Author: Whitney Stubbs
Event: Site visit to Ohlone Elementary
Date of event: Tuesday, Apri 23, 2013
Time of event: 1:30 p.m. to 2:50 p.m.
Place: 950 Amarillo Avenue; Palo Alto, CA 94303
Date of posting: April 24, 2013
From the street:
From the street, Ohlone Elementary doesn’t look like anything special: a huddle of bland, low-slung, ‘60s-era buildings with barely sloped roofs. Typical California. Probably the only thing worth noting are the rose bushes lining the entrance, blooming so effusively the blossoms outcompete the leaves. Next to a marquee announcing this week’s school-wide events, three flags flutter atop a pole: our nation’s stars and stripes, the California bear, and just below, a procession of children and animals in silhouette. On the flag, below the school’s name in English are Chinese characters that (presumably) provided a translation. If you didn’t get the hint already, this is Ohlone signaling to you that it’s not your ordinary elementary school.
Wide Open Spaces:
When you get beyond the threshold of Ohlone, you’ll probably glance up at the Main Office and realize pretty quickly that those Chinese characters are a recurring theme here; you see them engraved onto the nameplates, just below the English, that hang above every door. They are a feature of the Mandarin immersion program, a selling point for the Ohlone School within the district. If, however, you came to Ohlone just for the language program, you’d discover pretty quickly that it’s not the only thing setting this school apart.
Those low-slung buildings, which from the street seemed like a cluster, are in fact arranged in an enormous rectangle around a huge swath of open space–a mix of blacktop, green space, and sawdusted playground that practically invites you to run around. At any given moment, there are probably kids doing just that because students here get two to three recesses per day, plus explicit permission from their teachers to play whenever they must. The theory behind this unorthodox policy–and a slew of related policies, e.g., no bells–is that giving kids autonomy teaches life skills like self-awareness and self-management. Students can do more or less whatever they want at school, but they learn quickly the Newtonian truth that every action elicits its reactions.
The blacktop is elaborately painted in ways that could guide play. There are, of course, playground staples like hopscotch and foursquare, plus lines designating a basketball court, lanes for running, and some cryptic circular configurations decorated with the letters of the Roman alphabet. The pack of children I observed seemed totally indifferent to the suggestions the markings implied, preferring some irregular game they seemed to have derived themselves.
All around the blacktop is a ring of what Ohlone calls the “redtop,” where picnic tables are arranged beneath awnings in such a way that, even during a downpour, teachers could choose to conduct their classes outside. Along each wall are pegs where students in each class deposit their brightly colored backpacks for the day. Everything, you notice, is kid-height: the pegs, the chairs, even the trash and recycling bins. As an adult, you understand clearly that this world is not designed with you in mind.
If I may borrow an analogy from the BOORA architects, I’m going to suggest that the open space at the center of Ohlone is “the lungs” of the school. If you’ll accept that premise, then I’ll suggest further that the Farm is the school’s heart.
The “Farm” is in fact a multi-use space composed of the following parts: a large garden boasting an impressive mix of edible vegetables and beautiful flowers, an animal pen (with semi-porous boundaries), an area of “native habitat,” “an orchard,” greenhouse, a pumpkin patch, pond, a compost area, two tool sheds, a clearing with a low stage, and a section known by the signage at the “redwood forest” but known to the students as “Redwood City.” (For a drawing of the layout, see Johnny’s post.)
Set among these varied spaces are two outdoor classrooms, where teachers can gather students in a shaded, semi-structured place to enjoy, say, a biology lesson in a setting where it’s actually relevant. For the lesson I observed, the question posed on the whiteboard was, “How does DC current electricity affect salt (NaCl) in solution?” I don’t even know what that means, but the second or third graders seemed to be taking it in just fine, one of them scribbling in his notebook with his right hand while he cradled a plump golden chicken with his left. The chicken was weirdly nonplussed.
If I tried to take a class in such a setting, I would get precisely nothing done because I find few things more inherently engaging than animals and plants, but I imagine that kids can get inured to anything after a while. To them, this school is not a strange or precious place; it’s reality. I want to know what our world would look like if more children grew up believing in such a reality.