Saturday, March 9, 2013

The School in Rose Valley, Rose Valley, PA

Grace Rotzel, founding Director of The School in Rose Valley wrote a book chronicling the early days of this historic progressive school, founded in 1929, and located 30 minutes south of Philadelphia. When I first read her book, The School in Rose Valley (1971, Johns Hopkins Press), tears welled in my eyes as I read passages of how ten and eleven year-old students in Mr. Rawson's shop class helped build an extension to the classroom building - walls, foundation, plumbing, and all. The trust and confidence in young children, and the belief that they have great capacity is something that has characterized  The School in Rose Valley (SRV) since its founding almost 85 years ago. I met with Head of School, Todd Nelson, and Director of Education Lauren deMoll to hear about its current incarnation.

You have to be there to appreciate the setting of this school. A quarter mile drive along a wooded country road opens to the campus placed almost surrealistically on a little farm-like setting, with sheep, chickens, and oh, yes, lots of little kids running around. I'm sure the children of Rose Valley have discovered better than I descriptors of their campus over the years, and the annals of the school must include poetry and prose giving justice to this magical place of learning and play.

Todd Nelson
Speaking of prose, Head of School Todd Nelson has a magical way with words. Unless I missed a moment of realism, Todd managed to spend almost our entire conversation in the world of metaphor and figurative language. Progressive education can use some rich imagery, but in my effort to find a succinct and pithy definition, it wasn't with Todd at SRV that I reached my destination. But did I ever have fun!!

Todd describes SRV as a "learning oyster." Students leap off the buses and cars in the morning "ready to resume," as though for them, other things have interrupted the important part of life. Todd invoked the conversation of two SRV teachers who were recently enjoying the sights and sounds of this kid village: building stuff in the woods, laughter on the swings, purposeful learning in the classrooms, like an anthill where everyone has a serious role to play. I can testify that I witnessed it all first-hand.

The OG's
I arrived the day after Meg de Moll. the teacher in the OG's (Older Group - 5th & 6th grades) and her students had disassembled the ancient Greek village that occupied the entire classroom. The students had regaled their parents and visitors with skits, costumes, dioramas, crafts, and other displays depicting the culture, beliefs and life style of this ancient society. Meg pointed out this this particular year the students have dove deeply and assimilated a vast amount of information and knowledge into the study of the Greeks. No sooner had the last vestige of the activity come down, and the kids were already knee-deep into an original story that they would write as a group. There was no room to pause; they were hungry for more.

Todd sees progressive schools as places where learning is hunted down, and where students are hunter-gatherers with huge appetites for new ideas and the wild boar of knowledge. All the notions of activity based, hands-on, experiential and place-based learning are in the teaching quiver. When I asked Todd about his definition of progressive education, he allowed that his expression of it has changed over the years, particularly since coming to SRV. He sees progressive education resembling more and more what he imagines the workplace of the future to look like. Ingenuity, inventiveness, collaboration, and industry. In the name of efficiency and productivity, a kind of textured, nuanced learning will be essential.


Mike deMoll
Lauren deMoll
I visited the wood shop with Director of Education, Lauren deMoll and her husband and shop teacher, Mike deMoll. Perhaps the best living metaphor for SRV is the wood shop, which has continuously served the children of SRV for over 50 years. One can't really describe the smell of a place, but were you to enter the shop, you'd sense much more than wood shavings. It's the order of the place where not a single nail or tool is out of place; it's Mr. Rawson's original shop rules still nailed to the wall; it's knowing that MIke allowed a first grader who chose a too-long nail to tack her project to the work table; it's knowing that through the history of the school, SRV has remained constant in its belief that children have great capacity and will accomplish much if trusted by their teachers.

The shop
Want to see progressive education in action? Head down that lush winding road in Rose Valley, PA. There you'll see children and smart, serious-minded educators creating, inventing, playing, thinking, building, and constituting a classic example of this style of teaching and learning. 

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