Salmonberry School: Decade 2; Week 1…aaand…ACTION!

by Paul on September 4, 2011

Salmonberry officially began it’s second decade this week, and this milestone leads me inexorably toward reflection and introspection about this amazing project.  I remember so clearly the first gatherings of eight 3 and 4 yr-olds in rented and borrowed spaces around the island.  Now, I look around and see our three lovely classrooms, our incredible staff of five awesome teachers plus specialists and volunteers, our expansive and established grounds, and 32 incredible children spanning ages 3 to 11, and I am awed.

This week, as I once again shook off  some serious first-day jitters, now so familiar to me, (I figure this is my 39th “first day of school” 20 as a student (not counting graduate school) and 19 as a teacher.  Yikes!)  I remarked again and again to other teachers, on how sweet everything seemed, and they echoed this assessment.  Reuniting with these kids and these adults in this place was magical.  The children universally seemed to return to school with excitement, and an expectation and spirit of engagement, collaboration, support and trust.  These children came ready to learn and hungry for adventure.  Parents filled the classrooms, porches and grounds, also full of expectation and in no hurry at all to get on with the long-awaited Sept.1, “Independence Day.”  The teachers fell immediately into the now-so-familiar roles of passionate instruction, loving nurture, and continuous reflection.  In the intermediate grades classroom study ranged from the calculation and comparison of densities of different liquids, to a discussion and journal writing assignment about what it means to be human – this is third through fifth graders, mind you, in their first week back to school!!  A majority of classrooms would be working on getting names straight and playing “get to know each other” games at this point.  Many whispered adult conversations during recess focused on how individual children seem to be settling in socially and emotionally, while kids delved into their rich vocabulary of cooperative games.  At the end of the day on Friday, a spontaneous game of “blob tag” erupted.  All were included, and boys and girls of different ages held hands and ran together shrieking with laughter.  What an incredible canvas on which to begin the art of a year of growing and learning together.

I spent much of this summer meeting and talking about educational theory and practice with a wide range of educators from across the country at various conferences, both big and small, as well as personal and professional meetings.  Now to carry all that talk, theory and this vast expanse of perspectives back to Salmonberry, my home base gives me pause.  I feel blessed and privileged to work in such a place.  This is truly a school and an environment that untold dedicated educators are dreaming of, longing for and working towards.  Some educators I speak with have trouble believing such a place is possible, others are making it happen in their own communities.  But Salmonberry School has definitely achieved a national reputation as an oasis of humane education amidst a troubled landscape.  Progressive educators are actively seeking out models of how education can be done in a way that honors rather than wounds children, and engages and nurtures natural capacities for learning and growth, rather than coerces and manipulates them into narrowly defined and standardized areas of achievement.

Educational activists everywhere are seeking to find ways to balance academic excellence with experiential education that has personal relevance and meaning for the learners.  They are wondering how can we imbed creativity, critical thinking, self-reflection, passion, compassion, and caring into a rigorous approach to education.  How can we keep kids’ experiences human-scaled, built solidly upon a foundation of deep and positive personal relationships that recognize and value individual uniqueness – rates of development, learning styles, and interests?  Small schools that achieve these lofty goals are few and far between, and Salmonberry School, despite any blemishes or imperfections we might have, is clearly one such very special place.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Salmonberry in many ways realizes “an ideal” of holism within the educational alternatives movement.

This week I feel so proud of where we’ve been and where we are now as a school community.  Parker Palmer wrote, “Education at its best – this profound human transaction called teaching and learning – is not just about getting information or getting a job. Education is about healing and wholeness. It is about empowerment, liberation, transcendence, about renewing the vitality of life. It is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world.”  I am awed, as always, by the children at Salmoberry, inspired by the teachers, their passion and their care, buoyed by the love and attentiveness of parents, and blown away by the magic of it all.

Here’s to a wonderful second decade!

– Paul

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