Veteran Educator Tal Birdsey Helps Adolescents Discover What Ignites Them | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Veteran Educator Tal Birdsey Helps Adolescents Discover What Ignites Them


Published December 22, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 22, 2021 at 10:27 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Green Writers Press
  • Tal Birdsey

Nothing feels sterile or institutional inside the North Branch School, an independent middle school in Ripton, surrounded by the Green Mountain National Forest. The walls of the 1850 post-and-beam farmhouse are papered with brightly colored student artwork; cutout snowflakes; and posters depicting Nelson Mandela, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Prayer flags hang from the rafters, and a long wooden table in the room's center is covered with binders, art supplies and water bottles. A green plastic tub on one of many crowded bookshelves is labeled "Pencils for Unprepared Jack Asses."

Central to it all is head teacher Tal Birdsey, who cofounded the small school for seventh through ninth graders 20 years ago. Birdsey chronicled that process in his 2009 book, A Room for Learning: The Making of a School in Vermont.

The Middlebury College and Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English graduate penned a second book, Hearts of the Mountain: Adolescents, a Teacher, and a Living School, published in October by Green Writers Press. In it, he chronicles a year in the life of the North Branch School, sharing the tragedies and triumphs, written reflections, and meandering conversations of his students.

North Branch School, Birdsey writes in the book's preface, is "a place where learning is an experience of high adventure and growing," where "living is wild and joyful, deep and transformational, where we never know exactly what might transpire on a given day because we create it as we go."

Birdsey recently took a break from teaching the school's 26 students to speak with Seven Days about his new book, his unique style of instruction and the state of education today.

SEVEN DAYS: What was your own educational experience like, and how did that inform the kind of school you wanted to create?

Hearts of the Mountain: Adolescents, a Teacher, and a Living School by Tal Birdsey, Green Writers Press, 338 pages. $21.95. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Hearts of the Mountain: Adolescents, a Teacher, and a Living School by Tal Birdsey, Green Writers Press, 338 pages. $21.95.

TAL BIRDSEY: I attended an independent school in Atlanta, Ga., with open classrooms, mixed-age classes, teachers called by first names — basically, your garden-variety progressive school in the early '70s. School was alive for me. I loved having choice. I loved being able to write about myself. I loved doing projects. I loved the teachers being interested in what I was interested in.

I had a few great teachers along the way who made me find what was in me that was latent. So I see it as one of my roles to help my students locate or amplify what's best in them — and make them feel safe enough to bring that out. And shy kids, in particular, often have the most beautiful and ornate thoughts, but they're dispositionally not comfortable, and so they get overlooked. A small school can kind of overcome that. We're all sitting around that table, and we can all hear and see each other.

SD: Why did you gravitate to teaching seventh through ninth graders?

TB: The beauty of kids this age is they're still childlike, have all those vulnerabilities, that silliness and openness. They're not jaded. They're not cynical. And they have the ability to articulate and understand profound adult-level things. So, for me, it's sort of the best of both worlds.

Also, I'm fairly juvenile, and I can be like them better than they can be them. It's sort of like the equivalent of a kindergarten teacher sitting on the floor with students. I can just be a knucklehead like the best of them. Nobody tells more Uranus jokes than I do. But I can also do the other side, the serious side.

Interior of North Branch School - ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • Interior of North Branch School

SD: After three intense years with them, is it hard to let your students go at the end of ninth grade?

TB: The last four months of ninth grade is processing their anxiety — This time is over. I'm leaving. What's going to happen? What they're afraid of when they leave is not loving school anymore and not being seen anymore, just being part of a system. But they leave here caring deeply about what happens in school. And they know, after three years here, what they actually care about — I love photography. I love acting. I want to be a cross-country runner. When they leave here knowing something essential about themselves, I feel like we've done our job. Because those are the things that are going to drive them in the next place.

SD: You've been teaching for 31 years, so you've seen how social media and smartphones have pervaded kids' lives. What are your thoughts about adolescents and technology?

TB: It is pernicious, it is destructive, and it's complicated. It makes it harder to teach kids. It's just unmediated, random overflow of useless information that they're basically confronted with. The kids who are deeply involved in Instagram, Snapchat and gaming tend to have more struggles in school. They're more socially focused, or, if they're gaming, they're avoiding something. There's almost a correlation between the kids who don't get phones, or get them later, and kids who read more.

I will say, the greatest invention [during] my teaching career [has been] Google Docs, because we can write a play, and everyone contributes right on one doc. I love Google Docs. It's paradise.

SD: There's a current national conversation about how much influence parents should have in dictating curricula. What's your take on this?

Exterior of North Branch School - ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • Exterior of North Branch School

TB: What I say to parents is, "I know what kids this age are like, what they're capable of, what they'll think their limitations are and how to get past them. And I can get more out of your kid than you ever dreamed possible. Now back away." [Laughing]

We have parents who are insanely trusting. Also, they have a great sense of humor. You have to have a sense of humor when you're dealing with middle schoolers. I mean, they're nuts.

I love parents' participation in terms of them helping us understand their child. [But] the idea of a bunch of lunatics shouting at teachers, telling them what to teach or not teach — that's way off the rails. That'd be like me going to the hospital and protesting outside about how a surgeon [should] do surgery.

SD: What do you believe are the biggest shortcomings of the public education system?

TB: The book wasn't meant to be an indictment of the schools and certainly not [of] the teachers, because I think the teachers are the most noble people there are. I do have issues with bureaucracy. I have issues with people distant from a place telling a place what to do. I have discomfort with being told what to do. [Laughing]

I sometimes wish that, within a school system, couldn't there be some experimentation inside those buildings to let different things happen? Couldn't you have schools inside of schools, just some sort of way to let it be more of a laboratory?

It gets into all kinds of feelings I have about overcomplicating something [that] should be essentially, elementally simple, which is what I say in the book: You just need to sit them in the room, let them be seen, talk to them and listen to them. In its ideal form, that can happen, but when you start layering all these other things, it gets more and more difficult.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "A School of Their Own"