August to June: Bringing Life to School

August to June. Bringing Life to School

August to June: Bringing Life to School is the second of two documentaries I saw at a conference on alternative education, projected onto a small screen in a hotel ballroom.

What I saw was the near final version of the film. My understanding is that there was some minimal tinkering later done to it.

August to June: Bringing Life to School is a chronicle of the final year before retirement in the teaching career of Amy Valens. Her husband, Tom Valens, a part time filmmaker, accompanied her to school for the whole school year, ultimately shooting several hundred hours of footage of her and her 3rd and 4th grade students.

The school is a public elementary school in California, but one that has a small pocket of unconventionality within it. A minority of students participate in the “open classroom” concept. Since the early 1970s, Valens has taught in their open classroom.

I was fortunate enough, by the way, to have one year in an open classroom in my schooling in Michigan—6th grade. I have virtually nothing good to say about my pre-college schooling (or childhood in general), but that school year was the least of the evils. It has always stood out to me as head and shoulders above the usual drudgery that school otherwise represented for me and that I resented so much.

No doubt there are different variations of the open classroom concept, and I wouldn’t say that what is practiced in the class in the film is precisely what I experienced in 6th grade, but in general terms, in an open classroom students are encouraged to initiate and pursue a lot of their own activities. There’s some amount of prompting from the teacher, and certainly books and other material is in abundance to be made use of, but the idea is for the students themselves to make a lot of the decisions about how they’re going to spend their time and what they’re going to learn.

I remember we would often form makeshift small groups and prepare and put on little plays or skits. I and I believe three other kids created a little newspaper and put out three or four issues, selling copies for a dime a piece. A friend of mine and I for a month or two spent a lot of time outside with a stopwatch trying to improve our long distance running times.

That’s the other thing I remember, that the open classroom was “open” in the sense that we didn’t have to remain shut inside it all day. We were outside at least a little more than just for recess or gym class. More often we were in the hall. I remember a lot of our stuff was set up on tables out in the hall, and we spent a lot of time reading, drawing, talking amongst ourselves about our next activity, and even playing board games out there. It was like our classroom had expanded to take over a lot of extra space. Most or all of our work on the newspaper, for instance, took place at those tables out in the hall, as I recall.

We still had tests and conventional assignments of various kinds, but I remember very, very little of that. It’s been so long that I honestly don’t recall if the time we were free to pretty much “do our own thing” was 20% or 70% or what, but certainly to the extent that I can remember anything about this experience of so many decades ago, those unconventional aspects are what come back to me. It sure seems like that was how we spent well over half of our time that year, but I can’t say for sure since it’s possible my memories are skewed toward thinking the highlights were the norm.

The open classroom, then, is at the milder end of the scale of student-directed, democratic education (with something like the Sudbury model at the opposite extreme of taking these concepts much farther). I find myself more attracted to models at or near the Sudbury extreme of alternative education possibilities as compared to the milder open classroom type model, but certainly the latter is still way, way above conventional schooling, in my mind.

The movie is pretty much just snippets from the school year, showing the students interacting with each other, and Valens interacting with the students. Due to the nature of the open classroom concept, this latter interaction is not the typical one of a teacher at the front of a room with 20-40 students seated in rows of desks facing her. Instead it is generally her consoling a child who has been crying, leading an activity of some kind in a circle of six to seven kids, serving as a mediator to cool things down and hear both sides after two students get in a dispute, etc.

She is shown far more often teaching life lessons about tolerance, patience, mutual respect, expressing feelings, forgiveness, reaching accord, etc., than teaching any kind of conventional academic subjects.

The movie includes little more than this opportunity to be a witness to what goes on in this kind of classroom. About the only supplement is occasional voiceover comments by Valens.

Certainly one can imagine a much different approach that included far more supplementary material, such as extensive on camera interviews with Valens, perhaps interviews with other teachers, parents, informed academic supporters and critics of the open classroom concept, the students themselves, and more. Or perhaps not all in interview form, but just more context, more background material explaining the open classroom idea, its history, how common or uncommon it is, how successful or unsuccessful it’s been (at least insofar as such a thing can be measured), etc.

I think a lot of viewers will find it refreshing that the film is not cluttered with more of that stuff. I have more mixed feelings about it. I lean toward wanting more of the supplementary material, but not because what’s here is somehow a failure.

Even if other material were added, I’d want the bulk of the film to be this opportunity to see the day-to-day classroom events for ourselves, not just to learn about the open classroom indirectly through interviews and such. So I’m not talking about eliminating the classroom footage or even drastically reducing it.

What I have in mind is instead of, say, a 90 minute movie with 90 minutes of the unmediated classroom footage, how about a 110 minute movie with 70 minutes of that classroom stuff and 40 minutes of reflective interviews of the participants and other informed parties talking about what we’ve seen?

One small change I’d suggest is adding subtitles in a few places. There are often a lot of voices, the shot might be from a distance, the kids are not miked and are not professional performers who know to project their voice a certain way, etc., so not uncommonly it’s hard to make out some of what’s said. For some people that’s probably not a problem, as you can still get the gist of what’s going on and get the feel of the atmosphere, and they might find subtitles distracting. But I personally appreciate the content of what the kids are saying, and I don’t want to miss that.

I’m not suggesting subtitling the whole movie certainly, but my experience of it would have been slightly augmented by judicious use of subtitles here and there.

On a personal level, this movie reached me more deeply emotionally than the vast majority of movies do. Obviously a lot of that is a matter of my interest in alternative education, as well as my having had experience with the open classroom concept in my past.

But beyond that, I think it’s also attributable to how I was experiencing the conference itself up to that point. Though I have more good than bad to say about the conference, there was a certain critical, conflictual feel to the bulk of it. Even when it was “positive,” a lot of that was annoying, pep talk style, “rallying the troops,” self-boosterism stuff about how we’re plucky underdogs fighting injustice and an indifferent if not hostile world. There was plenty of bashing of public schools, and shots taken here and there at government, teachers unions, and others. Certainly there was a lot (I would say a disproportionate amount) of self-critical liberal guilt emphasis on trying to find every possible subtle way that those in the alternative education movement themselves are insensitive to issues of race and gender.

The film I’d watched the previous day at the conference—The War on Kids—was along the same lines. It’s very good movie that impressed me and that I mostly agree with, but it was another depressing attack on what’s wrong with the world.

Indeed I agree with at least 75%-80% of what I heard at this conference, and Lord knows I myself am far, far more inclined to spot things to be critical of in the world than to focus on the good, but somehow the totality of the negative tone was weighing on me, maybe more than I was conscious of at the time.

When I saw August to June: Bringing Life to School, it was refreshing to me, it was just what I needed for where I was emotionally. It wasn’t more reminders of how society mistreats children, what an uphill struggle it is to carve out an area where we can practice an alternative form of education, how flawed even such alternatives are because they fail some tests of political correctness about race and gender, or any of that. It was a teacher nurturing and caring about children. It was children smiling, playing, learning, making mistakes and recovering, getting into conflicts and recovering, being scared and uncertain and recovering. It was a husband wanting to preserve and celebrate his wife’s decades-long career making the world a better place in whatever modest ways were open to her in her little corner of California. It was evidence that it’s possible for good people who believe in alternative education to do good things, to make a better childhood available for kids.

Both Amy and Tom Valens were present for the screening, and I had the opportunity to spend several minutes conversing with them, which I very much appreciated. Amy’s caring style as a person is very consistent with what we see depicted of her as a teacher on screen.

Overall there are things I would likely have done slightly differently if I were putting this film together, and no doubt I had a certain predisposition in this film’s favor due to where I was in my life and at this conference both intellectually and emotionally, but this is a solid, even inspiring, documentary about one of the most important subjects in life—how we raise and educate our children.

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