Dear Pop: Building Community from an Empty Classroom

By ANNE TEWKSBURY-FRYE

Dear Pop,
 My last teaching year was a miserable year for me. Did you know that, on the very first day of school, I called Pillsbury Manor at 6 AM to find out how your night was? I was so worried about you. You were failing so fast. When I spoke to the nurse who answered the phone I didn’t recognize the voice.
 “My dad is John Clark,” I began. “I’m calling to ask what kind of a night he had.” The moment of silence on the other end of the line was very quick — just a wisp of a second as the young inexperienced voice searched for a professional, yet compassionate answer.
 “Actually… he expired.”
 “Expired?”
 
 It was ‘the beautiful’ of the early morning on the very first day of school and you were gone.
 
 That was a terrible year. I missed you until my heart just hurt all the time. I couldn’t squeeze in the classroom, the school, the kids, the curriculum. I just looked for your face each morning in the dawn and wept softly as I drove to work. 
 By the summer my heart was more peaceful and my soul less fragile. After nearly 30 years of teaching I needed to begin again. I longed to bring a challenge to my students. I felt like we all needed to look at our world and our place in it from another angle. I wanted to turn learning upside down and start building community from the beginning. 
 In our beginning there would be no furniture, no desks, no tables, no place to store things. Books, carpet and clipboards would be our resources. It was exactly what I wanted. Exactly. New beginnings, Pop… a clean start once again. 
 

 All my love,
 Anne

I teach at Lawrence Barnes School in The Old North End of Burlington, Vermont. Barnes is a small neighborhood school of approximately 165 kindergarten through fifth grade students. One hundred percent of the children receive free breakfast and lunch each day. Only fifteen percent of the families in the neighborhood are homeowners. Several languages and dialects from worldwide communities are spoken here. It is a culturally rich, economically deprived, densely populated neighborhood — an amazing inner-city island in generally rural Vermont. It is precisely because of the school’s uniqueness that I wanted to build a classroom as we built our community. My students needed community because they were not experienced in belonging to one that worked well. We all needed to build one together.
 
 My goal for the year was to help my 4th and 5th graders feel empowered to make a difference, to tackle projects they would not ever try on their own, and to become a close-knit community. Along the way I wanted them to become problem solvers, discover their role in other larger communities, and develop a sense of social justice. I wanted them to find new possibilities within themselves so that they would have choices.
 
 The stage was set. The classroom was empty. We rolled up our sleeves and dove in.

“When you sent the letter I thought you were kidding about not having desks. 
 I’ve never been in a room with no desks.”
 
Andrea Mason, Grade 5
 
 “When I walked into my 4/5 classroom there were no desks. I thought it was weird. 
 I still think it’s weird, but I’ll get used to it because we got to build our own desks.”
 
Ozazl Costa-Mangina, Grade 4

On those ever-so-warm September days, we sat on the rug with our clipboards and became a fledgling community. We hammered out the rules we would follow. We studied communities in history; specifically, the Pilgrims and how they arrived in America with so little, and were forced to build their own community from scratch.
 
 Students designed desks out of cardboard searching for a model that would work for us all — something that we could really build. I had in mind that it would be easier to build desks for two students to share, rather than having each child build his or her own desk. I thought, ‘Half the labor, half the time to build, more teamwork.’ The sixteen students would have none of it. They each wanted their own desk and cited many reasons why they would consider nothing less. The new community in Room 204 had found their voice and they had spoken. We began the process of building our own desks while we built our self-esteem and a sense of spirit.
 
 “I think it’s going to be very hard to build because I’ve never built anything before in my life.” 
 Joshlynn Fitzpatrick, grade 5
 
 To raise money for our building task we formed a cooperative and sold shares. We wrote letters to businesses and individuals in Burlington inviting them to become stockholders. The replies and the $25.00 checks began to come in, and students cheered as they watched their business grow. They designed a stockholder certificate, a receipt, and wrote thank-you notes to our new shareholders. We committed ourselves to monthly dividends in the form of bread or artwork or poetry. Most dividends were hand-delivered to our stockholders. Even the mayor’s office became a regular stop on our delivery route. Student self-esteem blossomed as they tackled these assignments and discovered they could do things they had never done before. They had a mission. They had to report to their stockholders. They had made that promise.
 
 After accumulating over $350.00 we tackled the math. Just how much of which kind of wood would we need to construct our desks? How about glue? Nails or screws? Fortunately, adults who knew more than I did about construction stepped in and helped the kids order the wood, cut the tops, and put together the legs by drilling them to the underside braces. We were a mass of sawdust, wood putty, and pride. Never had any project been so lovingly sanded as our desks. Our own desks!! 
 
Along with tending to our cooperative and building our desks, I had pledged to parents that we would keep up with our 4th/5th grade curriculum. We did many writing pieces, including a building journal that we wrote in to keep track of our progress and our reflections. We wrote a lengthy portfolio procedure piece as well as a report on building our community. We wrote many, many letters.

Connecting our math curriculum to desk building was easy. There was so much measuring and computation in the building of sixteen desks that we became experts. We padded our experiential knowledge with data collection, strategies, math patterns, and fractions. It worked. The ultimate multi-step math problems became a daily challenge with critical results. 
 
 We hammered and wrote our way through the fall and into local, state, and national elections. There we were in the midst of new learning as citizens in Burlington, in Vermont, and in the United States. We dug deeply as we chiseled out how the government worked and what relevance any of it had to us. We compared, we argued, we voted.
 
 “It’s important to learn about elections because we should care who our president is. We should care what happens to us. When I grow up I’m going to vote because I am in a bigger community and my vote is important.” 
 Robby Dinh, grade 5
 
 During that tiny bridge of learning time between Thanksgiving and our holiday break we finally finished our desks. We agonized over decisions of how to paint our desktops so that they reflected who we were. Students wanted the paintings to be a reflection of themselves.
 
 Our room began to take shape as we neared the break time. Students completed their own desks and I brought back tables, computers, and blessedly, my own desk.
 
 “Well, how I feel about this desk is very, very happy, because I built this desk with my bare hands.” 
 Joshlynn Fitzpatrick, grade 5
 
 Four months into the school year we had finished our desks, were comfortable publishing our monthly newsletter to stockholders, and had a good, solid foundation for our community and how we fit into other communities. I felt good about all we had done, but the New Year loomed ahead with adventures and directions I had never anticipated. 
 
 The Healthy Neighborhoods/Healthy Kids Initiative became our new winter focus as all the 4th/5th grade classrooms at Barnes plotted and planned how to make a difference in our own neighborhood — a real difference, not just ideas! We divided up into small groups, each in charge of its own section of the neighborhood. We report-carded the city streets, sidewalks, parks, green areas, play spaces, and our safety concerns. Our goals? With help and support from dedicated community partners, to decide what projects to select that would change the neighborhood in a positive way. How could they make their neighborhood a safer, more beautiful, place, one that was more inviting to families and friends, and less hospitable to drug dealers and petty crime? Could they actually follow through and do what we all aspire to do, which is to make the world a better place in some way?
 
The next unexpected turn in our year came as we discovered in January 2005 that we had $161.00 left over in our account after desk building. We began a daily dialogue about what to do with the money. Who really needed us the most and how can we make a difference? The big decision of how to help others rested on their nine and ten year old shoulders .We invited speakers representing different organizations to suggest to us what we might do with our money to help. The most compelling speaker was a local philanthropist who offered to match every dollar we had and could continue to raise. He tipped our community thinking toward helping at the local level. We became excited once again at the big possibilities of making a difference in our Burlington community.

With less than four months left in the school year, I am moved by the sense of community we have developed thus far. We still agree and disagree, get bogged down in daily strife and can’t get all our homework done on time. We struggle to learn our multiplication facts and how to increase our reading stamina. But throughout it all, there has developed a sense in the room — a spirit of purpose and power, of being part of the communities and conflicts in history, and a larger sense of ‘we can do it’ as they move from their neighborhood out into the world. I hope for them that they will always remember what an important part of a community they are, and how much power they have to affect change.
 
 
 P.S. Thanks, Pop, for the inspiration. XXX OOO
 
 Anne shared this when she was teaching a combined fourth and fifth grade class at Barnes Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont. It was written during a Reflection Writing Retreat co-sponsored by Community Works Institute.

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