This morning wasn’t quite so chilly. I still had to wear a tank top, t-shirt, and sweater with jeans, but it warmed up more quickly. My six year old buddy, Nathan, kept me company again on the school porch as children arrived between 9:30 and 10:00. One of the dads, whose young son is attending Grassroots as a new five year old, sat nearby reading to a group. He started off with a book about Greek heroes. Then his three year old daughter requested a Bernstein Bears story, which was more popular.
Nathan and I headed down to the garden to warm up more. Jan was already there, busily tending, planting, fixing, and planning. I ended up fertilizing the flower bed and the section of young cabbages for a little while as I asked Jan more questions about Grassroots. I asked her what she liked best about being at the school for thirty years as both a parent and a teacher. After a moment of deep thought, she replied, “You know, I really just enjoy being able to take my time with everything. There’s no need for anyone to be in a hurry. There is something so peaceful in going at your own pace.”
After my gardening task I headed back to the school. For a little while I wandered around, simply observing teachers and children. Each staff member certainly has their own personality, their own unique teaching style, and their own guidelines on how much structure is needed. All the teachers follow the Grassroots principle that children can learn what they want, when they want, but there are still fluctuations within that wide berth of liberty according to each teacher’s personal convictions. Some teachers are extremely easy-going, only giving advice or help when asked, often preferring the students to work out issues and choose projects among themselves as much as possible. Other teachers are more apt to suggest activities for students who look bored, or immediately mediate between a small squabble. Yet the children seem to love all the teachers regardless of their differences.
Several students asked to play the game “Eye Know” again, so Kerrie set it up in a classroom. A twelve year old girl, two eight year old girls, an eight year old boy, Kerrie, and I began playing. Kerrie won by a point, barely beating the twelve year old; I came in third. Once more I was surprised at which facts the children knew and didn’t know. A lot of the more difficult trivia they had learned from verbal explanations from either television shows or family and friends. The twelve year old turned out to be a warehouse of Greek and Roman mythology; she knew so many details of the myths, even down to the correct spelling of the names. Very impressive. “It’s just something I’ve always loved,” she told me.
Today was the weekly Powwow. This is a meeting that all students may take part in (and are encouraged to), but are not required to attend. Each meeting has a moderator, who is a child that volunteers. A twelve year old named Sam asked to run the meeting today. A few minutes before noon Sam walked through the Grassroots grounds ringing a bell to announce the Powwow’s beginning. Many of the children came; several of the younger ones stayed in the sandbox, and a few girls decided to continue drawing at a picnic table, but everyone else sat on the porch along with the teachers as Sam called the meeting to order. People from age five and up were present. Kerrie wrote the minutes on a clipboard, but other than that no adult took any sort of leadership role. It was very clear that everybody present was on an equal level. Sam began by writing the Powwow schedule on the blackboard at the front.
First I was introduced. Even though all the children were used to seeing me around by now, and I had interacted with most of them, there was still a formal introduction. Then Sam asked if anyone had any questions for me. Many hands shot up. Sam would allow each student to speak as he pointed at them in turn. “What is your favorite letter and number?” “Where are you from?” “What is your favorite instrument?” “What is your favorite food?” “What is your job back in St. Louis?” “Do you have any children yet?” “Are you vegetarian?” (several of the children come from vegetarian families) And here was my favorite interview question: “Do you like children?” My response, “yes, I absolutely LOVE children”, was met with approving nods and a smattering of applause. I couldn’t help smiling.
Several people had announcements to make. There was a disagreement over the “Make It” club’s meeting days; the two disputers gave each side of the argument, heard advice from other students and Kerrie, and finally agreed to call a club meeting in order to discuss better days for them to have activities. Teacher Luis brought up the issue of recycling; after a short discussion about proper recycling techniques, everyone was more or less on board with taking all recyclable products home to dispose of properly, since the school did not have enough parent volunteers to accommodate public recycling bins for anything except paper.
Next, an eight year old student, Christian, brought forward a “personal”, which is their term for a grievance against another student. He was upset because he felt that his friend Daniel had been wronged. Daniel had built a fort and was playing in it earlier that week when another boy got into a fight with him. Christian said that the boy ruined Daniel’s fort, disregarded any pleas to stop, and punched Daniel in the stomach. All the students looked gravely serious. Sam, still moderating the Powwow and following procedure, asked Christian what he though the consequence for the boy’s actions should be. Christian asked for five days of “Super Short”, which meant five days of only staying within the main building, not being allowed off the porch or onto other parts of of the Grassroots property. This is a stiff penalty for children who are used to going wherever they please and spend most of their time outside. Sam asked the accused boy if he would like to speak in his own defense. The boy, looking downcast, mumbled that he would rather not make the Powwow last a long time, so he’d just take the consequence without protest.
I was later told that usually after the accused had made their defense, witnesses of the incident would be called, and more discussion would be allowed. If anyone thought that the recommended consequence was too harsh, it could be amended. If there was still any dispute over the consequence, it was voted on by the whole group. In this case, it appeared that the accused boy knew that he was in the wrong, so he was saving face by simply accepting the consequence.
The next part of the Powwow involved the creation of two new rules. A seven year old student, Rose, suggested a rule that would allow students to sign up for twenty-minute time slots on the computers on the current day only, not days in advance. The rule was discussed briefly, then received approval by popular vote. Kerrie had an amendment of the procedure involving ringing the bell for clean-up, since there had been much controversy between the younger children over that esteemed position several times this week. There was a long debate about this between other teachers and the students as to what was the best way to go about deciding who could ring the bell. Finally a solution was voted on and passed unanimously.
The other items on the schedule for Powwow didn’t come up because nothing was needed this week. Item five, “Powwow Money”, is for discussing events, trips, or projects that the students want school funds for. Item six, “Building Permits”, is for any student wishing to temporarily “check out” a place on the school property for a personal project, such as building a fort, having a play, etc. The permit is given if the vote is passed that the person will be responsible, fair, and safe. The last item, “PCR”, had something to do with reviewing consequences carried over from the previous Powwow, if necessary, but there weren’t any today.
And so Sam adjourned the meeting. It lasted almost an hour. A few of the younger students drifted in and out as their attention waned, and a few more students came to the meeting who had not been interested in attending at its start. Everyone present was fairly attentive the entire time. Any student (usually the youngest) making noise or speaking out of turn was instantly corrected by those around him or her. Everyone spoke only when Sam, the moderator, pointed to them. Even six year olds knew that their vote counted as much as an adult vote. A sense of respect, almost formal dignity, and fairness was present throughout the Powwow. Altogether, a very intriguing concept based on democratic education.
After a quick lunch, I rushed back to observe the “Hard Bite Cafe” rehearsals. This group meets twice a week, led by Kerrie, and is in charge of theater and musical productions at Grassroots. They always have big events on Halloween and during their spring celebration in March, along with other smaller performances as the students show interest. Kerrie introduced the dozen children present to the song she made up called “The Twelve Days of Halloween” sung to the tune “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. The youngest children were especially excited to sing and anticipated dressing up to represent the different creatures needed for the song, like ghosts, frogs, vampires, skeletons, black cats, and other characters. Kerrie promised another rehearsal for the song tomorrow, and the little ones were allowed to leave if they wanted.
Then Kerrie read through, acted out, and explained the short play she had written about Halloween for the children to see for the first time.
It involved a family of ghosts and a family of humans learning to live together happily in the same house. There were enough characters for everyone to have a part, and one girl was assigned two parts after a smaller girl decided that she didn’t want to have a speaking part after all. The play would be about twenty minutes long when performed; a few more minutes would be added when the “Twelve Days of Halloween” song was sung at the end. The group would be holding a dinner party at the school for parents and family members a few nights before Halloween, then performing the play for them.
Kerrie’s play was met with approval, so she distributed scripts and assigned parts for the students to begin memorizing. I was surprised that children so young could organize themselves with minimum adult supervision in such a short time (their dinner play is in about three weeks), with such complex lines, but Kerrie assured me that she had seen it happen for six years. “The play during springtime is sometimes more than an hour long, and it can be quite elaborate with props, lighting, costumes, and effects. Everyone gets really into it,” she told me.
After the rehearsal was done, Griffin, five years old, asked Kerrie if they could do math. Kerrie agreed, so Griffin rang the bell outside; Nathan and Gilani, six and five years old, came to do math also.
Side note: Whenever a new “class” or session or activity starts, a student will take an old bell from a shelf and run around the grounds, shouting out what the event will be that is starting. That way anyone who is interested can take part, or at least come find out what is going on (since sometimes the shouted words are too garbled to understand immediately). It’s a system that works very well for Grassroots. I haven’t been able to get a picture of this yet because the bell-ringer is always too fast!
The three boys needed no reminders about what addition and subtraction were. They were eager to get started right away with math problems!
Gilani needed the most assistance, so Kerrie spent time helping him count on his fingers for the easiest kind of problems. Gilani didn’t give up after just two problems this time; he persevered through at least ten! Nathan solidly plugged away through a page of problems that Kerrie wrote out for him. He counted on his fingers most of the time, getting one or two out of every five problems wrong, but always knowing how to fix it when the error was pointed out.
Griffin was on a roll. I sat next to him and watched as he worked through line after line of addition and subtraction mixed together. When he went too fast, he forgot to see which type of problem it was, so he quickly learned to slow down and look carefully at all the symbols. At first he was getting one out of every five questions wrong, but by the end of the paper he had learned to self-check all his answers so that he could correct his own mistakes before asking Kerrie to check him. He was so excited at the end of every row, tapping his pencil impatiently on the table to hurry Kerrie into writing more problems faster!
After about twenty-two minutes the math class had to stop, since the bell was ringing for clean-up, but Kerrie cheered the boys up by promising more math later on that week if they’d like. I wouldn’t be surprised if Griffin was learning to add two-digit numbers together very soon. His aptitude with numbers is amazing. I hope that he always retains the love for math that he has as a five year old!
Teacher Genoa told me a story about her four year old son, Jasper, who was learning how to juggle yesterday:
“Some friends asked him this weekend if he was enjoying school for his first year. He immediately said ‘no’, which was shocking to me! I thought he really loved it here. But when they asked him why, he said, ‘I don’t like it because we always have to leave, when I want to stay.'”
Here is a picture of one of the most popular activities at Grassroots:
As I was leaving the school for the day, eight year old Blake showed me her “doll” that she made. “His name is Mister Sir,” she said proudly, “and I can show you how to make one too, if you’d like! It’s very simple.”
That’s another thing that I like a lot about Grassroots. Every child is not just a student, but they also eventually become a teacher. Often the best way to make yourself understand a subject deeply is to teach it to somebody else.
Pat cut up a mango for me this afternoon. I guess we just can’t get good mangoes in St. Louis, because the ones I’ve had there are terrible. The mango today was delicious.
Pat and Tandy took me to Wakulla Springs. It’s a wildlife sanctuary and park about twenty miles away from Tallahassee. Talk about breathtakingly gorgeous! The lodge on the property was full of lovely architecture, like this:
Plus, they had an alligator, “Old Joe”, who supposedly never harmed any humans despite being a pet favorite of the park a long time ago. He still resides here:
We went on a boat tour of the water. The boat was powered by an electric motor, so it was very quiet. We could hear many birds of all kinds singing and making noise. Turtles were everywhere. Huge fish such as carp, mullet, and other varieties that I didn’t know swam below the boat in the clear water. Anhingas sunned their wings. Even alligators lay out enjoying the warm weather! We saw at least a dozen of them, ranging from small youngsters to much larger adults.
Something that struck me as hilariously funny were the jumping fish. They were not of the flying fish species, just regular large fish that decided to catapult themselves out of the water! About ten times we saw fish leaping straight out of the water, usually multiple times; one fish jumped six times in a row, skimming across the surface almost like a bird. The guide said that scientists thought that the fish might be jumping to clear their gills of dirt or algae, but they really had no definite idea. I think they leap just because they like it : )
Best of all, I got to see real live MANATEES! I never thought I’d get to see these gentle giants in the wild. We saw fourteen of them at various points along our boat ride, including a baby manatee!!! I didn’t get any pictures of them because the sunlight reflected off the water too much, but I’ll always remember them in my memory.
Our guide was surprised at the abundance of wildlife out on the water today; he said that there seemed to be an abnormal number of creatures there, especially the manatees. We were so blessed to come on a day with such great weather. Everywhere I looked there was a beautiful sight, so here are some pictures to end this lovely day.