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Here are a few observations about the schools that I’ve seen that support the full development of truly human qualities in their students. Really good schools devote themselves to the whole child’s development-intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually on an individual basis. This sounds obvious but it’s really true. One of the memorable projects undertaken at the Pestalozzi School in the 1990s was a 5000k bicycle trip from Quito through the mountains of Ecuador into Brazil to Manaus, a city at the beginning of the Amazon river and rainforest. The project was almost totally conceived, designed, and planned by the participating students themselves. They developed the finance plan, got sponsors, and raised the money for the trip, including buying the food, supplies and arranging accommodations; they bought the bicycles and arranged training sessions for novice riders. They researched the history of the areas they would visit; they mapped out the trip, and arranged for sleeping accommodations. According to Rebecca Wild, nightly whole group meetings were organized and led by the students to work on conflicts that arose each day.

Really good schools help students find out about themselves and their talents. I call this the “curriculum of me” and this was at the heart of Bapak’s advice on education. Schools execute this in many different ways, but always there exists a place in the school program that allows students to discover their talents and idiosyncrasies. For example, at Collegio Amor in Colombia, all ninth graders were required to take a very unique “career building course.” One assignment was to have the students reflect seriously about 3 possible career paths they would like to follow. For each career path, they were to look at their life experiences and write a justification for the particular career path chosen. The next step was to present these 3 choices to their peers and justify them in light of what their classmates knew about them. This is an important antidote to a problem that exists in developing and developed countries where often students choose career goals because of parental pressure or great money-making potential. So a Colombian student might dream of becoming a well-paid engineer. His classmates and teacher might remind him that he hates maths, but he’s a big talker with a great future in communications! 

Really good schools offer rich challenging curricula with many choices. They offer exciting learning adventures, many opportunities in all the arts, investigations in all the sciences from biology to astrophysics and nanotechnology, humanities centers, riveting mathematics materials and manipulatives, environmental studies, an array of physical activities from construction to soccer, and well-stocked libraries. From this range of exciting learning opportunities students are asked to make choices about what they want and need to learn. This daily habit of decision-making, making choices for themselves, seems to instill a love of learning and develops confidence and purpose. 

Really good schools investigate and cultivate the environment. There may be a huge communal garden created by students. The school may be nestled into a natural environment to which students have daily access. The school may organise adventures into the wilderness. The school fosters a love of natural world and a deep commitment to protect it. Really good schools nurture cultural diversity. Small classes where students can befriend and appreciate each other, opportunities for learning about other cultural groups, or a multi-ethnic student body seem to further tolerance. When student diversity flourished in the Subud Schools it seemed to be expressing our Subud experience of worshipping with different races and ethnicities and economic circumstance…instilling an almost unconscious gestalt of tolerance that permeated the atmosphere of the school itself. 

Finally, really good schools place a high premium on student HAPPINESS. When I asked Monica Ramirez, the former director of the Collegio Amor school, what would be a sign to her that the Collegio was a true success, she answered immediately, “I would see on each of my students ‘the faces of happiness.’” School should be a place where students can find joy. When I interviewed students in really good schools I was astounded by how happy they were, how eagerly they looked forward to their next day at school. If you’ve been around kids in most schools, you know how rare such enthusiasm is. Looking over these observations, I am reminded that no school that I have ever observed fulfilled all these goals, nor is this litany of observations exhaustive. Furthermore, I would be at a loss to create such a “perfect school” given all the constraints that exist both politically, socially and economically here in the US and even more so in the rest of the world. Usually when educators discuss school reform, they talk in terms of improved test scores, reduced drop-out rates and increased college admission. To me these outcomes are merely by-products of a really good school. If we were to focus more on human aspirations for our schools, perhaps we could design or choose a better — not perfect — but a better school for our children.

Halimah E. Polk, Ph.D.

Photos left by Simon Cherpitel as part of his Living Subud Image Stories

ABOUT HALIMAH POLK:  A long-time Subud member, Halimah earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University, her Masters degree from Stanford University and her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University and San Diego State University. She has worked as classroom teacher, as a program director for low-income ethnically diverse high school students, and as a full-time college professor. A few years ago, Halimah launched her own company, Educational Concepts, which specializes in grant-writing, development, and evaluation as well as project and curriculum concepts for non-profit organizations. Want to talk? Please contact Halimah with your ideas about education and schools.


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