School Culture – Part Two
A school's culture is made up of the traditions, routines, expectations, and interactions that take place. Attending to these factors in a way that reflects the mission and values of the community, in and outside of the classroom, are key to a healthy culture. (online dictionary definition)
During the first decade of our school-without-interior walls it was natural to develop the trappings of a “real” school: a newspaper (Focus), a yearbook (Spectrum), a variety of “clubs” (Math, French, Spanish, Art, Model U.N., chess), --- all the kinds of organizations you would find in most “traditional” high schools. But beyond those “expected” clubs and organizations Blind Brook began developing an array of routines and interactions that were, indeed, unique to a school that was consciously progressive and believed, at its core, that students had a voice --- and a voice the adults in the community should listen to.
As a result, there was a shifting landscape of new clubs, new organizations, and new “traditions” --- and even “teams” --- as the first years unfolded. In Roger Smith’s words:
A student approached me and asked me to start and coach the ski team. That was a bit of a sham, because he was a much better skier than I, but he needed a responsible adult. Well, he got an adult.
That’s the way the school evolved. In those early years teachers were recruited by students to serve as “advisors” to a Birding Club, a Backpacking Club, a Batik Club, a Cartooning Club, a Frisbee Club (later, an “Ultimate” team), a “Learn to be thin” Club. Some of these clubs lasted over several years, some dissolved after certain classes graduated, while others (like the Frisbee Club) took on a life of their own and evolved over the years into cultural organizations or teams.
Beyond the Club scene, Blind Brook experimented with new ideas for “doing school.” One classic example was the C.A.S.T. program – “Creative Alternative to Substitute Teachers.” In the words of Allison Marx (Class of 1979):
For one month each semester we had no subs, instead each day had speakers, projects, films, etc.… that you had to attend if your teacher was absent. Each event was coordinated with a class, so the speaker would have an audience, even if no faculty were absent, but most teachers planned to take a sick day that month in order for the project as a whole to work and have an audience. Students would come in in the morning and look up at the walkway above the entrance foyer to the school. On the walkway was a sign saying who was absent that day and, therefore, who would be attending the CAST events. I wish I could say I clearly remember the films or speakers, but I don’t. I remember walking into school and looking up and being excited to see one of my teachers’ names. As a teacher, I imagine a project such as this required an open-minded administration, and a very hard-working faculty to put this together. For that I say thank you. I have never seen or heard of any school doing something like CAST.
This was, of course, an enormous undertaking but Suzette Tarshis, our wonderful Health & Sex Ed teacher --- and the mom of two future BBHS teachers --- oversaw the C.A.S.T. program during its existence. It lasted about three years but, as the school evolved, C.A.S.T. faded away (probably because the staff was involved in so many other projects --- including gearing up for our first Middle States Accreditation evaluation in 1977-78). Another challenge we faced was creating unique “traditions” that would live through the coming years --- things like the Sophomore Circus and Olympic Day.
Once again, Roger Smith’s recollection of the creation of the Sophomore Circus describes how Blind Brook’s culture emerged.
The second year (1974-75) I was the Sophomore Class Advisor. As a fundraiser, I suggested that we start a Sophomore Circus, which would have a midway in the Commons and cafeteria, and then circus acts in the gym. We packed the gym for magic, jugglers, and as the grand finale, Jimmy Kahn jumping over seven garbage cans with his minibike. I believe I have a black & white photo of him wheeling around just before he made his final approach. All eyes in the bleachers were riveted on him. His jump was perfect, and he got a thunderous applause. I remember looking up at Wilbur Johnson, who was watching the spectacle from the glassed hallway above the gym. He gave me a cross-eyed look and twirled his index finger around his ear, which meant “you are a fucking idiot for allowing that to happen.” I smiled. That’s how we rolled. As we counted the proceeds in the Commons at the end of the evening, we made over a thousand dollars. I threw the wad of ones and fives up high in the air and the bills came floating down like confetti at the end of the Super Bowl.
The Sophomore Circus remained a staple at the school for years to come --- and proved to be a reliable fundraiser for the Sophomore Classes year after year. Due to the success of the Sophomore Circus, Dave issued a challenge to the Faculty --- what could we do in the Springtime that might be like a “Field Day” that most traditional schools had? With a little brainstorming, the staff came up with the idea that we would have an “Olympic Day” which would pit the existing classes (we were now 7th through 11th) against each other in a series of group-oriented contests --- relay races (three-legged, piggy-back, etc.), tugs-of-war, and the like. It would also have a “carnival” aspect to it, a ring-toss, a hit-the-target-and-dump-a-bucket-of-water on a teacher, shell games, and so on. We would use our front lawn and all the fields as our staging areas and, somehow, design some way to “score” the class versus class events so that one of the groups could be designated “Olympic Day Champions.” There were no trophies or prizes --- it was all about the fun of spending a (half) day outside together, “competing” and enjoying the time. And it worked!
Other aspects of developing the school culture were far more informal but no less important. During the first year, several of the 7th and 8th grade teachers had lunch with the students in the cafeteria every day and, more often than not, went into the gym and played basketball before the period was over. The “eating with the kids” did not go beyond that first year (although enough can’t be said for the bonding it created) but the lunchtime basketball games persisted for years (remember – much of the staff were in their mid-twenties and energetic). Most significant in developing the culture of Blind Brook in those early years was The Commons.
I had done my teaching internship in the fall of 1972 at Greenwich High School in Connecticut. That new high school had just opened in 1970 and featured a huge “Commons” at its central core. The GHS Commons served as a lunchroom for the 2600-student body and an area where students (and, possibly, teachers) could spend any free time they might have. The school was divided into four “houses,” each with its own administration and teaching staff --- essentially 4 smaller schools within the larger High School. Each House had its own lunch period in the Commons. It was a spacious well-lit area and gave the school a sense of openness. I was glad to see that Blind Brook’s design incorporated a “Commons”, but I could never have predicted just how central the Commons would become in developing Blind Brook’s school culture.
Architecturally, the original Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School Commons was brilliantly designed. As one entered the building (through an “airlock” of doubled glass doors) you were in a foyer, facing a two-plus story glass wall that looked into the Commons. There were another pair of glass doors to one’s left and, as you entered the Commons, you reflexively looked up because there was an angled skylight almost three stories above, often suffusing the space with light. You came in under a suspended walkway (which overlooked the Commons area) and, up to one’s right, were more glass walls that looked into the Science Labs. It was an open space with low, padded benches spread around the area and a recessed stairway at the far end, leading to the sunken cafeteria area --- which also had glass walls looking onto the back patio of the school. The Commons, almost from Day One, became Blind Brook’s agora. For those unfamiliar with that term:
Agora, in ancient Greek cities, an open space that served as a meeting ground for various activities of the citizens. The name, first found in the works of Homer, connotes both the assembly of the people as well as the physical setting. It was applied by the classical Greeks of the 5th century BCE to what they regarded as a typical feature of their life: their daily religious, political, judicial, social, and commercial activity. (bold, mine)
Indeed, the Commons was the hub of the cultural life of Blind Brook, and it was not unusual to find small groups of students “hanging out” there, but it wasn’t unusual to see students sitting with a teacher (or two) at any given time. There was an added element created by the suspended walkway above: students interacted with each other from one level to the other --- often in hilarious ways.
What struck me, as I researched Blind Brook’s history in the Yearbooks from 1976 to 1983, were the sheer number of pictures that featured Blind Brook’s Commons. As Debra Agran Palay (Class of 1982) noted:
It was not unusual for a teacher or two to join a group of kids who gathered in
The Commons . . . casually chatting, or sometimes engaging in deep conversation.
Impromptu discussions with our teachers occurred routinely during free periods,
between classes, or after school. These interactions fostered an environment.
of trust, and as students we felt valued, seen, and supported the adults we most.
admired and respected.
This new school’s culture was being created as the school grew, with new ideas and “traditions” emerging and growing just as the students, teachers, staff, and administrators were, too.