A short essay dedicated to Blue Mountain School, written by former BMS teacher, Miranda Altice.
Cesar Pavese said, “You do not remember days, you remember moments.” As humans - as animals - we are constantly aware of our remembrances, and sometimes unintentionally fail to change the perception of our memories narrowed down to single moments. But, on the other hand, what if those memories are so numerous - and so continuously impactful - at a place, time, and with certain kindred spirits that moments turn into days? I think this may be a true feeling of a marriage of emotions - like when you cry because you are so happy - or when your heart hurts at the thought of something so beautiful. This is all, of course, up for debate (and if I know many people in Floyd, debate will happen!). These thoughts and emotions arise every….single…..time I think of my days at Blue Mountain School.
I left Blue Mountain School and Floyd, not for greener pastures, but for the sand and salty ocean air that my sweet little family requires. Even though a big part of myself is giddy and relieved at living a few short minutes to one of the most beautiful and wild-looking beaches, there is another big part of me that is still mourning the loss of these kindred spirits and the overall surrounding energy I felt daily at Blue Mountain.
Of the almost ten years I have been teaching in various schools in the South, I have never had the pleasure of being a part of something so fulfilling, cutting edge, and “magical.” How can a place be so “cutting edge” while still so rooted in an earth-based, natural heritage that SO MUCH of our culture has lost? What is the ultimate secret in Blue Mountain’s ability to maintain this beautiful balance?
When we moved last August and I started my new teaching position at a public charter Montessori school, this question continuously nagged at me. Partly because I missed - and still miss - the community, kinsmanship, and light-hearted intelligence, but also because of the close relations to nature and openness to the contemplative-progressive lifestyle.
I was heartsick for Blue Mountain School when I had to give a spontaneous lesson to a group of nine year olds that, “No, this tree is a living thing, unlike a rock or a car or a video game.” (I have the sinking feeling that my heartfelt lesson to this group of kids, who may have never really gotten dirty in their lives, probably went unnoticed). This was my introduction to coming back into a world that has mostly lost itself. And meanwhile, there are few places left like Blue Mountain School, that hold on to the meanings of being alive - community, friendship, love, connectedness, imagination, and most importantly respect - for family, nature, classmates, co-workers, community members, and especially oneself.
This Wonderland of kindred spirits exists. It is real. And it was created in the early 1980s with a similar profound base as it still practices. Now that I have stepped back through the looking glass into a world I now experience as “After Blue Mountain,” nothing holds a candle to the marriage of emotions I feel when I think about my time working there as an elementary teacher. My heart hurts when I picture my coworkers and my students.
I remember the moments clearly. But those moments run into days and created the teacher and person I am now. I feel I will never find a place like Blue Mountain again - the staff, the students, the families, the nature surrounding, the vision, the mission, and the celebrations (oh, the potlucks!). If one is more drawn to the feeling of the moment, a quote I heard at the end of the movie Boyhood made me want to stand up and applause, “You know how everyone’s always trying to seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kinda thinking it’s the other way around… the moment seizes us.”
The plethora of moments and experiences I had - the ones that held me suspended beyond the Looking Glass in a place that is fantasized about for children to learn and grow as the WHOLE child, and is as real as the tree that was being so abused on a playground in Suburbia - seized me…. and I am grateful. If I cannot find my Blue Mountain School along the coastline, my only chance of surviving in any career is to create it.
Over the last few years, we've been asked a lot of questions, so we decided to assemble the most common ones and answer them for you. If you still have questions about Blue Mountain School after reading, please just let us know!
1. What is a Contemplative Progress school? Is it like a Montessori school or a Waldorf school?
A contemplative progressive school is a unique type of learning environment based on educational theories and methods that have been around for generations. Contemplative progressive models are now enjoying an increase in public interest due to educational research that illustrates their effectiveness. But ‘contemplative progressive’ can be a mouthful, and saying it might make people look at you quizzically, so read here to learn more about what contemplative progressive means so you can say it with confidence!
A contemplative progressive school like BMS shares some similarities and some differences with other types of alternative schools, like Montessori schools and Waldorf schools. Read here to understand those similarities and differences more clearly.
2. What kind of training do your teachers have?
Our teachers come from various backgrounds, from traditional teacher training at 4-year universities, Montessori training, Waldorf training, Reggio Emilia training, Early Childhood training, and so on. We value formal teacher training and require that our classroom teachers have it. Several of our teachers and staff also have Master’s degrees in education and human development. Current educational research and extensive staff experience inform our educational methods, and we continuously reflect on and refine our practices to best meet the needs of our school community. Regular staff development and training in contemplative practices and progressive methods ensure continuity in programming throughout our school.
3. I've heard BMS called a "Hippie School." What does that mean, and is it true?
BMS was founded during the early 80s mainly by a group of families who moved to Floyd to get back to nature and to enjoy a slower pace of life. Read more about our history here. Over the last 35 years, BMS has continued to evolve to reflect the changing needs of our community. As you can see from our values, we still hold to the basic principles of many of our founders. (So does that make us a Hippie School? Did we mention that tie-dyed clothing remains popular here, and that bare feet are common for students and teachers when it’s warm outside?)
4. Will my child learn the same things her peers will be learning in public school or at other private schools?
Regardless of schooling, every child learns differently. No school can guarantee what your child will learn during a given school year. When it comes to humans, who can make a guarantee? However, while your child is at BMS, he will be supported by a dedicated group of educated, experienced, and loving staff who will work with your family to give your child the best education possible. Classes at BMS are formed around a curriculum that is based on current educational research and many years of experience. This is a living document that continues to evolve.
A key part of the learning philosophy at BMS is that everyone learns different things at a different rate, and we use Developmentally Appropriate Practices to allow children to take the time they need. This means that it is possible, for example, that your child may not begin to read until she is older than her public school peers. In fact, research shows that this rate of learning is normal and natural, and that students who learn to read at 6 or 7 quickly catch up with their earlier-reading peers.
5. What about art, music, and other types of enrichment classes?
Because BMS has a holistic approach to education, school time is devoted to more than just academics. In addition to more traditional school subjects, all students have daily enrichment classes which include art, contemplative studies (mindfulness), Physical Education, and yoga for all students, all year. Music, dance, theater, and service learning classes are also offered for different age groups. Everyone is outside for unstructured play and some group games at recess for a minimum of half an hour a day.
In addition to academics and enrichment classes, Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is also a main focus at BMS. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Social Emotional Learning “is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
CASEL explains that “SEL programming is based on the understanding that the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships that make learning challenging, engaging and meaningful.” Our staff are all trained at employing SEL techniques in and out of the classroom.
6. Is this a child-led school? How much freedom do students have to decide what they will do and when they will do it?
Children learn best when they feel secure, and to feel secure children must have well-defined boundaries in place, set by loving and knowledgeable adults. At BMS, we encourage students to feed their curiosity and explore ideas that interest them in ways that engage them. This occurs within the structure created and held by the staff, and it means that while teachers and adults have a leadership role, we respect the needs and rights of the children as well. When appropriate considering development and circumstances, students are given the freedom and responsibility to make their own choices as often as possible, to allow them to learn self-regulation skills.
7. Is BMS a religious school?
BMS is not a religious school. However, we recognize the value of wisdom traditions and spiritual exploration. Our mission states: "As a Contemplative Progressive school, we commit to providing a holistic approach to education that nurtures the mind and the heart, the rational and the creative, the physical and the spiritual. Together, the Contemplative and Progressive elements of our model honor the whole child."
8. Why do you only have school four days a week?
Unlike public schools, we are not required by the government to have a set number of school days, so we are able to create a more flexible schedule that better matches the needs of our students and families. We have learned that an increased quantity of class days does not equal a corresponding increase in quality of education or in quantity of what students learn. Rather, we have found that students (and teachers) are more focused and productive during school hours with a four-day week.
We do offer an optional Friday Enrichment Program for ages 5 to 12 for those families interested in a more traditional schedule.
9. Does my child have to be a certain age to be in a particular class?
BMS staff work with families to determine which class is the best fit for a child based on that child’s academic and social development.
10. Can my preschooler attend only one or two days a week?
We offer four attendance plans for the early childhood classroom: four full days, three full days, four half days, or three half days. Our experience has found that when a child attends fewer than three days a week, things become more challenging for her, her classmates, and her teachers. At BMS we place a high value on community and relationships, and in the early years, a child’s social growth is top priority. It can be difficult for a student to feel comfortable in the school community when she is present only one or two days a week, and she and her classmates may also find it a struggle to build relationships when the student is absent from many class activities.
For families who are looking for a more gradual transition from home to school, our half-day options are a great alternative. Half-day students participate in the main activities of the day, including enrichment class, and stay through recess.
11. Can we afford the tuition?
We make every attempt to keep tuition and fees as low as possible while still providing an excellent education to our students. Our biggest expense is also our most important: our skilled, professional teachers. Still, we understand that for many of our families, choosing to pay for private schooling requires a lot of belt-tightening. For families enrolling more than one child, there is a 10% tuition discount for all additional children. Financial aid is also available, and there are usually several work opportunities during the year. One way to help tuition be a bit more manageable is to enroll in the extended payment plan, which spreads tuition out over the entire year instead of only the nine months of school.
12. Why should we choose Blue Mountain School?
There are a lot of educational opportunities available, and the truth is BMS may not be the best fit for your family. We sure hope it is, but we understand that every family is different. So how do you decide? We recommend that you take some time to read about BMS and consider whether our mission, vision, and values feel like a good fit to you. We also encourage you to check out our newsletters and blog to see what’s happening at school. Finally, we suggest you schedule a visit to meet our staff and explore our campus, so you can experience first-hand the incredible people and the beautiful spaces we offer. We hope to hear from you soon!
Written by BMS Director, Shelly Fox Emmett.
In preparing for Spring conferences last week, I was reminded of a recent recommendation I did for a friend and parent at our school. She was applying to a local college for admittance into a program there.
While completing the recommendation, I was struck by the criteria the college asked to be used in the recommendation. The qualities the program was looking for had little or nothing to do with the applicant’s academic preparedness (though the college did require transcripts to show academic history, too). Instead, all of the qualities* fell under the category of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which is an explicit focus at Blue Mountain School. We are the only school in our area that offers its students specific lessons and curriculum in SEL.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Social Emotional Learning “is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
CASEL explains that “SEL programming is based on the understanding that the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships that make learning challenging, engaging and meaningful.”
I am proud to work at a school that not only values Social Emotional Learning, but whose program is built around the idea that SEL is of primary importance for children and adults alike. To see that an adult applying to college might be expected to be competent in the same areas that we work so hard to support our students in is an affirmation that our program has value not just while our students are a part of it, but also for long after.
*The qualities listed on the recommendation were:
Check back tomorrow to see the answers to some frequently asked questions about BMS...
Written by the BMS Staff and the Board's Curriculum Committee.
The curriculum or "plan" for learning at Blue Mountain School is unique in that it is not just a list of subjects taught, or specific skills the learner is working to master. While our curriculum does reflect subject knowledge, skills, and proficiencies which meet national standards (e.g., the standards developed by the National Councils for Teachers of English, Math, Science, and Social Studies), content in each classroom is typically developed around thematic units or projects and reflects a commitment to incorporating the unique children who are part of that classroom in the process of constructing and exploring knowledge within the framework of their own experiences. Also included in our curriculum are other vital parts of an holistic education: Social-Emotional Learning skills and proficiencies, mindfulness skills, and enrichment classes which include the arts, movement, contemplative practices, service learning, and physical activity.
Constructing Knowledge in a Child-Centered Environment
For humans to maintain a lifelong interest in learning, three conditions must be present: a sense of wonder, a desire to experience, and an excitement over discovery. Child-centered environments like ours foster and preserve these qualities in all learners and invite children to explore, experiment, take risks, and solve problems. Our progressive philosophy values children’s questions and interests, their playful spirits and individual discoveries, and the knowledge and experiences they bring to school.
Our teachers create developmentally-appropriate, concept-rich classrooms providing materials, tools, opportunities and guidance while encouraging children to make choices, to interact with their environment, to reflect on their learning, and to work with other children. Meaningful classroom experiences build interest, motivation, and the love of learning. Exploration is encouraged and valued as a vital context in which learning takes place; through exploration, children are able to create, to take risks, to reflect, to be autonomous, and to actively engage their minds and bodies. Such experiences in childhood provide the tools that sustain us throughout our lifetime, regardless of where and when we live.
Child Development in the Classroom
Teachers at BMS work with the students’ interests and stages of development to create engaging, meaningful, interdisciplinary projects which teach the skills and content in each subject area in an integrated manner, rather than in isolation. Particular care is taken in supporting the stages of cognitive, social, and emotional development through which children progress, which vary individually and as a group. At BMS, learning does not take place in a linear fashion; rather, learning takes place by having an opportunity to experience and reflect on new ideas and concepts multiple times and in different ways. Therefore, while encompassing national standards, our curriculum also reflects and takes into consideration the needs of the specific students in a given class, and their interests and passions at a given time.
The primary goal of multi-age grouping is to create an environment at school that allows for the healthy development of all students because children grow, learn, and develop at varying rates, not simply as a result of their age. The multi-age classroom provides time and support for each individual to develop, honoring differences in learning styles and rates. Where an individual is along his/her own learning continuum and as an integral part of the group, determines the focus of instruction for that child.
There are many additional benefits to multi-aged grouping. In this model, students and teachers work together over a period of years, encouraging a strong sense of community and commitment to one another. Teachers have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of each student's academic, social, emotional, and physical strengths and can structure lessons to best meet each student's needs. Parents and teachers have more time to become partners in supporting children. Students in multi-age classrooms are encouraged to teach and learn from one another; younger children benefit from older students who model more sophisticated approaches to learning while older children benefit from their roles as mentors. The child-centered structure of the multi-age classroom encourages children to take responsibility for in their own learning as enthusiastic participants, not just passive recipients.
Check back tomorrow to see how we evaluate student progress (without grades or standardized testing)...
Written by BMS teacher, Jenni Heartway.
Blue Mountain School advocates the use of Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). This is a phrase used to describe a way of teaching that is based on research about how youngsters learn. DAP fits with our philosophy of using evidence-based practices, and it truly gives our students the opportunity to be engaged, happy learners.
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the three core considerations for teachers using DAP are:
1. Knowing about child development and learning.
At Blue Mountain School, all our teachers have degrees in education or related fields, and all our teachers have at least five years of experience teaching children. Our teachers know what to expect from children academically, socially, emotionally, and physically at different developmental stages. School director, Shelly Fox Emmett, has a Master's degree in community counseling and has over ten years of experience working with children and families, including six years as director at BMS. In addition, ongoing staff development keeps teachers aware of current research about child development and education. Like the children, we are always learning!
2. Knowing what is individually appropriate.
At Blue Mountain School, small class sizes and a focus on relationships foster an environment where our teachers know their students in a meaningful way. In addition, all teachers take turns spending time with all the children during recess and other events, and in this way, students begin to develop relationships with teachers before they enter that teacher’s class. Knowing our students as individuals and knowing where they fall on a developmental spectrum for a variety of subjects allows us to better plan for their personal academic success.
3. Knowing what is culturally important.
At Blue Mountain School, our relationships are not limited to the classroom or even only to time spent at school. As a small school in a small town, we are privileged to have the opportunity to truly know each other in a deeper way than is able to happen in a larger community. Intertwined as we all are within the broader Floyd community, our teachers and staff often spend time outside of school supporting the families that are a part of our school, too, and vice versa.
During my fourteen years as a teacher, I have worked in schools where Developmentally Appropriate Practice was considered less important than academic success. When teaching in Asia, it was my responsibility to teach 3-year-olds to read in a non-native language. Could it be done? Absolutely. My students were beginning readers in English by the end of the year. But at what cost? While it was culturally appropriate for me to teach this skill, I couldn't help but feel like I was not giving my students a balanced education. No matter how many sensory or social emotional activities I tried to include, the day only had so many hours, and these pieces were sacrificed time and again to make sure the academic goal was met.
I believe that as educators, we have a responsibility to nurture the whole child, not just one part of it. We know that students can learn anything, but we also know that helping a child develop into a well-rounded individual is most important.
We are so fortunate to be able to guide our students on a path of joyful, deep understanding at Blue Mountain School!
(Also written by Jenni Heartway: Nurturing Connections with Nature and Others.)
Check back tomorrow to learn about our curriculum…
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