There was a time in American Public Education when it was more common for community school boards to act upon their ideals as they educated local children.
In the 1970’s, the people of Shoreham Wading River, Long Island, envisioned a public school which would teach their children the academic basics while promoting the community’s core humanitarian values.
Within five years, that community’s Vision for its children had produced a school which established nationally recognized best practices for middle school education.
By 1980, the young musicians of the Shoreham Wading River Middle School Band were performing at home and on the road.
Near the northern end of the William Floyd Parkway, there’s an abandoned farm in back of the Albert G. Prodell Middle School. The school farm is a relic of a former administration and a different age in American public education. Here was a public school where students once collected eggs from the chicken coops, now overgrown with weeds. The sorry condition of our school farm brings to mind those boarded up, bankrupt homesteads, icons of the Dust Bowl.
These ruins in Shoreham are emblematic of a new Dust Bowl, an Education Dust Bowl, blown into our nation’s classrooms by the mean, dry winds of No Child Left Behind. In once-fertile schools like this one, the fountains of creativity, passion and fun have all been shut off.
In the 1980’s people from all over the world came to study our farm program. More than anything else, The Farm symbolized the community’s WHOLE CHILD commitment. In 1982, the Shoreham Wading River Middle School was recognized for this, named one of the first Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. The farm program was extolled as a national model for educating the WHOLE CHILD.
Suffolk Country Executive Peter Cohallan visits the SWR school farm circa 1980. Besides expressing a WHOLE CHILD pedagogy, the Farm was a model agricultural school program in a predominantly agricultural county.
When I taught in Shoreham in 1975, the community, the administrators and the teachers all believed that it was good educational practice for 12- to 14-year-olds to care for animals and take responsibility for farm chores.
During the ’70s and ’80s, that farm provided youngsters with hands-on, milk-the-goat-and-sell-the-surplus instruction in the food chain. The Farm was Social Studies. The Farm was Science. The Farm was Math. In English class, eighth graders applied character psychology to the goat, lambs, chickens, and, especially, to their favorite character, our notorious rooster. After much direct observation on the farm and extensive study of Aesop in the classroom, our writers authored and illustrated their own fables. The Farm was Literature and Art.
The District’s guiding WHOLE CHILD educational philosophy was confirmed by brain science.
The academic junior high school, as an instructional relic from 1903, had failed miserably. Kids at this particular age, no longer juveniles, but not yet full-bodied, reasoning adolescents, needed hands-on, off beat instruction. These were not the years to introduce and drill new concepts. Developmentally, children at this age need programs allowing them to digest and assimilate what they just learned during their last period of accelerated brain growth.
In other words, research showed us that emerging adolescents in grades 6-8, predominated by hormones raging, panic buttons lit, insecurity, arrogance, energetic brilliance— should NOT be kept in their seats and taught intellectually.
The mandate given by the Shoreham-Wading River community to its teachers at the time was at once practical and radical: Create an instructional program based on how our children’s minds actually work.
With this degree of parental vision and commitment (not without controversy at times), a golden period of public education was initiated in Shoreham. Academic subjects were integrated and coordinated. In English and Social Studies, I taught mythology with the historical development of agriculture, while my teaching partner taught the Science of plant growth. The outcomes of most instructional units were projects. The Arts were plentiful. At various times, our students took wood shop, metal shop, cooking, sewing, visual art, dance, pottery, music, filmmaking and theater arts.
Sixth graders learned about technology by studying 19th century whaling and Moby Dick.
Seventh graders participated in what would later be called Community Service Learning. They regularly visited Port Jefferson Nursing Home. The seniors taught the youngsters history, biography, and, incidentally, good manners— usually accomplished over board games.
Eighth graders learned Social Studies through simulation games and by creating three-screened multi- media slide shows.
Field Trips were frequent. The school band performed all over the East Coast and beyond. Young actors played in brilliant original productions based on Where the Wild Things Are, T.S. Eliot’s poetry, The Hobbit and, of course, they did Shakespeare. Pre-teen percussionists banged out music from junkyard objects turned into musical instruments, performed and recorded in the school’s music lab.
Students ran enterprises like a natural foods co-op where counting, weighing, measuring, estimating, ordering and accounting not only taught them math skills, but also served the community.
Twenty years later and the exact opposite method of instruction has triumphed with a vengeance in Shoreham Wading River.
Kept inside all day, rows of today’s 12- to 14-year-olds sit still at their desks and in front of computer screens, mentally processing knowledge. They prepare this way for the paper-and-pencil tests their government now demands
The Shoreham Wading River community’s commitment to the WHOLE CHILD, the District’s child-centered philosophy, the best practices of experience-based learning and all the brain science in the world have been dumped out back with the chicken coops.
Back in the day, we were a pretty feisty, hands-on faculty. We teachers discussed school issues and educational philosophy, heatedly. Now it is the Assessment Actuaries who control the discussion about what schooling is for— not the local school board, not the parents, and certainly not the teachers with their required Masters’ degrees.
With the advent of high stakes testing, and the rewarding and punishing of schools based on test results, the operating pedagogy of the American Educational system has become FEAR-based instruction. When we get afraid, we get very literal. We work to the letter of the requirement rather than from a spirit of good will.
A community which once asserted a bold Vision is now thinking small and narrow.
At a recent faculty meeting, the current principal declared to the staff, “We do not need passionate teachers. When you teach here, leave your passion at the door.” Presumably, dispassionate test scores were her priority.
I was teaching at an elementary school in the South Bronx in 2003, and my principal received funds earmarked for test preparation. So she paid teachers to come to school very early to drill children before breakfast. I would see a few teachers with a few kids going over test questions and answers at 7:15 AM.
It reminded me of my Shoreham Wading River days.
Only back then, when I ran into kids in school so early, it was because they were feeding the chickens and milking the goat.
For several years, The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White and the character of the wizard as a mystical teacher were part of the instructional culture of my classroom. A group of students painted a fantasy mural to celebrate this theme. I am told that the mural remained on the wall up until last year, when it was finally painted over.
First published April 11, 2008Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.