This is the first of hopefully many posts where members of the Open Community write about their personal experience of the program. Feel free to add your comments or contact us if you’d like to write an entry!
We moved to the Valley in 1970 and Kate was enrolled in Sandy Dorward’s class. Soon after that, I spoke with Sandy about Shire School, an alternative school I helped organize in San Francisco during the summer of 1967. I had read A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, about a school in England he founded. Neill knew children were curious, wanted to learn, and were often turned off by the pressure of grades and the uninteresting presentations by teachers. Summerhill was a school that trusted children’s curiosity and their desire to learn. Children were invited to explore their own interests as they learned along the way.
Sandy also had read Neill’s book and we talked about putting together a classroom based on the ideas Neill used. With the help of Richard Sloan and the school board Sandy worked her magic and was able to secure a room and a class that would include first, second, and third grades. Judy Voets was a student teacher that first year and she went on to teach there for many years. We prepared the wonderful Open Class room and parents were scheduled to participate, too. I did vegetarian cooking classes, some biology projects, and a hiking class.
When my shy son, Timothy, was ready for kindergarten, I was afraid he would be overwhelmed in the Open Classroom and thought it might be good to start him out in the school’s regular kindergarten program. He was excited to attend and I took him to school on the first day. There were desks, where the children were told to sit down. Each desk had a sheet of paper and there were some small yellow and green paper squares and rectangles and there were some black paper circles, too. The teacher wanted the children to glue the colored cut outs to the paper so they’d look like the school bus. Timothy was an extremely creative child and I would have preferred to see how he drew a school bus. I realized that I had made a terrible mistake as I remembered the reasons I’d wanted an alternative education for my first three children. When I told Timothy that, in the Open Classroom, he wouldn’t have to sit at a desk all day and that he wouldn’t have to listen to bells to start and stop his activities, his move to the Open Classroom was easy. Several years later, I remember him saying, “Mom, when I go to school I don’t feel like I’m leaving home, I’m just going to be with my extended family.” That’s how we felt — teachers, parents, and the children, too.
I have some wonderful memories of special times with my hiking class. One day, in 1981, I met Jean Berensmeier on a trail above Forest Knolls and she asked if I hiked there often. When I told her most days, she asked if I’d be willing to map trails because Hendricks and Horn were planning on building a gated community up to the ridge. The Valley Planning Committee wanted to know what the impact would be on the animals and the people who live in the Valley. I went to the Open Class the next morning and, during the morning meeting, told the kids about the project and asked who might like to join me for the mapping project. My son Timothy, Bryn and Lyza Sloan, Jasper Thelin, Lincoln Taylor, and several others whose names I can’t recall, quickly volunteered as did Aneice Taylor. The kids called themselves the Junior Valley Hikers. Every Friday, we brought our lunches and, after morning meeting, when the kids had completed morning assignments in their notebooks, we all went hiking. We started in Lagunitas and walked up to the ridge, had lunch, and then walked back to school. At the end of the year, we presented the SGV Planning Committee with the map of trails we’d made and Lyza Sloan read her touching letter about protecting the Valley from over-development.
During the storm of 1982, Aneice’s neck was broken and she became a quadriplegic. She went back to the Open Classroom and taught her gymnastics class from her wheelchair. I was always happy that Aneice, the children, and I had spent time walking up and down the Valley paths together before she spent the next 32 years in a wheelchair.
One year, my cooking class agreed we would end the year with a Mexican food dinner, to which we’d invite Open Classroom teachers and the principal, Mr. Roche. We prepared lunch in the gym cafeteria. The kids were proud as they prepared and served the food we’d made. We had prepared extra for Mr. Roche because he was caring for a sick wife at home. He held back tears as we gave him the meal we had packed for him to take home and we were all touched to know our gift was well received.
For one of my biology classes, I took a sack of cow’s eyes to school for the children to dissect. I thought they might be as intrigued as I and the other nursing students were to examine the eyes — after we got over the yuck factor! My nursing instructor (one of the best of them) told me where to get the eyes. I was allowed to go to the slaughter house in Richmond after they were done killing the cows. It was an overwhelming experience. I walked in as the men in hip boots were spraying the floor with water and sweeping blood and other unusable bits and pieces of the cows into a large drain. The pall of death hung over the place like a heavy, dark cloud. I explained to the man who approached me that I’d come for the cow’s eyes. He retrieved and handed me a plastic bag — and it was pretty weird, as you can imagine. I put the plastic bag in a paper bag when I got home and then took the bag and myself to the school the next day. I told the kids I had a bag of eyes and they were creepy to look at in the bag but each would have one to examine more closely and I thought they’d find it very interesting. One boy asked, “Did you kill the cows?” I said, “Oh, no, I did not! I don’t even eat cows and haven’t for more than 15 years!” He seemed relieved.
We were all awed by the amazing colors behind the eyes of the cows. It was like looking at the colors of a a wet abalone shell but the amazing colors were many times more intense. Then, the kids put the lens of the eye on the newspaper they were using for the dissection. They looked through the lens and saw how magnified the words became. It was a fun and amazing experience, albeit also a little gross for us all.
Another time, I brought in several sheep “plucks” (the lungs and bronchial tube) and a box of straws that the kids put into the bronchial tube, blew air into, and watched as the lungs expanded. They could also see how pink the lungs were and we talked about how black lungs become when people smoke.
Watching the reactions of the kids with these hands-on science lessons was rewarding for me, too!
I know people worried about the quality of their children’s education in such a seemingly free environment but Timothy was moved from 8th grade to a high school junior at a private high school where he had a classical education. I believe his love of school was from his good start in a welcoming educational community from kindergarten on. He went on to study at UC Berkeley and then to Cornell to earn a PhD in microbiology. After two years and deciding to not spend his life looking into a microscope, he came back to California and went to UC Davis for a degree in enology. He now is a successful wine consultant in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. There are many other success stories among the Open Classroom students. This is gratifying to those of us who were there from the beginning because we had to buck an existing system to create one we felt would serve our children and community well, and we did it within the public educational system.
Tom Valens made a wonderful video of the Open Classroom with his wife Amy, a long-time teacher at the school. They’ve taken it to other alternative schools across the country as an example of what has been done successfully now for 50 years. Bravo to all the educators and students of this incredible and inspiring endeavor.