Leaving public school behind for Still Waters in a Storm

“Still Waters in a Storm is a unique and important phenomenon in the heart of the often-struggling community of Bushwick. A racial rainbow of young people ages six to mid-twenties sit around a long table in a small room above a pizzeria every Saturday afternoon and for three hours compose, recite and provide feedback for each other’s efforts in a mood of agendaless empathy and reflective creativity. I have never seen anything quite so moving and heartening in all my years as a writing teacher.”

-Richard Price, novelist

School started this week at my daughter’s well-respected public charter school, but I made sure she didn’t go. Instead, I made the monumental decision to pull her from the New York public school system and place her in a neighborhood homeschooling program called Still Waters in a Storm.

Naysayers may deem me insane. Yet hear me out:

In a recent quiz posted by The Christian Science Monitor, only 26% of kids in this country reported “liking school.” I can only assume that this means that 74% either dislike or are ambivalent about school.

With numbers like this, I feel confident in my recent decision to pull Anevay from a public charter school where she would have been expected at attend for nine hours a day in what essentially amounted to a test prep program. Now, I won’t get into a lengthy discussion over the benefits of homeschooling over public schools. I’ve already done this in a couple of posts. (Read here to get a feel for my thoughts on the matter.) For now, suffice to say that I want- no, I require– my kid to be as happy, healthy and creative as possible. Guess what? My daughter is on the same page. She is thrilled about our decision to homeschool. She understands that this means no more nine hour school days, the freedom to self-direct even while receiving instruction, and having a lot more family time and, gasp, free time to be a kid! We believe that her new school wants the same for all of its six homeschooled students.

What is Still Waters in a Storm?

Photo from Still Waters website

Still Waters, located in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, is a reading and writing ‘sanctuary’ for all ages. A free program, Still Waters offers homework help, a summer program, classes in photography, art and piano (among other subjects/interests) and, most recently, has added a homeschooling component.

Still Waters was started by Stephen Haff, a man of many talents that begin with the written word and end with helping members of a predominantly low-income, under-served neighborhood build a stronger community.

Prize-winning author Peter Carey writes:

In 1999 Haff was a talented theater director and administrator at the legendary New Dramatists, a midtown space established to nurture and support playwrights. A good man, a good job, he might have done it all his life.

What he has done instead has astonished me. You may already be familiar with the Shakespeare and Milton productions he staged with Bushwick kids. What a troupe he put together in Real People Theater. What moving, singing, dazzling productions they put on. I don’t know where I saw them first–some basement, nowhere special–but it was not too long before the troupe had been noticed, as they toured the US, Canada and Europe. These shows, which the company called the “ghetto version” of classics, translated by the actors into Spanish and Street, were real. No overlay of artistic pretense. The plays had their humanity restored.

The last time I saw them play it was at The Performing Garage, sponsored by The Wooster Group. The kids from Bushwick played to New York’s artistic elite (Elizabeth Lecompte, Willem Dafoe, Graciela Daniele and others) and received a standing ovation.

Stephen Haff went to Yale, so you could say he had a course set out for him, except he refused it. He left New Dramatists. He entered the public school system, not to work with the most privileged students but the least advantaged. Time and time again he earned his students’ trust. Why did they give it to him? The answer is, quite simply, because they saw who he was. I believe you will, too.

Well, Stephen has certainly gained MY trust. For the last month I’ve been volunteering at Still Waters. At first, volunteering a little of my time and energy was something I thought I could do for my community- it didn’t take long to realize that my family was being given much greater gifts.

Expect the unexpected, and learning to be more flexible

Entering the one-room schoolhouse of Still Waters, one must expect the unexpected. While programming and group activities are often planned by Stephen, there is much room for flexibility.

One Wednesday afternoon, for example, I found that while Stephen had planned a photography class with a visiting teacher, a group of children, immersed in a painting project, determined the course of the afternoon- photography was pushed temporarily to the side, allowing the kids to spend quality time working together on what they believed was an important project. Indeed, it WAS an important project, as it allowed the group of children- independent from any adults- to prepare materials, determine the course of their creativity, the final project, and portions of the clean-up (the grown-ups became involved at this point).

As much as I admired Stephen’s approach, I realized that I have a difficult time following it. I’m so indoctrinated into a system in which grown-ups know best. Watching creativity blossom helped me realize that it’s OK to let things happen. At the end of the day, Stephen eventually directed the group back to the photography lesson, and made modifications to the schedule so that the next lesson would happen at a time when students might feel more focused on photography. I will definitely be more conscious in the future about allowing my daughter to have choices.

Photo or Still Waters one-room schoolhouse borrowed from Still Waters’ website

The same day, as I arrived with my daughter, I found a young girl finding homes for an abundance of art and office supplies that had recently been donated. While this sort of menial task is typically left to adults who often assume ‘proper placement’ for items, Stephen left it up to this child to come up with simple storage solutions. An hour or so later, as I watched this young individual finish her task, I realized I had learned a valuable lesson: children are remarkable organizers. After years of forcing my daughter to put things away in their ‘proper places’, it dawned on me that not once had I asked her where she thought her belongings should go.

I consider myself to be a great parent- but how wonderful to be shown (not told) new methods/ways of being that have the potential to help my kid become more independent and self-confident!

Seeing with fresh eyes

I went to a great school for art history. Afterward, tired of pontificating professors and master’s students, and uneasy with many of the set-in-stone definitions of various art movements and methods and grandiose words amounting to nothing, I dropped out of the art scene. Art, I felt, was an elite sport. My time spent with many artists, galleries and one of the most horrible upper-crust New York art collectors I’ve ever met confirmed this (artist friends reading this, take heart, I’m probably not talking about you).

Photo borrowed from Still Waters’ website

Yet I’ve always been drawn to art. I make it, show it, sell it and, ultimately, live it. It was a joy to visit the Met Museum with the kids and volunteers of Still Waters. I had, of course, been on field trips with my daughter’s large school classes. They were largely chaotic events during which the kids were herded from one ‘station’ to the next. I couldn’t conceive of any benefit to the children save perhaps learning to get over fear of crowds. How different it was to commute via subway and see the museum with Still Waters! My small group of two children (one was my own daughter) had time to look at individual paintings, sculptures and photographs. Occasionally we were given small assignments.

Stephen asked us to observe some of the Expressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from very close up and then many feet away from the paintings. How cool to hear one child (nine or ten years old, I believe) describe the pointillism of a particular Seurat painting as: “little dots all over the place that close up are just colors but from far away smoosh up into one big painting.” I racked up $100,000 in student loan debt at an Ivy League to listen to professors explain this method  of painting with much less eloquence.

One of the last stops in the museum was to see ‘Water Stone’ by Isamu Noguchi. Stephen told us that the piece was located in the Japanese exhibits. Strange, I thought, that I had never seen this Noguchi piece, as I had spent inordinate hours visiting the Japanese Galleries to see various artworks when I was studying Japanese art (to my credit, I was studying primarily Heian Period art, NOT modern!)

For Still Waters, Water Stone has special meaning. The sculpture might symbolize a pebble being dropped into water, creating still movement across a vast surface. I understand it as a metaphor for each and every one of Still Water’s participants: every single person on this planet has the capacity to extend his or herself widely and peacefully. Even these wonderful kids from Bushwick:

Still Water’s trip to the Met to see Noguchi’s ‘Water Stone’. Can you ‘Where’s Waldo’ Anevay?

At the end of the day, I realized that Still Waters was demonstrating new ways of looking at the world for both me and my kiddo.

What do homeschooled kids learn at Still Waters?

Photo borrowed from Still Waters’ website

This autumn, my daughter will read for pleasure, continue her math studies (she’s always loved math), study French, be surrounded by children who speak Spanish at home, learn piano, have art classes, and enjoy the sciences. I have a feeling she’ll self-direct her share of projects.

Still Waters follows a process for its writing groups that I think probably extend into other areas of learning. A couple of its guidelines: one voice at a time during feedback, everyone listens respectfully, no grades, no corrections of spelling, grammar or structure, no negative responses, and no praise.

Huh? Isn’t praise a normal part of how one responds to a child? Not at Still Waters.

“Praise trains students to seek more praise. It’s a controlling device. The reward of [writing and feedback] is honest, specific, careful conversation, the message being that each person is heard.”

I agree wholeheartedly. I strive to give my daughter genuine feedback rather than just telling her how all of her writing is simply ‘great’.

Why will this work?

I’ll direct this to the naysayers…  Why WON’T it work? I don’t see this as a gamble, I see it as a viable solution to an educational problem. Charter schools are, I think, wonderful, but there aren’t enough checks and balances besides  No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top, which does nothing more than test kids to make sure they’re doing well.

Last year my daughter worked her hardest to get good grades for her school. Believe me, she got them. But make no mistake- this does not equate to a good education! The best aspects of school were left by the wayside in order to accommodate the test prep program. Between spring and the end of the school year, students took a test nearly every week- this meant an extra hour devoted to taking a test rather than learning new material or reading. Indeed, the Chinese program was even dropped to add more test prep hours! I’ve written about this before. I don’t need to go into it again. My daughter’s school was a good one and her teachers were amazing, but both school and teachers had to adhere to New York State standards. Public school and public charter school alike, all New York schools are suffering. If they aren’t, or rather, if they are testing with flying colors, it’s often to the detriment to children (who, in attending after school and weekend test programs and are given hours of homework a night, become on-edge, tired and weary of school).

Homeschool isn’t a free-for-all. Students must still learn material as set by individual states. New York, for example, requires parents/educators to send notification or achievement and/or professional evaluation. In fact, New York is considered a ‘high regulation’ state. Not only must curriculum be approved, but teacher qualifications must be submitted and home/site visits may occur.

As I wrote about in this post, homeschooled kids aren’t suffering. In fact, they are outperforming their public school peers by 30-37%.

(Read article entitled ‘HomeSchoolAchievement’ for more info about graph)

Want to see/read more data? Read here about the average test scores of homeschooled children. And read here  about how they perform in college. You’ll be impressed by the results.

OK, but why else will this work?

My kid will have a dynamite teacher. No joke. Here are a few of his credentials (text borrowed from the Still Waters website):

Stephen Haff is the Chief of Still Waters in a Storm. He has taught English and Drama for twenty years, at high schools, middle schools and colleges in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Vermont and Canada. At Bushwick High School in Brooklyn, he co-founded Real People Theater (RPT) with his students. The company has received great acclaim in the worlds of education and theater, and toured North America and Europe. The VILLAGE VOICE called RPT, “Nothing less than a revolution.” Stephen has spoken at a number of pedagogical conferences and designed curriculum for the CUNY GearUp program. He is on the faculty at the Center for Social and Emotional Education. On behalf of Still Waters in a Storm, he has opened relationships with Essex County Youth Services Commission, in Newark, New Jersey, Scoil Mhuire, an elementary school in Dublin, Ireland, and Mountainside Elementary School, in Fort Carson, an Army base in Colorado. Stephen used to make his living writing for the VILLAGE VOICE, AMERICAN THEATRE, BOMB, and other publications, and earned his Masters at Yale University.

Great. It’s certainly a mouthful. The man has obviously accomplished a lot. But for me, that wouldn’t be enough. It’s as Peter Carey said: Stephen refused what many might have consider a privileged course. He has instead devoted himself to his community. He brings language to people in new and exciting ways. He has built (and IS building) something much, much greater than a solid set of New York State test scores (while still vastly improving the reading/writing skills of children).

And Math? Oh, man, what about math?

I’m feeling confident that Stephen knows what he’s doing. Yet, because this is one area where I want a lot of structure around my kid’s studies, I will most likely supplement with an excellent Internet-based program (much, much more about this in a subsequent post after I’ve purchased the program) as well as spark her interest in new things by looking occasionally at some of the resources listed here. Still Waters doesn’t use a lot of technology- I assume because it is so distracting to its participants. My daughter, however, happens to enjoy online math programs (she barely thinks of them as ‘study’), and not using one when we have access to one that is so great would be silly. The one she’ll be using will run through every single problem, and, as opposed to the terrible homework worksheets I saw sent home via backpack mail for the last five years (ones that had, for the most part, directions so horribly written that even I had trouble comprehending what my kid ought to be doing), the program will let her know immediately if she hasn’t found the correct solutions.

Essentially, you can be sure that my kid will not in any way lack. She will continue being an excellent test taker (some homeschoolers object to testing of any sort, but, even if it wasn’t required, I’d feel more comfortable knowing where my kid stands within the system), writer, mathematician, scientist and language learner. She will just happen to also learn more than she would in a traditional school, as her teacher, instead of struggling to come up with ways to differentiate instruction for a class of 24, will be able to do it without any issue for a class of six.

And what to say about the parents/caregivers who decide to send their kids to Still Waters? I haven’t met many of them, but I do know that their kids are inquisitive, kind, loving and filled with creativity. I look forward to getting to know them better.

I can’t say that I’ve ever been more excited about my daughter’s schools than I am now. Somehow I think that it won’t only be my daughter who will be continuing her education, but that I’ll learn a few more things about raising a great kid.

Now, please comment below. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on my daughter’s new educational adventures. Perhaps you might even practice the process of Still Waters and try to offer neither negativity nor praise!

Finally, if you are in the New York area, please consider attending the 2011 Still Waters benefit, and evening of readings with Peter Carey (Booker Prize novelist) held by The Wooster Group at The Performing Garage. Readings will be performed by Wallace Shawn, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney and some of the amazing students from Still Waters. More information and tickets available, here.

Photo taken from Still Waters’ website from last year’s fundraiser at The Performance Garage (authors Hedges, Banks, Carey and Price- and if you look hard enough- you can even see me standing way in the back on the stairs)

Not able to make the event? Consider making a donation to Still Waters. Don’t have cash? No worries! Check this link for a suggested list of non-cash contributions.

Finally, I sure would love it if you’d continue to follow my adventures! Please ‘like’ my Facebook page, join me on Twitter, and forward to your pals. Thanks!

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