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Bay Area Couple Teach from August to June
by Don Schwartz
Amy and Tom Valens in their editing suite behind their house in Marin County. photo: A. & T. Valens
A rectangular city block, in a lower-middle class district, in the south side of Chicago. The perimeter, a ten-foot high chain link fence, surrounding nothing more than dirt. In the center of this dirt sleeps a two-story dark brick monolith called Coles School, my elementary school. My essential memory of being there is one of complete social isolation.
Since that time, the 1950s, elementary education in the United States has both degenerated and progressed, depending primarily on the region-in-question’s economic base. Amy and Tom Valens’ “
August to June
” takes us on an hour and a-half, year-long journey through the finest, the optimal potential of public elementary education.
Their second documentary on progressive education, “August to June” is an inspiring picture of what public elementary education can be. This labor of love emerged out of the melding of their distinguished humanitarian-based careers—media and education.
Amy began early by opening a pre-school summer daycare program in her building’s basement, in downtown Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 16. Majoring in art and education, Amy attended Antioch College where she was exposed to “some very progressive thinkers.” After graduating in 1968, she put a year in a conventional school setting, teaching art at two inner-city schools. Teaching a total of 500 students in 20 classes a week, Amy saw the dark side of public education, while also witnessing inspiring teachers who were making the best of their school’s environment.
Tom and Amy met and married while at Antioch. Tom graduated in 1969, with a degree in Literature. The two moved to Venice, California, where Tom did graduate study in film at the University of Southern California, while Amy taught at Summerhill-influenced Play Mountain Place. The couple moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970. Living in Mill Valley, Tom began working at San Francisco’s KQED radio/television station. This work was, in part, in fulfillment of his agreement to provide public service as a conscientious objector.
Amy and Tom Valens in front of their house in Marin County. photo: A. & T. Valens
Amy quickly found a teaching position in the small Marin County town of San Geronimo. The school, called The Lagunitas School District, initiated a progressive program, “The San Geronimo Open Classroom,” in 1972, starting in only one classroom. Amy held a variety of positions in the program until her 2006 retirement. The couple’s two children attended the complete Open Classroom program—kindergarten through 6th Grade. Amy’s ‘retirement’ consists of volunteer work at the school as well as fundraising and postproduction for this film.
Their first film, “To Make a Difference”, was completed in 1985, and featured the school’s history and philosophy. When asked what has changed in this philosophy between the 1985 film and “August to June,” Amy shared that the philosophy has changed little.
Nevertheless, “The situation was very different in the eighties. At that time we were basically talking about an idea that had reached some maturity, and was around in many forms across the country, and which we fully expected was going to effect education for quite awhile to come. And it did; however what we didn’t know was the oppressive backlash that was going to happen as the nineties came to a close. So the atmosphere as we made the second film was a completely different atmosphere than what we had in the eighties. The narrowing of education that has happened and that seems to have been widely accepted on the national level is the exact opposite of what we were aiming for, and what many teachers still aim for, but are finding it harder and harder to do. And so it seemed very important in this film to say ‘Whoa, hold on, you’ve gone way too far in terms of looking at statistics instead of children.’”
“There’s a whole atmosphere now where the high-stakes component of testing has come to dominate educational policy and define success," Tom added. "It’s created a testing mania that has replaced curriculum rather than simply be a measure of it.” Amy responded, “Tom suggested that he wanted to make this film. I had some hesitations about having somebody in my classroom that much, but I also felt really strongly that it was important to remind people about who children are and what is involved in educating the whole child.”
In her introduction to the film, Amy narrates, “We teach the same basics as other public schools, but the way we go about things is not typica"—an eggregious understatement. There are no rows of desks facing a teacher and blackboard. There is no single lesson for all students at the same time. There are unusual requirements such as to draw or make a self-portrait once a month. When addressing the entire classroom, Amy does so as part of the circle of students. Students participate in creating rules as well as in morning meetings where they plan their school day. There’s a micro farm to take care of, classroom chores to do, the occasional need to address conflicts between students with Amy’s help. Teaching in small groups. Art classes. Music classes. Spanish classes. And much more. The absolute, utter polar opposite to Coles School.
It is a testimony to Amy’s and Tom’s characters and their contributions to the Lagunitas community that they received 100% permission from parents and children to shoot 300 hours of footage catching parts of 150 of the 180 school days during the 2005-2006 school year. Part of a team that spans K-6 in 4 classes, Amy was the sole teacher of both 3rd and 4th grades in one classroom—with one aide and volunteer assistance from parents. Amy’s voice-over presentation of her philosophy of education is woven through the film’s joyful and enlightening stories.
Tom was the sole shooter and sound recorder, using a DV camera and radio mikes. James Lebrecht did the sound mix, and Gary Coates did color correction. The images and sound are of astounding quality, given the challenges and limitations the Valenses faced. The two self-financed the project with help from caring individuals. The DVD includes all the references and resources necessary for a comprehensive study of and journey into the worlds of progressive education. The world premiere took place on January 27, 2011, at the Rafael Film Center, in San Rafael and was well received by a packed house.
“We had 17 students from the class [covered in the documentary] who are now 8th and 9th graders," Amy commented. "They sat in front, and I could see their faces as we did the Q&A. Their enjoyment of the film and their support of what came out of this project were obvious. At one point I asked would any of them want to speak. One of the students got up and talked about how she loves learning, and how she finds that different from her fellow high school students who came out of conventional programs. They’re surprised and amazed that she enjoys learning for the sake of learning. I couldn’t have asked for a more clear reason for the way we teach.”
Posted on Feb 23, 2011 - 12:32 PM