Education News

Birdsey offers insights on how students learn

NORTH BRANCH SCHOOL Director Tal Birdsey’s second book about the independent middle school in Ripton, called “Hearts of the Mountain: Adolescents, a Teacher, and a Living School,” taps a decade of real in-school stories to evoke his student-centered teaching techniques.

RIPTON — Educator Tal Birdsey is always encouraging his students to write, with an emphasis on making themselves the focal point of their stories. It’s an exercise he believes encourages introspection, creativity, emotional wellbeing and honesty.

And Birdsey — the longtime director and head teacher of Ripton’s North Branch School (NBS) — has been doing a lot of writing of his own these days. True to form, he’s made himself and his students the subject matter of a self-imposed assignment that won’t sit in any desk drawer.

Rather, Birdsey has condensed a collection of real stories that occurred inside and outside the classroom over a span of 10-12 years into a new book titled, “Hearts of the Mountain: Adolescents, a Teacher, and a Living School.” The just-released tome provides a window into the intellectual and emotional growth of 27 students at a small, private middle school where alternative learning techniques are embraced.

“I wanted to show what is possible; the nature of what compels children of this age, their psychological depth, the richness of their emotional lives, the beauty of their ideas, their artistic powers, their moral imperatives,” Birdsey said of his book, available at local bookstores. “I wanted the world … to know that what we typically ask of them in schools does not quite touch the quick of their souls. I wanted to demonstrate that unlocking the spiritual, artistic, and emotional powers is the best and most direct way to unlock the strands of genius that each child possesses.”

“Hearts of the Mountain” is Birdsey’s second book. His first effort, “A Room for Learning: The Making of a School in Vermont,” explained the genesis of NBS, which he co-founded 20 years ago.

“My thought with the first book was ‘This is how you could start a school,’” he said during a recent interview. “The idea with this book was, ‘If you start a school, this is what’s possible in it.’ I wanted to show how much deeper we could go after we got it established.”

Birdsey has taught for 31 years (and counting), the vast majority of it at NBS. He also taught English for one year at a school in Taiwan. He’s perhaps proudest of his three years spent as a stay-at-home dad — a period he considers to have been his true post-graduate school of education — during which he learned a lot about himself and what makes children tick.

“That was all directly applicable to working with kids, listening to them and being attentive to them,” Birdsey said.

And truth be told, NBS has pretty become much an extension of his own home. He and his spouse, Rose McVay, live in Ripton and both teach at NBS. All of the students, grades 7-9, are more often than not taught together in a single room. It creates a special intimacy and educational continuity that Birdsey said is instrumental in getting the most out of students.

“At a small school, you have to be a part of it,” he said. “You have to join into this thing around this table. They come to learn that ‘I matter here. People love me, and what I do here is going to matter to other people.’ That’s a critical piece to this. Sometimes I wonder if kids feel they matter in school.”

In “Hearts of the Mountain,” Birdsey shares how NBS makes students feel like they matter, beyond what they’re able to memorize, subtract, recite and score on exams. He challenges students from day one to share their thoughts, fears and talents in an effort to make them more effective and caring learners.

“When they look inwards, it becomes very easy,” Birdsey said. “When they see their lives as a journey, it becomes very easy for them to understand what’s happening to Huck Finn. They understand he’s on a journey, and they see it as a journey.”

The challenge, he said, is making subject matter personally relatable to the students.

“This book tries to show the mixing and matching of art, poetry, history, ethics with them,” Birdsey said. “They actually fuse together. If you want them to learn about ethics of poetry, they have to be writing their own poetry. They have to be practicing and discussing their own ethics, so it’s also about their lives and not just about the curriculum.

“It’s a different way of thinking about what school should be, but you have to start by putting their lives at the center, and then the other things can be taught out of that — instead of the other way around,” he added.

So NBS students are encouraged to write their own material, in addition to learning from the Shakespeares, Twains and Hemingways. And when students clamored to stage their own play, Birdsey finally relented, with a major caveat: It had to be their original work.

“We take the funny ideas and real concepts of the things we’re actually studying, and we weave that into a story that is part Saturday Night Live, part Monty Python and part crappy teeny-bopper Nickelodeon show,” he said. “That’s the way they like it.”

It also gives students a sense of ownership.

“They’re learning how to say something out of nothing, which is to say they made something out of themselves. They get to say, ‘I wrote that line; that was my idea.’ That’s a very powerful feeling for adolescents.”

Birdsey prods, challenges and cajoles his students to test their boundaries, using current events — including uncomfortable ones — as another way to make learning more relatable. He recounts in his book how NBS students came to grips with the murder of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. But rather than focus on the violent act of a lone shooter, Birdsey challenged his students to imagine safe schools and communities.

He read a corresponding essay from one of his students who described the safe space (a hall closet) in which he would huddle with his hound dog during thunderstorms. Nuzzling together in a confined space gave the child and pup mutual comfort from the rain-soaked cacophony outside.

“(The writer) showed the architecture of his soul, the kind of person he wanted to be: tender, loving, protective, patient,” Birdsey writes in his book. “He was as close to himself as he was to his dog.”

“If everyone had what Bennett gave his dog,” one of the writer’s classmates concluded, “maybe there would be no Sandy Hook.”

Birdsey checked with his students before using book material directly linked to them. He used pseudonyms to protect student privacy.

“Obviously, the intent is not to diminish or expose (the students),” Birdsey said. “To my mind, these are all moments of great beauty, truth about their time of growing up. They’re probably very different now, and different things have happened, but at the time, this was the truest possible thing that they knew.

“I’m trying to honor those stories in here,” he added. “I want them to be seen for what they are — which is kids trying to figure out who they are.”

While tiny NBS serves as a nurturing cocoon for many students, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily threw a monkey wrench into school activities — as it did at all schools. North Branch School conducted virtual learning for several months, before easing into in-class instruction. The pandemic reinforced Birdsey’s opinion that educators must establish a different kind of rapport with the people they teach.

“There’s a school of thought that teachers should be treated as teachers, that they’re like technicians,” he said. “I believe teachers have to be humans first. As a general rule, we all want to be seen and known and understood — adolescents in particular. So I just model to them that I’m just like them, trying to figure things out. I think it’s important that they see us as human beings … I don’t want to see them just as a student; I want to see them as a person. And that needs to go the other way, as well.”

“Hearts of the Mountain” has something for everyone, according to Birdsey. Stories of student perseverance and self-discovery that tug at the heart and tweak the funny bone. Perhaps also a lesson for other educators who might want to replicate an outside-the-box teaching style.

He acknowledges it would be tough to mirror NBS teaching methods in a conventional public school setting “because a large portion of schools or communities are going to be uncomfortable or resistant to this kind of direct, personal sharing of your life.” But Birdsey believes a lot of schools could take steps in the NBS direction by creating smaller learning units within their buildings, having students follow one teacher for several years, and by giving kids more ownership and freedom of expression.

Perhaps this sentence in “Hearts of the Mountain” sums up Birdsey’s greatest hope for student learning:

“School was not about things apart from us; what happened in school was us.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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