Witness to the Open Classroom Movement


Phillip Lopate


   It was 1969 when I made my way in the Berkeley hills to the house of Herbert Kohl. He had already written 36 Children, that heart-wrenching account of teaching sixth graders in Harlem, and the pamphlet Teaching the Unteachable, which the New York Review of Books distributed, and The Open Classroom: A Practical Guide to a New Way of Teaching. Kohl was even credited with coining the term “open classroom.”    I entered the house, built along the lines of the Arts and Crafts cottages now so valued by architectural fans, overlooking the plains of Berkeley. There was a din, an uproar of teenagers talking at the same time, and Herb with his curly black hair and rounded cheeks (it was easy to imagine the pudgy boy he must have been, he never lost that certain boyish quality) gesticulated excitedly in the middle, trying to keep up with and direct the verbal clamor issuing from this assortment of Black, Hispanic and white teenagers. My first thought was: yikes, this is chaos! But Kohl wrote in The Open Classroom, “Just as one has to suspend expectations with respect to individual students, so with respect to rules and routines one must suspend one’s fear of chaos.” I vaguely understood, though now I see it more clearly, that this swirling din illustrated a principle of the open classroom: namely, it was okay for students not to be sitting quietly with their hands folded in rows of desks; there could be movement and simultaneity and passion. I approved of the idea in principle. Yet the actual spectacle frightened me a little.   This was my first introduction to an experimental high school program called Other Ways, a sort of charter school avant la lettre which Kohl had managed to extract from the Berkeley Unified School District. He no longer wanted to be a teacher in a schoolhouse’s isolated classroom, and had embarked on a period as consultant, teacher-trainer, community organizer and gadfly, trying to change the system from without. Other Ways began as a program funded by the Carnegie Corporation, enlisting Kohl and the “Happenings” artist Allan Kaprow to develop new curriculum strategies, and then morphed into a school. It operated initially out of a storefront and spread out to the parks, cafes and Herb’s house. That last was the part that frightened me. I had taught inner city youth myself and got along well with my students, but I drew the line at having them in my house, even semi-adopting a few, rescuing them from troubled home lives, as Herb sometimes did. I would give them my all during the school day, but afterwards, I wanted to go back to my apartment and restore my energies for private life. Years later, I would abandon that rule, especially when I was working on a film with P.S. 75 students and needed to use my apartment as a set. But at the time, being a bachelor, I lacked the domestic support that Herb enjoyed, thanks to his remarkable wife Judy, a pillar of patience and wisdom, and his two daughters, Antonia and Erica. (A son, Joshua, would follow soon after).    I was newly arrived in California, a runaway from my first marriage, and I looked up Kohl on the off chance that he could help me find a job. Back in New York, he had been the first director of Teachers & Writers Collaborative, an organization that sent writers into the school to renovate the English language curriculum. I had been one of those authors employed by Teachers & Writers, and had worked with high school students, encouraging them to write whatever they felt like (which turned out to be sex and drugs), and had consequently been asked to leave the school, a not infrequent experience: we were like subversives parachuting into enemy territory and stirring up trouble. In any case, Herb warmly invited me to sit in on a session at his house.    The day I visited him, he was teaching a course in guerrilla theater, hence the energy and clamor. It seemed to me that Kohl himself was in overdrive. He especially enjoyed the reckless, rebellious energy of his Black and Hispanic students. Growing up middle class in the Bronx, his father a successful businessman with whom he did not get along, he had dutifully gone to Harvard, studied philosophy and was well on his way to a career in academia when he threw that over and began working as a lowly public school teacher, first with disturbed children, then with Harlem kids. Moving to California, by then an acclaimed educational expert hired to teach a class at U.C. Berkeley, he found it boring. As he confessed in Half the House (1974), an unnervingly honest account of the three-year effort to build Other Ways, “I missed the excitement of working with younger people, missed the diversity, craziness, and energy of my former students. The students at Cal were in the top 12% of their high school classes, were the ‘good’ students who spent more time figuring out what their teachers wanted than learning for themselves. I have always felt more comfortable with the ‘bad’ students, the loud, defiant, questioning, angry ones.” To some extent, they mirrored his own anger and impatience.    I was coming from a different place entirely. Having grown up in the slums of Brooklyn, my parents factory workers and clerks, I was one of those “good students,” desperate to climb my way into the middle class. I had little inclination to romanticize the ghetto. But I watched Herb carefully, using him as both a positive and a negative model. He invited me to stick around and offered me, immediately, his friendship. Why, I am not sure. What did he see in me, at 26—a fellow writer? Another refugee from his rejected, but still nostalgia-laden Yiddish New York? Perhaps it came down to my skeptical sense of humor. Whenever I cracked a joke, he lit up.    Solicited for wisdom as a kind of guru, he was given, almost against his will, to preaching the gospel of Herbert Kohl. Most of it made perfect sense, but sometimes he would try out a line of thought that sounded to me like bullshit. One time he began expounding to a group of student teachers the notion that Donald Duck comics were a covert expression of American Imperialism, when I commented: “Sometimes a duck is just a duck.” Herb looked stunned, then beamed. He liked being challenged.


   The Open Classroom Movement of the 1960s and 70s was an offshoot of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements—or simply, as we called it in those days, the Movement. Criticism of American society was ubiquitous, as was the guilty sense that the public schools had tragically failed inner city youth. At the same time, economic conditions were sufficiently rosy to justify the luxury of expecting change. As Paul Nash put it: “The circumstances were very favorable to open education after World War II. The stock market was rising to ever greater heights, and we knew with certainty that it would go on rising for ever and ever, amen.” Suddenly, education was a hot topic. Consider the astonishing outpouring of books from 1964 to 1975: John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964), Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), Edgar Z. Friedenberg’s Coming of Age in America (1965), Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children (1967), Jonathan Kozol’s Death at An Early Age (1967), Holt’s How Children Learn (1967), James Herndon’s The Way It Spozed to Be (1968), George Dennison’s The Lives of Children (1969), Kohl’s The Open Classroom (1969), Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Charles E. Silberman’s Crisis in the Classroom: the Remaking of American Education (1970), Herndon’s How to Survive in Your Native Land (1971), Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1971), Kohl’s Half the House (1974), my own Being With Children (1975). And almost nothing since.    The Open Classroom idea must therefore be situated within a specific historic moment, during which there were calls for educational reform along a continuum, from refurbishing curricula to a wholesale dismantling of the educational apparatus as inherently unworkable (viz. Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation or Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society). So, what exactly was the Open Classroom idea? Kohl cautioned: “It is difficult to say exactly what an open classroom is. One almost has to have been in one and feel what it is. However there are certain things that it is not. It is important not to equate an open classroom with a ‘permissive’ environment…” And so on. It is significant that he begins by defining it in negative terms, naming all the things it is not, suggesting that the key impetus in pressing for open classrooms was to reject various repellent practices even more than to argue for a specific vision. Thus, the open classroom is said to be non-authoritarian, to dispense with the prison-like regime of timed schedules for each section of the curriculum, attendance sheets, demerits, detention and lesson plans that were hemming in teachers: to give the students more power and a greater say in their education, allowing their curiosity to have a hand in governing their studies, rather than imposing a top-down, one-size-fits-all curriculum. “I also learned how to give up my power as a teacher (not delegate it but abrogate it) and how to help my pupils as well as become someone they could talk with. I learned to listen to them, to be led by their interests and needs,” wrote Kohl. The emphasis was on the student, not the subject matter. Having an open classroom meant finding ways of teaching that were not based on compulsion but participation—de-emphasizing tests, competition and grades. By exploring the world outside the classroom walls, going into the neighborhood and nature, you could build community. An openness to spontaneity, to jettisoning lesson plans in the face of changed circumstances, moods, accidents, also met with approval. Finally, “openness” referred to the teacher’s honesty, a willingness to be a human being and express in the moment whatever he or she felt. If angry, let the students see it, instead of pretending to be measured and self-controlled all the time.    The roots of open education were many and varied. You could go all the way back to Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana School, its free-spirited students described with lively verve by the Russian master, or Maria Montessori’s work with children in the Roman slums. In the United States there was the example of John Dewey, with his emphasis on experience, on “learning by doing,” which led to the Dewey School, a flagship of progressive education. There was the English influence, through the popular book Summerhill by A.S. Neill (1960), which painted an idyllic picture of a school with no punishments, no grades, where students made most of the decisions. Neill was inspired by Homer Lane, who had set up a similar non-punitive institution in England, The Little Commonwealth, for delinquent youth.    Curiously, I never heard Herb mention Dewey, either in conversation or in his writings. He was much more enthralled by Paolo Freire, the radical Chilean educator who instilled literacy in the peasants by teaching them a vocabulary that would address their social oppression, thus educating them at the same time as organizing them politically. A similar approach was advocated by the Mexican ex-priest Ivan Illich. Kohl also spoke reverently about Myles Horton, the director of the Highland Folk School in Tennessee, which tried to use adult education as a mechanism for changing society, first by working with union members, later with people in the Civil Rights movement. At one point Highlander was the only integrated school in the entire South.    Herb saw the open classroom movement as a way to subvert what he regarded as the atrocious inequities in American society. The title of his memoir, Half the House, was taken from a Cavafy poem, which begins: “He who hopes to grow in spirit/will have to transcend obedience and respect” and ends: “half the house will have to come down. This way he’ll grow virtuously into wisdom.” Though I agreed with him about the social injustices visited on people of color and other marginalized groups, I had no desire to topple the American house. Call me a coward. I was still too insecure in my footing: plus, it just wasn’t in my nature to yearn for revolution. My response to the inequities of the system tended toward: So what else is new? I was in awe of Herb’s ability to access his rage against the bureaucracy, even as it put me off, which anger often does. He wrote once that a therapist told him some of his anger against authority issued from his unresolved tensions with his father, so he made amends with his father, but continued to rage against the clueless school superintendents for letting down the students, for underestimating their capacity to learn. At the same time, Herb expressed a quite remarkable loving sweetness toward his youthful charges and his open classroom colleagues, always with an underlying sadness underneath.    Herb had more faith in community control than I did. One of his basic principles was that no agendas should be imposed on a community from above, that the people must be allowed to make their own decisions. Well and good: but what if they were racists? Or philistines? At the time, after Sputnik, the Feds were looking for ways to strengthen primary education, and they started sprinkling money around to that end. Herb was wary of any top-down arrangements the white folks in Washington might try to foist on communities of color, however “progressive” or well-intended. I can only rub my eyes and wish for a return to some of that Federal involvement and largesse.    Herb encouraged me to visit different classrooms in the Bay Area that were using an open classroom approach. What I saw was mixed. Some of the younger teachers were so eager to be seen by their students as hip and friendly that the kids walked all over them. By contrast, when I visited Jim Herndon’s class in San Francisco, the atmosphere was delightfully relaxed and productive. It was hard to find teachers who could be flexible and non-authoritarian yet good leaders. I began to suspect that the whole notion of dismantling one’s authority worked better when the teacher had a rich cultural toolbox to begin with, which he or she could project automatically and therefore ensure respect. Herb Kohl had written a book on philosophy, The Age of Complexity, while introducing his Harlem class to Plato. George Dennison was an accomplished playwright, Jim Herndon an excellent fiction writer, and so on, but the average schoolteacher had to command respect from more meager resources.    I should add that in my fifty years of teaching I have never wished to abrogate or defuse my authority. I’ve needed every ounce of it I could muster! Even when I was helping elementary school children put on plays or make movies, I knew that I was not just a “facilitator,” I was the actual director.    In 1969 I had taken a job at a private school in Oakland, Twin Pines, and taught creative writing eight periods a day. Why the headmistress thought it necessary to hire a creative writing specialist is beyond me; it was a fad at the time, I suppose. I felt like the fencing master in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The necessity to teach grades one through six in a single day meant that I had to vary my lessons quite a bit, forcing me to invent many writing prompts. On top of that, I was assigned yard duty—that part I liked. I roamed the playground after school and eavesdropped on the kids’ private conversations. It not only amused me but gave me a sense of what was really going through their minds. I remember one seven-year-old boy who could not get enough of saying “dookie”—his word for shit—and laughing hysterically each time.    As was my custom, I photocopied the kids’ poems and stories and distributed them to the class. A mistake. I was called into the headmistress’s office and told to watch it. I didn’t know what she was talking about: there was no mention of sex or violence in any of the pieces. “Yes, but you see this poem with the word ‘vomit’?” I had sincerely not known that vomit was on the list of forbidden terms and said so. Her response was: “It’s not very nice. Would you like me to vomit in front of you?”    After that, I began meeting with a group of the older teachers who wanted to change the school by making it more open. (Interestingly, the younger staff members had no interest in pedagogical reform; they were all for getting stoned, not for wasting time on local matters.) Soon enough, word leaked out to the headmistress that a splinter group had formed and I was fired. The rumor spread through the lower grades: “Phillip is on fire!” the little kids said. That day I was a sort of hero, as students marched through the halls with protest signs. I told Herb Kohl what had happened and he was not surprised. His attitude was summarized by this passage in The Open Classroom: “Survival in a given school is not always desirable or possible. There are times to quit or to be fired, to oppose, defy, and confront people.”    Meanwhile, a group of parents from Twin Pines came to me and asked if I would like to become director of a new school they were thinking of starting. The prospect terrified me; I was way too young and unseasoned. Obviously, I’d conveyed an impression of being more mature than I felt inside. I hightailed it back East.


   In New York, I was rehired by Teachers & Writers, this time to work at the East Harlem Youth Employment Agency, a storefront preparing dropouts or ex-convicts for their high school equivalency exams. Suddenly I was teaching algebra and history as well as creative writing. But my main task seemed to be to nudge them through a set of prepared materials that would more or less duplicate the questions they would be asked on the big exam. Of course, I also got the class writing stories, poems and memoir pieces. Central to educational reform at the time was the notion that the best way to teach reading was to have students write about their own lives, which would then become informal reading texts. If inner city youth were turned off to books in which they could see nothing relevant to them, then have them write about their own experiences, with an eye to increasing their reading skills. It was an idea enunciated by Sylvia Ashton-Warner in Teacher, her inspiring book about teaching Maori children literacy by getting them to generate expressive vocabulary, as well as by Herb in 36 Children, Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich in their work with illiterate peasants, and the Stanford Writers Project. How valid this approach was of teaching reading through creative writing, I have no idea, in the last analysis, but it certainly appealed to writers, myself included.    One problem with the open education movement was that it was very difficult to assess what was working and what was not. School administrators would like to point to test scores or some other mathematical measurement of success. But so much of the work in open classrooms had to do with generating the proper mood, “going with the flow,” emphasizing process over product, treating each student as a whole human being and so on, that its advocates sometimes fell back on what we cynics called the Smiles Test. Make photographs of smiling children to show prospective parents how happy everyone looks. You just had to believe.    In any case, I was encouraging my charges in the East Harlem storefront to write, and collecting the results in photocopied booklets. (When would I ever learn?) I loved their raw accounts of efforts to stay afloat with next to no money in the ghetto. I put a sort of incendiary message on the booklet cover about one of our kids, Georgie Soto, who had fallen to his death from the roof of a Harlem building, either by suicide or being pushed, no one knew. It was like a gauntlet thrown down before complacent America: you’re responsible, take that, you honkeys! I was trying to be more militant, trying to channel my inner Herb. It wasn’t a good fit for me. I was called on the carpet in an agency meeting for publishing pieces that would promote an excessively negative image of East Harlem. Who was I, a white boy, to defame their community? I could sort of see their point. Meanwhile, one of the other counselors was selling drugs to the kids, and another was inviting cute boys to live with him.    The agency didn’t fire me, but I was put on a short leash. In classic Teachers & Writers fashion, admitting your mistakes and failures was a sure way of getting promoted. I was offered the chance to direct a program at P.S. 75, a school on the Upper West Side, which would concentrate three or more writers and artists in one setting, to see what synergistic effects could be achieved.    At P.S. 75 I was finally in my element, able to put into practice all my hunches about hanging out with children, listening to them and devising different projects tailor-made to each individual. I was there ostensibly as a writer-in-the schools to teach creative writing, but if some kids didn’t want to do poetry, fine, they could make films or put on plays or draw their own comic books or create their own radio shows. (In this sense, I was following Herb Kohl’s approach of grabbing the kids’ attention through high-octane action.) P. S. 75 was already special in that it offered open classrooms and traditional classrooms, and the parents could choose to slot their kids into either. I came to know a phenomenally talented group of open classroom teachers who exemplified the flexibility and energy that such an environment demanded. But I also developed respect for the traditional classroom teachers. Some students benefited more from the kind of structure they provided. I went to evening Parents Association meetings and entwined myself as much as possible in the daily life of the school community. I trained other T &W operatives and offered writing workshops to the PS 75 teachers and parents. Out of that experience came my book Being with Children, which put less emphasis on curriculum units (though some were offered) and more on fostering relationships with kids, while getting them to complete their work, taking each effort to the next step, and the next. Full-scale shows like West Side Story and Uncle Vanya were mounted, poems and stories were collected into publications, film festivals of Super 8 and video works the kids had made were held. If the progressive education slogan of the time was Process, not Product, I wanted to show the value of both.    I also came to know another model for the open classroom, offered by Lillian Weber, who ran the City College Workshop Center for Open Education. In 1967 Weber had visited England and done a study of the lower grade schools there, which she published as The English Infant School and Informal Education (1971). In that book there are many descriptions of children working contentedly on their own, with very few whole-class lessons. The teacher roamed the room, assisting students and conversing with them as they interacted with materials of their choice: books, blocks, weighing materials, gerbil or rabbit cages, pots of paste, magazines and so on. The students were also allowed to take their activities into the hallways, where they could interact with students from other classrooms. There was very little emphasis placed on timetables or lesson plans—the usual staples of American public education. The atmosphere, optimally, was harmonious and serene.    Weber took these ideas back with her to New York City where, as a Professor of Education in City College, she established a beachhead known as the Open Corridor Program. She sent student teachers and assistants into a group of elementary schools in District 3, arming them with interesting materials. A classroom might be set up without any desks but with easy chairs, sofas, mattresses, rugs: children might fan out to a science corner, a reading corner, a phonograph corner. A group of other children might be in the hallway, tearing up magazines and pasting them in scrapbooks or rehearsing a play. Weber refused to accept the objection that it would never work in New York’s inner city schools, saying that the London schools where it had proven effective often drew their population from poor, working class, immigrant families. To those parents who insisted, “What these kids need first is discipline, not freedom,” she could show that the students who had participated in the Open Corridor program made more dramatic strides in their reading levels than those children in previous years.    The Weber ideal was a humming, decentralized classroom where each kid was actively engaged in an activity he or she had chosen, based on the rich options they had been offered. It had more to do with interior layout than confronting the system. It was far less theatrical and politically engaged than Kohl’s brand of open classroom. Another essential difference between Kohl’s and Weber’s approach to open education was that Weber believed it was entirely possible for it to work within the current public school setup. There was no need to tear down half the house. Charles E. Silberman, in his book Crisis in the Classroom, which excoriated what he saw as the desert of public education, offered Lillian Weber’s example as one of the rays of hope.    The open classroom movement was getting good press and seemed to be on a roll. There were conferences around the country dedicated to the approach, and after the appearance of Being with Children, I was invited to be one of the roving speakers. I remember a particular conference with Herb Kohl, Lillian Weber, Elliot Wigginton, the director of Foxfire, and myself. Ironically, it was given in a university auditorium to an audience of educators, who seemed happy to listen to us passively all day, for two days in a row.    One of the betes noires of the open classroom movement was the lecture: a teacher standing in the front of the room explaining to the class, who were expected to take notes. Paolo Freire referred to this contemptuously as “the banking method”: the authority depositing information into his or her supposedly ignorant listeners. Ostensibly, because the students were only listening passively, they would not be able to retain the information as much as if they had been actively engaged. While I could appreciate obvious advantages to students experimenting through “learning by doing,” I also thought there were times when it made perfect sense for the teacher to set the stage with a preliminary talk. Based on my own educational experience, I knew that I often learned considerable amounts from a good lecture. But this was one of the contradictions about open classroom ideology that I did not see fit to point out, pleased as I was to be included in the gang.    During one of the conference breaks, I went for a walk with Elliot Wigginton. He seemed thoughtful, gentle and modest to a fault. His “Foxfire” books, based on the materials his high school students had gathered as amateur anthropologists in the Appalachian Mountains, were enormous best-sellers, but he still seemed uncertain about the best ways to teach. I assured him that he was doing a fine job.    Years later, Wigginton was arrested for sexual contact with his students. So much for getting close to your kids.


   By the 1980s, the pendulum had swung in a conservative direction: it was “back to basics,” with nationally mandated test results the only criterion worth considering. “The chief enemy of open education is fear,” writes Paul Nash. “Fear has many allies, one of the most important being inflation.” Open classrooms were blamed for the nation’s low reading and math scores. In actuality, open classrooms had never been tried in more than 1% of American schools, but they proved a handy scapegoat. A further irony was that the movement, which had been inspired in the 1960s as a way of reaching disaffected students of color, was now often criticized by Black and Hispanic parents who thought their children were being short-changed by programs that had too much play in them when what their kids needed was drilling in the basics and control.    I remember once Herb and I addressing a parents’ meeting in the Upper West Side of New York. Herb was doing his earnest best to explain the principles of the open classroom when a Black mother rose up and began yelling: “You are killing our children! You are killing our children!” It seemed to me a rather operatic, forced performance, but there was no possibility of continuing in the face of her harangue. Herb and I quit the stage and went next door to a diner for some pie and coffee. He seemed to accept the debacle as a valid or at least unavoidable expression of community control, whereas I saw it as pure absurdist theater. If only that mother had known how long and with what effort Herb had dedicated to serving the very children he was now being accused of murdering.    With the end of the Vietnam War and the demise of the protest movement, the pressure for change in general and educational reform in particular lost considerable steam. The Federal government no longer offered funding for educational experiments. In the years that followed, one would hear less and less about open classrooms, until today it seems almost a chimera. Did I imagine the whole thing? That’s not to say there aren’t still the occasional schools of education that pay lip service to its ideals on their syllabi, or neighborhood day schools formed by parents that try to put its basic notions into practice. If we can never expect the open classroom to take over as a dominant mode in American schools, perhaps it will also never quite go away, it will always be an underground impulse.    Herb Kohl kept the faith. Moving up the coast of California to Point Arena, he used his new home as an educational center, offering workshops to teachers and occasionally teaching a class in the local schools. With his inveterate curiosity, he wrote books about computers, ethology, math games, Chinese painting, the dynamics of effective teaching—thirty books in all.    A giant in the field of education, Herbert Kohl. If we lived in a just society, his profile would grace our postage stamps, boulevards would be named after him.    Myself, I went on to become a university professor, an easier and at any rate less physically demanding job than working with children. I try not to lecture too much to my graduate students; I try to engage them in discussions and encourage them to disagree with me. Occasionally, the old theatrical, action-oriented impulse takes over: I have directed my students in plays by Garcia Lorca and Henry James, though it had nothing to do with their course of study. I simply felt sorry for them moping around a seminar table, critiquing each other’s manuscripts, and wanted to free a physical spark in them, something childlike, surprising, while letting me relive the heady, exciting days at P.S. 75 and the heyday of the open classroom.