Green schools: where ‘outside’ isn’t just for recess

| 07 Jul 2014 | 02:40

Unplugged: Learning with your hands

“Now this is not part of the school,” said Arno Wright, as we walked through a doorway. “That’s why you see computers. These are community offices.”

Wright, 37, is the principal of the Bellvale School, which mostly serves the children of the Bellvale Community, one of 23 intentional Christian communes around the world that comprise the Bruderhof movement. Life here feels like someone has wound the clock way, way back.

“We try and do the old kind of things,” said Wright. “Use our brains and not calculators. We think the relationship between students and teachers is important, and with technology, you can miss that.”

We are walking the grounds of Bellvale, which used to be a boys’ Catholic school, along with students Kobi Mercer, 12, and Nathan Kurtz, 13. A handful of the school’s 40 students come in from outside the tight-knit community, but those students are gone now, because the day I visited happened to be the day after the last day of school. But school is a looser idea here; the community kids are still around, and there’s still supervision and some organized activities. Young girls in braids play in a stream that’s been dammed to make a watering hole, while a long-skirted woman watches from the grass. She is not checking an iPhone. Older girls with covered heads and bare feet are cleaning classrooms along with Arno’s wife, listening to folk music on the radio.

“We try and involve the kids in caring for the building,” said Arno, after peeking in to say hi. It promotes a “common feeling of ownership.” No money changes hands within the community; each person does the job assigned to him by the brotherhood; they grow their own food; and everything – computers, cars – is owned in common.

In an empty kindergarten classroom, unpainted wooden blocks of various shapes are stacked neatly in wooden shelves. Outside, red tricycles and a scooter are parked in a wooden bike rack. The Bruderhof are renowned woodworkers, and making these long-lasting toys is their business.

Learning to work with your hands is a crucial element of education here, and every older student does something in the woodworking shop, which is outfitted with everything but power tools: hand saws, crosscut saws, chisels, and a hand-crank drill press bought from a collector, because they don’t make them anymore.

The students’ magnum opus is the maple sap shed they helped to build last year, made of mortise and tenon beams that fit together with wooden pegs, sans nails. We walk up there. The sugar shack feels like a little chapel in the woods. Some of the timber came from the surrounding forest, thanks to a member of a neighboring Bruderhof community who came over with his portable sawmill. The roof shingles are white oak, made with a splitter by one of the student’s dads.

“Shakes,” interjected Kobi, who’d mostly been silent – using the term for wooden shingles.

“This year we tapped about 600 trees,” said Wright, “and made 180 gallons of syrup.”

“182 gallons,” corrected Nathan. They give the syrup out to families and make pancakes fries for the community, he said. (Whatever pancake fries are, they sound delicious.)

“We make about 50 gallons an hour,” said Wright.

“Depends who’s stoking,” said Nathan.

The boys had come alive. The sugar shack was not only their magnum opus, I saw, but probably the most effective of their classrooms.

Where shoes, and rope-making, are optional

Everyone over 18 has gone inside. Not that the adults at the Birch School are so “grown-up”; one has a dog orbiting her and bare feet. Nevertheless, it strikes me all of a sudden that the teachers have wandered off, maybe to pop in on the art group doing wet chalk drawings, leaving nine students, age five to 15, and two teenage “student-facilitators,” to cook corn tortillas over a campfire on the outskirts of the woods. Yet the atmosphere has not changed. I realize that I don’t know when the teachers left.

This is the Birch School, a two-year-old private school located in a church building in Rock Tavern, NY. Every Thursday, Matt Johnson, 17, a homeschooled woodsman from nearby Salisbury Mills, comes here to teach Primitive Skills. Today’s skill is how to make a fire the ancient way, using a bow drill set that Matt fashioned himself out of wood he found in the forest.

Each student has chosen what she’d like to do from three options. This afternoon, the choices are fire-making, wet chalk drawing with a visiting art teacher, or making rope out of toilet paper or poplar.

Matt unwrapped the bow drill set from an animal hide, removed pieces from a handmade birch pouch and laid it all out on the grass.

“This bow is special,” Matt said. “It was given to me by a beaver.” He asked the kids how one might recognize a beaver’s work, then showed them the wood’s chewed point. Then he took a knee and got to work generating friction, vigorously moving the wooden bow back and forth, back and forth, so that it spun the wooden shaft into a hole in the base board.

One kid declared that he looked like an orangutan. Conversation ensued.

Orangutans have orange faces.

Some people have orange hair.

Zach’s brother has orange hair.

A sweating Matt transferred a smoking ember into a “timber bundle” of dead grass. The rush was on to construct a tipi of tiny twigs into which to transfer the smoking timber bundle – but by then it was too late. That part should have been done earlier. Lesson learned.

Three tries later, Owen Pahucki, 15, took a flint and steel set out of his pocket, and it became a race to get an ember going.

Pahucki, who describes himself as an outdoor person, had been to “a lot of schools before this one. I went to Valley Central, Montgomery Montessori, Woodland Montessori,” he said.

The Birch School, he said, is “awesome. You get time outdoors. At my other schools, it was just a field or a fenced-in basketball court. When you finish your work, you have the option to do things: go outside, make chain mail.” He slipped a bit of chainmail, which he’d crafted out of interlocking loops of wire, out of his other pocket.

In its first year, the Birch School had 12 students, and its founder, Kate Fox, thought she might have to close it. This year, there are 20 students. Fox gave nine tours in the past week, and today there are three visiting students here. Thirty students is the most the school will take.

The curriculum has one foot firmly in nature and the other – somewhat counterintuitively – in technology, like programming and robotics. Kids as young as five have designed video games.

“Most kids are coming out of public,” said Fox. Those who’ve been coming recently have been the crème de la crème in terms of intelligence, she said. “There was always a population of students that school worked for. But even the kids who it worked for before, it doesn’t seem to be working for.”

Among the kids that Dirt spoke to, bullying and not fitting in came up as reasons they’d left other schools.

“We put a lot of effort into making a kind community,” said Fox. That includes twice-daily “talking stick circles,” at which a stick is passed around, and each kid, from the youngest and quietest on up, has a turn to speak. When bullying does become an issue, teachers help the kids negotiate the conflict and come up with a plan going forward. “The teachers pay attention to the emotional environment. It’s not just – be nice to each other.”

“It’s amazing, when you make a kid safe and happy, what they’re capable of,” she said.

“As an educational reformist, I don’t want to be a charter school. I don’t want to be accountable to Board of Regents,” she said. “New York is so behind,” she said. In many cases, the public school is the only option, and now many public schools are closing their doors. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, offers cyber charter schools that let students take classes online. Fox, who “un-schooled” her son, wants to push the envelope in terms of what a school can be.

“I want people to say, ‘Well, they’re doing it over there.’”

Cafeteria scraps come full circle

“Who’s dumping?” Theresa Christiansen asked, once the seventh grade class had filed in. Hands went up. “Get gloves.”

Every day, weather permitting, Christiansen brings one of her science classes outside to compost expired food from the cafeteria. Christiansen won a $5,000 grant last year to buy the composters, and the fence around them.

The students who would be handling the food picked plastic gloves out of a box. Gloves on, a girl pretended to be a mime, a boy shimmered his jazz hands, they reeled each other in, made it rain. The gloves, Christiansen explained, are because a student had an allergic reaction after handling compost, even though it was fairly well progressed. She thinks the offender was strawberries.

“Victoria, get the radio.”

“Oh we’re listening to music?” I asked.

Nope, a walkie-talkie. We’re only going about 50 paces from the classroom to a fenced-in yard, but just in case.

The class filed into the cafeteria behind Shannon Apolito, 12, whose turn it was to carry the compost receptacle, a cardboard box with a garbage bag inside it. A lunch lady dumped a container of wilted lettuce into the box, then went to the freezer to get half a dozen wrinkled cucumbers.

“We get to smash, yes!” The kids high-fived. Larger pieces of food get pulverized before they go into the composter.

Halfway to the yard, Christiansen realized she’d brought the wrong key. Back the class went.

It’s one thing, I realized, to get kids learning outdoors in creative ways at a private school. Aside from state-mandated fire drills and attendance keeping, “we can do whatever we want,” said one private school teacher. It’s another story at a public school, where there are a lot of rules and tests and padlocks, and not a lot of time between bells, let alone money for “extras.” But ingenuity finds a way – provided you’ve got key players on board.

Cafeteria manager Michelle Bifano has been “very, very helpful,” said Christiansen. “When we get a big barrel of compost, we bring it to her, and she acts all excited.”

“Mr. Tom,” the custodian who built the raised beds in the fourth-grade garden, also built a pallet structure to hold the lawn clippings and dead leaves that the students put into the composter along with the food scraps. “I think he did it on his own time,” Christiansen winced.

Inside the fenced-off yard at last, the kids took turns smashing cucumbers with a rock and wrinkling their noses at the smell wafting from the tumbler. There’s probably not enough brown matter, Christiansen said. More leaves.

This is the end of the normal routine, which, when there’s not a reporter and photographer along, allegedly only takes a few minutes. But today’s tour continued up a hill and around the school building, to the fourth grade garden where the finished compost ends up. Lettuces growing in these raised beds will be eaten at the fourth grade’s year-end salad party. But that’s only part of the way in which this project comes full circle.

“We were the fourth graders who started it,” said Hennesse Decker, 13, proudly. It took me a minute to realize she was referring to the fourth grade garden. “We had a salad party, with baby romaine.”

The teaching garden concept had grown up hand-in-hand with this class, then. It all started back in the day, you know, in 2011, when fourth graders really had to work for their greens.

“Now it’s fancier,” said Apolita. “They have benches and birdhouses.”

“And better fencing, because a groundhog got into it,” said Madison Piper, 13.

Indeed, one improvement has inspired another, and now there’s a sort of meditation garden, with tree stumps of different heights for sitting, next to the salad garden.

Eventually, Christiansen hopes to start a second garden for the middle school students – a few raised beds, to start, so that they can reap some of the fruits of their labor. It seems simple enough. “All it takes it time and money, right?” she chuckled.