much as teachers do, and develop skills that will help them model these important areas in their school communities.

How do you nurture creativity in your own life? What advice would you have for aspiring creatives?

I am lucky to have many creative outlets. I am a fiber artist, have written and illustrated children's books, and enjoy writing poetry. The movie itself has been a wonderful collaborative creative experience for my husband and me, but just as with teaching, it has been important to find ways to renew my creative juices For me my garden has been a most satisfying way to do so. I love watching plants grow as much as I love watching kids grow!

Making time for creativity seems to be one of the hardest things for many creative people. Giving oneself permission to carve out that time may be easier said than done, but it will make all the difference.

What was the process of making the film? How did you decide to make the film? How did you learn to make films? What were the day-to-day activities in making it? How did you get it distributed? How did you get it in film festivals? What was the process of promoting the film and the message it conveys?

Whew! There is a short answer to this and a very very long one! For the long one I recommend reading the archives of the blog I have kept since I retired and began working with Tom editing the film, and figuring our how to bring it to the world. We don't have a distributor other than ourselves at this point, and are still figuring out how to promote the film and its message. Tom had been a documentary film maker for many years. He had made an earlier film about the Open Classroom in the 80's called To Make A Difference, and had often wished he had time to make a more intimate film that could explore this way of teaching through the evolving and complex school lives of children. With my retirement as an incentive, he decided to bite the bullet and make filming my class his priority the last year I taught. It took a while for Tom to understand how to best accomplish his goal, and there were (not unexpectedly) many threads that he started following and then discarded. For example, he had thought he would just follow a few children, but soon saw that he needed to be more responsive to what was actually happening in the classroom. Deciding to mic individual students was a crucial turning point. Kids who wanted to would wear a radio mic for a few hours--as long as it felt comfortable, which allowed Tom to be less intrusive, and still record their conversations.

The convergence of his interest in documenting a holistic approach with the growing punitive and narrowing education trends happening nation wide gave more urgency to the project, so much so that it has taken over our lives for the past 5 years!

What advice would you have for aspiring filmmakers? What advice or knowledge do you wish you had at the start of this film?

It is easier than ever to make films, but it is at least as hard to get a film to an audience. Be ready to do your outreach homework, and start that as soon as you define your project, whether you are applying for grants, or self financing. I don't know how we would have found time, but we wish we had reviewed our footage more while we were shooting. We really didn't know what we had until the school year was over, which meant many missed opportunities.

What are your plans for retirement? What are your future plans in regards to creativity? In making a difference in things you believe in?

I think we will be working on bringing this film and its message to audiences as a full time occupation for at least another year, and probably a good deal more. In the meantime we have begun a shorter film which will be shot at Mission Hill Pilot School in Boston this year. We want to explore how the kind of meaningful education we show can be achieved in an urban setting, and are hoping that a half hour film will have a better chance of being shown on TV, and therefore reach a larger audience. I will be learning how to be Tom's sound person--hopefully there will be some creativity involved there! When I am home I will continue to be part of the school community, occasionally subbing, but also just enjoying being at school and helping out as needed once a week or so.

My garden continues to call me, and I have a ceramic mural project in my future. I have been working with a retired colleague on an original quilt design (using Japanese fabrics) that we pick back up whenever we have time! But clearly the chord the film has struck has gotten me more and more involved as an advocate for a change in our national priorities. I have met many wonderful educators and parents, and have ideas I want to pursue together with some of them. One that is rising to the top of the pile is the idea of creating a way for retired teachers and grandparents to have their voices heard.

1 comment:

  1. Self-actualization and creativity likes sensitive subjects would be much essential in the current era. The conversation seems lots of positive things.
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