Mariposa School

Education as it is practiced in a small private school

One of the articles in The Way Of Learning (IC#6)
Originally published in Summer 1984 on page 40
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

The previous articles have focused on content and methods, but haven’t directly addressed the basic framework in which these might be applied. We move on to the question of framework now, beginning with a look at life in a small private school.


Diane: What are your school programs like?

Jo-Ann: I want to start by giving a description of the school and how we’re structured on an administrative level first, because I think that’s one of the most unique things about us. We’re 3 1/2 miles outside of a small town in northern California. The setting is heavily wooded hills, we have a farm setting. The school has about 50 children, a barn with animals, a big garden, a creek running through the playground. The school building is nestled into the trees of the hillside, and there are ducks running around.

We’re presently a staff of 8 who run the school collectively and live together at the school, so when the children come there, they’re coming to our home. That’s really different. They come in to our kitchen and our dining room, we share the same bathroom that they have. So they get the sense that they’re not coming to a place that’s just an institution. And our children are there, so they see us in more than one role. They don’t just see us as teacher, they see us as people who live together and as parents and friends. They get to see us relate with each other in every way that people relate; it’s not a tremendous facade. So if we’re having an argument with somebody about the dishes from breakfast, they’re right there seeing that argument.

We divide the kids up into peer groups where they would naturally gravitate socially. We have 4 groups of about 15 kids each, grouped in 2 or 3 year spreads usually with, ideally for us, 2 teachers in a classroom for 15. Right now that’s getting to be hard to do financially, but it’s still our ideal both because we like the idea of small classrooms – a really low student-teacher ratio – and also because we value the team-teaching, the bouncing of ideas and sharing of responsibility so the responsibility for these children’s lives isn’t overwhelming and isolating for any individual teacher.

The kinds of values that we try to impart? We take the attitude that it isn’t just an academic setting where children learn reading, writing, and arithmetic as a technical kind of thing, but that anytime you’re in an environment for 6 hours a day 5 days a week for 8 years, that’s a tremendous impact, that’s the children’s community. So the values that we give out are going to be there whether we state them or not, so we make them fairly explicit.

Diane: What values are you expressing in your lives?

Jo-Ann: For one, we’re expressing a respect for the connectedness of things. A respect for the earth, for people, for how the earth and people are connected, and how we all depend on each other. So we stress communication skills, cooperation, ecology and a love of our surrounding.

Diane: Do you have any particular projects or activities that you’ve done with the kids?

Jo-Ann: We have what I see as a twofold approach. One, is to recognize that every child learns at a different rate and is interested in something different – it’s a respect for individuality. You can’t really come to expect that a child will necessarily be motivated by the particular thing that’s happening, and that any particular level of expertise doesn’t happen at a particular age. We individualize the expectations for each child and we try to a large degree to individualize what the child can learn. At the same time, public schools have compartmentalized youth…no, I don’t want to say public schools, that’s too general, private schools do too and public school teachers don’t, it depends…the more traditional approach is to compartmentalize and do 45 minutes of math, 45 minutes of social studies, and not to see the connectedness.

So what we often do is to have a theme for a unit and try to work the many different aspects of life – physical, emotional, spiritual, mechanical – into that one whole. An example would be a unit that I’m doing right now on finding children’s roots – their cultural- ethnic background. We started out by doing a timeline of what they can remember in their lives. They talked to their parents about things they couldn’t remember when they were little and they brought in photographs, talked about things they could remember because they were looking at the photographs, and spent time with that. And then we went into writing letters to relatives – who could remember things that were beyond the kids’ own experience – and talking to parents, and then writing those anecdotes and sharing them with each other. Next we tried to find out why people came to this country. Many of the children didn’t even know their roots, many of the parents didn’t know their roots. They were starting to find out that they had a connectedness with traditions that are really foreign to them, which helps them then go and look at other people and see that they’re not so strange because they have some of these strange things in their own history.

Now we’re starting to teach a unit on emigration to America, right from the beginning – who were the first explorers, why did they come, what was their impact on the environment here and on the native people? We’ve tried to get different perspectives, from the perspective of the native person who was receiving these people, also from the perspective of the people who were coming. Then we’ve tied that into their own interpersonal perspectives with each other to make the idea of different points of view real to them. An incident happens on the playground and you get two different stories – one child says, "Oh, you’re lying," and the other responds, "No, I’m not lying" – and it shows that we can’t, as one person, get a total picture. So that’s integrating the more interpersonal with this other unit.

We’re also going to have a Thanksgiving potluck where they’ve gone to the library and done research on what are the kinds of foods that were particular to their ethnic background, and have a potluck out of those foods. At Christmas time we’re going to study winter traditions from those particular cultures and create a group story about a group of children coming together, and from that a mural is going to happen.

Diane: So each child will learn about his own particular background, and also about diverse backgrounds at the same time.

Jo-Ann: Right. So there’s a combination of group and individual, and a combination of academics in writing and research, experiencing music, art and the spiritual tradition.

Another example of something that we’ve done: One year we had penpals on the Hoopa Indian reservation, and corresponded with them for several months and then visited them, staying in their homes.

Diane: How far are they from where you live?

Jo-Ann: Oh, it was an all day drive. And then we spent three days with them. One day we did activities that we brought with us, another day we did their activities, and then a third day we took a tour of the reservation and their various ceremonies. They put on Indian dances and that kind of thing. Then at night, the kids went home to the houses where the people lived, often very different life styles. In the morning, we got on the school bus and came home. There were really good feelings, and lots of questions raised about how come they lived that way.

Another thing we did two years in a row was to hike from our school to the coast, which, depending on how you go, is anywhere from 45 to 60 miles. The first year we spent a week hiking through the forest. We passed through beautiful, beautiful redwoods and horrible clear-cut areas, just devastated areas. We studied logging practices and the ecology and geology of the terrain. We ended up at the Georgia- Pacific mill where they cut up these great, huge trees that the children had just camped out in for a week. The children were horrified to see the trees go through these huge saws. One child started to cry, look, they’re killing the tree, look what they’re doing. It was really an uplifting kind of connection.

The next year we did the same trek, though it wasn’t the same route. We went quite a bit further.

Diane: What ages?

Jo-Ann: 9 to 12-year-olds. The next year’s trip was designed for the kids to take as much responsibility as they could handle. Part of this was that they were responsible for their food and cooking it. They had one task in the morning, which was that they had to write in their journal an account of the day before, and we wouldn’t leave before then. But we didn’t say, "Oh, you’re falling behind, you have to get it together" – they just developed the process themselves, and sometimes we didn’t leave until 1:00 in the afternoon. They did their own navigating, with the understanding that we wouldn’t let them go more than a few miles out of their way. They had topographic maps and compasses, and they caucused. We tried to give them a sense of group process a couple of months in advance, talking about majority. How did it feel to decide things by majority? Which things felt better when you did them by consensus? How did that work? They got a rudimentary sort of process going. We spent 7 days on that trek, often times going way out of the way, going way late into the night. We ran out of food on the last day when we got to the coast.

The year before we had decided to give each child $3 to go to the market and buy their own food for a 24-hour period. They could pool their food or whatever, but that had to last them. We took them to a co-op so the varieties of food would be pretty well controlled.

This year we thought we’d do it for a five-day period. The kids were older and they’d done it once. By the third or fourth day some really heavy stuff started happening. One thing was that a lot of junk food got bought because they had more money. Another thing first came out when we got a report from the rangers in the park we were staying at that there were some thefts. Did we know anything about it? That wasn’t something that had ever been an issue in our school and so, no we didn’t know anything. Then we went into town to buy our food and a whole lot of food turned up. It was kind of surprising that they had that much money for food, because we gave them little enough so they would have to be careful. Slowly, over a period of a week, it came out that there were a number of children that had stolen things from the store, had stolen things from the campsite, had stolen things from each other. We developed this into a curriculum right there – dealing with the implications of what it means to steal, what happens with peer pressure, stories about other things they had stolen and how they felt, how they feel when they’re doing something that they don’t feel good about but somehow they need to. It was a very positive experience. We went back to the rangers and said, "Yes, we did it." The kids went to the people that they took things from and did things in exchange. We went to the store owners and did service. Other than one or two kids who were having significant troubles, both before they came and continuing, that was a really positive change. Although it was pretty intense, the whole thing was taking responsibility, and was a learning experience.

This year the 10 to 12-year-olds created a fitness course somewhat like the one that’s in one of our local parks but smaller and with their own inventions. They’re having a grand opening, with the parents coming, when they’ll show the other children in the school how to use it. They’ve even carved signs for directions. They seem to be really proud of it and it took an unexpectedly long time.

Diane: And they did the designing of the course?

Jo-Ann: Yes. Some things look like what you’d find at Vic Tanny’s gym, but they’re all good ideas, and it caught on with the other kids while they were watching them build it. There was a great excitement about when this thing was going to be available to them. It gave our kids a really good feeling.

Diane: What is your image of an ideal learning program?

Jo-Ann: My image is one that isn’t so fragmented from real life, one that isn’t in a place that’s separate from where everybody else’s life goes on. I find that children are fascinated by what they see people doing when people are enthused about it. There are a lot of myths about what work is, and if kids can really experience certain choices, then they don’t have to work many years towards making that choice and then find out, yuk, this isn’t what I want to be doing.

I would like to see a setting where children can go freely from one real life situation to another, but that they have somebody who keeps track of what they’re doing so that if a child is going frenetically from one thing to another and not able to focus, you can give some guidance. Or if a child is habitually avoiding, let’s say, physical kinds of things, you can encourage exposure to a wide variety of things, but also things that can be integrated. A veterinarian, for instance, would be open to having a child come and work with animals and see what’s involved with the different tasks, what is the drudgery and what are the joys of doing that kind of work. They would also need someone available to them to teach the kind of skills that require more concentrated, systematic effort, like reading or math computation, but that they come to that person with questions of "I want to know more about this, help me read this book about it," or "I want to know how much of this to buy, help me learn how to calculate it." That would be the idea.

Diane: How would you see us getting to that kind of a system? What are the steps we need to take from here into that kind of future image?

Jo-Ann: I see two steps, one that can be taken within the school setting, and the other is creating total environments for ourselves that our children can be free to live in. I won’t try to cover this second step; I mean, that’s the whole scope of your magazine!

I think the first thing to do is to get parents educated to the vision, because most of them have grown up in public school settings, and even though they may have a new vision of the world, they still have the old notions about education. I find that the hardest thing to do in my classroom is to assure parents that their children aren’t going to be behind when they get out. That yes, they’ll have the skills that they need. We also have to make a new assessment of just what are the skills that we need in life to make our lives productive and enjoyable. I don’t think that reading, writing and arithmetic are at the base of that. The real basics have to do with getting along with people, being able to think really clearly, being motivated to work hard at something and to know that if you work hard you’re going to get somewhere. So it begins with a parent education process.

At the same time, we need to start doing those things in the classroom. I always thought that I was lazy because I didn’t want to force myself to do a whole bunch of stuff that I didn’t like. I wasn’t given much opportunity to pursue the things that I have a passion about and therefore I never noticed in myself that the things I am passionate about, I work very hard at. I see children who work tremendously hard, who don’t have short attention spans at all for what they’re motivated about. So I think that’s a major thing – to allow children to pursue what they’re totally interested in and in the way that they’re interested.

Diane: And to have the faith that they will cover in their span of growing up what they need to cover to be worthwhile productive adults.

Jo-Ann: That’s right. For us, however, there’s a problem that some children will come into our setting for just a short while and so parents say, "They’ve got to go to public school next year, they have to fit in." And you have to say to them, "You’re right, that’s a choice you’re going to make, because they may not fit in, they may have different expectations. If we had more education like this everywhere they wouldn’t have to fit. Maybe you can help your child understand this in the transition to a public school. Maybe you can help the public school change. But where do you want to draw the line of compromise?"

You can contact Mariposa School at PO Box 387, Ukiah, CA 95482, or (707) 462-1016.

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