Building a Tiny School

In 2009, I moved into a one-room cabin in the mountains. It had a wood stove, no water, and a car battery, the latter of which was stored outside in a small wood case with a hinged door at the top. Out of curiosity, I opened it. Two mice glanced at me, twitched their whiskers, then scurried out the back. The battery kept the lights on at night, but it also gave off a little heat. Judging from the quantity of acorns I spied, it had obviously been a useful home for quite some time. A short distance away, at the top of a slender metal pole, stood a photovoltaic panel about the size of a car windshield. I was given a small broom with which to sweep it during winter snowfalls.

Four years later, having gotten married and produced a child, I left that one-room cabin and moved to town. It was a small town, but I felt the old familiarity of the big city in my genes: rental agreement, utility payments, two parking spaces… I shaved my beard and got a haircut. At first, it was sort of fun. Four years in the mountains had been euphoric, and it was no surprise that we came down with a child. But it hadn’t, perhaps, been long enough. Something happened in that big house with its large refrigerator and running taps. By the end of our lease, we had divorced.

My wife moved back to the same cabin on the same mountain. I moved to a little hut about a mile away. Our daughter, then three, walked back and forth almost daily, hand in hand with her mother or father through the woods. Once more I carried water, hauled wood. I bathed in cold rivers. We learned more in that time than I realized, that the whole mountain was our home, but it too was destined to be short-lived. My little hut, which had lain unused for several years, had recently been sold. In exchange for tidying it up a bit, I was given the pleasure of staying there, but as the oak leaves turned from green to brown it was time for me to leave.

I glanced up, twitched my whiskers, and scurried out the back.

By dumb luck, or perhaps grace, I landed in a small room at an old hippie community. I had power and water, but once again my life revolved around that one room. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred and fifty square feet, but it was enough for a bed, a work station, a teapot, couch and more. Much more. It held my file cabinets, my clothes, my daughter’s clothes, her toys, a chest of dry foods, a comfortable reading chair, two lamps, good conversation, silent moments, love, frustration and kindness. One corner had long-term storage items like wool hats, camp stoves, suits and ties, all neatly stacked like a tiny garage.

It was a good life. It was a small but good life. It was a small and good life.

In time, my relationship with my daughter flourished and I transformed from a man with a broken marriage and an uncertain future to a man with considerable power. First one friend, then another, moved to the same community. We befriended the little girl next door, and her father. Other children started showing up. In time, even my ex-wife moved there. It’s not right to say that all that happened because of me, but it is fair to say that it wouldn’t have happened without me. Without us. I was on top of the world.

Somewhere along the way I heard about tiny houses, those elegant hand-built homes built upon reinforced trailer beds. I saw a few photos online. I watched a few videos. They were filled with happy and ingenious folks sliding hardwood tables from underneath countertops, folding beds into couches, couches into walls, performing stock analyses and decorating with flair. It was like a Swiss Army house, and I wanted one.

I looked into contractors. I talked to friends. I priced trailers and spoke with a banker about loan eligibility. In the end, I didn’t follow through, but the process helped me put words to what I had found so special in my mountain cabin, my little hut, my room at the commune. A tiny house is just a trailer home. The difference is the emphasis, which is simplicity, beauty and pride rather than the poor quality and ignominy typically associated with mobile homes.

But there was something else too, and it’s come to my attention only just recently. Last February, I moved into the house of my partner, Silke. It is a beautiful and handcrafted three-story house on the Taos mesa. The woodwork is exquisite. The tile is magnificent. The layout is simple, precious and warm. But as my life and my things spread into the house I began to notice something. My mind unraveled.

Sometimes, standing in the kitchen, I’d think of something I wanted to do later. That would require something from the bedroom, so I’d make a mental note. Later, on my way to get eggs from the coop, I’d walk through the greenhouse and spy the laundry on the drying rack. “Get the basket from the laundry room,” I’d say to myself, waving my finger as if making another mental note. Stepping outside, I’d smile. Then, seeing how sunny it was, I’d wish for my hat. On the front door. Not worth it.

My life became full of such moments, minor and imperceptible moments. I had notes and lists for the important things, but often they were in the other room, or upstairs. Or, I couldn’t find a pen. The house wasn’t cluttered. My mind wasn’t cluttered. It was just kind of too big. I would sometimes recall my little room, my little hut, everything within arm’s reach. There was never an excuse not to do something, to get something, or make a note. Nothing ever got lost. Okay, sure, the room felt a little cramped at times, but on the other hand I was incredibly efficient. And happy. I could make tea, do some bookkeeping, and lend a wet stone to a passing friend – all within seconds. When my daughter came, I could fold up my work life, put my books aside, and take out a puzzle. Clear the table top, open the lid and…glancing up, they twitched their noses, then scurried out the back.

School starts in one week. In the last month, I have been converting the apartment on the backside of Silke’s house into a classroom. I’ve also moved all my things from the main house, so that the apartment doubles as my living space. I still share the kitchen with her, and occasionally a bed, but when my daughter stays with me we sleep in the apartment. We have our clothes here, our books, our tools and stuff. This very second, I’m writing from within the apartment. We call it the Desert Cave, the main house being the Mountain Spirit, because, as my daughter says, “Silke likes mountains and spirits.” Good choice. The mountain cabin was called Bluebird.

On one hand, this reveals a thing or two about my relationship with Silke, but on the other hand it’s honest. It keeps us light. The goal is love and laughter, not an undeviating devotion to the script of romance. But all this is moot. The purpose of my essay is not to talk about tiny houses or my personal history, but I needed to lay that out in order to introduce the concept now growing in my mind: tiny school.

Throughout the last few weeks, I’ve been discretely attaching blackboards to the backsides of cabinet doors, testing liquid chalk markers on my window panes, sliding mattresses behind draperies, and generally pretending to live a secret life, a secret life of school and mystery. Basically, I’ve been having a blast.

Because I am searching for ways to quickly and repeatedly convert my living space into a classroom, and vice versa, it dawned on me recently that I’m building a tiny school. Beyond the doors and hinges, I am sourcing materials and tools that are small, multi-purpose and ultra-efficient. And, like a tiny house, the physical aspects of the school are merely a response to the energy and drive of its inhabitants. I’ve spent the last forty-eight hours fantasizing about a nation of tiny schools, aligned with integrity, righteousness and bravado, but with a diversity almost incomprehensible in the modern world. Isn’t that what growing up used to be?

I’ve recently discovered liquid chalk markers. I can source them for $3 at Pam’s Unicorn School Supply, where Pam lovingly stocks a perfectly human helter-skelter of school-related supplies, or I can find them for about $1 online. They are non-toxic, literally just chalk mixed with water, and they can write on any window or non-porous surface. Like my car. They wipe off with a rag, leave no residue and have no odor (like dry-erase markers). The particles of dust that fall to the earth are made of chalk, originally limestone formed from the calcium carbonate found in marine shells, and now usually gypsum, a naturally occurring mineral deposit. I have yet to find refillable markers, but that gives my class and I the chance to experiment with crushing chalk in mortar and pestle, mixing in water, straining through cheesecloth, then finding a way to unscrew or unglue one of the markers – ergh, uh, teeth – refill it, and put the tip back on. Even if we’re not successful we’re still successful, know what I mean? And with one of these in my pack, I can now take my class almost anywhere and quickly and easily iterate letters, numbers, words and equations, then disappear. Tiny school.

But in order to express this idea at its full depth, one needs to transcend the physical stuff. My school is comprised of one adult and three students. Here’s what a day looks like: we begin with a walk, checking in casually about our mornings and how we’re doing, maybe talking about the day, then we hold silence, reciting a brief walking meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh. Once at the classroom (my apartment), we set our things in our cubbies then share a brief morning verse to signal the start of our day. Opening the bathroom door, a fact we can routinely laugh about, a large door-sized chalkboard is revealed. The children watch as I write out the day of the week, the date, etc. Then we begin our main lesson, writing, math or what have you. If needed, we spin our seats around and I use the chalk marker on the large south facing window. Ignore the chickens. No wait, don’t ignore them. Wait, what if we can’t learn because of all the distractions in our lives? Don’t listen. Chickens are healthy. We are not morons. Focus doesn’t come about because of a lack of distraction. Focus comes from within. This is what we’re here to learn. Stay sharp. After an hour, I put away the lessons and give the kids a cutting board and knives. We cut apples for snack, or peel peanuts out of their shells. Something physical. Something requiring dexterity. If we had a math lesson about halves and quarters, we take a moment to halve and quarter our apples. How many peanuts are inside one shell? Snack over, we turn to individual work based on the main lesson, maybe sorting and counting polished stones, maybe playing a game with number cards, maybe just practice writing. At any point, both during main lesson and throughout the day, I can retreat from my high position at the chalkboard, to sit low on the carpet (wool carpet, nice right?), and work with the kids up close. Back and forth. Back and forth. Converting, shifting, resizing. Tiny School.

Around eleven-thirty, we pack up and get dressed. We walk a half mile or so to meet up with another group in an isolated canyon nearby. We play a circle game or jump rope to bond the groups, then sit down for lunch, during which we tend to the sky, the trees, the lizards and birds. Occasionally, there are snakes and we giggle and shout till we settle back down. After lunch, we rest and listen to a story from one of the teachers. In time, as the kids age, maybe they start telling the stories. After story, there is time for free play, then we walk back home. Or school, sorry. I meant school. We set our things back in our cubbies, then revisit main lesson from the morning, giving space for lots of questions. Around two-thirty, we pack up once more and walk back out to the pick-up spot, a half mile or so away. Along the way we talk freely, or notice the lizards are getting fatter. There is no homework. Just a chance to be alive.

Tiny school.

The tiny house movement revolutionized the concept of a trailer home by focusing on pride, craftsmanship and simplicity. We take it for granted that anyone living in a tiny house has certain values: a desire to live simply and leave a small footprint. What some of us find, however, is that regardless of whether one values the earth or its resources, our lives become more clear, concise and cohesive when we live in a small space. A tiny school is similar.

A tiny school has fewer resources (meaning less money) than a traditional school, but when we recognize that the relationship between child and adult is meaningful, even paramount, we begin to see its advantages. What exactly is it we wish to teach our children? Is it math and science? Good literature? For me, it’s happiness and peace within. And if it’s good literature, we can hit that up too. In fact, because we’re so small and mobile, we can do pretty much anything we want. We start to recognize that the earth is our school, and the students begin to see that their education belongs to them, not me, not adults, and that it arises from within. The teacher becomes less of a filler-upper and more of a pilot. “Where does water come from?” asks the child. “Oh, I know where to take us,” says the pilot.

A tiny school is not physically much different than a home school. In fact, it’s essentially the same thing. But just like a tiny house freed folks from the ignominy of a trailer home, a tiny school gives us language that can lift us up. Euphemism is great, isn’t it? Home schools can be incredible, but outside the home school community, the word has a mostly negative connotation. One thinks of religious fanatics, lazy parents and socially awkward adolescents. We need to change that, and language, coupled with some good boots on the ground (which we already know are there), is sometimes a good place to start.

But a tiny school is more than a home school too. I know four independent teachers who have a class exactly as I’m describing, even a little larger, okay a lot larger, whose students are not their children. These are teachers, men and women, who believe so securely in their community’s education that they have retreated to the jungle to escape the tendrils of incorporated schooling. I sometimes call them guerrilla teachers, but tiny school is going to get better publicity, no? And don't we know that there are thousands more in this country already?

There’s good reason to believe that tiny schools – and imagine a whole forest of them – could revolutionize the way we educate our children. Slow as concepts like eating locally and using less energy are to seep into the national consciousness, there is a growing awareness. Superficial as our efforts might be to buy locally and resist the affordable products at Walmart and Amazon (I’m trying Pam!), Americans are starting to get the message. It might not be too long before parents and educators start waking up to the nationalized, corporate structure of the classroom, including its focus on industrial efficiency, and start wanting something a little closer to home. We want efficiency too, but a different kind altogether.

Take the Prius for example. Have you heard of the various Prius groups around the country? The car is now fairly common (1.6 million sold in the US in the last decade) and its mileage and data are so accessible to drivers that fanatic owners are now competing for the highest miles per gallon, the longest distance traveled on a full tank of gas, etc. Instead of who can drive the fastest, or the longest, it’s a competition for who can use the least amount of resources. Imagine if we looked at education that way.

How do we raise the happiest, healthiest, smartest human beings on the planet while simultaneously using less resources? Isn’t it obvious that pouring more money into our school systems isn’t doing it? Sure, there’s no sense in limiting our kids to an abacus and two sheets of papyrus, but I’d venture to say that no student has ever benefitted from the chaotic decor of the modern classroom, with its number lines, cartoon alphabets, birthday boards, tubs of materials, fake trees, rubberized flooring, lesson books and photos of African animals. Give them the real thing, the earth. The animals and plants are right under our fingertips.

But here’s the biggest challenge – give them you. We’re already smart. We already know how to read. We know how to write. We’re not all math wizards, but we’ve got the basics down. Maybe not everyone in the country is ready to take a group of children under their wings, but within a community of three to five families there’s got to be someone. It doesn’t make sense to send our kids to strangers just because an incorporated body of experts has certified that they’re competent for the job. Guys, it doesn’t even make sense if that person is the greatest and most loving teacher on the planet. Don’t you see? Our children want to learn from us, their confidants and elders. This is the pattern set down by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. That didn’t change in the last couple hundred years. The reason your child cries the first time she goes to preschool or kindergarten is that she wants to learn from you, not them. That means that we need to BECOME those great and loving teachers, not find them. No, it means that we have to realize that WE ALREADY ARE. It’s done. There’s nothing more we need to do.

Still, even if one recognizes the simplicity of what I’m getting at, it feels impossible to most of us. Maybe we even feel guilty (which doesn’t help). We are so enmeshed in the incorporated structure of our lives that it’s hard to envision extracting ourselves enough to focus on our children. Me too. And I don’t mean corporate, as in corporations and businesses are bad. They mean well for the most part. I mean the way we have cut our connection to family and tribe, the small community in which life has historically made sense, and given that trust over to organizations and experts. This is causing daily damage to our sanity, and there’s a growing body of evidence that a simpler life, including a simpler education, results in a more satisfied human being. Satisfied human beings may not have lots of money, or ten different cheeses to choose from, but they don’t pour their anger into each other, or their children, at least nowhere near the rate at which unsatisfied men and women do. Children don’t require massive intelligence. Neither do adults. They require the rudiments of food and shelter, a loving mother and father, a community of like-minded folks, and a chance to express their creativity, whether that be through gardening, singing, storytelling, or raising their own children. Tiny school.

I want to give one more example. Along with my daily schedule, the kids and I will go on regular field trips. That might occasionally mean the museum, but usually it will mean the forest, the dump, the woodworker’s studio or the garden. Because we’re tiny, we are highly mobile. Here’s one trip I have planned for the coming weeks.

We start the day meeting up with a friend of mine who has a pickup truck and chainsaw. He’s such a loving and tender man. I will bring a handsaw, some ear protection, and lunch. We’ll drive into the forest nearby, then search out some fallen trees. Climbing over logs and under branches, we’ll talk about the health of the forest, and the kinds of animals and plants that live there. We’ll dare each other to eat rose hips. It’s life, not a lesson. When we find the right place, I’ll look for a small branch a few inches thick, then invite the kids, my friend and I to cut it with the handsaw. We’ll laugh, get frustrated, then try again. Once we’ve had a chance to feel what that work means, we’ll take out the chainsaw. My friend and I will show the kids where the gas goes, we’ll have to smell it a little, then we’ll show them the chamber for bar oil and explain why it’s needed. With calm and quiet energy, the kids will have the chance to look at the chain, how it’s made from lots of tiny hinges, how the sharp teeth are curved and razor sharp. Engines. The kids are too young to use the chainsaw, but my friend or I will demonstrate - pull, pull, pull and zzzoooommmm! The silence of the forest is suddenly gone. Protect your ears. What about the chipmunks? Keeping a safe distance, the kids can watch as my friend slices through the trunk like butter. What a difference it makes. How did people gather wood before the combustion engine? Once sliced up, the kids can help haul, or try to help haul, the rounds to the truck. We get to skip and laugh and talk the whole time. Safety. My friend will take the bulk of the wood home to heat his house. We’ll say goodbye and thank you, and take a few rounds with us, ones we’ve cut purposefully a little shorter. Last year, I had the kids split a few logs into kindling, which was difficult for most of them. Shorter logs will make it easier. Over the next few days or weeks – there’s no rush – the kids can take turns with the hatchet, such a lesson in itself – aiming, striking, feeling one’s own strength, recognizing the need for safety. Talk about handwork. Eventually, we’ll have a nice little pile and each child will be invited to take a grocery bag full of kindling home to his or her parents for the stove or fireplace. Once home, they can watch how the kindling, once a tree they held in their own hands in a mountain forest, becomes heat in their home. Tiny school.

Imagine the barriers to such an experience in a typical school setting, yet how rich, educational and fun it will be for us. It’s true that many parents can provide their children with opportunities to do these sorts of things outside of school, but why? Why don’t we incorporate our children’s education into the fabric of our own lives? Does anyone really believe that kids can’t learn reading and math in the same way? That they need a stranger to teach it to them?

We’re finally beginning to learn that the intellectual comprehension of an animal, plant or event holds little weight for us. It’s the tactile, sensate relationship to the materials and beings of the earth that matter. The name of a bird next to a picture is like a ghost in comparison to a living, breathing bird building her nest outside our home. We know that if we fill a child with curiosity and wonder about their immediate and real surroundings they usually have little hesitation to follow their curiosity into a novel, mathematical language, or chemistry textbook. That’s how it’s been for thousands of years. But fill them with text and knowledge at an early age, or the kind of two-dimensional information available on screens, and they often lose interest in the tactile and real world. Why is that? Why are our ideas so captivating? Goodness, you better stop reading this and go outside. Are you familiar with Circe?

In my first year after college, I was working for a large construction firm in Washington, DC. I had been a successful student, even a happy student, and my engineering degree had recently gotten me a high-paying job in a competitive field. One particular Friday afternoon, after the crews had all packed up and left for the weekend, I was walking the rounds of the building in progress. It was stage one of a billion dollar consolidation project for the FDA. The enormity of the job is hard to describe, but on this afternoon the site was deserted. Construction crews often clock out at four, especially on Fridays.

My job was to photograph the progress of the building, including date stamps, in order to keep a record of its progress, a task which had little to do with pride and everything to do with litigation. Mostly, the photos would just sit in a file somewhere. I was performing this duty rather carelessly (my excitement for life having faded substantially when the curiosity I had felt so frequently during my education became yoked by my paycheck to this faceless work) when I came around the southwest corner. There was a large retaining pond there, where the bulk of the rainwater runoff was directed to prevent soil erosion and a muddy workplace. No one, including me, paid much attention to it. As I stepped forward, in order to get the building into the viewport of my camera, I heard something rustling in the cattails nearby. Immediately, there was a goose, mad as hell and flying right for my face, honking and making a terrible ruckus. Never in my life had I been as scared as I was at that moment, and it was instantaneous. I felt a dramatic shift in consciousness, as if the roof of my life had suddenly been thrown open. I glanced up, twitched my nose and lips, took in the enormous half-built structure beyond, and ran like hell.

Let’s plant a forest. Let’s send a flock of wild geese into the heart of every child on the planet.

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