This blog’s namesake is a one-room country school once nestled alongside a steep hillside in the heart of the American Northwest’s rolling Palouse Country. My boyhood home of the 1950s and ’60s was just a stone’s throw from this building although by my time the sounds of children’s games and lessons had long fallen silent. But the “Mountain Light School” lived in the vivid memories of my father and neighbors who had spent some years under the tutelage of teachers like Mr. C. L. Wakefield and Miss Lottie Moore.

          The school had been established in 1890 primarily to serve the needs of a rural community composed of pioneers from the Midwest and, in the case of my ancestors, German-speaking immigrants from tsarist Russia.  For several decades after the turn of the nineteenth century, it had been a vibrant center of learning that frequently brought area families together for recreation, entertainment, and fellowship. In a design typical of the era, the structure was crowned with a distinctive cupola of concave sides suggesting on Oriental influence incongruous with the surrounding grainlands. Yet the experiences shared by those who came for miles around to ascend its nine wooden steps would one day securely direct their paths both east and west.

            Few artifacts remained in my youth that bore witness to the purposes for which the building was raised other than a half-dozen tin cups suspended together by heavy string on a post. A nearby pail held water to refresh the pupils who shared these cups throughout the day. They were carefully washed by students who often remained after hours to assist the teacher. In 1920 Miss Vera Longwell arrived from Kansas to begin a distinguished teaching career, boarding with a neighboring farm family which included six of her pupils. Her kindly demeanor is recalled with fondness by former students as is the sense of wonder, accomplished, and pride—in that order—that she so skillfully fostered.

            Reminiscing at the distance of a new century, Miss Longwell’s pupils are quick to note methods that distinctly shaped their learning: cross-age groupings in which the younger assisted the older as often as not, studying the classics and primary source materials followed by public presentations of written and dramatic works. The curriculum included thematic units of study throughout the year with implicit contemporary relevance both to the locale and to the greater world. Tales of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest occasioned trips to an anonymous grove of willow and hawthorn trees where botany easily became a topic of inquiry. Saturday Evening Post reviews of the Boston Symphony’s 1920 premiere of “The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan” led naturally to stories of Marco Polo, the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“In Xanadu did Kublai Khan…”), and news of Babe Ruth’s trade that year from Boston to the Yankees for $125,000. That remarkable sum, in turn, offered grist for a lesson in mathematics. Before anyone realized how much time and work had passed, recess break was announced and students regrouped outside to claim one of two swings or play run-sheep-run.

            A sepia photograph taken in May 1921 on the last day of the school year (which I shall attach below) shows Miss Longwell surrounded by a sea of faces, young and old alike, as parents and their children gathered in late spring for a festive afternoon of picnicking, declamations, and group performance. The young people seem both excited over the prospect of summer vacation and confident that the security of home, school, and community promised a hopeful future. Those in attendance had reason to feel secure and confident. From those pictured and others in the vicinity, this small community would contribute a generation of successful parents, citizens, and workers in business, agriculture, and industry. Graduates included a Marine general, state governor, and the nation’s first woman ophthalmologist. When asked the nature of her inspiration for attainment, one graduate replied, “We were taught to live responsibly as a school family and express our natural curiosity to discover the world around us.”

          Through twenty-five years of service as a public school teacher and administrator while also a husband, father, and foster parent, I have experienced many improvements in education and don’t seek to idealize the experiences of a bygone era. However, during those years and now in my role in teacher education at Seattle Pacific University, I have encountered a remarkable cadre of teachers who have continued the apply the dynamic and time-honored metaphor of learning as discovery. We believe its reinterpretation for our day offers a powerful means to reinvent education for a new era. This orientation of “expansive learning” empowers students to be more responsible for their intellectual and moral development and chart a course for instructional destinies over which they can assert greater choice  and affiliation.

          Expansive learning through instructional technology is possible today in ways that were beyond comprehension when the cupola was built on the original Mountain Light School. The solid foundation of that place’s nurtured sense of wonder, belonging, and community remain primal attributes in the sacred task of stewarding young minds for enduring academic and emotional wellbeing in the spirit of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery traversing continental America, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s encounters throughout medieval Europe, and Marco Polo’s and Ibn Battuta’s journeys across Asia and Africa. Were such exemplars of lifelong learning scientists, writers, diplomats, ethnographers, or something else? Even cursory exposure to their prodigious writings reveals that they inhabited all of these vocational realms, and such experience and resources form the grist for Journeys of Discovery instruction.

          Learning as discovery, and using technology to open vast new realms of inquiry and community-building, suggests educational environments beyond the confines of conventional textbooks and worksheets, though these may serve as useful resources. From virtually any place in the world today, information technology makes it possible to hear the music of the Boston Symphony, information on the latest trades in professional baseball or the stock market, and online visits to places from Sherwood Forest to Mars and beyond. The pedagogical challenge becomes one of managing the rapidly expanding knowledge based in this new era of discovery, fostering an appreciation for its wise use, and ensuring that our efforts build strong academic abilities needed by young people to successfully chart a course for their future.

          The Journeys of Discovery interdisciplinary curriculum and method to expansive learning represents one such approach akin to the Mountain Light spirit of discovery and such “central subject” theming used in settings today like Boston’s Shady Hill School. Few other endeavors or themes invite the kind of associations for challenging curriculum as discovery and exploration. Students’ innate curiosity of the world remains a powerful impetus to build 21st century comprehensive education. As William H. Goetzmann has observed, “Exploration is a unique process that has enabled mankind to know and understand… [It] represents the process of learning in its most expansive form.”

Richard Scheuerman

Homepage photograph:  Lower Chain Lake–a recent summertime camping destination, Washington Cascades Alpine Wilderness Area (© John Clement Gallery)

R. Scheuerman Vita 2010 (pdf)

The Mountain Light School (pdf)

A Heritage of Hills (autobiographical) (pdf)


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