Friday, May 11, 2012

One of the Last Best Places Anywhere

Cross posting from a blog I wrote in October 2010 for  Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!
Vermont teachers who need to return to the well for a drink of passion and commitment can do no better than visit the Athenian Hall in Brownington, where they will find a magnificent four story granite edifice high on a windswept plateau, with 360 degree views of the northern Green Mountains and the vast agricultural plain of Quebec to the north.   
Alexander Twilight, preacher, educator, politician, was the first African American to graduate from an American college as well as the first to be elected to a state legislature.  His great stone school, the first granite public building in Vermont, built with his own hands in the 1830's, is the living embodiment of his passion and commitment to education.  One of two schools to serve the expanse of Orleans County, it is now a museum.  The sister school, Craftsbury Academy, still serves students to this day.
The novelist Howard Frank Mosher, in Vermont Life Magazine, Autumn, 1996, wrote:
"I like the way the Stone House still looms up on that hilltop, where the wind blows all the time. There it sits, unshaken and monolithic, as I write this sentence and as you read it, every bit as astonishing today as the day it was completed. What a tribute to the faith of its creator, the Reverend Alexander Twilight: scholar, husband, teacher, preacher, legislator, father-away-from-home to nearly 3,000 boys and girls, an African American and a Vermonter of great vision, whose remains today lie buried in the church-yard just up the maple-lined dirt road from his granite school, in what surely was, and still is, one of the last best places anywhere."
As the first Teaching Ambassador Fellow from Vermont, I had the privilege of accompanying John White, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Rural Outreach, on his recent trip to Vermont, my home state.  On the second day, just a few miles from Alexander Twilight’s great Athenian Hall, we visited North Country Union High School, a school which serves a sixty mile radius and is virtually on the Canadian border.  I felt great pride in accompanying a Federal official to an outstanding school in my state.  
 North Country serves an area in great economic distress, with double digit unemployment and over fifty percent free and reduced lunch.  In Vermont free and reduced lunch is not a true indicator of poverty, because stoic New Englanders are often too proud to accept help.  We can surmise that the poverty of this region is greater than indicated by the statistics.
What did we find at North Country?  Amazingly, given the remoteness and the challenges, we found teachers full of innovation, passion, and commitment.  We found a state-of-the-art Career Center dedicated to preparing students for careers in the trades, business and industry.  We found teachers collaborating in unique ways to integrate high quality academic instruction in the context of programs such as auto mechanics and woodworking in order to prepare their students for life in the 21st century.
As a music teacher, I was pleased to go into a woodworking class and find the students working on building dulcimers.  The teacher had connected with one of the Vermont's finest luthiers for support.  In the High School, we found a math teacher having teams of students measure guitars and banjos to learn geometry, ratios, percentages and understand the difference between accuracy and precision.  When John asked why the students preferred this type of real world embedded instruction, they replied "because it makes it easier."
After John left for the airport I trailed behind to visit the performing arts department.  I met with Anne Hamilton, the chorus and composition teacher who was my instructor when I was trained in the innovative composition and assessment program, the Vermont MIDI project.  This program is a national model for arts and technology.  Like the Career Center, the MIDI Project draws in professional practitioners.  They provide feedback to young composers across Vermont and the nation through technology and the internet.  We walked downstairs to the auditorium and watched the dance teacher, a former Vermont Teacher of the Year, coach dozens of students through an amazing piece choreographed by the students themselves.
I found the underlying philosophy of connecting school with community pervaded the entire school.  Alexander Twilight's vision lives in the work of the dedicated teachers of North Country Union High School and Career Center, where they labor against all odds with joy and passion to keep this remote corner of Vermont "one of the last best places anywhere."

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