Off Grid Education

I visited a radical school last Monday. At eight AM, the teacher, a friend of a friend, met me outside her home in Arroyo Seco, a small town on the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico. It had snowed the night before, and together we walked down her one-lane street chatting variously about school, food and life as her dog Comet raced in and out of snowdrifts. At the end of the road, which drops off steeply towards Taos Ski Valley, we met her students, dropped off in ones and twos by parents. It was a snow day for the public schools, but Chris, as I’ll call her, allows the parents to decide whether it’s safe to drive or not.

Having spent the last two years studying with Silke in her outdoor kindergarten, I am deep in plans for starting a first-grade group next fall, partly for my own daughter, who is already showing signs of first-grade readiness, partly for the other children I’ve grown close to, and partly for myself. Kids have few options in Taos beyond the public schools, some of which are okay and some of which, due to the constraints of educating a diverse pool of Hispanic natives, Pueblo natives, and the more recent Hispanic and white immigrants, leave something to be desired for almost everyone (more on this later).

The Taos Waldorf school, which Silke cofounded almost thirty years ago, closed its doors in the spring of 2016 due to a lack of funding, a common problem in a county that ranks below the median household income even in New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the nation. But, as I’m learning, the teachers did not disappear. They just went underground.

*

After we arrived back at Chris’s house with the kids, Comet tracing arcs through the fresh snow in the field behind her house, Chris called for morning circle. Half her students weren’t there. Two were traveling and three stayed home because of the snow, but five had braved the weather, along with a mother and child, who, like me, would also be observing that day. That made six kids, ages eleven and twelve, and three adults.

“Okay,” Chris said, after morning verse, “the game is space ball. And why is it called space ball?”

“Because we give each other space,” Jonathan, one of the boys, answered.

“Right,” Chris said. “Now, the point of space ball is to pass the ball back and forth to your teammates. If you pass it ten times, without dropping, you get a point.”

“But there’s defense!” Jonathan chimed in, eager to clue me and the other visitors in.

“Right,” Chris answered, “defense. But you can’t knock anyone down or hold them. You have to go for the ball, not the person. And remember, it’s snowy today, so let’s be careful.” One child, a boy with long black hair, was already flopping in the snow. Taos may not be wealthy, but its ski valley is top class and almost every child has good snow gear. I glanced at my sneakers, already an inch or two below the fluffy white snow, and shrugged. Oh well, I thought, recalling my own grade school days, I’d rather win than be warm.

*

Having got our blood moving, it was time to enter the classroom, a large sunroom adjoined to Chris’s house – but not before saying goodbye to her son, an eighteen-year-old senior at Taos High, which was on a two-hour delay. I expected to be greeted with the typical teenage mumble, but was pleasantly surprised to find this mop-headed young man staring directly, but casually into my face, wishing me, with perfect authenticity, a good day. Well goodness, I thought, you too. Later, I would discover his boyish grin on a photo in Chris’s living room commemorating, no surprise here, his becoming an Eagle Scout.

The children were doled out spaces among the tables in the sunroom. The mother of the visiting child, whom I had met in passing a few times before, and I were given an unoccupied table in the corner. Comet was given a dog bed, while the principal, Chris’s ancient, blind chihuahua, barked pointedly at the wall, then sat down. “Mind the tortoise,” Chris said, pointing to a boot-sized box on the floor that, apparently, was alive.

After another verse, standing primly behind our chairs, we sat down and began our day in earnest. Verses are a distinctly Waldorf thing, and while I have my hesitations about repeating inspirational phrases, I’ll admit that my jury is out. This being a sixth/seventh grade, the verse went like this:

I look into the world

In which the sun is shining

In which the stars are sparkling

In which the stones repose.

Where living plants are growing

Where sentient beasts are living

Where human souls on earth

Give dwelling to the spirit.

I look into the soul,

That lives within my being

The World Creator weaves

In sunlight and in soul light,

In world space there without

In soul depths here within.

To Thee Creator Spirit

I will now turn my heart

To ask that strength and blessing

For learning and for work

May ever grow within me.

There’s room for criticism here, and admiration too. Most interesting, perhaps, was that not one of the children refused to speak. Several seemed to downright enjoy it. This fact struck me again and again throughout the day. Of all the observations I made, far too many to recount, perhaps most noteworthy was the enthusiasm of the students. The children were typical children, cracking jokes and vying for attention, sometimes laughing secretly to one another. Chris had to sharpen one of the boys in particular, Tom, who was constantly lying on the table, putting his feet up, appearing not to listen, etc. But never, not even once, did I get the impression that he, or any of the kids, didn’t want to be there. Even Jonathan’s pliant moans, which erupted from time to time during the morning – “I just want to go skiing…” – seemed more directed at infusing the moment with intention (and attention) than in truly wishing to be absent.

*

“Okay, who remembers our talk about latitude and longitude?” Chris asked. She had just dictated a poem, Hymn to the North Star, by William Cullen Bryant “It gives the students a chance to practice their listening and note-taking skills,” she told me later. After dictation, as they compared notes, Chris called each student up one by one to check their homework. “We’re working on an astronomy block,” Chris had told me on our walk that morning. “Last week we stayed overnight in a yurt near Red River, where there is zero light pollution.” This, in a land where light pollution amounts to headlights and a few too many reflectors on the sharp turns of the highway. Having checked the kids’ homework (the kids were asked to observe the moon from the same place every night for the last month and record their observations), we were now moving on to main lesson.

A huge National Geographic map of the earth hung behind the classroom on the sunroom walls, whose white curtains had been arranged to allow in the light without blinding anyone (or overheating the tortoise). “Does anyone remember where the prime meridian is?” Chris asked. A few uncertain glances, followed by giggles. “Um…” began one student, Tom, the same boy who seconds ago was lying provocatively atop his desk, “it’s some place like Green Witch.”

“Right,” Chris said, “almost…”

“Green Itch!” offered one of the girls.

Chris smiled, but only for a second. “Grenn-itch,” she said, pronouncing Greenwich with its customary, and strange, intonation. “And what is in Greenwich?”

“The royal observatory,” Tom stated, in the same subdued matter-of-fact tone he would use all day.

“Right,” Chris answered, “In 1675, King Charles II built the first royal observatory. And why did he do that? Just to look at the stars?”

“Well, yeah…”

“Yes, but what else? Anyone?”

“To help guide ships.”

“Right. And it was there that the English established the prime meridian. Now, what is the prime meridian?”

“It’s the…you know…the zero place.”

All eyes were riveted on the map, which unfurled its wings like a massive eagle behind us, or on a small globe which Chris had produced from the corner.

“Right. It is considered the center, or the starting point, of the longitudinal lines that cross the earth.” Chris motioned up and down over the map, indicating the lines, then continued. “There are one-hundred and eighty degrees to the west, and one-hundred and eighty degrees to the east,” she said, pointing left and right. “And in 1885, a convention was held in the United States to establish the longitudinal line that passes through Greenwich as the prime meridian. Now, why did they need to do that?”

“So that everyone would agree.”

“Right. And it also made England the center of the world. There was only one nation who didn’t accept this convention. Does anyone remember?”

A few blank stares.

“France. Because as all Frenchmen know, Paris is the center of the earth, not London.” Chris gave a playful glance to our table. The mother of the visiting child, a French native, smiled.

We spent the next twenty minutes exploring the meaning of latitude and longitude in more depth, the students taking turns glancing at the globe, or the map on the wall, and approximating the coordinates of different cities on the globe. Then, after a brief snack, it was time for recess.

*

Rematch. Space ball. My morning team, comprised of me, one of the girls and the visiting daughter, had won in the morning, but now Chris reformed the teams, surprisingly, to boys versus girls. I recalled the parking lot at my old grade school, where we had recess after lunch. The boys always fell to a game of football or basketball, and the girls, at least until puberty, usually joined. “Boys verse girls! Boys verse girls!” we often shouted, sometimes shortening it to the acronym BVG. Usually, we just picked captains and ended up with a mix of genders. The girls were often bigger than us, since they matured a little faster, but they were no match for our competitiveness. Our games were active and fierce, and the girls were too, but I don’t recall any of them taking the time to argue laboriously over who scored or not, whether someone had cheated, won or lost. That was the boys’ department, and it usually took up half the game. As an adult, I’ve shed much of that competitive spirit, at least outwardly, but inside I am still ready to tackle anyone, anywhere, at any time, whether physically or verbally. Preferably both.

So, I was shocked when the boys, with whom I shared all the advantages of my height and athleticism, routinely dropped the ball, fell to the ground and laughed. They were so intent on having a good time that they forgot about winning. I kept trying to remind them, but it was a lost cause. We would get four, five catches in a row, then one of them would fall needlessly into the snow for an “epic” catch. The girls giggled, then grew serious. We lost.

Later, after a few other games - one where we held hands in a knot then “untied” ourselves; one where we sat silently, eyes closed, and tried to guess how many minutes had passed; and one where we had to race and steal a flag from the center of the field, a game involving quite a bit of strategy - Chris asked if we remembered all the things we did after we had come outside.

“We played space ball, then master thief, then counted minutes,” said one of the boys.

“No, you forgot the knot thing. We did that after space ball,” said another.

It was hardly 10:30, and I was already in awe of Chris. She taught so effortlessly, so seamlessly. Whether moving, listening, watching or thinking she was constantly asking the kids to pay attention, not simply to her, but to themselves. Never in my life have I seen or heard of a teacher asking her students to close their eyes and assess when a minute, then two, had passed. She gave them a chance to recall every moment, to reflect and strategize, then moved on without hesitation. The point, and it seemed as obvious to the kids as it was to me, was not so much the content, but the method. The point was self-observation. And it was stunning. At the end of our romp, Chris asked for one thing that went well, one that went badly, for each game. Well, we lost, I thought, when the subject of space ball came up. Jonathan smiled and said, “the epic catches.”

*

Having come inside and taken off our wet clothes, we all had a sip of water then sat back down for another lesson. This time it was math. “Okay,” Chris said, “I’m going to ask you to listen,” and she looked at her students meaningfully. “This means plus,” she said, crossing her arms in front of her like an addition sign. “This means minus,” and she held up one arm sideways, like subtraction. “This is multiplication,” an x, “and this is division.” She sliced her hand diagonally through the air.

“Okay,” she added, smiling, “and this…” and here she drew a square in the space in front of her, “…means squared.” She looked around the room to assess whether everyone followed, then repeated her instructions. There wasn’t a single eye glancing out the window.

Chris walked over to the bookshelf, returning with a bell and two wooden blocks. “Now, when you get the answer, just hold it. I will do it all the way through, twice, then call for answers.” She held up her hand, indicating she was about to begin.

“Ding, ding, ding…” the bell rang out three times. Quickly, but without rushing, she set the bell down and made a “plus” sign with her hands, then clapped twice. After making an “x” with her arms, indicating multiplication, she picked up the wooden blocks and knocked them together four times. I was enjoying this thoroughly. Then Chris held her arm sideways, subtraction, and stomped her feet four times. Seven, I thought. Then Chris, remaining silent, gave a bit of an “aha” expression with raised eyebrows and updrawn finger, and drew a square in the air.

“Now, I will repeat it one more time,” Chris said, “Don’t shout out the answer. We will get it at the end.” After repeating the same series of sounds, she gave her students a moment to collect themselves, then asked, “Okay, what did you get?”

“One hundred,” said Tom.

“One hundred,” said one of the girls, who sat in front of me.

“One hundred,” said Jonathan.

One of the boys remained silent, along with the visitor and the other girl.

“Right, one hundred,” said Chris, “did anyone get a different answer?” One of the boys, who hadn’t answered, smiled sheepishly, then offered, “I think I added wrong.”

“How about you guys?” Chris asked, looking towards the mother and I in the corner. I smiled uncertainly. “I…well, it doesn’t matter…” and I trailed off. Chris cocked her head at me. “Well, I got forty-nine,” I said, “I wasn’t sure if we were following the order of operations, or…” I smiled guiltily, not wanting to distract the class with technical details. I’m a super math nerd. Chris smiled back. “Yes, very good,” she said, admitting some possible confusion, “we haven’t tackled order of operations yet.”

We continued with a few more math problems, though no more ringing and knocking. Afterward, the children took out their This and That Times work, a small publication they produce monthly to raise money for school trips. I scanned through an old copy while the kids worked on their drafts for the upcoming issue. Four sheets of paper, folded and bound in the center, there were sixteen pages of stories, weather, cartoons, poems – even an advertisement for another school group’s homemade herbal salves and remedies. “Tania,” Chris called to one of the girls sitting in front of me, “would you let Joe see your main lesson book while you’re working on your draft?”

Without the slightest hesitation, Tania, a twelve-year-old girl who didn’t know me from Adam, pulled a slim spiral notebook from her canvass school bag, turned, and handed it to me with a smile. Accepting it graciously, I set down This and That and opened the front cover. The thick white paper, like drawing paper (no lines), felt good and sturdy in my hands. On the first sheet was a drawing of a tree. As I leafed through the rest of the book, I could see that each subsequent page was a tidy recapitulation of her main lesson work. The themes changed from month to month, so that there were paragraph descriptions of igneous and metamorphic rock, multiplication tables, short stories, and more. Many had drawings, quite obviously drawn with the utmost care, that illuminated the material. What’s more, every single page had a repeating stylized border, something not printed, but drawn by Tania herself.

I wondered if Tania just liked to draw. Then Jonathan handed me his main lesson book, and I began to see what was at work here. Turning over its front cover, I found a spectacularly drawn knight, with relief and perspective that seemed to bulge from the page. There were no smudge marks, no doodles, no erases or creases. Leafing through Jonathan’s book, I saw the same sort of stylized border, but in a manner entirely his own. Each page was so lovingly cared for that I felt as if I were intruding on these children’s inner lives. Yet, they shared them so freely.

I looked up at the classroom, each student working on their paper drafts, or in their composition books. I see. They practice their writing, their notes and lessons, then transmit their final work into these books, which become a sort of compendium of the school year. My goodness, I thought, what a treasure these things are. I closed each one carefully and returned them to their owners, who received them with a pleasant smile and returned to their work.

*

Visiting Chris was, in many ways, the culmination of this round of teacher training for me. Having worked with Silke for the last two years, I am beginning to feel into the world beyond kindergarten, the grade-class curriculum. I’ve scheduled a meeting for interested parents in mid-February. I do not aim to be a Waldorf teacher, or to use any one pedagogical method, but I do aim to soak up wisdom. And in my neck of the woods, in large part due to Silke’s lasting influence on education in Taos, that means a collection of Waldorf teachers, men and women who, even without a school, are dedicated to holistic learning.

The week before, I met with another teacher and mother, an inspiring woman who had a home school group very much like Chris’s till a third child came into her life and she decided to take a break. It was her son, Jonathan (names are changed for anonymity), that sat in class with me that day, and made “epic” catches.

Another teacher and I talked school one day on a walk up from the nearby hot springs. It was his children who advertised their herbal remedies in This or That Times. During our walk, his curly golden hair glistening in the setting sun, he carried a cast iron pan in which he had brought his lunch. “Fill them with rhythm,” he said, looking me seriously in the face, as if nothing else mattered more on the earth. “Fill them with music.”

*

There are many reasons why private schools, or home school groups such as Chris’s, are troublesome. They pull the best and the brightest from our public school system, and not only the students, but the teachers too. They sometimes create too many options, parents occasionally flipping their children back and forth between schools, searching for the right fit, never giving their children a chance to settle in. But first and foremost, private school, whether at home or behind ivory walls, is largely a privilege of the wealthy.

I don’t want to teach the wealthy, at least not exclusively. I want to teach the wealthy and the poor, the black and the white, the native and the immigrant. That is, I want each and every one to have their own education. I think it makes perfect sense for Taos Pueblo elders to give their children a unique education, as it does for Hispanic children to attend bilingual schools. I disagree with the homogeneity of modern education, not because testing and the three R’s are wrong, but because what makes us human is often much more interesting than what makes us smart.

There is a famous quote attributed to the Dalai Lama that states, “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind.” As it turns out, the Dalai Lama did not say this. David Orr, an environmental scientist, did. But, at least here, the truth isn’t the point. The reason this quote, along with the Dalai Lama’s serene image, has proliferated around the globe is that, in light of the last few centuries of advance, there is a real and meaningful social movement to create humans, not success.

I hope to be part of that movement. I want to populate my daughter’s heart and mind not only with knowledge, but wisdom. And wisdom, I believe, comes from whole people, not smart people. Surely, one can be smart and wise, but the last few centuries seem to demonstrate quite palpably that intelligence alone does not a wise man create.

Wisdom is a famously tricky subject to teach, and it would be brash of me to pretend to have it, let alone teach it. So, I remain humble. But I believe something of the essence of wisdom can be grasped in the following Diagram.

Venn Diagram.jpg

In this diagram, the number 1 represents me or my needs/opinions/choices, etc., the number 2 represents yours, or the other’s, and the number 3 represents the whole. The more we can understand and make decisions from position three, the greater the chance of success, I believe, we have as a species and a planet. That does not mean that position 1 is to be sacrificed, nor position 2. It means that a lot of listening may be required before making a global decision.

The homogeneity of society that has encompassed the earth in recent years has led to magnificent achievements. Those achievements have had negative consequences, but they are still something of which we can be proud. Plastic, for all its ills, is a remarkable material. Oil and combustion engines have fueled an unprecedented growth in human health and longevity. And they, along with the ever-growing global economy, have also fueled a safer, less war-torn planet. Tragedies still abound, but individual men and women are far more likely to have healthcare, a good education, full-bellies, and autonomy than ever before.

And yet, bad news persists. We have overgrown our planet. And we’ve changed the temperature, reduced the amount of drinking water and slashed the living space available for keystone species. Our human advance is wreaking havoc on the diversity and health of the organism as a whole, the earth. Surely, it is time to wake up to the ill effects of our success, to mature as a species. But no child has ever been aided by a slap in the face. No banker, no CEO, will grow up because of enforced anger or punishment. Or, if they do, it will be a stunted sort of growth. Love is what makes us thrive, not persecution.

As we reach the limits of the vast arc of homogeneity we’ve traveled in the last few centuries, we are beginning to rediscover the importance of human diversity, of small, localized populations of people living in relative harmony. This is what I wish to see in my daughter’s education, not a simple return to the old ways, but a synthesis of what we’ve learned as a human species with what we’ve learned as small bands of peoples. Education should not be undertaken in hallways and corridors, but amongst friends and families. Classrooms like Chris’s should be the norm. We need the best and the brightest not to go off to college, to the lab or to medical school. We need them to take a handful of children under his or her wing. It’s not enough to teach our children history, biology and math behind closed doors. And it’s not enough to add art to the curriculum, and extracurricular activities. The planet does not need more successful people. What we desperately need is more humans, more peacemakers, healers, storytellers and lovers of every kind.

*

Four days after I visited Chris’s class, I stopped by Jonathan’s house on my way up to Silke’s. He and his family live up the road from me. A friend of mine had sent me a $100 bill in the mail, a surprise windfall in gratitude for some kindness I had shown him years ago (as though he hadn’t shown me the same). Anyway, there I was with an extra hundred dollars. In years past, I would have stuffed it away in my bank account, but I knew the second I opened that letter what I would do with it.

Knocking on Jonathan’s front door, his little sister saw me from the couch and motioned me inside. “Is Jonathan here?” I asked. She looked at me, showing some surprise. “Tell him Joe’s here,” I said. She got up and went through a door. A few seconds later, Jonathan came out with the thick smile of a youth with braces. He looked at me curiously for a second. “I want you to have this,” I said, handing him the crisp bill. I’m subscribing to This or That Times.

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