Hands-On Education | Education Supplement | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Storm King School students work with NYDEC in the Quassaick Creek to help preserve the eel population.
Prior to the 18th century, vocational education was the only kind available to most people. You learned by following the adults around, watching and helping; if you had literate parents, they’d teach you the basics. When it was time to acquire a trade, even in medicine or law, you’d find a master of the art and become an apprentice. Collective schooling up to grade 8, mostly for white males, became the norm in the 19th century and was heavily influenced in the direction of rote memorization by seminal early texts like Noah Webster’s Speller and the McGuffey Readers. By 1870, there were publicly funded elementary schools in every state, and the US had one of the highest literacy rates on the planet.

By the latter half of the 20th century, even mainstream educators were well aware of the deficiencies in rote memorization and beginning to reach toward tactics that were more creative and hands-on, AKA “authentic education” or “authentic learning.” And while there is no single definition, the meaning is about what you’d expect—tying learning to real-world experiences and hands-on problem solving.

Unfettered by state standards and mandated testing, Hudson Valley private schools have been all about this concept since long before it became a buzzword. At Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, kindergarteners learn to chop their own apples for snacks, and building the connection between hand, hearts and brain goes on from there. “In first through eighth grade, the focus is on the feeling realm—we do a lot with pictures and stories and mythology,” says teacher Andrew Sansone. “In high school, things become more abstract and conceptual.”

In the early grades, Waldorf educators believe kids are best served by keeping screen time to an absolute minimum. “Everything is low-tech and immediate—no computers or smart boards, and we ask parents to limit computer time at home to,” says Sansone’s colleague Karin Almquist. “Early computer use doesn’t do anything for brain development—we want them to slow down, open their senses, hear the leaves rustle, smell what’s blooming.”

Hawthorne Valley students get hands-on in a variety of ways at the school’s biodynamic farm. It’s all part of an approach pioneered a century ago by Rudolf Steiner, but Almquist says it’s hugely popular among computer-geek parents. “If you look at Silicon Valley, Waldorf schools are booming there,” she says. “Parents want kids to have a firm grasp of imagination, problem solving and observation, not learn how to program in first grade.”

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Students in the Oakwood school greenhouse work with a Poughkeepsie Farm Project educator.

At Green Meadow Waldorf, communications director Vicki Larson says authentic is just how it’s done. “It’s the core of what we do, although we tend to call it experiential or hands-on,” she says. “From washing their own dishes in the nursery and kindergarten on up through the grades. Twelfth graders just got done spending a week at Hermit Island studying marine biology in tidepools, not from a textbook or a slide show. Twelfth graders also spend three weeks at an internship, working 40 hours a week alongside adult mentors, keeping a journal. We send them into the world because that’s what they’re ready to do.”

Internships are part of a senior project that students choose in junior year, and the chosen topic will be the subject of a 20-minute presentation to the whole school. “Some make videos some perform, somebody two years ago designed a board game,” says Larson. “We’ve had students choose race car driving, EMT training, ice climbing, veterinary medicine. After they’ve completed the presentation, there’s something different about them. I have a fifth grader and she’s already thinking of what she might want to do.” The goal is to teach not just subject matter but logistics and project management; students also take an active hand in planning and fundraising for class trips.

Outside the Waldorf realm, there is no shortage of attention to authenticity either. “That’s very much in keeping with what all Quaker schools do. They’re all different, but there’s a shared focus on inquiry, reflection, and action,” says Anna Bertucci, associate head of school at Oakwood Friends in Poughkeepsie. “And service is a very big part of the philosophy. It’s good for the student and good for the community.” There’s a four-season greenhouse and a solar array, both serving very real needs and providing hands-on science lessons. “The Quaker concept of query leads us away from yes or no questions to open ended ones, a spiral of thought rather than a straight line. Middle schoolers read Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan and followed it up by going to Farmworker Advocacy Day in Albany. We might debate the Hammurabi code, put Genghis Khan on trial, or ask them to write a letter home as a steelworker in a mill. Letter writing makes a fabulous activity—we inspire them with the exchange between Einstein and Freud in which they discuss world problems.”

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Student tending a fire at a Wild Earth program.

Students at Oakwood study math by analyzing the properties of fractals; those following the Global Affairs track do a “massive” capstone project. “They analyze issues and try to come up with solutions,” says Bertucci. “We’ve had Students take on sex trafficking, child marriage, health care. They design the project and present it to a panel of teachers. And a lot of our students are active in the community. We had a student convince the community to adopt Green City standards, lobbying and petitioning and working with the Poughkeepsie city council.”

At Storm King School in Cornwall, students participate in the larger world in a range of ways. “Technology is integrated throughout the curriculum, whether it’s digital art or biodiversity experiments in the forest,” says communications director Elizabeth Taviloglu. “Experiential, hands-on, project-based learning is what it’s all about. We’re really strong in the visual and performing arts: students put on Broadway-caliber performances and experience how to manage that from start to finish. And we have a student right now who’s got a piece installed in an outdoor sculpture show at Saunders Farm in Garrison. Then there’s the Builders’ Club. And our 11th and 12th graders actually publish books in Creative Writing, learning all about the publishing process. What’s neat about all of those is that they take things from concept to finished product at a very high standard.” Storm King students also spend at least 20 hours a year in community service, helping out at food banks, the SPCA, Habitat for Humanity, and wherever else their interests may lead them.

Even local public schools recognize the need to get students’ noses out of textbooks and have for some time; for example, the Rondout Valley School District offers the WISE (Individualized Senior Experience) program, in which about 40 percent of the senior class takes on in-depth projects that incorporate mentoring, journaling, workshops, and a major presentation. The goal is to teach skills like interviewing, public speaking and time management, which can only be gained through experience.

Indeed, you’ll find authentic learning happening all around the region, including (perhaps unsurprisingly) in the great outdoors with the New Paltz-based Wild Earth, where students of all ages participate in “transformative nature immersion experiences.” “It’s just been in this last little sliver of time that people have disconnected from hands-on experience,” says director David Brownstein. “We strive to restore some balance. If a student asks ‘What’s this wildflower?’ and you give them a name, it’s forgotten in 24 hours. If you ask them, ‘Well, what do you notice? What shape leaves? Where is it growing?’ and they start telling you things, once they get an answer they will own that learning. It’s theirs for life.”  

Anne Pyburn Craig

Anne's been writing a wide variety of Chronogram stories for over two decades. A Hudson Valley native, she takes enormous joy in helping to craft this first draft of the region's cultural history and communicating with the endless variety of individuals making it happen.
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