There are several alternative schools similar to mine scattered across the region and all of them have . . . whimsical . . . names: The Chickpeas, The Rainbow School, The Volcano Land School, the Stork’s Nest, etc. We are the Hummingbirds. Other than the unusual names, I’m not sure all these schools have many common characteristics beyond the desire of the parents to spare their kids the experience of the established school system (possibly due to their own childhood traumas). Some of the schools are inspired by Maria Montessori, some by Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf); some have adopted elements of the Wilds or Piaget or Birkenbihl or Freinet; some use the Glocksee curriculum (or profess to) and some the Jena Plan . . . All of them, I suspect, are improvised and constantly changing, based on the people who are currently active in the school both teachers and parents. I also suspect that most of them exist on a financial precipice, only surviving thanks to idealists and creative bookkeeping.
I’ve been learning a lot lately about the history of my own school. How it started about 16 years ago with just 6 families joining together in a sort of collective home-schooling scenario. These original parents shared a vision of a totally free learning environment that would represent the antithesis of ”Rules Schools”. A few years into the project, these parents decided that it might also be good if their kids learned to read and write. From there, the school went through a long process of adaptation, expansion, crisis, reconstitution, crisis, relocation, accommodation, crisis, accreditation, crisis, establishment, more expansion, internal conflict, crisis . . . and at about that point, I joined in.
One of the things that had never worked in the school was English. In retrospect, it is clear to me why that was so. In an environment where children have freedom to choose what they will learn that day, they need some connection, some reason, for deciding to participate in an educational offering. When English was offered by one of their trusted teachers - with whom they otherwise spoke in their native language - it must have been completely artificial. I know from raising bilingual kids that authenticity is crucial. For a while, my husband thought he could promote our kids bilingualism by speaking English to them too and their response was an immediate and complete rejection: Papa! Bitte! Sprich Deutsch!
So the school needed a native speaker. The chairman at that time had a wife who had a job at the practice of a veterinarian who had a dog patient who had an owner who was an American who was an English teacher. A call was made.
We are a school that is steered by the particular constellation of people who are currently involved. My arrival set off a few debates about the difference between a fresh breeze and a tornado. Being by nature more direct and less sensitive than all my new colleagues, I disrupted a lot of conventions without realizing it - but those qualities also gave me a small advantage when I walked into the classroom of our 13 and 14 year old wildlings. Some of them had been in the school almost from the start and it showed - in both good and not so great ways. They were fine towards me but sometimes just awful to one another. Eleven individualists with no sense of group cohesion. After three weeks I introduced them to my group dynamics box.
Sitting on the floor in a circle, I explained to them that sometimes I wanted to send them a message, but didn’t want to do it in a lecturing way. So everything in the box was a symbol and a message. The first object was a Stop sign but with some words added underneath: ”Breathe” – “Think”. It meant things were getting too rowdy. Time for them to collect themselves. The second object was a little music box that played the melody “If I Only Had a Brain” - that one was sort of self-explanatory for them. They were, after all, 13 and 14 year olds and they inherently understood the concept of momentary brainlessness. The third objects were for the cases when a student was disinterested in everything - the idea that something is ”Boorrrinngg!” can be so contagious in a classroom. I said, “I dont expect you to find every topic interesting, but if everything is boring to you, then you are not really living. You might as well start building that coffin.” I put some big nails on the floor. ”Here are some coffin nails. You can get started.” Also in the box was a Socrates doll (teacher/student relationships / listening goes in both directions), my replica of the Bill of Rights (the classroom is a democratic space), and a little stuffed bird. This last one referred to a German expression ”You have a bird!” which is actually an insult and means ”You are crazy.” I told the kids that in our class, having a bird was a compliment – like thinking outside the box or being original.
I’m not sure what Montessori, Steiner, Wild, & Co would think of this method, but the kids loved that box and it worked like a charm. The few times I did use it, there was always some laughter and then a course correction. They showed it off proudly and explained it to their parents on Hummingbird Day ( the one special day a year when the students exhibit their work to their parents at interactive stations set up all over the school.) Since then I have started teaching more subjects and taken on the role of homeroom teacher for the oldest group. And my box of objects has gone through three adaptations based on the group dynamics and personalities in the class each year.
Yesterday was my fourth Hummingbird Day since joining the school. I couldn’t help but reflect on how much has changed over these four years. All of the kids had put a lot of effort into making their stations and the parents spent a lot of time talking to them about their work. They loved the original play put on by the theater kids and played along with the younger kids as they sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in 6 different languages. Almost everyone took time to watch the slideshow of the school year and then expressed their amazement about the sheer amount and variety of activities offered. One father’s reaction was ”These kids are all so happy!” In the whole crowd I only saw one father who was unaffected. He stood by the kitchen door, impatiently waiting for the buffet to open, making it very evident that he had better things to do than spend a Friday afternoon in the school. Meanwhile, his lovely 9 year old daughter was manning her station in the Primary 2 room and challenging the visiting parents to a game of “Spot It!” in English. I almost felt sorry for the takers. Little did they know at the start that they had no chance of winning.