Founding a school – especially one committed to the arts – is a chore that keeps one up at night, not just dreaming, but inventing and constantly reconfiguring. Leaving aside issues like recruiting students and creating a business plan, how does one take something as complex as providing an education for children of multiple ages and keep it simple, at least to start?
On the day of my most recent visit, the morning started with a chicken. Sweetland School, which opened with 6 children in Hope, Maine in September 2014, is housed in the center of town, on an historic site. Originally envisioned as a community art center, its founder, Lindsay Pinchbeck, decided that while it would be open for business “after traditional school hours” for arts experiences, its primary purpose truly ought to be a school. Last Monday morning as one child and then another entered, she welcomed them, “I thought it might be fun to warm up with our chicken model.” Lindsay had prepared a table with individual brown papers, special white colored pencils, and in the middle of it all, a large cage housing today’s live model. Students from first through third grade were riveted – eyes glued to every detail of the specimen. They took their responsibilities seriously, chatting informally, commenting occasionally on the chicken sounds, yet driven by their assignment.After a little more than half the academic year at Sweetland School, all of the children were competently applying their observation, small motor, spatial, and design skills. Even the youngest among them were tuned into patterns (one of the hallmarks of good thinkers) and feeling empowered as young artists and scholars.
There was more in store that morning, as one looked around the classroom; children could choose drawing, printmaking, or frame making after sketching. Gathered together in a circle, their teacher demonstrated gel printing with feathers. While she modeled, each artist seemed to analyze or “take the process apart” in his or her head in order to fully understand how the elements left an image.
In an hour’s time, children whose interests and skill levels vastly differ and whose ages span a handful of years conducted one experiment after another. One child completely changed course mid-stream, feeling fully satisfied with what she’d produced. Others wondered how the materials had interacted, asking questions of themselves and their peers, curious about how, why, or if.
In a similar position with her own “work of art”, the founder hasn’t stopped asking those same questions of herself: “How could our program serve kids better if we made a change here?”
Baking science, math, arts, literature. writing, and history into a pie takes one remarkable master chef. That’s why Lindsay, like her students, alters the ingredients and the recipe. Doesn’t it make sense that to get it right, it’s sensible to get a bit messy in the process of getting clear?