Dana Frantz Bentley ’94 is an accomplished educator and author who came back to ACDS this November to speak about her experience at ACDS and her new book, “Everyday Artists: Inquiry and Creativity in the Early Childhood Classroom.” Dana is currently a preschool teacher and researcher at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, MA. Dana has a Masters from Harvard University and Doctorate of Education, Art, and Art Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.
When Dana spoke with members of our faculty, we were joined by four of Dana’s beloved former teachers – our founding Head of School Joan Barton, Ann Julian, Jenny Herre, and Jim Girard. Her powerful and eloquent remarks about what ACDS has meant to her and her career are below.
Thank you so much for having me.
So I have to tell you that standing up here today is a bit nerve wracking for me. A some of you may recall, there was an unfortunate incident during Speeches and Sweets when I forgot my final notecard in the car, thus bringing my speech giving career to a grinding halt. I’m still working on recovering from the horror of that moment.
But in all seriousness, I can’t tell you what it means to me to be here today. I graduated from ACDS 20 years ago, and I can honestly say that there is not a day that goes by that I don’t draw on something that I learned as the result of being a student here. This place, its culture and its way of being made me who I am as a teacher, a learner, a writer, and a mother. Today is particularly special to me, as the great educational icons of my life are all here listening.
What I really want to do today is to tell you a bit about my ACDS story, what it was and what it continues to be in my life today. For me, ACDS was and is about possibility. About what we see as possible in ourselves, in others, and in the world. One of my favorite educational thinkers, Maxine Greene talks about teaching children not about what the world is, but what the world could be. This is what we were raised on at ACDS, what a school could be, what a curriculum could be, and most importantly, what we could be. This was a gift that continues to offer itself to us throughout our lives, a gift of possibility, of seeing the world for what it might be.
I want to share with you some stories about my time at ACDS and how they live with me today. It was really hard to choose only a few- there are so many stories- I keep running into yet another thing that I just have to tell you about. But here are a few of the classics
To Be A Part of Making Something
For most children, school is something made. They walk in on the first day of kindergarten, and step into an already created structure in which they must find their own place in order to be successful. Success is very much dependent upon fitting into an already present structure, and following specific guidelines already dictated by the identity and culture of that school. This was not my experience.
When I came to ACDS we were renting rooms in a church basement, and in some of its loftier towers, which also housed the Sunday Schools. I believe there were two people in our eighth grade class, and the entire school population fit into the church’s social hall, with room to spare. This was not a place that was MADE. It was a place we were MAKING. I could feel that, even as a small third grader. This was a place of becoming, a place where change was happening and was always possible. This was a place where teachers, parents, and children all labored together for common goals, not because of some committee or outreach push on the part of the PTA, but because they HAD to. Things would not get done otherwise. There’s no other way that you would have found my mother bent over a sewing machine, grimly making my costume for The King and I. I’m surprised I was allowed to return the following year!
That feeling, that perspective of school as something not made, but in the making, has followed me my entire life. It may sound small, but think for a moment. School is our first real social experience in life. This is the foundation upon which we build our understanding of the social world. And for most children, it is an experience of toeing the line, of obeying a structure. Not for us. That was not the ethic or the culture of the school, and so, from a very young age, I perceived the world as a place in the making, a place over which I had power and influence. Moving through life, I’ve carried this concept with me, always filled with a confidence that my untraditional ideas have a place in the world, that church basements can become school hallways, and that the possibility of a place can be willed into reality.
ACDS embodied that realm of the possible, teaching all of us not to obey the expectation, but always to ask the question. What might be possible?
Space and Possibility
As I mentioned, when I began going to ACDS, we were renting rooms in the Del Ray Baptist Church, across the street. For third and fourth grades I climbed an extremely tall set of creaky stairs up to what I thought of as The Tower. This all seemed normal to me. Our library inhabited what was essentially a hall space, with vociferous pipes snaking their way above us. We had outdoor PE in a parking lot, and left notes on our desks for the Sunday School students who would use them on the weekends.
It was less than traditional, but I don’t recall thinking that there was anything out of the ordinary. Then the impossible happened. We actually bought our own school building, right across the street. I was in fifth grade at the time, and honestly, I couldn’t really see the point. The school seemed fine as it was to me, but the move was exciting all the same. I don’t think the momentousness struck me until field day that year. That was the day that we carried our desks and chairs across the street to our new building. Now, don’t ask me why we did that then, or where we sat for the rest of the year. I frankly have no idea. But I do remember that day. I do remember the empty halls, getting that half filled feeling as they took on the familiar clutter of our school lives. I remember playing field day games on a black top that had no cars in it. I remember the glamour of the science lab that had real gas spigots, which we immediately turned on. We never did use those (probably for the best considering my tendency for lighting things on fire), but they informed us that this was real. A real science lab. A real gym. Real hallways and lockers and desks that we did not have to share.
As I carried that desk across the street, I didn’t realize that I was being embedded with a belief system. I thought I was just getting out of class for the day. But in reality, these memories brought values with them. We lived the reality that good teaching and education frankly have little to do with school buildings and materials. Since those days I have lived and taught in a wide range of circumstances. I have taught with no money, little space, and few materials but I can’t say that it ever mattered to me. Creaky church towers and parking lot play spaces can be more generative than cutting edge, educational temples. I carried this with me as I guided my own students around Boston and Manhattan, hauling four year olds on and off buses and subways, in search of the (free) adventures that I knew to be just around the corner.
I feel lucky to have this memory, this moment where we as a school, physically lived the experience of change. From no school, to rented rooms, to hauling desks, to the school as it is today. These memories become a part of you, a part of the way you see the world, of what you know to be possible. One day, many years later, my colleagues and I were faced with a similar challenge: we were teachers with young children, and no decent, affordable option for their care. What was there to do but to make a school for them, just as the ACDS community did for me so long ago. Our little school also inhabits the basement of a church, and we grow bit by bit, every year. And it was my experience here that gave weight to the thought, “No schools for our kids? Well, we could just make one.” Because I knew it was possible.
School as Choice
So, I have a rather unorthodox method of teaching, and I credit that largely to my experience at Alexandria Country Day. In educational lingo I say that I use an “emergent, child-centered, project based curriculum.” What that really means is when I anxiously begin each school year, I do so without a curriculum. I know the skills the children will need to acquire over the course of the year, but I do not know the path we will take in order to acquire them. This means that the curriculum is built and rebuilt each year, born of the many personalities and experiences that classes have as individuals and as communities. This has led to the design and construction of our own museum, the study and creation of cities, deep investigations into social justice around race and gender, as well as the development and mounting of a large scale musical production of Peter Pan in which the children wrote the music and script, built the set, and figured out a “really fair” way to cast the show with “nobody crying at all.” And they are four years old. You have to be brave to do this kind of work. I feel frightened every time I begin a year anew, wondering “will it work this time?” wishing I could depend on a reliable binder full of curriculum to chart our safe course through the year.
The teachers at ACDS gave me the courage and the penchant for unique teaching practices. At age 13 I was learning Shakespeare, but not at a desk. Oh no, I was standing on the stage trying to get Portia’s speech just right under the watchful eye of Dr. Barton. I still love that play. We traveled to Mecca, not in a textbook, but through a history simulation of food, clothes, games, and culture. I deeply regretted that my chosen “fasting meal” fell on pizza day. As a final project, Mrs. Julian asked not for a book report, but for us to write a new ending to the book. In these subtle moves, the teachers asked us not what is, but what could be. My memories of Mr. Girard center around adventures that no other teacher would want to embark on with a group of adolescents. A ropes course at Hemlock Overlook? Sure! Chaperoning our 8th grade trip to Charlestown? No problem. The amazing part was that, you actually seemed to enjoy us. Even when we were 12 years old and absolutely dreadful. My brother and I were talking about you last night, and I think he really said it best. Chris (ACDS Class of ’98) told me, “Mr. Girard really looked you in the eye and talked to you, even when you were 10 and no one else took you seriously. He did and you know, it taught me how to look people in the eye and talk back.”
These moments defined school for me as a place of innovation and adventure. School was a place where a final history exam could be a giant medieval sandcastle upon which I would be strictly graded. School was a place where rehearsals for an all school production of The Music Man took precedence over a math quiz. These values, these memories sustain me as I walk into my own classroom each year and ask the children, “What will we make? What could school be for us this year?”
To Be Known
At ACDS, anonymity was not a possibility. We were known. We were known by the teachers who had had us, as well as those who hadn’t. Ourselves, our siblings, our parents, our pets, our successes and our failures were known by the community. It’s a small thing, right? Being known?
As teacher I find that the most powerful work with children begins at the moment that they feel recognized and known. We build academic excellence upon those relationships. We say to the children, “I know you. I see you. I know who you are and what you are capable of. And I will care for you no matter what.” From this foundation the children leap, taking on challenges, protected by the safety of the relationship. And it all begins with being known.
This drove me crazy as a young adolescent at ACDS. Everyone knew everything about me. There was none of the mystery that I craved, the possibility of surprising someone. But what I did not realize at the time was that it was just this safety, this sense of being known that made me able to surprise myself.
When I think about my teaching, about my presence at my students’ recitals, soccer games, birthday parties, and musicals, I know that it began here. During these years at ACDS, I found that true learning began not with a book or a subject, but with a relationship. And it works both ways. Yes, I am the teacher that sits on the phone late at night with a worried parent (and yes, I do give out my cell phone number). I am also the teacher who calls a surgeon parent in the middle of the night because my son broke his leg. I see you. I know you. This is where true education begins. I learned that at ACDS, and I carry it with me every day of my life.
Ok, so I know I’ve painted a rather rosy picture here. You’re probably thinking, “it all looks good in hindsight.” And of course you’re right. Let’s face it, I was thirteen here and that’s rarely the best year in anyone’s life. I had glasses, braces, and a deep love of neon green during my years at ACDS. There was an unfortunate incident in which my friends and I discovered and consumed the Costco-sized container of sprinkles meant for ice cream sundaes. Sufficed to say, I no longer care for sprinkles. I even had my very first boyfriend here (He was the only boy who was taller than me and we broke up three hours later). I have attended many schools over the years, but this is the place that shaped me. I’ve had the opportunity to study under many teachers, but the true educational giants in my life are in this room today.
In closing, I just want to say thank you. How privileged I feel to be able to say these words. How often do we get the chance to thank the people who made us? How often do we have the opportunity to look them in the eye and say, “I am who I am because of you?” Well, I am lucky. I have been thinking these things for years, with each milestone, each new experience, I’ve thought, “I’m here because of this school, these teachers. I really hope they know that.” Well, today I get the chance to say it out loud. Thank you. Thank you to this school, to its creators, and to those that keep it alive today. Thank you for the shape you gave to my life and my learning. Thank you for teaching me to ask the question, “What might be possible?”