Archives for the month of: December, 2013




Boom to Bust coal camps outside Morgantown, West Virginia contained a lot of starving families at the onset of the 1930’s.  They were so nutritionally ravaged that President Hoover dispatched Russian war relief teams to address the emergency.  Once fed, they grew hungry for more.  And so it was that John Dewey, Eleanor Roosevelt and the PEA recruited Elsie Ripley Clapp not to “reform” a school but to literally form one that spoke to people who were so far gone, they no longer believed in a place known as the USA.

This was an assignment for Educators, not for hucksters or empty-headed consultants. Standard cliches applied. The pedal had to hit the metal. Everyone had to fish or cut bait. Commonsense was imperative so, shell-game Common Core Curriculum cultists would want nothing to do with a project like this where competence and not a dumbo data point was the bottom line.

There were many dark moments for Elsie and her teachers, but even these were illuminated by one, very big idea.

The foundation of democracy is faith in the capacities of human nature; faith in human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience.  It is not the belief that these things are complete but that if given a show, they will grow and be able to generate progressively the knowledge and wisdom needed to guide collective action.
Democracy and Educational Administration by John Dewey 1937

REFORM actually meant to re-form or restore the activity and the democratic promise of schooling. This was nothing that could be cured by corporate cultist consultants, lowest common denominator curriculum, races to the top (since the USA had already raced straight to the bottom of the economic barrel) in-Bloom or Amplify. Technological, hedge-funded, Microsoft cotton candy distractions were of no use. Good, hard-working citizen had been industrially and economically stranded deliberately by Wall Street and there was no quick fix for sale anywhere. So, teachers stepped in because back in those days they were still allowed to think, problem solve and create from chicken scratch whatever was required.
Things were so bad that Hoover brought a bunch of bright lights to Washington DC to take aim at the travesty of starving children in a multitude of coal camps and communities across the not so great nation state. The very first interventions were based on getting the victims busy in their own behalf. No institutionalized passivity would prevail. Playgrounds were built in the middle of debris fields and gardens were planted in washtubs and slate piles. Families learned to can and preserve the food they’d grown and sometimes they learned all over again how to cook with fresh ingredients. Civilization had fallen away and had to be re-energized. It was a job for educators who weren’t afraid to take on the rehabilitation. It was multi-faceted and known by many names: community school, school as community, community-based learning, community in schools, and school at the center of community building.
Lucy Sprague Mitchell had taught waves of real teachers to wander the neighborhoods in search of resources for learning and investigation. The coal camp faculty followed suit and discovered devastation. In February of 1934, a woman with hands blue from the cold was found hauling a heavy basket up a steep hill of ice and snow to a shack unheated and un-electrified. Come July of the same year, a neighboring cabin revealed a dying infant covered with flies and families living in small, squalid rooms surrounded outside by abandoned tipples, collapsed coal shafts, empty company stores, broken glass fronts, rickety porches, cinder heaps and listless, worn-out lives. A rotting shell was the starting point for these determined pedagogues. Fetid, crowded steaming heat in summer and bitter, desolate, paralyzing cold in winter presided over a contingent of public privies, polluted water wells, saloons, brothels and idle intellects. This was not the time or place for fixed subject matter, ready-made rules, standardized test schedules, data aggregation, fragmented fact memorization or mass produced, superficial mustard plaster solutions to slow, difficult, complex social problems.


Lynne Martin Describes How It Was When Teachers Were Teachers

Tried and True Alternatives to NCLB, CCSS, Amplify, Pearson and the Current Corporate Catastrophe

One of the ideas behind our school was to do the very best we could in hopes that it could also serve as a kind of beacon to other schools.  Not in the sense that we were better than others but because we had some kinds of freedom that the public schools did not have.  We hoped we might be helpful in that sense.  Books were published on our curriculum during the early days.  I still have some of them and they are so precious to me that I’m scared to lend them out. 

The Course In History

The Morning Exercise As A Socializing Influence

The Social Motive In School Work


All of these were part of a series entitled, Studies In Education, meaning to summarize and reflect on what was being done. Flora Cooke wrote the introductions.

The Morning Exercise was our daily getting together of the whole school.  These grew from Francis Parker’s practice of holding town meetings with the students.  It started as the entire school coming together everyday at around 10:30 for about thirty minutes. The program would be some grade sharing something they had learned, or were studying, either through music, drama or poetry.  It is a lovely tradition however you can manage it.

Let me give you an idea of how things could work.  I am reminded of one time when one of my kids brought into school a dog’s head…a VERY dead dog’s head.  He’d found it in Lincoln Park and it stank but it was a treasure!  So, after the beginning of the day I put it in a plastic bag and hung it outside the window so it wouldn’t smell up the room. After that, the Science teacher came and he was just great about it.  He took it home and boiled it and then brought it back and here was this beautiful, little skull which was so nice for the kids to see. 

There also was a time when I required that at least once a week, everyone would bring in a drawing they had done of any natural thing.  It could be a leaf or could be a shell; anything really because I had the idea that city children do not see.  There is an awful lot that is ugly in a big, bustling city and there are so many things that no one wants to see.

I think there is value in the simple things, simple things like making leaf prints or rubbings with a flattened crayon.  Bring to their attention any kind of thing that you run across like a wasp’s nest, a piece of lichen, or a mushroom that you pass when walking down a sidewalk.  This practice is particularly important for city kids.

As for planning, I just assume that a teacher has in mind a prepared skeleton of first ideas she intends to present and explore.  I used to get kind of scared of those people listing endless objectives, as if they knew EXACTLY what they were going to teach.  More it is about putting a question out there and then seeing what comes of it with the children. 

This is how we discover what they need to be thinking about.  Over the years, I developed a series of binders outlining and detailing the sequence and activities by subject.  Here is one for Geometry and another filled with ideas related only to Math.  I had one for Language that might not include every activity for an entire year but certainly those ideas that got me thinking about a new or good way to go at something.

A teacher’s skeleton might include some of the ideas she thought were terribly important for children to have thought about on a particular subject.  I would start by thinking about what interested me, as an adult, about a topic.  And then I would try and try and remember what caught my interest as a child.  The resulting list wouldn’t necessarily mean that they would investigate everything. 

Teacher would also have a clear idea of a progression she intended.  For instance, by the end of the year in Math she would expect that three fourths of the children could do the such and such following operations.  She would build from day to day, creating the spelling lists central to whatever theme or topic was under study.  She would identify the age-appropriate scientific questions for experimentation.

I saved the children’s writing for them in a file until the end of the year.  I always kept my own records and I gave my own tests.  I reminded them that I was testing to see how well I was teaching something.  If they did not know an answer, it was not because they were dumb or weren’t paying attention; it was because I wasn’t teaching well.  I gave a lot of tests that were open book…you could go and try to find the answer.  It is very important for kids to have a chance to learn how to do that.  From time to time let’s say, I’d give a little test on the multiplication tables and I would keep a record of what they had or had not mastered.  We wrote narrative reports and there I might say that “He tests in the upper 4th grade level within a very able group of students.”  Or, “He is in excellent shape in all things with highest in ____and lowest in ____.  But I notice…”

I never read the record of a child before school began.  I didn’t want to be impressed by what somebody else thought about a certain child.  I wanted them to come fresh and new to me.  But I did tell the parents, “I do want to know anything you would want me to be watching out for or to be aware of.” 

4th Grade studied the Greeks.  When I started teaching it, I brought in the other ancient civilizations out of which the Greeks began.  I concentrated on the Greeks in 2nd semester.  We would do plays in costume and I did not use textbooks.  I used original sources.  I would read to them Greek tragedies.  We started out with the formation of the earth and then primitive humans, cave paintings and things like that.  For forming the earth we’d go out and look for fossils and discuss their possible evolutions. 

I had loads and loads of pictures and always put them up.  We would go over to the park and sketch the bison, comparing it with the Lascaux cave paintings.  And then we moved on to Egypt not because it was the oldest but because it was the simplest of ancient civilizations to approach as a thematic unit.  We learned about the Fertile Crescent and I would have them pick any Old Testament bible story that they wanted to research and write a report on it.  We had children from many, different religions so we used these stories as literature.  For instance, they could use the flood story and I would then tell them about the excavations at Ur where there are traces of a once great flood. 

We studied Hammurabi around the time of Abraham. I had them keep a time chart of key characters and I gave them important dates to include, with details.  We’d add on to these every few days and used them to think in terms of time and how things change but not in the sense that they had to memorize it all.  I used to create crosswords using dates they could then look up on their time charts.  Using the cross number puzzles was a way of helping some of those dates stick without requiring that they learn them by rote.

I remember that around the time of Christmas somebody would ask, “Now what was happening in Egypt around this time of year?”  I had Histo-Maps.  Do you know those?  They are wonderful things.  You can get them at the Field Museum.  They show histories pictorially, histories of civilizations.  So, we studied the Fertile Crescent up to about the time that the Persians were poised, at their peak, looking toward Greece.  Then we went all the way back at 2nd semester and studied the Minoans, the Miceneans and then historic Greece up to the death of Socrates.

Here is a source I used during 1st semester, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to Old Testament, Editor James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press 1955. 

I would use this and shorten some of the most ancient stories and then produce one as a play for a Morning Exercise performance.  I did a lot of summarizing, cutting down, mimeographing and giving children copies of the original versions of ancient things.

I had a strong feeling that if you were asking them to write beautifully, you needed to give them the experience of beautiful words.  In 4th grade we learned cursive so our daily handwriting practice, wherever possible, came out of the literature of the people we were studying.  Inevitably, during the formation of earth, someone would say, “There ain’t nobody to be quoted.”  So, I always gave them, “And the earth was without form and void…”  Lines like that are what we used for handwriting practice and I kept them all in a binder full of typed quotations, spanning historical topics for the year.  This gave them short fragments of something lovely to work with.

I built up quite a collection of artifacts.  I’ve got everything from lava that Leakey found in a gorge to reproductions of very old things.  After a few of the more fragile got broken, I learned just to carry them around so children could look and touch.  It is very important to do this.  And it takes time to build up good supplies and to know which you really are going to need and use.  None of this should be rigid because things change as the teacher learns something new about a subject and incorporates it. Parents were given the dates, roughly, for when we would celebrate a birthday like Apollo’s and for that a father came in with his little Irish harp and played a fragment of ancient Greek music. Once parents come to know they really are respected, you come to find out that they have talents that bring great value to the classroom work.
We’d put out a notice saying, “This is the theme. Is there anything you might be able to contribute during this quarter, related to this topic?”

After I’d been teaching the 4th grade unit on Greece for awhile, there was a magazine article saying that I’d never been there and it quoted one of my students as saying that when he grew up he would be sure that he took me to Greece. About six months after the article appeared, I got a letter from the Greek government inviting me to come for a visit. So, I toured for six weeks. Pure Cinderella! I went during the summer, visited a camp and met with their country’s head of education. I inherited the 4th grade Greek theme but I could make it anything I wanted to.

Lynne Martin was a teacher for 30 years at Francis Parker School. She was noted for her teaching of the culture and history of Ancient Greece.
The government of Greece honored her in 1960 with an all-expenses-paid trip to that country.

She was interviewed in Chicago by Kathy Irwin.












Sally Middlebrooks’  GETTING TO KNOW CITY KIDS is a must read!

“By making visible how, through their play, children give form and identity to themselves, I hope to help classroom teachers connect children’s lives in school with the richness and vitality of the worlds children create for themselves outside of school.  The deficit model asserts that poor city kids are ‘troubled’, ‘passive’ and ‘dumb’.  I challenge these assertions and label them misconceptions.  My analysis of children’s strengths leads to three suggestions for supporting ‘smart’ kids in urban schools.

1.  Create a rich environment.

2.  Allow children to participate actively in their own learning.

3.  Teach by listening to them.”



Children’s playscapes are often messy, ingenious spaces cobbled together from whatever is at hand.  The embodied intelligence and determination is obvious and always worth following and learning from.
One hot, basketball hoop day some city boys took me on a tour of their neighborhood.  They meant for me to know how it feels to trudge through a succession of courts only to find each one damaged beyond repair.  We saw surfaces graffiti-ed up with gang signs and swear words, iron standards pried and pounded loose from their concrete bases, equipment hanging cock-eyed and at crazy, impossible angles.  Metal nets were torn apart and shredded with what must have been a crowbar, so that shards lay scattered on the ground with remaining links hanging limp in function-less rows like wet strands of dirty spaghetti.  It was so discouraging.

“This makes me want to throw up,”  I told them.

“Us too!” they insisted, nodding their heads in united agreement.  “Nothing we can do about it,” they muttered in angry disgust.  “Bums or big guys tear everything up.  Go look at the sandbox over there.”

I did take a peek at the sandbox – yucky, gross and very dangerous.  What once was a spacious wooden box of pine planks and comfortable ledges for sitting and digging with sieves, shovels, molds, scoops, tablespoons and fingers was now a ghastly garden of shattered glass, liquor labels, cigarette butts and junkie syringes.  Where cups of water from an adjacent fountain once encouraged the early science formation of mountains, mounds, hills, valleys and riverbeds, now only the overpowering stench of human urine puddled and pooled across the sandy expanse.

Maybe somewhere a Parks Authority Person could lean into a big map with a boast and point out the multitude of well-provisioned recreation opportunities, strategically located, available to all, discriminating against no one, equalizing the playing field for everyone but really it was a big, fat insult in the last analysis.  Yes, an insult and an eyesore to erect a Big Rock Candy Mountain and then allow all the yummy surfaces to remain covered with people debris and dog droppings.  Don’t Touch.  Don’t Explore.  Don’t Enjoy.  Don’t Return.

In the end, it was a big brother who took affirmative action. He and his friends confiscated a solid beam from the demolition salvage of a once elegant apartment greystone. The beam, standing over 7′ tall, was nailed into a platform of pallets discovered at the backdoor of a grocery store. To the underside of the pallets four wheels were attached, these liberated from a dolly at a nearby warehouse. The net was fashioned from a bright blue milk crate with its bottom carefully removed so no rough edges interfered with artfully executed slam-dunks. The contraption was then rolled into any street or alley space available for a game of pick-up and tucked away at night where no one could dismantle it. Amazing to behold.


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