Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mountain Road School: New Lebanon, NY

Mountain Road School is a small, Pre-K to 8th grade currently occupying a two-story, airy farmhouse. Originally housed in a nearby Sufi community, the school has inherited some of the ethos without identifying itself as a Sufi school, and lives true to its mission of providing "heartfelt" education.

Teacher/student relationships are the foundation of the classroom work, and the whole school strives toward continuous community building: the middle school is involved in a year-long "Compassion Project," there are weekly whole-school circles and "buddy days," where older children play & learn with younger for a morning, and an all-school recess. In addition to these codified community-building structures, there is an expectation that everyone will treat each other with love and respect, explained Anne, a co-director and parent.

View from the play yard
Students have daily access to the outdoors, as the school's land includes both a play yard and open fields as well as a wooded area. In addition, they partner with Flying Deer Nature Center to expand their Nature Curriculum; for six weeks in both the fall and the spring, students spend one full day per week outside. Throughout the year there is a daily 45 minute outdoor recess except in the case of the most extreme weather. Hand-crafted tools & toys abounded in the space.

Homey Hallway
Even more than the one-room-schoolhouse feel presented by the farmhouse, the clear delight present in the students and teachers in the classrooms was indicative of the loving family atmosphere of the school. Teachers have small classes-- 8 to 12 students-- so that they become intimately acquainted with each child's learning style, and individualize curricula and lessons. Teachers are encouraged to teach to their passions as well as those of the children, within the guidelines of the flexible curriculum maps.

During my visit I saw deeply personal and authentic work happening, I think in part because of this flexibility. The 7th-8th graders were involved with a theater project: writing their own play and planning all aspects of the production, with the support and guidance of their teacher, a trained theater professional. The 4th-6th grade teacher's passion led him to pursue and receive funding for creating curriculum around Compassion. He and his students have spent this year exploring compassion, through history, culture, and personal growth work.

4th-6th grade classroom: Compassionate Communication
I sat in first on the 4th-6th grade, who were beginning their Social Studies/Compassion class. The nine students sat companionably around a central table. I learned that the class had been exploring the Haudenosaunnee culture; in particular, their values, ethics, mores, and council structure. The class began with recalling their learning journey so far, and then their teacher Jon prompted, "OK, what is strong self-worth?" No one responded at first; I think some of the students may have been affected by my presence. To break the silence, Jon joked, "I mean, you know what strong means, right? Look how strong I am!" and quickly bent down to lift up a chair with a little girl in it a few inches off the floor. She squealed in delight, the other children relaxed and started up a lively conversation. One little boy across the table volunteered, "People are literally priceless!"

Art Room/Library: No chairs!
After the review, students broke into groups of 2-3 to discuss and reteach their understanding of the previous day's content. Two little boys immediately squirreled themselves under a table in the corner, a few clustered at the main table, and others darted down the hallway to the library/art room. Their teacher circulated between groups, encouraging, questioning and pushing the students' thinking.

In an adjacent room is the 7th-8th grade classroom, separated by a door which allows for occasional student flow between classrooms & regular sharing of teachers. The students were sitting around the central table, working in Google Docs to collaboratively edit their near-complete script. The teens wrote the play collaboratively as well, based off their study of mythology through the lens of compassion. The document was full of notes from their teacher, prompting deeper thinking of certain lines, questioning word choices, clarifying, prompting. She sat with the students, laughing, answering questions, challenging them, ("That's telling, not showing... "). The atmosphere was almost giddy with excitement; it was clear that the students were very involved with the work they were doing, and had created a hilarious and wonderful play from the pieces I was able to read: witty and thought-provoking writing, clever word-play, interesting characters. I was impressed.

I snagged a few of the children from the 4th-6th grade class at the end of the day to ask them about their experience. The consensus? The children don't want to go home at the end of the day. They LOVE their school. And from my quick snapshot, it was clear why-- the school community is like a big, supportive and loving family.

Downstairs meeting room

Thank you, Mountain Road!

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