Cathryn Berger Kaye's Learning Story


George and Mabel Dennison. Teachers whose lessons continue today. I was searching for my first full time teaching job. With an overabundance of teachers seeking employment in Boston where I lived, I followed a different opportunity. Adventure called. I became the third teacher at the Sandy River School in Temple, Maine, a stone’s throw from Farmington, Maine ‘ a larger town seeing as it had a traffic light and university. Mabel and George Dennison had been instrumental in founding the school, and kept a close watch on what occurred there, with good reason. George had penned The Lives of Children (1969), one of the earliest books on progressive education documenting Mabel’s work at the First Street School, a unique small private school in Manhattan. While the children had thrived in this school, it’s closure led George and Mabel to Maine. Have you read The Lives of Children? If not, find a copy. This chronicles education’s true mavericks of their time ‘ Mabel deciphering the authentic needs of children and George the scribe, the artist of observation, etching the story on paper for prosperity. That I had the opportunity to work with them? Astounding. That I survived? Miraculous! I entered the school a novice to being ‘teacher.’ Already experienced in developing and implementing diversity curriculum at the height of Boston’s busing crises, my recent degree and teaching certificate afforded me the credentials for this position. Who else might opt for all of $50 a week plus room and some board, depending on how much harvest in the families’ gardens? Bright eyed and ready, I lived upstairs in this house turned school, all of four rooms plus tiny kitchen downstairs. And below, a furnace in the basement where on cold cold mornings I ran downstairs shivering to stoke the fire to make the place livable and ready for 21 children, ages 6-17 to arrive. Did I mention the outhouse, in central Maine? Did I mention a wind chill factor inside the school? Yes, I imagined idyllic as I drove from Boston ready to take on the world of education. The actuality? I found idyllic and lifelong lessons. Mabel was a true force of nature. She had little patience for small talk, appeared to like children more than adults, and had an emphatic, direct manner of communication. Her essential teaching that I absorbed to my core: ‘Enough with the lesson plans: look at the children, look at the children. LOOK AT THE CHILDREN!’ Honestly, Mabel Dennison’s insistence and modeling guided me toward looking at the children. Seeing them. Paying attention to what they said and did. To drawing upon their interests, skills, and talents. To notice that the kids cared about the Dutch Elm Disease killing their neighborhood trees and wanted this to be their content in science and English and social studies and math. Mabel’s incessant, relentless fervor for authenticity revealed in its wake true relevance and engagement and the profound exchange we casually call ‘teaching’ and ‘learning.’ And to save the Dutch Elm trees? All the students prepared and helped each other and cared deeply about gathering knowledge to give the trees a ‘voice.’ We were learning, altogether, and the students guided their learning toward service. The students’ investigation and reporting assisted local government agencies and contributed to saving trees. They hovered over maps and graphs, and covered the walls with tree poems and art. This experience introduced me to and ultimately guided me to a career promoting service learning. George, author and therapist, had a warm countenance and arrived at the school as if entering a party. ‘Where’s the chaos!’ he would say, more an exclamation than question. This expression grew to mean, ‘Where’s the education?’ The ‘educing,’ or bringing forth, of the child. Can this happen quietly sitting in a chair eyes front, raise your hand to speak, filling in worksheets in a test after test environs? By co-teaching a class on psychology with George, he conveyed clearly and irrevocably that learning needed to be alive, messy, voices, and movement. Experienced. Something kinetic needed to be happening. Questions need asking. Musing and wonderings must be generated. Creativity inspired and revealed. All part of being inside (or outside if we were tapping maple trees for syrup) the place we call school. Between the ‘look at the children,’ and ‘where’s the chaos’ the Sandy River School was a wild ride. Challenging, and downright difficult, I struggled to balance these messages with what I thought kids had to have or needed to know. That the children learned while I experimented was the miracle. That I remained the year was a personal achievement. Even then, I did know I stood amidst giants. Even then, in the personal struggle to evolve as someone worthy of the title ‘teacher,’ I felt deep heartfelt gratitude. Okay, not all the time! In truth, the voices of the Dennisons illuminated the joy of school, the evoking of veritable discovery and depth of knowledge. They guided me in rethinking every day my intention and purpose. My experience at the Sandy River School became memorable, treasured, and a template I reference often. With their guidance, I fell deeply in love with education. The influence of George and Mabel Dennison rings true every day as I continue now teaching teachers and writing about service learning (remember those Dutch Elms?), or other issues from literacy to engaging teaching methods. When I lead workshops with youth, Mabel still whispers, now softly, in my ear. Did I require neat and tidy in my classrooms when I did teach kids? Thanks to George my rooms were and now my workshops are lively, exciting, meaningful. Should you ever ask me about my year stay at the Sandy River School and all that occurred, I break into a huge grin. For all my struggles and insecurities that abound with a first year teacher, I loved being there. I discovered a relationship with nature. I adored the children who exhibited tremendous patience and appreciation for how the school gave them a voice and a choice. The families worked with us, entrusting their children to a less than typical school day. The two other teachers ‘ Sanno Keeler and Jim LeFurgy ‘ and I dedicated ourselves to long hours and deep conversations with a commitment to bring out the best in our students and ourselves. My guides ‘ Mabel and George Dennison. To you I offer my career in education as gratitude.