“Sometimes I have thought that this school is like the only place where the lilies are considered at all…” In this stirring account of a teacher and his fourteen students tucked away in the Green Mountains of Vermont, educator Tal Birdsey fervently documents the founding year of his small junior high school with wit and humility. Part memoir, part meditation on the power of art and poetry, and part criticism of standardized education, A Room for Learning evokes a spirit of change, in which students were allowed a hand in their own education. With no set curriculum, no prior history, and limited resources, the students delve deep into the poetry of Yeats and Bukowski, the music of Coltrane, the art of Caravaggio, and the emotional landscape of Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, with each student learning to offer his or her own personal insights. But they also take time out, to be outside amidst the pinecones and fresh air, to be the kids that they still sometimes are and to learn from one another. Isolated from mainstream culture and constantly on the brink of apathy, this diverse group of kids and a teacher created a literary community and celebrated learning and themselves. A Room for Learning is the poignant true story of how one small school demonstrated that a classroom can be a place of transformative power.
"A few years ago, an idealistic teacher named Tal Birdsey started such a school for young adolescents in Ripton, Vermont, called North Branch School. He tells its story, with delightful wit and penetrating insight, in his inspiring new book A Room for Learning. We see how an authentic teacher builds a caring, loving community of learners. Every page, every incident and observation Birdsey relates, is a gentle but firm repudiation of technocratic schooling. “The first parents gravitated to the school,” he tells us, "because something entirely different could be made. . . [C]urrent political debates about accountability or state funding fell far short of meaningful discourse about the education of children. These parents, no matter their income, education, or political views, were seeking education that involved something closer to the heart. In particular, they seemed to want something more creative and free. . . in contradistinction to schools tethered to right, standards-based approaches or school officials bombarded with federal mandates to test (pp. 31-2)."
A Room for Learning shows exactly what “something closer to the heart” looks like in education. Birdsey sees each of his students as whole persons, with their own challenges, inclinations, learning styles, quirks and insecurities. Most of them have been “wounded by school” (as Kirsten Olson systematically documents in her recent book by that title); they are afraid of ridicule and rejection, suspicious of adults who judge them and peers who band together in cliques to exercise power. They are reluctant to open themselves to others, to test their own limits or pursue their deepest dreams. Birdsey tells how he created a safe, nurturing space in which these young teens could find and test their best, authentic selves. “I asked them to embrace the personal pronoun Iso that we might come closer to what was sacred inside of them. Those truths—their truths—would bring us closer to what mattered” (p. 59). Ultimately, what really matters to Birdsey and his students is a community where everyone feels cared for, a community rooted in love. This, not triumph in the corporate race, is what people are for.
Educational policies based on standardization, authoritarian control, and competition for abstract goals only support the continuation of empire. People don’t much matter—systems do. Education dictated by corporate and political elites is oblivious to the lived reality of children and youths struggling to define themselves and find their place in the world. “Race to the Top,” like “No Child Left Behind,” and every other federal educational mandate, imposes a brutal efficiency on schooling that has no place for visionary educators, like Birdsey, who honor the essential personhood of their students. One vital goal of Vermont independence is an educational culture that respects and encourages learning on a human scale, that supports caring and loving communities of learning. National educational policy is one more reason why we need to challenge the burgeoning power of the American empire. Because Vermonters value genuine democracy, treasure individuality, and hold as precious the local land and community, we ought to decline the federal government’s inducements to participate in any “race to the top.”" --Ron Miller (author of What Are Schools For?), Vermont Commons
"A telling and inspiring account of a dedicated and knowing teacher and a community that assembled on behalf of the future of its young citizens, all determined to further the cultural, intellectual, moral, psychological growth that takes place in a classroom….A witness to education as it hands one generation along to form, ably and knowingly, its place in a nation's destiny."-- Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize award-winning author of Children in Crisis
"If education interests you--if kids interest you--this is a magical story. It's about what happens if you take them seriously, and if you have the grace and agility to hang with them in the tough spots and the glorious ones. Nothing you've read for a long time will make you much more optimistic about the possibilities for the future. And if you're an educator, or thinking of becoming one, nothing will remind you more powerfully of the nobility of your calling."—Bill McKibben, New York Times bestselling author of Deep Economy
“A glorious memoir of teaching and learning, of building a school from the bottom up, of keeping it small, intimate, personal and informal, Tal Birdsey's A SERIOUS HOUSE is an implicit rebuke of of the rancid illness that plagues American education: beaurocracy, formality, standardized testing, uniformity, conformity, and an unholy reliance on numbers and statistics. In Birdsey's little piece of heaven, there is simply the student, the teacher, the materials, and the place. Nothing extraneous, only art, intelligence, creativity and a close stable healthy environment. A hymn to pedagogy, the sacredness of nature and the child, the music of language, the rigors of inquiry, and the natural high of creativity. As he opens his students eyes, he opened mine.”—Pat Conroy, New York Times bestselling author of The Prince of Tides, My Losing Season, The Water is Wide, and many others
The Making of a School in Vermont