What is Old is New

What is Old is New

The 1960s and ‘70s were a great time to be a social studies person. The Vietnam War was dividing the country, Richard Nixon was president, and the protest movements on college campuses were in full swing. Nationally, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, the Democratic Convention in Chicago and subsequent trial of the “Seven” helped generate the culture gap while music widened it as artists worked to put sound to the events. For an avid reading teen, those times were a banquet of social and political in full view daily in newspapers and television.

The times had an impact on education in schools across the country, and the schools in Fremont, California were no exception. The strict dress codes of the ‘60s were relaxed as skirts rose above the knees and young women began wearing pants to school. The young men could wear their hair long and have facial hair while they wore collarless shirts and jeans. The teachers seemed more engaged. The curriculum was expanded beyond the textbook. I was encouraged to take classes like Satire and Criticism and Comparative World Leadership; the English and Science departments joined creating “Sci-Lish”, encouraging writing beyond the lab. Progressive ideas led to the idea of the “Open School.”

The Open School was to have no walls.

It was thought walls crushed thinking and creativity of staff and students. According to Stanford University’s Larry Cuban, "The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at 'interest centers' and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher." The openness would allow sharing and creativity to blossom and students to move to grade levels that better suited their ability level.

In 1970 the Fremont School District began planning their open school. It was called American High School, and the school colors would be red, white, and blue. Classes would be held under a large open indoor area. The school was to open in 1972 but realizing traditional teachers would not be suited to such an environment, staff recruitment began at the end of 1971. During the summer of 1972, the staff spent part of the summer in retreats, sharing ideas to make the most out of this innovative and forward-thinking project. My mom was hired to be the resource librarian. When the doors were opened, there were no seniors on campus. The first graduating class would be in 1974, and these grads would be stamped with the openness and free-thinking the new facility was trained to offer. Within weeks of the opening, reality reared its head.

One of the first realities was that sound echoed throughout the building. The discussion in the English class 50 yards away became part of the social studies instruction in another class. The two-tiered library in the center of the school became a place where students could smoke on the top tier or aim spitballs at students in class. There was no such thing as quiet time. By the end of the first semester, teachers had utilized bulletin boards on wheels, steel cabinets, and stacks of boxes building walls in the school without walls. The school earned the moniker “The Big Top,” in the district as word had it the wallless interior created a circus-like atmosphere filled with screams, laughter, and an assortment of other distractions. Staff turnover became the norm as teachers sought a return to “normal” school where life was more controlled and the stress level was diminished.

 By the end of the 1980s, the progressive education movement had all but died.

It was not just the noise and free-thinking that killed it but a combination of events. The release of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 by the newly elected Reagan administration became a turning point.  The summary statement of, “…our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. ” It echoed resoundingly in academic halls.  Experts stated that the American way of life and pre-eminence in commerce and industry was at risk as was the very foundation of national security and innovation. The solution was the creation of rigorous and measurable standards guided by a national movement where students would take a minimum of four English courses, three mathematics and science classes, and three in social studies. Standardized testing was to play a central role to measure scholastic effectiveness. Coupled with the passage of California’s Prop 13 in 1978 came the end of music and arts programs, as well as technical classes, as the nation geared up to get students into colleges to better defeat the Soviet menace and remain the supreme economic and military power of the world.

Looking at American High today one can see new construction. There are new classrooms, but they are of traditional construction. Traditional walls separate them and the new buildings are away from the original “Big Top” construction of the 70s. It might appear the open concept school has died, but this would be a fallacy.

Prakash Nair of Nair International is a school designer reviving the concept of the open school. He claims classrooms are a symbol of a failed and archaic system of the Industrial Revolution and a relic of the Factory Model of American education. The progressive era of education, where form followed function, is better suited to promote collaboration, critical thinking, and flexibility, hallmarks of the global digital economy. To compete, it is necessary for schools and educators to rethink the concept of school and education. It is being accepted as functional in parts of the country.

The open school concept allows for teachers and students to cooperate and collaborate in a less formal setting and with more flexibility. “I love it. It allows you to grow as a teacher because someone can always see you,” claims Audrian Harville of Little Rock Arkansas. Walls are not the only barriers lacking in Little Rock, so are the human barriers keeping students and staff apart.

For those shaking their heads at the return of a “progressive” 70s concept, another less progressive aspect of education is also making a return, industrial arts. School districts are reconsidering the reduction of classes focused on the development of these skills. The reality that not all students are going to college or even want to follow the academic track is fast becoming reality. “The planning of a project and then executing it takes a lot of reading, writing, and math. These skills are absorbed much quicker by children when they are anchored in doing something real instead of in a sterile classroom. There is nothing like focusing the mind when there is a purpose…,” says Tennessee’s Bill Hoatson.

If educators and politicians can recognize the reality that standardized tests are not a measure of student achievement or school credibility, we can focus on a student-centered and creative model. One may argue American education is not what it used to be and I would say Hallelujah. Let us hope we can continue to focus on the needs of the students as well as the country and address the needs of both. In education, what is old is new and when creativity is encouraged and nurtured, success is sure to follow.

John Tierney has been a classroom teacher of civics and history for over three decades. He began his teaching career in the Bay Area of California working with “at risk” students in a variety of schools throughout the East Bay.  Although he loved the work, he sought a more rural setting and moved to Elko, Nevada after six years. Since moving to Elko, he has taught at the middle school, earned a masters degree, gone to work for PBS TeacherLine as a facilitator, and was named Nevada’s 2016 State Teacher of the Year as well as the NEA Teacher of Excellence and Global Fellow for China in 2017. Currently he is working with several state education committees, he is the president of Nevada State Teachers of the Year ,and he is also chair of  the Institutional Advisory Council at Great Basin College. When not working in education, he is a husband, musician, fly fisher, dad, and grandpa to twin girls.


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