Saturday, March 11, 2006

White Mtn. to Mt. Airy by dog sled

Iditarod Finish Line in summer (photo KP) Posted by Picasa

The Iditarod, "The Last Great Race," is underway in Alaska, pulling out of Galena this morning. In a couple of days, the racers will pull into White Mountain.

In June/July 2003, we spent a week in this small village, visiting our dear friend - WatershEd Silcox - former teacher from Radnor who cashed out, downsized, swayed by all those years listening to Johnny Horton songs, and moved to a village about as remote as you can get. Other than just around Nome, there are no roads on the Seward peninsula: travel is by bush plane, small boat, or in the winter...snowmobile or dog sled.

That's where the Iditarod comes in. The current route of the dog sled race runs through White Mountain, doubling for a couple of days the population of this village of 200. Not the route of the original "great race," when in 1925 a succession of dog teams and mushers raced across 700 miles of sub-arctic winter to deliver medicine to Nome to avert a diphtheria outbreak, but definitely within an easy musk ox sprint.

So what does this have to do with Henry? Well, on March 2, "Read Across America Day," I had the privilidge of reading to my son's second grade class. I read The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto. The easy-to-read account of that first run and the dog that became at least the most famous sled dog ever, is a fun story for kids, and a great tool for an adult to talk about the value of books in helping us understand far-away events in the real world.

Through pictures we took in White Mountain and Nome, my son and I shared our experiences in the landscape of Balto's run, and of the town he and the other dogs saved by getting the medicine through the wilderness in time.

In my previous field, I visited hundreds of South Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland...and working with hundreds of classes of kids visiting nature centers where I worked. I've been in classrooms that were zoos. I've been in classrooms that were mayhem. I've been in classrooms that I couldn't wait to leave because of the kids' behavior.

Not this classroom. First, when we walked in at the beginning of school, each of the kids got busy putting away their coats & backpacks, handing in their homework, copying the evening's homework assignment from the blackboard. I wish my office were so efficient and task-oriented first thing in the morning!

Then, Mrs. Ryan gathered the kids on the rug for the next part of the morning ritual: news and updates. Not hers. Theirs. Each kid around the circle, in turn of course, got to give a brief update on something of interest to them. They each sat quietly, waiting their turn to report their news and listening to the others'. I mean really listening.

When she was ready for me to read, Mrs. Ryan asked the kids to find a place to sit where they wouldn't be tempted to talk to the person next to them. About half the kids moved to a new spot.

For the 30 minutes I read and talked with the kids, they were quiet, attentive, interactive, and very pleasant. Not that this was a surprise to me: I've known most of these kids for the past three years, and I know how well-behaved they are.

What surprises me, however, is when I hear parents, teachers, and administrators talk about kids in other schools. I wonder if those schools are in the same universe as Henry. They talk about unruly classrooms, disrespectful kids, ineffective teachers. None of these have been my experience at Henry.

After parents visit Henry for the first time, often after a Henry Group meeting, they often report with surprise how well-mannered the kids are. Opening doors for the parents. Saying "good morning," unprompted. Relatively quiet hallways. Focused classrooms. As one parent put it after her school tour, "They weren't swinging from the chandeliers." (Which is a ridiculous presumption anyway. Henry has no chandeliers.)

Thinking about the contrast between the kids we met in White Mountain and the kids we know at Henry School in Mt. Airy, I realize there are more similarities than contrasts. The 60-some kids of that remote village were welcoming, adopting our son as a new playmate for the week he was there. They were polite, open, and responsive to adults. And the rule of the summer was "let's go play!" Which was pretty easy in the 24-hour days around the summer solstice, just below the Arctic Circle.

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