I sat down recently with Judy Voets. Here’s what she had to say.

As I think about the beginning of Open I think about how we did a lot of laughing.   We had to laugh because there was so much that we didn’t know, and we didn’t know where to start!  It worked because we were willing to make it work.  Sandy had taught for three years in Southern California, and had been trying progressive ideas while teaching her self-contained class in the district.  My mom was a teacher, and the way she taught was very child-centered. Going to her school and having her students tell me about their everyday life was inspiring.  I had spent time at the British Infant Schools and that affected me as well.

The first class was a k-3 class of 28 in what is now the library.  Sandy and I (her student teacher)  figured out immediately that it had to feel really good to both us, the teachers, and the kids.  We spent  a lot of time asking ”What do you think, kids?  What should we change now? Does this work for you?  If I were you, I would say: Change it now, Judy!”  They had a lot of input.  We were willing to try almost everything that they said.   

The next  year the program grew to 5 classes.  I had a class and Sandy had a class, but we were right next to each other and we hollered back and forth.  We worked together, but apart.  The thing that helped so much was that we truly  enjoyed what we were doing, and were absolutely comfortable if something didn’t work.  We’d sit in the middle of the rug and say  “What about this? What about that?”  

An example of what I mean was when we decided we needed to practice taking turns.  We both developed different ways to work on it.  I used activities that involved parts of our bodies that would involve taking turns.  “We’re going to take turns stamping our feet.”  “We’re going to take turns pulling our ears” and I’d model pulling my ears!  Most everything we came up with was funny and fun.  Another one I did early on to develop listening skills was, “Okay, we’re going to have lunch pretty soon.  If you know what’s in your lunch, what are you going to eat first?”  

My time at the  British Infant Schools helped us think about reading and writing.   All over the pod there were examples of writing.  If Johnny said something that struck me, I’d stop what I was doing and write it down so Johnny could share his story.  We read stories all the time!  It was really important.  Somebody would bring me a book, and say “You read this,” and I’d say “Fine, I’ll read it at snack time.” 

A tool that we used as we saw fit (not as a Program with a capital P) was Breakthrough to Literacy, which also came from England. The idea was to get kids’ words in print, and build on their own language, but there were lots of books being made beyond the daily drawing and sentence in a child’s Breatkthough book.  How much they did depended on the kid.  We didn’t have any flat rules.  

We developed good enough backgrounds in teaching and working with children that we could turn stuff into things that were fun and enjoyable and had, somewhere along the line, a little bit of stuff that they’d learn.  Basically I did what was important that day at that time.

The same thing was true about math. What mattered was that they could relate to it on their own level and use it in one way or another.   I can remember saying to a 5 or 6 year old “Well, how do you know there are only 4 pieces there?  How did you figure that out?  Now think about that.”  How did they know?

 I liked bringing children together.  We could make the people who were crying feel better.  It was done through problem solving.  “Would you feel better if you could just lie on the floor?  Would that help?  Do you ever get to lie on your floor at home?”  It would end up for a couple days with everyone lying on the floor!  How well it worked was truly amazing.  One time I was feeling really really sad, and I sat down at one of the tables.  A child rubbed my back and said: “Judy’s not feeling good. We better lie down.”  It worked.  They knew we had to figure something out.  

 Over the years I found different ways to accomplish the same things that I had been working on three weeks previous, because I had to find different ways for different children. We were always experimenting with materials and approaches.  I learned the importance of asking the right questions, rather than giving the right answers. 

We needed to address the child who was having problems so that kid felt good, and was able to accomplish what we and the child hoped he/she could accomplish.  Finding those ways was and is really important to me.