Building Confidence at Prairie Creek

Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 6, Reading 6

by Colman McCarthy

Castle Rod, Minn.- Boxes of soapwort, lavender, and daffodil bulbs sit near the front door of the Prairie Creek Community School. In a day or two, the 103 kindergarten through fifth-grade children will be planting the flowers in front of the one-story schoolhouse that rests on five acres of rural grassland 50 miles south of Minneapolis.

The planting is bringing together students and teachers in another cooperative effort of learning-by-doing that is earning the Prairie Creek Community School a national reputation for innovative and effective education.

This is my second visit here, the first being last spring to observe the students’ self-run conflict-resolution program. Few schools have one and fewer still in early grades. What Prairie Creek children learn in their conflict-resolution sessions are the same skills they acquire in planting flowers: how to use shovels.

Linda Crawford, the school’s director, explains: ”Our purpose is not to do away with all quarrels among the children. I have no illusions that we will ever accomplish that, and I certainly don’t want to accomplish it through repression. Our job seems to be to continue to provide them creative way to get out of the holes they dig for themselves. The best present I know to give a kid is a good shovel.”

The luster at Prairie Creek has a second shine, one that is winning attention as more and more national reports are issued on the problems of American education and commissions are appointed to find solutions. One of those solutions is here. It goes back to 1982, when a group of local parents, many of them faculty members at Carleton and Saint Olaf colleges in nearby Northfield, decided their children deserved more than conventional, standardized education. They founded and funded their own school.

At Prairie Creek, neither the intelligence nor creativity of the young is insulted with tests, grades, report cards, or do-it-or-else homework assignments. Schools that rely on those artificialities are teaching inmates not learners. At Prairie Creek, it’s been different. Respect for children’s variances in intellectual and spiritual development, plus the availability of a small abandoned public school building back off a dirt road amid some cornfields, moved the families to experiment with learning. Twenty children came and two teachers taught them. The inflow has been heavy since.

This isn’t another elite private school where monied parents think they can buy the best in education and then turn their minds elsewhere, like making more money. The wealth at Prairie Creek is in the richness of the parents’ involvement in the school. The other morning, a father of a kindergartener was volunteering in the library, sorting and cataloging books. He is a professor and coach at Saint Olaf. Other parents come into the school regularly. Some are here to teach and some to putter around, but all of them, obviously, come because they love their children and because, too, the tuition of $3,200 is an investment they wish to protect.

In my two visits to Prairie Creek, nothing struck me more than the students’ affection for Linda Crawford. Children are uninhibited in speaking with her, perhaps because they have sensed she is not another adult control freak. Her philosophy of power-sharing was visible, the other morning at the student council meeting when 12 students-5-year.-olds to 10-yearolds-gathered in a room next to her office to decide how the school’s sports equipment should be loaned out at recess. It was a decision she could have made herself in 10 seconds, but she let the children devise a strategy. They learned a lesson or two about organizing as well as understanding that the equipment is theirs to care for and not someone else’s problem.

Crawford said after the meeting: “All educators want to think they know how to teach every child who walks in. But every person is ultimately mysterious, and if the awareness of that mystery doesn’t accompany all that you’re doing pedagogically, then there’s a thinness to it. It’s just a veneer.”

Parents of Prairie Creek students have told me that their children leave the school at the end of fifth grade with stirred minds grounded in self-confidence. They believe they can do anything, because for the past six years they have. Most go on to the public middle school and high school in Northfield, where conventional methods- tests, grades, and the rest-prevail. The Prairie Creek kids, however startled they may be to confront another style of education, survive and most flourish.

On leaving Prairie Creek, they take their shovels with them.

From Washington Post, October 19. 1991


This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537-.372

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