Holding Our Values

We are starting a brand new school year at Cottage. Classes have been filled, teachers have been assigned, and everyone is anticipating this fresh opportunity to work together as new groups of children, parents, and teachers. I am beginning to step back from our daily classroom routines, to make space for each of the teaching teams to find their own rhythms together, but I am staying to observe, play, and participate in conversations. The teachers are having lively discussions about our classroom environment, inside the rooms and out in the yards, thinking about what is possible and what else can be done.

In this spirit, we have a plan to change some elements in our environment that have seemed permanent and unchangeable. The concrete of the riverbed in the back of the Big Yard has been broken up and removed. Concrete tends to give the impression that it will not be moved, that this decision is final and complete. We count on it as a civilization, that these buildings and roads will last, if not forever, then far beyond what we and our children and our children’s children will ever see. But this synthetic veneer is a flimsy cover for the life teeming underneath. Roots are growing, communicating. Animals are burrowing. Plants spring up through any crack, insisting on their right to exist. We are returning that part of our yard to a moveable, organic state. We can still use the slope of the land there to create river systems, but we will be able to witness erosion, build dams and destroy them, divert the path of the flow. Every part of the children’s work there, observing and testing, experiencing through their senses, navigating over uneven ground on bare feet, is richer than it could ever be in a manmade, tightly controlled environment.

If you look at the old class photos and yearbooks, you can see that the yard has changed many times. The classroom routines have changed. Last year, we invented Morning Meeting, after a low ebb of structure in my son’s Rainforest year when we didn’t even sing the Goodbye Song, prioritizing that time for more free play instead. Then, this summer, while I was cleaning out and organizing our files, I found photographs from Cottage in the 1990’s, and the caption said, “Morning Meeting”. It turned out to be a re-creation of a tradition reaching back longer than any of us were here to remember.

We work day by day to enact our shared ideals about valuing and prioritizing child led play, connecting with nature, trusting children as the drivers of their learning, within the structure of a loving community. We listen to the kids, both through their words and through their behavior. We respond, support flowing into the space where it’s needed, and then giving them room when they can stand on their own two feet.

A few years ago, I heard a very impactful talk by Louise Derman-Sparks. She told us something I will never forget, which is that the mission of an organization is not something that is written on paper and forgotten, but rather a living thing that must be recreated, co-created, every day, by the members. Otherwise, we’re just riding the coattails of our legacy. The parents volunteers and teachers of our community, every year, act on our expertise and creativity to make changes to the way we know Cottage. Each individual member of our community, child and adult, is capable of affecting change in this model. Many times, we fine tune our class or curriculum to meet the needs of just one child, knowing that everyone will have a better experience when we can attune to an individual who has expressed an unmet need. Our teachers have creative license to amend and adjust as we see fit, but we all work together, checking our plans against our shared values, collaborating and building on each other’s ideas and strengths. Each family leaves a mark in how we function too, whether we write a description of our pod job that can be used by the next person to take it on, or participate in a fix it where we helped make something we all use years later, or come up with a solution to a problem we have just been living with for a long time.

We are as organized, functional, and close to our mission statement as we are because we flow with the inevitable changes that life throws at us, while balancing our core values as a community. As teachers, we love that we have license to be creative here, within a framework that asks us to be insightful about the needs of the people in our classes. As parents, we cherish our opportunity to lay down the demands screaming at us from our busy lives, slow down, and be with our kids here, learning and growing together but in our own ways. And the kids: the kids get to play, and we hold that to be the most important thing they can do.

Neil Symes