- Man is born like a
garden ready planted and sown.
- Every so often, Missy, who directs
the preschool now, gets out her easel and her sketchbook and sets
up shop in a quiet corner of one of the downstairs classrooms. She
closes the door, rigs up a good, bright light next to the
subject's stool, sharpens up her set of artist pencils and
voilà: an instant portrait studio.
- Before long kids are clamoring to
have Missy draw them; sometimes it takes a solid week or more for
her to get everyone in. Usually I or another downstairs teacher
will take her place upstairs so that she can stay in her studio
and gradually work her way through the line of eager young models.
- What Missy doesn't tell the kids is
that this is her art class. She is showing them how to draw.
- The teaching process begins with
Missy's own feeling for her craft. She loves doing portraits and
her joy quickly expands to fill the room. For her subjects, the
experience of being drawn, of watching their own image slowly
appear on Missy's easel, is enthralling. It's like seeing a
photograph magically materialize in a darkroom developing pan.
- Missy is careful to position
herself so that the kids have a clear view of her as she draws.
Probably without even realizing, they are watching her motions and
mannerisms intently. A little a chatty hairdresser, Missy keeps up
a light banter to quell impatience and prevent the atmosphere from
getting too serious. She points out to each subject the items of
distinction in their features as she draws them, describes her
movements with the pencil, and alternately remains quiet as she
sketches away with great concentration.
- Just like artists in Central Park,
Missy attracts a crowd while she works. Her enjoyment is
contagious. She doesn't mind the gang of kids gathered around to
watch, because she knows that just like her subject, the onlookers
are intently studying her technique.
- On the second or third day of the
run, you'll find Missy seated on the subject's stool. Her former
subject is now her student and she might, if the mood is right,
begin to give some light instruction. How much directed teaching
she will do will depend on the needs and wishes of each individual
child, and on the chemistry between student and teacher.
- Before it's all over, the room will
be full of kids drawing other kids, or drawing themselves, and
Missy will be floating around answering questions and giving
encouragement. The portrait light - now lights - will stay on
continuously. A display wall will quickly fill with art work of
extraordinary quality. And the drawings won't be coming from a
handpicked group of precious young artists but from whoever
decided to hang around and try it it for themselves. Always most
impressive to me are the sketches done by kids who don't
necessarily have a gift for portraiture. Their leap in skill
during that single week with Missy is nothing short of remarkable.
- The class ends when there aren't
any more portraits to be drawn. There's no art show and no prizes.
Missy simply thanks everybody for a great time, packs up her
things, and goes back upstairs to her little ones.
- ANYONE MIGHT THINK a loose and
open-ended approach to teaching is fine in areas like art, but
what about hard-core skills areas like reading, writing, and
arithmetic? Or science or history? Don't they require more rigor
- The answer, I think, is an
unqualified maybe. Or a hearty it all depends. But certainly not
necessarily, as the nation's curriculum experts would have all
believe. For instance, when Nancy is teaching reading, oftentimes
she first reads aloud to her students. She selects good,
compelling stuff, or the kids bring in favorite selections of
their own. And just as Missy draws, Nancy reads with excitement
and passion. Kids gather round close to her and she changes
expressions and voices to bring the characters to life right there
in the room. There's no time limit either; she usually doesn't
stop until everyone's too tired to listen any more.
- Sometimes Nancy mixes in
instruction. She teaches phonics, gets students to read along with
her, writes down their stories and has them read them back,
encourages them to create their own newspapers and magazines. It
was Nancy who helped the kids make that hand-powered "television"
I referred to earlier, which told each episode in subtitles.
Without a whole lot of fanfare she posts their stories and poems
on the walls, and helps each of them to maintain an active file of
their work on the classroom Macintosh. And Nancy never forgets
that play is a huge component of the learning process. She doesn't
want the kids to think of reading as hard work.
- Meanwhile, dozens of young children
learn to read under her auspices without necessarily having been
"taught. " Some kids need a lot of help learning to read, others
little or none at all. Woody, who has been teaching reading for
more than fifty years at the Peninsula School, one of the nation's
longest-running alternative schools, states emphatically that
there are as many ways to teach reading as there are students to
learn. It is imperative, she says, for a teacher to respect the
individuality of every student, to help them find, in her words,
"the magic way" that works for them.
- Mary preferred a mythological
approach to teaching. One year, for example, she and a group of
kids invented a magical adventure game against which the more
recent "Dungeons and Dragons" would pale by comparison. Dubbed
"The Cellar Adventure," the game was very Tolkienesque and
involved hunting buried treasure in a mysterious land filled with
ogres and dragons. First, they wrote out the game's rules,
characters, and story line, and even created maps. Then they spent
a great many days enacting the drama in real life. Suddenly the
school's dark, dirt-floored cellar - accessible only by a heavy
trap door - became its most popular and exciting
note: If you'd like to read more about the consequences of the
cellar adventure game, click here].
- The game involved reading and
writing, but that's not really why Mary cooked it up. She was
operating according to her keen awareness that awakened and
engaged children learn better. She also understood the almost
limitless power inherent in a group process where, when it is a
mutually supportive one, everyone brings out the best in each
other. So her first order of business every year was to help kids
form real working teams; then as time passed, to stop whenever
necessary to repair any tears in the fabric that might have
occurred along the way. No one ever got left behind, and whenever
someone would begin to drift away, she would turn it over to the
rest of the group to bring the odd child out back into the circle.
The kids responded magnificently to the challenge of this level of
responsibility, in part, I surmise, because it galvanized in them
a feeling that it was their class, and not just Mary's.
- What always amazed me the most
about Mary's teaching style was her indomitable belief in every
student's ability to succeed. She absolutely refused to give up on
anyone. Once, before she started the Free School, while teaching
at a small private school in then-segregated Texas in the early
60s, she took under her wing a black high school student who was
struggling academically. Even though the young man wasn't keeping
up in his standard subjects, he elected to join Mary's Latin
class. He then proceeded not only to become accomplished in that
classical language, but to transfer the model of competence he had
internalized there to other areas - to such an extent that he was
able to go on to college and then to a successful professional
career. Now, he writes to Mary each Christmas to fill her in on
the latest news of his life and to thank her for the difference
she made in it. Mary would be the first to say that her former
student deserves all the credit for his amazing turnaround, and of
course that is so. Nevertheless, the power of the role of teacher,
properly played, must never be overlooked.
- JOHN GATTO WRITES inThe Empty
Child, "Kids don't resist learning; they resist teaching." A
few years earlier, Herb Kohl wrote an entire book with the very
same thesis. Called I Won't Learn From You, it explores the
tremendous damage done to children in our schools by negative
teaching. just as the title suggests, Kohl says that the poor
performance of a great many students is ofen not due to any
shortcoming on their part. Rather it is an expression of their
will to resist the control of adults who they feel do not have
their best interests at heart.
- The infamous "Pygmalion in the
Classroom" study, where, unbeknownst their teachers, the test
scores of two incoming fourth-grade groups - one high-achieving,
the other low - were reversed, provides a sobering empirical
demonstration of the power a teacher's attitude toward his or her
students can have over them. After a fairly brief interval with
their new teachers, the children were tested again, and lo and
behold, the former high achievers were suddenly performing at the
level of the former low achievers and vice versa.
- It is perhaps this very situation
in the nation's schools, where our children are daily held hostage
to the beliefs and expectations of a single adult who increasingly
remains a remote stranger in their lives - that has led people
like Mary to start their own schools, or hundreds of thousands of
homeschooling families to abandon the idea of school altogether.
Whether at home, or in the wide array of alternative schools that
now dot the nation, a vastly different model of teaching -
including self-teaching - is at work.
- It derives from a very different
model of learning, one based on a fundamental respect for the
centrality of the learner in the teaching/learning process. Such a
shift of emphasis from teacher to learner in no way diminishes the
value of good teaching and good teachers. There will always be a
place in this world for people who can effectively teach others,
whether those teachers wear some kind of professional badge or
not. Frank, who calls himself a craftsman, not a teacher, was able
to teach Jesse a set of valuable manual skills; at the same time,
he helped Jesse do some important growing up.
- The majority of practitioners in
all of the varied alternatives to conventional schooling
-homeschoolers very much included - operates according to a model
of learning that, above all, honors the personhood of the learner.
It reviles against coercion and respects the right of the learner
to co-determine the conditions under which he or she will engage
in the process. It holds volition and choice paramount. It
maintains a bedrock faith in every child's inborn desire to learn
and grow, to become knowledgeable, effective, and competent. And
finally, it recognizes the validity of independent learning and
self-teaching, where teacher and learner simply occupy the same
- Recent brain/mind research is on
the verge of confirming approaches to education that replace
coercion with free choice, teacher-centeredness with
child-centeredness, competition with cooperation, enforced
togetherness with opportunities for solitary pursuits, management
with autonomy, memorization with exploration and discovery,
grading with self-assessment, and obligation with exuberance.
- Joseph Chilton Pearce writes
extensively about the emerging new biology and field theory-based
model of learning and human intelligence in Evolution's
End, a title he chose to convey his growing concern over
humanity's failure, thus far, to utilize the immense potential of
the mind. Pearce states that all human knowledge is, in fact,
innate, and that what we call learning is actually a process
whereby deeply embedded development unfolds from the inside out in
response to the right cues from the environment.
- Echoing Howard Gardiner, Pearce
views each individual as a collection of potential intelligences,
and translating them from mere potentiality into our personal
experience of them is what some call child development, or others
education. Further, writes Pearce: "Nature's agenda unfolds these
intelligences for their development within us at a time
appropriate to each * , We can fail to nurture an intelligence by
pushing it too soon, waiting too long, or ignoring it altogether.
All the infant/child wants to do is what nature intended, which is
to build up structures of knowledge; all that he or she needs to
do that is a sufficiently stimulating environment, or in Pearce's
words, "to be surrounded by mature, intelligent intellects, open
to mind's possibilities and tempered by heart's wisdom,
recognizing that to the human all may be possible."
- If we look to the ongoing research
into the abundant intelligence with which babies are born, this
whole idea of innate knowing begins to sound a lot less mystical.
For instance, we now know that a healthy newborn baby (who has not
been excessively traumatized during the birth process) will
respond immediately to the image of a human face if held at a
distance of six twelve inches - the distance between a mother's
face and nursing breast- since this genetically encoded visual
circuit has already been hardwired for st that purpose.
- Next, the stimulus of the initial
face recognition will trigger the ripening of the baby's entire
visual apparatus, which will then become the key that begins
unlocking myriad doors in the infant's rapidly expanding
intellect. The very same is true for the development of language,
whose building blocks are equally hardwired into a baby's neural
circuitry and are only waiting for the appropriate environmental
stimuli in order to begin gradually coalescing and unfolding into
- Does this notion of "hardwired"
intelligence negate the importance of teaching? Hardly, because it
is nature's imperative, according to Pearce, that no human
learning occur without a stimulus from an already mature form of
that particular intelligence. The kind of stimulus he is referring
to, however, is anything but mechanical or one-dimensional; rather
it is holographic. Teachers influence students on a myriad of
subtle - or not so subtle -levels, as the "Pygmalian" study so
dramatically confirms. Here Pearce reminds us how it is estimated
that 95 percent of all learning takes place below the level of
conscious awareness, meaning that students in a teacher/student
interaction are taking in far more than just information or the
demonstration of a particular skill. They are also affected by
teachers' moods, beliefs, and attitudes, as well as by how
teachers feel about themselves, their students, and what they are
- As Pearce says, "Teachers teach who
they are" - meaning that beneath all of the trappings, teachers
teach by modeling, not by instructing, managing, or evaluating
student performance, the foundations of the role as it is
typically practiced in conventional school settings. Therefore,
teaching can longer be viewed simply as a process whereby one
person more skilled than another breaks down a subject or a
procedure into small enough pieces for the student to digest
- We urgently need a new vocabulary
to describe the teaching/learning interface. The old Western
scientific, cause-and-effect paradigm doesn't suffice anymore,
since we have expanded our understanding of the teaching/learning
process to the point where we know it isn't something that one
person does to another, but rather is a form of interactive
collaboration occurring on many different levels. Since the
knowledge and skills we previously believed needed to be taught to
the student are already there waiting to be awakened, we can no
longer accept the old schooling premise that the teacher is the
cause and the student is the effect of the learning process.
- Thus, when Missy, Nancy, and Mary
are teaching children in the Free School, they are conscious of
the importance of being present with the fullness of themselves.
Missy realizes she isn't just teaching the doing - the skills and
techniques - of drawing; rather, she is modeling being an artist
and loving art. She knows she is also modeling herself, and so at
any given moment there might occur levels of sharing between her
and the students that outwardly might have little to do with the
"subject" of art.
- The same is true for Nancy when she
is teaching reading. What she is really doing is modeling the
beauty, power, joy, and ease of reading. She's showing the kids
for whom reading might not come as easily that reading is a
pleasure, not a struggle. She never tries to force anyone to go
any faster than they are currently ready, willing, or able to go.
And like Missy, she's always available with her full self.
- Whenever Mary teaches, and she
still does from time to time, what she is actually doing is
leading kids on a personal quest to discover how to embrace the
totality of themselves, no-holds-barred. That is the way she has
always lived her own life and kids instinctively understand and
respond to her example.
- THE PROPOSITION THAT a true teacher
is a fully holistic model and not merely a taskmaster or a
classroom manager means it is impossible for teachers to lead
their students any farther than they have already taken
themselves. One simply cannot model something one hasn't already
experienced oneself. This, then, leads to the imperative that all
of us who consider ourselves teachers, especially good ones, not
only make sure we are fluent with the material we are teaching,
but that we also pay careful attention to our own emotional
health, as well as other matters of personal growth and
development - and that we continue to do this on an ongoing basis.
Everyone working with children of any age must strive to be whole
persons. And this doesn't just include teachers in schools.
Parents are -and should always be - among their kids' most
- For this reason more than any other
Mary suggested in the school's early days that we institute a
weekly personal growth group. "Group," as we simply call it, began
in 1974, and has met nearly every Wednesday evening ever since.
Here is where we work on our own personal life-issues and problems
as they arise, as well as where we are able to delve more deeply
into the emotional and spiritual dimensions of our evolving
- It is also here that we resolve the
interpersonal conflicts that inevitably result from working
together so closely. The work we do individually and together in
group is instrumental in helping us keep our minds and hearts open
to the kids we are coming into such close contact with every day
- I have a friend named John Lawry,
who teaches future teachers at Marymount College in Poughkeepsie,
New York. He once wrote an article, which he has since expanded
into book-length form, entitled "Caritas in the Classroom: The
Opening of the American Student's Heart." In it he confirms my
belief - one that Joseph Chilton Pearce would readily embrace - in
the primacy of openheartedness in the teaching process.
- Professor Lawry writes that it is
peculiar to the West to bypass the emotional connection between
student and teacher. The article sprang from a personal discovery
that his own classroom was transformed as he began reversing this
tradition. He found that when he stepped from behind his mask of
professional composure and began revealing his own emotional life,
and when he started asking his students how they were feeling
about themselves and their lives, their engagement in the learning
process increased dramatically. Here he was modeling for them how
to engage their students in the many years to come.
- Lawry also refers to a little-known
study showing that students of teachers who measure high in
qualities such as empathy, psychological integrity, and positive
regard have significantly better standardized test scores than
students of teachers who measure low in those areas. While test
scores can be interpreted in myriad ways for as many reasons,
shouldn't it be obvious that openhearted teachers engender
openhearted students, who in turn become more effective learners?
- I think so.
- Click here
to read John Lawry's article, "Caritas in the Classroom," to which
Chris refers, which first appeared in the Winter, 1996 issue of
SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education.