Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Learning Curve: Teacher sparks passion for learning

Susan Notes:

This film about a teacher's open classroom focuses on the role of children in bringing life to a classroom and the need for a teacher to see each child as an individual. Go to the website and take a look for yourself. It will lift your spirits. Guaranteed.

by Robert Nott |

Amy Valens knows there's not one "right" way for a teacher to teach. Her way inspires a passion for learning in her students through reading, writing, play, experimentation, art and socialization. She sees the education of a child as a work in progress ΓΆ€” and not something that should be built around test results.

Valens still works as a substitute teacher and a volunteer at the Open Classroom ΓΆ€” a public elementary school of choice ΓΆ€” in the Lagunitas school district in California. But she officially retired in 2006 after nearly
40 years of teaching ΓΆ€” with some 30 years at the Open Classroom. Her final year there (2005/2006) is beautifully captured in From August to June, a documentary shot by her husband, Tom.

Though it may initially suggest a self-serving piece of work, the Valens' project focuses on the role of children in bringing life to a classroom and the need for a teacher to see each child as an individual.

"No Child Left Behind is a great title," Amy Valens told me by phone. "But it is only a title with details based on a behaviorist model. If that's what they were trying to do, they would be looking at how different children learn and what makes learning engaging."

Founded in the early 1970s, the Open Classroom serves about a third of K-8 students in the district, comprising four small towns of the San Geronimo Valley in Northern California. The documentary makes it clear that the emphasis is on reading and writing. Cooperation and problem-solving dominate the day's lesson plan.

The children tend to crops and animals in the garden/farm outside, find time to make self-portraits (and act out the meaning of the words that they come up with to describe one another's work) and take part in conflict resolution.

Valens says this approach yields impressive results. In California, a provision allows parents the option of exempting their elementary-school children from standardized testing. Six of the 26 featured in "From August to June" took standardized tests.

"We are meeting all the academic standards that the children need in order to get into high school and college," Valens said. "About 80 percent go to college and most stay in college, and those rates are high compared to other schools. But part of that success is the motivation of parents and the community as much as it may have been my teaching. Any time you look at these kind of figures, you just know there is a societal part to the equation."

I talked to Marley Van Deusen, one of the kids featured in the film. She's 14 and a freshman at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, Calif. She's a straight-A student who has seen "August to June" and thinks it's a fair depiction of how the school works.

"Everything we did there was engaging and playful," Van Deusen recalled. "It made me really want to go to school. I still have that feeling about school now."

The Valens want "August to June" to continue the discussion started by the education documentaries "Waiting for Superman," "Race to Nowhere," and "The Lottery" regarding the various options for success within education.

"There are many, many teachers who know how to teach like this and do try to teach like this," she said of the Open Classroom approach, "But they are under the gun because they are asked to do that as well as show a multiple-choice version of what it all means."

Visit August to June for more information on the film or to find out how to arrange a screening.

— Robert Nott
The New Mexican



This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.