Morning time. Imagine the sound of almost 70 young voices, rising from children ranging from kindergarteners to high school seniors, sitting in a circle on the floor singing Americana folk songs — Stephen Foster’s “Slumber My Darling” among others — while their head teacher sits with them, playing acoustic guitar and singing too.
After that, the kids shared what they wanted with the rest of the student body. One talked about seeing Big Fish the play. Another showed off a decorated toy puppy.
One described the decision to be a punk — for Halloween. “So now, I decided to dye my hair red — Kool-Aid.”
It is a sweet scene, and it’s how every day starts at Red Mountain Community School, a little known Birmingham private school currently located in space rented from a church in Avondale. Calling it private, however, may not capture the spirit of the place; unlike those schools who wear their elitism like a badge of honor, practicing exclusion and insularity from the less polished and upper crust, RMCS is very open to the community around it. It’s private because parents have to pay for their kids to go there, but RMCS is very deliberately a part of the city of Birmingham and embraces that in ways some might find surprising.
An unusual path
One recent incident might help make the point:
Teachers had taken the students on a field trip downtown, riding the city bus to the Radio Museum at Alabama Power. On the way back, a bus driver on a different route ensured them he would be going through Avondale, persuasively enough that the class took that bus rather than wait for the bus they normally take.
Before long, however, they realized that the bus driver was continuing on a more northeasterly route than they needed, and by the time they stopped him and got off, the entire population of Red Mountain Community School was 8 blocks away from their building. So they walked, all 70-plus of them, down city streets, across railroad tracks, until they got back to school.
Nobody panicked about being in unfamiliar territory or having to take an unexpected way back, or taking longer to get back to school than they should have. They took it all in stride: Just another adventure.
“It was unplanned, and it was a little bit risky, but it was not outside the boundaries of safety,” said Melanie Walker-Malone, the head teacher at RMCS. “We could keep it reined in. And the children didn’t even know that we weren’t doing something according to plans.”
Red Mountain Community School does things differently. From morning time, where they light a candle, sing and do a show-and-tell for the entire student body, to how they handle academics, to the fact that they prefer “living books” written by subject matter experts over traditional text books, to the way they insist that everyone — students, parents, teachers — all have to buy into the same philosophy of learning, RMCS follows a different path.
Consider a few examples.
Around the classrooms, there is a noticeable lack of computer equipment, but lots and lots of books. Instead of rigorously instructing students for hours at a time on a single topic, teachers at RMCS teach 21 different subjects — some for as little as 10 minutes at a time.
Students keep nature journals where they draw and write about what they find outside, including in the vacant lot across the street from the school where they play and do outdoor activities. From the 4th grade on, all students keep their own history book — the Book of Centuries, where they devote a page to each century they study in history and record or draw what they personally found noteworthy from that time period.
At a time when many schools are curtailing field trips, the students at Red Mountain Community School take them all the time, hopping on the bus to visit museums downtown, among other places. And they have teachers and guest speakers come in often, speaking to, and being questioned by, all the kids from the youngest to the oldest. Afterward the students engage in a regular part of their education — reciting, or retelling, or “narrating” back what they have just learned.
Many of the teachers are also parents or grandparents of kids at the school. And all of the regular teachers — some of whom do not have degrees in education, although all but one has a degree — teach every subject every day.
And instead of educating students to pass tests — there are no grades, although there are assessments and benchmarks — RMCS focuses on helping kids become good citizens, people of character, the kind of individuals you wouldn’t mind living next door to, or marrying your own son or daughter; someone who would be able to talk about important ideas, whether from Einstein, or Helen Keller, or Alexander Graham Bell.
“What we really hope is that you have a person who participates in what we call ‘the grand conversation,’” Walker-Malone said. “Over time there are these big questions that every person asks, like ‘Who am I? Why am I here? What do I do with my life? What kind of choices do I want to make? What is this world that I live in? What’s been done beforehand? What’s going to happen to this in the future? What do I do to contribute?’ Just big questions, philosophic questions that people ask. And when we read these books we learn that children have ideas about the conversation.”
If any of that sounds new age to you, it may be that you’re looking in the wrong direction. Red Mountain Community School is built around principles developed by an educator who lived, worked and led a revolution in schooling beginning in the late 19th century, Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason.
A different method
A British teacher who died in 1923, Mason was known for devoting her life to improving education in England at the turn of the 20th century. She had been a teacher, trainer and mentor to other teachers, and became known for developing a philosophy that focused on the child as a person rather than fodder for the industrial revolution.
Her methods have become increasingly used as an alternative to traditional schooling in the U.S. “Charlotte Mason schools can now be found across the United States in homes, at charter schools and independent private schools,” according to Wikipedia. “Mason’s methods are used widely within the homeschool community. Regional and national conferences, retreats, and study groups have sprung up across the country and have increased Mason’s methods popularity.”
Red Mountain Community School, the first Charlotte Mason school in Birmingham, traces its roots to Walker-Malone, who had graduated with a degree in education, but who was home-schooling her own kids with Mason’s methods.
After years growing up at Briarwood Christian School, which she found restrictive, Walker-Malone found that homeschooling and learning about the Charlotte Mason method was “healing for me as a person,” she said.
“It meant every week I was reading my local history … Mason had you do your local history, your national history, your [national] neighbor’s history, your world history,” she said. “It was such a relational view of education that you were always thinking about impact. Like, how would you ever learn your own country’s history if were weren’t thinking about your place in the world?”
A few like-minded mothers met in her home to talk about the Mason methods, and became the core group when pastor Steve Malone of Red Mountain Church broached the subject of putting a school in the church.
“Steve came to me and said, ‘We’re going to have a little church downtown. I think we should have a school. I love the way you do it,’” she recalled. “I said I will only do it if it can be a Mason school. And then the first year, we just tried it as a little experiment. Those women who were at my house started saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to start a school,’ and I was pretty committed to it being downtown because I lived in Forest Park at that point.”
Her grandparents had lived on Southside and Walker-Malone still loved being in the city and she wanted her school to be in Birmingham proper. “I just felt like Birmingham is a city of racial and financial divide and in order to bridge, if people are going to live in the city, we need a school in the city. Those were our taglines.”
They started the school in 2005 at Red Mountain Church but the first years were somewhat turbulent. First they left Red Mountain Church, relocating to Third Presbyterian. Malone divorced his wife. The head teacher divorced her husband. They married each other in 2010.
Not many years later, Malone died. The school, however, persevered, moving first to a Lutheran church where it remained until RMCS outgrew it — it went from 9 students originally to about 35 — and relocated. In its current site, the school has not only doubled in size, but also seen its very first student graduate from the program — Walker-Malone’s son Colin, who is now a student at St. John’s College in Maryland. More students are expected to graduate from RMCS this year, and the same is true for some students who left the private school for more traditional educational choices.
Seeing those students graduate a decade after RMCS started and the knowledge that their students do well on the standardized tests they are required to take by the state and to get into college helps validate that their reliance on the Mason methods is working, Walker-Malone said.
Those methods, Walker-Malone said, are not bound by church tradition in the same way as many schools that wear the “Christian school” label might be. “Nobody is drawn here because it’s a Christian school,” she said. “We tell people that we are informed by the Christian tradition and we have chapel on Wednesdays and that each of the teachers that are full time have made a profession of faith. And we believe that the principles there are beautiful and worth striving for and understanding what they look for in our day and time, but there’s nothing fundamentalist about it.”
The tenets of a Mason education stress, among other things, the value of being “full participants in every part of life,” Walker-Malone said.
“[It] boils down to atmosphere, discipline, living ideas, personhood, relationships. You can go back to that every single day,” she said.
Mason focused on feeding the spirit with knowledge, Walker-Malone said. And among the principals she stressed is the need for students to pay attention, and to develop the discipline of habits.
“Education was an atmosphere, education is really about habit,” Walker-Malone said. “Even a morning like today. It doesn’t matter how much chaos breaks out, we just light the candle sing some songs read a story. Children share. Go to your day.”
The specifics of the morning-time ritual at RMCS are not less specific to Mason than to Walker-Malone and company. “The idea of habit is what Mason cared about,” Walker-Malone said. “It just felt important that the children start their day knowing that their voice was just as important as a teacher’s.”
The Mason philosophy tends to lend itself to deep conversations. Consider what Malone wrote in an email recently, while musing both on a now-less-popular national holiday and summing up the focus of Red Mountain Community School:
This morning I was wondering about Columbus Day and how misguided many people find themselves when they learn that C Columbus might not have been a hero after all. Thirty years ago a conquistador might have been praised for his relentless drive for adventure and survival. Today his ruthless effectiveness is questioned and we wonder if we could/would trust him in any arena. What we want is a hero whose practices match his principles.
Something in this idea is what is at the heart of character formation at RMCS. Who is going to question the educational practices that are fruiting as a result of the Industrial Revolution? Who is going to question the impact of the ideas of ‘efficiency and speed’ on the person? Who is going to be able to be true to their times — not old-fashioned but able to choose what is essential in building a life well lived?
My first basic wake up call as an educator was the simple idea that:
‘Process becomes content.’ If I want to enter into a ‘life well lived’ and want children who can too, than it seems logical that the best way is simply to enter it now. Our hope is that we can ‘prepare children for their future’ as well as nurture student life with these essentials:
Books (the ones that hold enduring ideas)
Things (beautiful, true, useful, elemental)
Persons (each one is a mystery and needs to be respected)
the Unsaid (a rhythm and schedule that includes habit formation in presence/attention, space for silence, reflection, not knowing as well as space for celebrating and delight in learning)
That’s the heart of it.
The road ahead
RMCS has grown about as large as it should, Walker-Malone said, although in the future she wouldn’t mind seeing the Mason philosophy spread elsewhere in the city and beyond. But she expects RMCS to stay put in the city. “We’re not interested in going outside of Birmingham. We’re a school for Birmingham,” she said.
“I wouldn’t want to do it, but I’m happy for someone to come and take all of our resources and our curriculum, all of our model, anything that’s worked within here, and reproduce it in a bigger scale. I’m happy for us for to be a seed.”
The head teacher expects to be there at RMCS for the duration. “My whole life is now formed and shaped by it,” Walker-Malone said. “I’m going down this way. I’m not going to go get another job. I’ve created a place here.”
To learn more about Red Mountain Community School visit their website.