Preface to "Children of a Child-Centered School"

This book grew out of a conversation I had one day with the teachers at the Antioch School. The teachers were seeking ways to communicate to the parents of the children what really happens at the Antioch School – what the children actually do there, and how and why they do it. And what it means: the meaning of the children's experience of the school. As we talked, it became clear to us that to explore all this might take a book. I volunteered to try and write it.

The teachers were concerned that the children's parents did not fully understand what the Antioch School was about. The parents knew their children liked the school, and they knew the kids were thriving there, learning and growing and coming into their own. But they did not really understand how and why this was happening.

And it is hard to understand. At the Antioch School there's no "objective proof" of a child's progress – no competitive rankings, no standardized tests, no grades. Each child's incentives and rewards are self-determined; the children are free to follow their own paths of exploration and discovery.

Trust is the word the teachers use when they talk about their work with the children. The teachers trust each child's inborn love of learning, each child's capacity for personal growth and self-development. And they trust the power and wisdom of the children as a group, learning together, building community, creating and sustaining relationships, discovering one another and the world.

The value of trust may be hard to prove, but I have seen it work at the Antioch School and I believe in it. I have believed in it since my own children, Laura, Sarah, and Jessica, were children at the Antioch School. That was a generation ago; and even before then – ever since Laura, my first child, was born – it has been a fervent interest of mine, the wonderful ways children learn and grow and come into their own being when they are respected and trusted and free to be who they really are.

That is what goes on at the Antioch School. Children discover paths to wholeness there. To me, there is nothing in the world more important than this.

So I set out to write this book.

First I planned to interview the teachers. I made a notebook full of questions to ask them about their work with the children. But before I could begin talking with the teachers, the children began presenting themselves to me directly. They did this by just being there, living their everyday lives at the school, being themselves. I would walk into the school and notice a child, or a group of children, doing something – it would catch my eye. I'd pay attention, and I'd see a whole scene full of meaning unfolding there in front of me.

The first time this happened I was standing in the school office saying hello to Didi when I glanced through the open doorway and saw a slender young girl working hard at a difficult task – teaching herself to ride a unicycle. As I watched, she took a hard fall. I wrote in my notebook:

She gets up, her face taut and closed in. One arm is wrapped around her back, to reach the place where it hurts most. She stands there for a long moment, not moving, staring in through the window, seeing nothing. The unicycle lies in a heap at her feet. Then she gathers it up and gets back on it and rides it . . .

This was, you see, in this moment, a child pursuing her own path toward wholeness. As I watched I felt blessed to witness it.

The next day, again a scene unfolded. A group of boys from the Nursery were playing with blocks in the sunny corner of the hallway. I sat on the floor near the center of the action and began taking notes. The children didn't even notice me, they were so deeply engaged in their work. I was struck by the story I saw being enacted, complete with a full set of characters, a developing plot, purpose and meaning. And how these very young children so fully expressed and embodied their needs and wants, their ways of being, their relationship with the world:

Douglas's voice is even-toned, calm, serious. He's intent on his work. He is willing to respond to the others, willing to have a conversation, but it's something he does while he's doing the main thing, which is build the road. He is working furiously, constantly in purposeful motion. He has a plan. When he gets a block from the stack and lugs it back to his construction site, he knows exactly where he wants it to go, and he puts it there. Then he goes and gets another block.

These scenes kept on presenting themselves, day after day, week after week, as I became caught up in the ongoing life of the school. The children kept enacting these scenes, and I kept writing them down. In this way the children themselves wrote much of this book.

Eventually I witnessed the children engaged in the most inspiring scenes of all, when whole groups of twenty or more children came together in special meetings to work out serious conflicts among them. The children conducted these meetings with an elegant allegiance to truth and justice; with a personal, heartfelt concern for each other's well-being; and with the shared purpose of sustaining the strength and harmony of the group:

All around the circle, all the children are absorbed in this meeting. They are listening intently; and when they speak, they speak meaningfully, with conviction, and they express themselves clearly and directly. They are taking everything in, thinking about it, responding to it, expressing themselves to one another.

It was a wonderful thing for me, to be there in the school and observe – I want to say receive, as one receives a gift – the workings of childhood. Often they seemed to me to be magical workings, all the wonderful ways the children would find and create to be true to themselves.

But it is not magic. What I saw happening at the Antioch School was, yes, the natural life of children manifesting itself – and, all-importantly, it was the careful, skillful work of wise and dedicated teachers. The teachers of the Antioch School know each child well and love them all and possess a deep understanding of the nature of children.

The teachers spoke with me at length and in depth about the children and the school. I met with each teacher individually for interviews and conversations, and we all met together many times for a series of discussions. The teachers love to talk about the school; they especially love talking about the children, the things they do and say, the giant leaps forward they make in their lives. We laughed at a lot of the memories the teachers have saved like treasures through the years. Much of it was very moving, for the teachers and the children create deeply meaningful moments together.

The group discussions were tape-recorded and passages are presented in the book verbatim, to honor the value of hearing masterful teachers talking among themselves about their work. These passages of the teachers talking form a kind of frame for the children's scenes. In the book, as in their work at the school, the teachers support the children.

In their discussions the teachers explore the guiding principles of their teaching. At the heart of it all is: Trust in the child.

From trust flows the teachers' shared beliefs about education, self-discovery, growing up whole:

Learning is natural.
Play is the finest way of learning.
Choice teaches responsibility.
There is wisdom in the group.

The teachers' dedication to these beliefs, and their ability to apply them wisely to each child, makes the Antioch School a child-centered school. As one of the teachers, Ann Guthrie, speaking for them all, said: "Each child is seen and valued for his or her own set of gifts. Each child's personality, creativity, developmental time frame – each child's integrity – is respected."

It works. At the Antioch School you can see how well the children are doing by how they look and act, how they relate to each other, how they go about being themselves. If you get closer, and talk with them, and listen, you can hear their strength.

But it's hard sometimes for us to trust our own eyes and ears. All that we have been trained to believe about human nature works against our understanding of the true nature of children. We are trained not to believe that love of learning is natural to the child, an inborn quality, a birthright gift. To the Antioch School teachers, this is an obvious, basic, undeniable fact of life. In one of our of group discussions two of the teachers, Jeanie Felker and Chris Powell, spoke passionately about this:

Jeanie: Learning is natural. It's right in here.
[She places her hand over her heart.]

Chris: Yes! The excitement of learning is inside us. It's intrinsic. Children love to learn!

Children love to learn. Once we accept this truth, we begin to understand what education really is. We understand that the true function of a school is to provide a nurturing environment that respects the great powers of learning children possess. We understand that the true purpose of a teacher is to help children find and follow their own paths toward wholeness. And to join the children on that path.

This is what happens at the Antioch School.

As I worked on this book I had the good fortune to become an Antioch School teacher myself, on a small scale. Chris Powell, the Older Group teacher, invited me to teach a class in creative writing. For an hour or so, two days a week, I met with some of the Older Groupers (ages nine through twelve) for what we called Writers Group.

At first, we didn't write much; we talked. We talked about words, and about our ideas and our feelings, about dreams and hopes and fears. We laughed a lot.

After a while we started writing. We'd take our pocket-sized notebooks and go outside and walk around noticing things – exploring, discovering – and writing about them. I loved their writing, so full of life and heart and wisdom. These children create meaningful poems as naturally as their bodies breathe: they'd write poems in their notebooks while swinging on the swings, tossing a football, walking in the woods, climbing a tree . . .

And they were fine poems. One cold bright December day, Nicky wandered off from the rest of us and when he came back a few minutes later he brought us this poem:

I could swear I see
a little snowflake falling
from the loving, overcast sky.
It flows on a wisp of air,
waiting for its friends to come.
Small, crystallized, star-shaped,
it is fragile
like a piece of glass
ready to fall
and shatter
into a layer
of magnificent snow

Anna C, swaying on a swing with her notebook on her lap, wrote a powerful poem protesting the war in Iraq, and denouncing the conflict-ridden condition of the world:

A cry I hear
not far not near
it comes without
a tag of fear
or ring of stature
merely a warning
to the immature battles
fought on earth
where the spies are blind
the negotiators mute
and the warriors numb with confusion

Hannah wrote in celebration of her childhood self:

I am a squirrel
Frolicking in the flowers
I am a single snowflake
Falling gently to the ground
I am a flute
Playing softly to the sound of bells
I am the color pink
Refreshing and bright
I am a stream
Flowing, going with the wind
I am me,
And that's all I shall be.

Being in the Writers Group was a revelation. I wasn't, of course, really a teacher, but my experience afforded me a powerful insight into what it's like to teach at the Antioch School. It is hard work. It is hard not for the usual reasons – professional and political reasons – that teaching is hard; it goes deeper than that. Teaching at the Antioch School is hard work because you are always in close, direct, dynamic relationship with children who expect and require you to be truly yourself. Always. Nothing else will do. The children are truly themselves: this is the standard they set, and you must meet it.

So it is very difficult; and it is deeply, deeply rewarding. I learned more as a member of our Antioch School Writers Group – more about being true to one's self, and about creative spirit, and about coming to know and respect and care about others – than any school setting I've ever been in, as student or teacher (and I've lived most of my life being one or the other).

And I learned what a school is. I learned from all the children, each in their own ways, what Gabe, one of the poets in our Writers Group, showed us with his poem. It is a meditation on the meaning of the sandpile in the Antioch School play-yard – and a powerful statement about the community of the school:

The Sand Mound
It's never the same.
Whenever a leaf falls, whenever it rains,
when a child walks on it –
it changes.
Ever shifting sand
with different shapes and sizes,
like the tumbling waters of the vast oceans,
stretching from one place to another,
from thousands of miles
to just a couple hundred yards across.
Little plastic trowels and children
litter the sand mound like fish in the sea.
A kid crying
is like an underwater volcano erupting,
forming an island of teachers and children
coming to help.
That's the Sand Mound.

What happens at the Antioch School is important.

In a fearful nation plagued by anxiety about the failure of its schools, the Antioch School is a bold success. Free from the repression of penalty-based tests, free from the fear of being "left behind," the children of the Antioch School grow up gaining what they need to explore and discover their chosen paths toward wholeness.

In a world where we see every day the tragic destruction of childhood, the children of the Antioch School grow up with the nature of their child-life fully honored and trusted, and respected as their own.

In an age of cynical and fatalistic self-doubt, the children of the Antioch School affirm human nature; for the open-hearted nature of these children is our true human nature. To perceive our human possibilities, we need only take a careful look at these children. See how much they understand. See how deeply they care.

"They would save the world, if they could," Kit Crawford said of her Younger Group children.

They are who we used to be; and can be again – "Deep down," as Marlee, in the Older Group, said about the roots of kindness dwelling within an unkind person. Human beings are at our best when we are children; if we can find a way to really know this, maybe we could save the world. Deep down.

Don Wallis
Yellow Springs, Ohio
June 2005

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Children of a Child-Centered School
by Don Wallis and the children and teachers of The Antioch School
Read the preface here

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An in-depth look at The Antioch School, written by Don Wallis, with photos by Erik and Deirdre Owen. It's $20, plus $2 shipping and handling. All proceeds benefit the school. Order yours today. Just click on the PayPal button below, or call 937-767-7642.

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