Good News for a Change

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If you flip back through my early blog entries, you’ll find one about my six-year tenure as the teaching principal of the Pierce School in Bennington, NH. Although I left forty years ago, I’ve kept up with what’s happening at the school and in the surrounding Conval school district through our subscription to the local newspaper, The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript and our summer visits to the region, which have included visits to the school and the “new” wing which was added at least 25 years ago.

I’m going to follow the lead of the late great Mike Rose by reporting some good school news as an antidote to all the war stories about schools, teachers and administrators that dominate the headlines. In his book Possible Lives, Mike recounts his years- long journey across America in search of success stories that might help create a counter-narrative to the tales about the failure of public education that fill the media, with the encouragement and financial support of right-wing money laser-focused on privatizing America’s schools.

Bennington is a small paper mill town in Southern New Hampshire with a population of 1,500. The school, which housed grades K-6 when I was there, now serves grades K-4, feeding the fifth and sixth graders into the middle school in a neighboring town. During my tenure the school population hovered around 80-85 students and my guess is that it’s lower now because the whole region in which it sits has been experiencing a decline in school-age population for a number of years, leading to frequent efforts to close and consolidate some of the region’s town schools. So far, local loyalties have managed to beat back those efforts and currently they don’t pose an immediate threat.

I wanted to tell you about two things that have happened at the school this year. They’re the kinds of things that are microscopic in relation to the whole national landscape, but I suspect that if we turned our attention more often to local happenings in schools around the country, we would find many similar heartening stories which, if aggregated, would present a brighter picture of the state of American education than the one put forth by the privatizers intent on clearing the path for greater “choice.”

The first story arrived under this headline: “Pierce Elementary School students’ work with turtles to be featured on PBS.” The article describes a project supported by a local environmental center in which, over an extended period of time, third graders care for hatchling turtles until they have a better shot at surviving in the wild. Until then, turtle eggs and very young hatchlings are easy prey to many predators higher on the food chain. This is the kind of project that makes my heart sing because it offers up numerous possibilities for integrated learning in math, science and reading.It capitalizes on children’s curiosity about the natural world which doesn’t get exploited often enough. They will remember and take pride in the turtle project long after their worksheets and computer exercises are erased from memory.

It happens that in an adjacent town, Sy Montgomery, a renowned naturalist and author, is engaged in her own hatchling turtle project, which will eventually be the basis for anotherone of her stunning books. Sy is a dear friend and I had been following the progress of her own hatchlings on FaceBook, long before I learned of the Pierce School project. If it hasn’t happened already, she will soon be visiting this third-grade classroom, adding yet another layer to the lessons kids are absorbing from their turtles – that there are people in their own community who are doing interesting work and can serve as models that the children might choose to emulate in the future. Teachers are great adult models, but there are other adults who are pursuing different work pathways. Again, this kind of project is a mere speck of dust in the educational galaxy, but it is a powerful exemplar of good teaching and learning that is happening in thousands of classrooms, a thrilling antidote to a year and a half of lifeless remote learning.

During my time at Pierce School, we embarked on an ambitious playground project whose centerpiece was an elaborate wooden climbing structure. Bennington is the kind of community which contains a healthy number of people who have built, repaired or expanded their own homes, so it wasn’t hard to find volunteers with the skills to do the work and even to contribute the materials that were needed. During our annual summer visits to the region, I took pleasure in driving by the school and seeing the climbing platform towering over the playground area adjacent to the road. The combination of harsh weather and energetic kids take a toll on a structure like this and one year it was gone, replaced by commercial plastic equipment in colors never seen in the natural world.

Apparently, that too is in need of replacement – it’s been forty years since I left – as part of a larger redesign of the entire playground area. Once again, the word reaches me through the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript of a fund-raising effort to support the ambitious project.

“However, the school chose an atypical method to raise the money. Students sent emails to family and friends, asking them to make donations to support acts of kindness.

“We’re not selling stuff,” Gibney (ed: that’s Beth Gibney, the principal since last year) said. “If we’re putting good into the world, people can see that’s a worthy cause.”

It seems to be working.

“In a really short period of time, we’ve already raised $7,000, and it’s only been a week,” she said. “The kids are so excited to be able to do these acts of kindness. It’s a core value of our school. It’s really a good opportunity, and we benefit in multiple ways.

Gibney said activities have included picking up trash, doing more recycling and sending notes to senior facilities and hospitals and painting “kindness rocks” that they leave around town for people to find. According to Powell (ed: Amy Powell, the PTO president), goodie baskets for police and fire and letters of appreciation for police, fire, hospitals and people who provide services have also proven popular.

Powell’s 6-year-old daughter Brooklyn drew Easter pictures and handed them out to residents at the senior living center where Powell’s grandmother lives.”

If that doesn’t make your heart sing, it’s time for a visit to the cardiologist. There’s been so much incivility and contentiousness in recent years in the adult world that setting kids on a very different course of kindness and caring is downright transformational. The acts of kindness that are described were shameful reminders of the fundraising events I was complicit in – candy sales, hawking gift wrapping and greeting cards – that only served as training grounds for capitalism and senseless consumerism. How different from the community building and basic human decency that were a likely outcome of performing acts of kindness.

I know that every reader can multiply the examples I’ve provided from the local classrooms they’re familiar with. Here we have the counter narrative to all the doomsday stories of failing public schools. There’s plenty that needs repair and improvement, but there’s also much from which to take hope, as we can see from these signals from a small New Hampshire town.

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Marv Hoffman

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