“The key is to make sure that whatever was the best in those early years, when we were in formation, stays. Because that part of things, the creation, has got to be what they feel.” (Birdsey, quoted in Mandel)
Visiting North Branch School was almost a pilgrimage. Five years ago, Middlebury Magazine had profiled the school and its founder Tal Birdsey. I loved the description of the school, which was beautifully done, but was put off, to say the least, by the opening lines of the article: “Middle school is a terrifying place. Students revile it. Parents endure it.” My reaction can be best summarized as, “Oh, yeah?!” and I wrote a letter to the editors in support of North Branch School in particular and middle schools and middle schoolers in general. Tal and I connected afterwards, and we made plans for me to visit one day.
When I arrived, there were no cars yet in the small but plowed-out circle in front of the school, and I hesitantly parked, opened the door, and walked in. There was one student sitting at an oval table who said “hi” but seemed to be in his own world, so I kept going through to the back of the school, a small room so crammed with aquariums and beakers, and devices of every possible description you had to be on your guard as you moved around. As I reached the front of the school, a teacher walked in who turned out to be Tal, and we greeted each other with that peculiar combination of warmth and “glad to finally meet you” and “But we don’t really know each other yet” for which the occasion called.
As Tal walked me through the school, a story emerged of a vision destined to become a reality no matter what it took. The school is built in part on the advice of Tal’s children, then in nursery school, who made suggestions like “teach them to not knock other people’s blocks down.” When the school first moved so that it could expand, they had to hold classes in a wedding tent through the fall. The math room is an addition made from an old barn, and the science room was added when a recently moved house blew down in a windstorm and was donated to the school. Tal kept mentioning that he worries about what people will think about the apparent chaos that is the school. I kept reassuring him that I get it, that apparent chaos is not necessarily what it seems to be.
We ended up back at the oval table, where by now many more students had gathered for Meeting. With vaguely Quaker roots, Meeting is essentially a chance for students to say whatever might be on their minds, with conversations, sometimes extended, occasionally building on what they say. Tal introduced me as another graduate of Middlebury College, taught the students the term “alma mater,” and noted that made us brothers of the same mother. Over the course of this morning, many more topics were raised than I could ever relate. One student was praised for finding a way to help other students collaborate. At one point, a girl got up to teach everyone the Spanish phrase for “I’m happy you are my friends.” Another student, relatively new to the school, was praised for how quickly and thoroughly he was settling in. As I listened, it struck me that these students were extraordinarily willing to share and explore their feelings, a culture which would probably be impossible to achieve without someone like Tal who respects each of his students and really gets them. Essentially, I gradually realized, it was all about exploring emotional landscapes, and through the morning, that would prove to be a theme of the school. In the phrase a 7th grader would use later in the day, “learning to see feeling.”
The first class I saw was an 8th and 9th grade literature course, and the students had brought in artwork and pieces of writing based on Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. Class began with a gallery walk - in essence, beginning class with the students’ own thoughts and feelings - and as you might expect, each piece of artwork was absolutely unique to its creator. The students had been asked to write about one of their own experiences using the style of the book, and as the authors read their work, I found the spaces between what they described were as important as the descriptions themselves. I was reminded strongly of a book I’d read at Middlebury, Tropismes by Nathalie Sarraute, a book explicitly designed to reveal the pre-conscious level of ordinary events. Tal was increasingly delighted throughout, and the conversation that ensued showed how thoroughly the older students were so comfortable with thinking at multiple levels, raising questions, and exploring different paths that it was as natural to them as breathing.
Tal and I had planned to talk during the short break, when he urged the students to “Grab some food and go out and throw snowballs at something,” but two students came up to me and asked if I would like a tour. As they took me through the school, and into areas I hadn’t yet seen, those same themes I’d seen throughout the morning emerged again. For just one example, they took me to the cubby space and told me each person gets to repaint their cubby each year. The incredible bold palette of colours, shapes, symbols, and more told the individual story of each student. The entire school reads as the cumulative experiences (intellectual and emotional) of the entire community, and it was clear how much pride they took in it.
The second class I saw was 7th graders, and here, it was fascinating to see all they were already accomplishing and how at the same time the foundation for what they would be doing so naturally as 9th graders was steadily being built. They were reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and struggling with what Tal had told me was one of the hardest passages in the book. I often tell my students, when they arrive in class professing they had a hard time with the reading, that we’ll put our heads together and see what we can build together out of what we did understand, and that is exactly what these students did. Their questions helped drive the discussion, and for me the quintessential moment of this class was when a student called out delightedly, “I made a connection!” and went on to explain what she’d just realized, which led to a domino effect of ideas…
… which calls to mind the school’s Rube Goldberg project. Beyond Tal’s tour, beyond the students’ tour, any number of individual students walked up to me and asked if I’d heard about it and if I’d like to see their part (I always said “yes”)(because I always did). Each of the students in the school is responsible for creating their own part to a gargantuan Rube Goldberg machine, the end product of which will be blowing up a balloon with a smiley face drawn on it. Several parts have been tested and shown to work, others are still in progress.
A metaphor not just for why North Branch School works but also for human experience itself? And what if that were no coincidence?
It was fully as wonderful a morning as I’d expected, and as I left, Tal once again expressed his worry about all the chaos I’d seen. I assured him not to worry, that I thrive in middle school chaos and I had loved everything I had seen. I explained to him that I intended to blog about the day, and what the title would be and why. He smiled and shook my hand and said he hoped we would stay in touch. I told him I hoped the same, and walked out to my car to drive back down the mountain to Middlebury College, where I had some emotional landscapes of my own to explore.