Padanaram Village School
Head teacher Steve Fuson discusses the intriguing blend of structure and flexibility at Padanaram’s community school. Started with five students in 1972, it has now grown to engage eight teachers and about 60 students.
At Padanaram Settlement’s founding in 1966, the few children of school age attended public school in Shoals, a long bus ride from home — but an even longer distance philosophically and spiritually from the basic needs of the communal family. Then, six years later, a community homeschool was started. The settlement’s founder, Daniel Wright, had held forth this goal from the beginning, and it became reality when Marjorie began meeting with five students in a small trailer. There was no pretense of formality in that one-room “schoolhouse.” Resources were few. The simplicity and plain living of a logging and sawmill camp provided the backdrop for all educational activities. Donated books were shelved in a broken refrigerator and creek fish were raised in a bathtub. From the first, book learning and practical learning were joined together in our school.
The second year brought three teachers and 11 more students. The school met in a three-floor log cabin, which had previously served as a hay barn and hog pen. This cabin was the schoolhouse from 1973 until 1976. We fondly remember the experiences shared during those three years. The qualities of smallness, intimacy, and family allowed us freedom to explore, reach out, and try new ways. I recall the group relaxing with mid-morning snacks from the communal kitchen, some lounging about with a book or puzzle, some going across the road to sit on waiting ponies. Sometimes our pet deer, Bucky, might stop by for crackers.
Our present wood-frame schoolhouse was built in 1976 with a large addition in 1990. Padanaram’s village school now has eight full-time teachers and averages 60 students a year. Padanaram Settlement funds all school expenses.
The Educational Program
Early elementary students, between five and eight years of age, are taught in small groups roughly based on age and reading level. These younger groups move from room to room, supervised by a teacher who teaches all subjects by day’s end. Experiencing different rooms helps provide both variety and a stimulating challenge for teachers and students. In the mornings, early elementary students are usually involved with math, English, and language art subjects, while the afternoons are devoted to science and social studies.
The Learning Center is for students aged nine to 17 years. This group of about 30 students shares a large central space with several side rooms. Each student has their own personal study carrel. During the mornings, the children study the core curriculum — math, English, science, social studies, and spelling. Learning groups work independently with four teachers supervising. Students raise a small flag on the side of their carrel if help is needed.
This independent style of learning places much individual responsibility on each of the students. Each must learn to follow directions, read for comprehension, answer questions in writing, and check the majority of their work at the Score Table — by themselves. The teachers are there to clarify instructions, untangle those who get bogged down, pronounce unfamiliar terms, check tests, encourage, admonish, and generally act as facilitator/coordinator of the morning curriculum.
Afternoon schedules in the Learning Center are very different from the mornings, offering a greater variety: Research and Discovery, Arts and Crafts, Spelling Alert, Quest, and Recreation. In Research and Discovery (R&D), students are divided into four sm all groups based loosely on reading skills, each group with a teacher. The R&D groups meet in the side rooms and other locations three afternoons a week, pursuing a subject chosen by the group. These interage, “family-like” student groups focus on note-taking, outlining, and writing reports and research papers.
For Arts and Crafts, students are divided into small groups meeting about three times a week. “A&C” groups delve into any number of hands-on activities — jewelry making, wood carving, sewing, cooking, painting, drawing, wood working, or leaf collecting. The R&D and A&C formats are limited only by the interests, know-how, and resources of the teachers and students. Of course, other members of the community contribute to these small group minicourses, too. Generally these courses last from three to five weeks; then the students are reorganized into new interest groups.
Together, the core curriculum, R&D, A&C, and other learning formats offer a balance of stability and flexibility that maintains student interest. Mornings provide the stable time frame for concentration upon core curriculum academics, while the afternoons offer flexible diversity in movement, interaction, and interests. The entire student body and teaching staff come together in general meetings to start each morning, and meet again directly after lunch. In these meetings we take care of attendance records, share general information, and discuss school-related issues.
Parent-teacher conferences are scheduled at least annually, and the school is open to parent visits at any time. There is also a public open house once a year. At Padanaram School, math, English, and science challenge the minds of some very free-spirited children. Learning really happens without many of the bureaucratic encumbrances and alienation problems that often beset public schools. From earlier years until present day, our community school has emphasized reading, writing, and math as building blocks and learning tools. Informality and openness have been intermeshed with formal planning, scheduling, and a strong academic curriculum.
Long-Term Student-Teacher Friendships
The school enjoys an innate stability from the long-term relationships teachers and students build together over the years from kindergarten to high school. Time is on our side — what is missed one year can be dealt with the next.
The teachers share in the complete growth pattern and mental development of each child from five to 17 years of age. Often a “slow” student, who had teachers in the throes of frustration and dismay, can emerge later as a fine learner. Disinterest, apathy, lack of comprehension, immaturity — whatever the traits keeping a student from meeting the school agenda, each student eventually finds a way — in the time frame of their own growth and maturity.
Not all so-called “slow” students end up as great academics or outstanding book learners, but each learns according to their own potential, their own sense of need, their own motivation. In our communal school we are able to hold each child as unique and special, to cherish and protect the right of each one to grow up in self-confidence and acceptance.
Within the community environment of Padanaram, students know they have an accepted place and a personal identity. A vital job and a home-for-life await each student just outside the school doors. This communal reality provides each student with an inner confidence and sense of stability, enhancing the family quality of the school. Because each has a vested interest in the well-being of the other, and because teachers and students live the same communal lifestyle, we can all become friends for life.
Now a second generation of parents, many of them former Padanaram students, are sending their children to the school. Each skill developed or bit of knowledge acquired, each increase in student maturity, holds the promise of a stronger, more capable community member to share in the Padanaram Settlement of the future.
About the Author
For 21 years now it has been my joy to lead and teach in our village school. Living together as we do, I have been privileged to witness the fruits of my labor. Former students manage and work in our communal business, run the common kitchen, and teach in our schools. I am honored to stand arm-in-arm with these, my spiritual brothers and sisters.
My other major responsibility is management of our orchards and vineyards. We have over 500 fruit trees and over 400 grape vines. During the busy harvest and canning season, the school children provide much help. I write poetry and songs. I’ve written two books — though they are not yet published. My carpentry skills have proven invaluable. I hike for pleasure and health, and I am learning the value of meditation. Attendance of our weekly spiritual meetings keeps my life buoyant. My wife, Mary Jo, and my son, Samuel, are one with me in this walk.