By Mark Phillips
There is a film showing in Washington D.C. in mid-July that everyone with an investment in public education should see.
“August to June: Bringing Life to School ,” directed by California documentary filmmaker Tom Valens, focuses on a year in the life of the Open Classroom at the San Geronimo Public Elementary School in Northern California. Valens captures the lives of the teachers, children, and parents during the last year of the successful teaching career of his wife Amy.
I was fortunate enough to see a rough cut over a year ago and fell in love with the kids and the school. The film left me with a renewed hope about what is possible in public education, and I volunteered to help with the movie as an advisor.
A film about a full year in a classroom could be boring. But from the opening moments of the documentary we are caught up in a surge of energy that continues through the 88 minutes. The result is a “feel-good” movie that still left me saddened at the end because I was reminded that this is how education should be — but too often is not.
Music as a natural ongoing part of this classroom captures you immediately and infuses the whole film because it is an integral part of this nourishing educational environment.
Watching August to June, I was reminded again of how much teachers and parents can help children develop in a way that makes the likelihood of bullying, one of our great challenges, far less likely. We watch conflicts develop between kids and then see how Amy skillfully helps them resolve their differences in a safe environment. Children are taught how to communicate with each other and learn to become responsible for their own actions.
Listen to Amy in one of the group meetings of the 26 children:
“What can we do to make it better next time? What do you want from the people you had a hard time with and what do they want from you?”
And then as she speaks to us: “Conflicts happen. These emotion filled moments color everything a child experiences… Developing an appreciation of other points of view, and a belief that problems can be resolved, are as basic to me as any academic skills.”
I watched in awe as two 10-year-old girls met with Amy and shared their feelings about a conflict, ending with an exchange that satisfied each of them:
“Next time, please don’t chase me.”
“All right, but I need you to tell me why you’re mad at me. If you just walk away I can’t know.”
Few adults handle conflict as well.
I was also struck by how much parents are an integral part of this school, especially as volunteers and as visiting experts in math, science, and the arts.
Whatever the focus on the children’s emotional and social development, academics are still the center of this classroom. Children are continually reading and writing, producing a newspaper, sharing poetry. Project-based math and science are seen throughout the film. The focus on academics is intense in the best possible way and wedded perfectly with nurturing creativity.
I think what I remember most about the film, though, are a few students who blossom during the year, a shy boy who gradually comes alive, a new student from a different culture who enters mid-year and lights up the screen. These are reminders of what is possible when the development of children, not test scores, is the primary goal.
This is a film that will renew your hope about public education.
It will be playing Sunday evenings at each of the Busboy and Poets Bookstore locations in Washington and Arlington, beginning on July 17th. It will also play at the Save Our Schools Conference at American University on July 28th. If the reception to the film at a recent sell-out showing in the San Francisco Bay area is any indication, it will be playing in many locations across the country over the next year.
For more information, please check out the website and take a look at the trailer. http://augusttojune.com/. I think you’ll be hooked.
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