Building the Next New School: A Conversation with Tal Birdsey

By Evangelia Biddy

 

Tal Birdsey was a single father with an extensive education background who longed to see his own sons in a learning environment where they could flourish. When he found no such school he set out to build one. In his extremely personal memoir, A Room for Learning: The Making of a School in Vermont, he chronicles his unlikely journey and the special learners who would join him at a school with no set curriculum, limited resources, in two small rooms in the woods with little more than a hardy fire and the music of Coltrane to warm them. Can a few small rooms in the woods become a place of authentic thought and academic growth? Birdsey offers a new voice and expands the dialogue on what the next school reform movement will look like.

 

EB: In the opening of your new book you say schools don’t always foster an environment hospitable to tenderness, pain, loss. What do you mean by that?

TB: Schools are big, and generally speaking, schools are systems.  Systems are impersonal, and in the hustle of making the system or school function, it moves forward relentlessly, driven by schedules, standards, law, tradition, or protocol. In such an environment there is little time to tell the stories of longing or loss; to have space or quiet to reveal or comprehend the workings of an individual’s heart; or to create a listening community where it is natural to enter into the complex realm of a classmate or students’ life. Students have always been under pressure to “succeed.” Thanks to federal and state mandates, as well-intentioned as they are, now schools are under pressure to “succeed.” In such an environment it is not likely that a school system can slow down to hear the true stories of students, which, to most educators and administrators, appear to be, at best, a distraction or, at worst, inappropriate material from which to learn.

 

EB: You dreamed of a new kind of school? Why? What’s missing in education today?

TB: Every teacher dreams of having a classroom that is filled with time, humor, freedom of thought, and expression. Every educator desires freedom of movement, students who want and accept responsibility. Yet the schools we have created tend to suppress or repress these impulses. Teachers are forever complaining about lack of autonomy, lack of the opportunity to experiment, to try new things.  Teachers are oppressed by pedagogical orthodoxies and bureaucratic controls which deflate innovation.   No wonder teachers lose ambition, burn out, or give up.  The kids know this, they feel it, and so it should be no surprise that so many kids come to school only to endure it.  Has anyone asked the kids what kind of school they would like to be in?  Has anyone given the kids real responsibility–even to the point of letting them fail? Of giving them a hand in making the schools they want to be in?  Such notions frighten most educators, and so most educators tighten the controls.

“Teaching adolescents is grueling, exhausting, vexing, disheartening, mystifying, lonely and occasionally beautiful, even exhilarating.”—Tal Birdsey

EB: Let’s talk about teaching adolescents. What are the challenges of educating at this age? Speak to the complexities of adolescents?

TB: They are at once child-like and profoundly adult; they bounce between both poles, so fast that most teachers can’t keep up with them. They are so off-balance that they sometimes seem crazy, nuts, bizarre; for this reason many adults do not want to teach them; adolescents are impulsive, cocky, ignorant, wise, scared, apathetic and driven to greatness; at other times they are luminously poetic, spectacularly compassionate. They want to be great, they can see their own short-comings, they act primarily out of jealousy or fear, which is most often a negative image of their hunger for greatness; they project their insecurities all over the place, onto each other, which means they can not hide their feelings, which means there will be conflicts, which, if you give it time, can lead to their true feelings. If you give their feelings time, in time, they can learn from their feelings. They’ll be fascinated in themselves and each other, and, eventually, in any material you place before them.  Doing all that takes great energy, time, humor, and love.

 

EB: Let’s address your three basic assumptions of teaching that you discussed in the book. How do they impact your teaching style?

TB: The kids know I believe they are geniuses and capable of greatness.  They know this because when I see one of them being compassionate, poetic, thoughtful, or trying hard, I make a huge deal about it. I don’t mean I cheer about an A+. I mean, I rant about the way they express themselves, their humor, their tears, their insights, their kindnesses, the way they express love or humility or wisdom.  I shout, I rant, I laugh, I cheer, I raise a holy ruckus. They see me do this and they connect my ranting to the genius we have witnessed.  Then they begin to work, even compete, to be great.  It is simply a matter of using their natural need for peer approval to positive ends.  They want their teachers, friends, and parents to love them.  They will work for love, if you love them, if they believe you do. Because the kids learn that greatness and genius is sought, they look for it, in themselves, their teachers, and each other. They want to feel it and taste it. I have an insatiable hunger for their epiphanies, and they have proven to me and themselves that they can generate epiphanies, together as a class and as individual learners, at a beautiful, unbelievable rate.

 

EB: You describe a troubled learner being one of your first students. “The kind of kid a fragile, new school might want to avoid.” Why did you take a chance like that and what was the outcome?

TB: Because I had to follow my own assumption that every kid is capable of greatness I took risks. An A+ student may never leave anything of lasting value at a school.  My troubled student left so much that we are still learning from it. He couldn’t read. “So what,” he could do a great many other things of inestimable value. A school should be hospitable to any gift a child can tender. The school has to be safe and open to accept those gifts, gifts which, in the end, are too good and rare to be measured by a test. In the end, we have to help them learn how to live in the world, no matter if they have the “right” skill-set or not. My troubled student had an enormous skill set.  He was gifted, as all people are. My job was to make a school where those gifts could be born, over and over.

 

EB: What are the words you used to convince strangers to enroll their children in a school that only exists in a brochure?

TB: The words were simple: “small, intimate, caring, free, open, always changing and growing with the kids.”  But these words were empty, really, until I animated them with my own passion.  I tried to impress upon the first school parents that I had a passion.  I think they heard this when I talked. They heard the feeling of my dream, which was really their dream.

 

EB: Who benefits most from a small school setting?

TB: First, students benefit from smaller schools.  Each of them can be seen for his or her own, unique, glorious, unadulterated magnificent self.  Second, the teachers, who can come to know each student, and can find ways to creatively relate to the students, talk to them, know them, and reach them.  When this happens, teachers can feel like creative human specialists, not technicians on an assembly line.

 

EB: Are super-sized schools bad for all children?

TB: Surely, some big schools work for some kids.  Not every kid needs a small school to do well. However, you will rarely find a kid in a large school who loves school, who is dying to be there everyday.  On the other hand, you will find most kids in small schools really wanting to go to school everyday. They want to go to school because they know that what they do will be seen and felt. Kids should want to go to school. Otherwise, it is like doing time until the adults free them. Our job is to free them—their minds, spirits, work ethics and hearts—in school, every day. They should want to be there, always. They should feel like they are flying in school, all the time.

 

Tal Birdsey co-founded the North Branch School in Ripton, Vermont in 2001 with a small group of parents who shared a vision of a small school tailored to the unique needs of early adolescents.  The founding philosophy is centered on a school concept that promotes self-directed and active learning, incorporates students’ emotional, intellectual, and growth issues, emphasizes experiential and outdoor education, and fosters a strong community based on close student-teacher-parent relationships.  With twenty-six students and a low student/teacher ratio, The North Branch School has the ability to build a flexible, personalized and engaging environment. He is a regular contributor to Schoolbook: A Journal of Education. He lives in Ripton, Vermont.

Visit www.talbirdsey.com to learn more about The North Branch School.

 

Evangelia Biddy, Editor-in-Chief of Junior, The Magazine about Bringing up Successful Boys, is also a contributor to Raising Boys World, an expert for Bizymoms.com,  and an educational consultant. She can be reached at ebiddy@juniorthemagazine.com

 

 

One Response to “Building the Next New School: A Conversation with Tal Birdsey”

Ey Wade says:

How truly awesome. I wished to have had such a thing for my daughters. Twenty years ago, as a single, African-American mother I removed my eldest two daughter’s from public education, and home-schooled them. The youngest never went to traditional school. Without an umbrella school, they were educated through to college and the two oldest have graduated. The youngest runs an online business.

I believe the type of education a child needs should be geared towards that child. Some do not thrive in homeschooling just as some do not thrive in the traditional schools.
I applaud this father.

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