Active Learners Blog

Three images of children at The Antioch School

I teach creative writing courses at the Individualized Master of Arts (IMA) program at Antioch University Midwest. In the program, adult student writers take an array of foundational courses in small groups, and then, with expert guidance, design the rest of the curriculum for themselves. Within a graduate school frame, this model allows writers to dig into work they care about, driven by their curiosity and interests. It’s kind of like the Antioch School for adults.

I realized this when I was at work, listening to IMA students and faculty talking about how they do what they do. My turn came, and I mentioned my daughter’s school, which, I said, “is kind of like the IMA for children.” As I said this, I realized that student-led learning is so natural in my experience that it doesn’t seem remarkable. In great part, it’s natural to me because of my foundation at the Antioch School.

In the 1970s, when I was a student at the Antioch School, the building itself seemed alive and breathing. In the Red Room (now Art & Science) we dipped candles, sewed clothing, fired glass, made pottery, and cooked our own lunches. It was normal for school to look like this: a child digs through a bin of fabric, finds the hues and textures she wants, and uses the sewing machine to make something of her own design. It was normal for children to get together and think up a play — sometimes inspired by beloved stories, sometimes original, but always flavored by those specific children who would see it through to production. It was normal to walk across a grassy field (what we call the golf course) to Antioch College to jump on a room-sized trampoline or go to the science lab to dissect dead things. This was school. When I look at my career, it makes sense that teaching in a program as unusual as I do isn’t that remarkable. The IMA is a little hard to explain, but it is familiar.

The Antioch School can also be hard to explain. (No, we don’t have recess; yes, children are allowed to climb that, because they worked out the safety rules that make sense to them; yes, we have plenty of ice packs in case they fall.)

In 2011, my daughter began in Nursery. Through the kaleidoscope of time and memory, I saw the school anew; I saw what rare magic happens there. I saw what education should be. In the midst of what might look like chaos, the teachers’ work seems nearly invisible, but with patient intention, they create a school where children are trusted to follow intuition, indulge natural curiosity, and take real risks. The teachers provide safety and offer gentle, effective leadership, asking children questions rather than giving them answers. They know children can — should! — find their own solutions.

Last year, my daughter’s Kindergarten group decided to put on a play adaptation of the movie “Frozen.” Not all the children had seen the movie. The kids who had seen it did their job of telling the story to the others. The students organized it and rehearsed it. Their teacher, Lindie Keaton, wrote it down. The children worked out who would play which role/s, rearranged the story as needed, and negotiated the plan so that everyone was satisfied. The performance was homespun and (for a parent) adorable, and sometimes hard to hear, but here they had done this big thing and they were very happy about it. One of the children surprised the audience by belting out the central song, pacing back and forth, sweetly and earnestly commanding our attention.

The French term for filmmaking is la réalisation de films. As more and more schools have eliminated theater programs, I’m heartened by what children at the Antioch School experience: Children work together to realize a story and make meaning in the world. They collaborate to make something. Making and realizing stories is not peripheral to learning. Humans understand each other, and the world, through story. Story makes us more human. (Want evidence? Read Annie Murphy Paul’s New York Times piece, “Your Brain on Fiction.”) Working together, collaborating to create something that is whole: this energy is essential to the human experience. This is how we make the world.

I’m sure the important work of making story was similar when I did plays at the school, too. My memory fades, but the central recollection is having loved school. The teachers respected and celebrated our humanity. Being a child who was taken seriously by adults has resonated through my life. I try to give this back by really listening to children. Childhood wasn’t always happy; it was work, and the teachers knew that, and gave us room to do our work. I felt invested in the work, felt seen and appreciated. This formative experience has had an impact on my confidence throughout my life. I learned at Antioch School that my voice mattered. When I share stories of the place with other alumni, I see a familiar expression on their faces. We were treated to a place of magic, a place where we learned how to learn. Simply put, this magic seemed normal.

Now as an Antioch School parent, seeing the school still vibrant enriches my story, and helps me make meaning for this next generation.

This article was written by Rebecca Kuder, Antioch School parent and alum, and printed in the 2014 Active Learners Journal published by The Antioch School.

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