Carolyn has been my friend since 2010. I had just taken on the challenge of chairing the philosophy committee at my kid’s school, the Open Classroom, in Salt Lake City, and someone suggested I talk with her as she would be the best resource to answer the numerous questions I had. One day I went up to her and introduced myself, and her gentle, thoughtful way of communicating and listening made me realize she was going to become my friend quickly. Over the years, we have spent many hours talking through problems, and she has, without directly doing so, offered treasured advice to me as I have tried to navigate this parenting gig. We have spent time in school, and outside of school, having breakfast together or sipping wine in her beautiful yard, talking about all sorts of things. During these conversations, she always told me something about her life, but never enough for me to be satisfied. See, her intention is always learning more about you. But on a recent visit she let me into her world just a little more than before. We were talking about some summer activities my kids were doing when she told me about her grandfather, who lived in Oregon, and how he came to visit her family in Salt Lake when she was young. I knew that this was my opportunity to learn more about this lovely woman. So, I asked a question – So, are your parents are from Oregon?
Her parents were from Oregon.
That was where they met, at Reed College in Portland. Her father eventually ran the Pharmacology department at the University of Utah, but not before he attended Yale University. That was where Carolyn was born, in New Haven Connecticut. Her father took a position soon after she was born at the University of New Hampshire, where her sister was born, and by the time Carolyn was 4 years old, they had settled in Salt Lake City, where she has spent most of her 75 years, except for 2 years spent teaching in London.
I wanted to know more about these London years, and Carolyn was ready to tell me.
Back in the late 1960s, her husband at the time, got a job that would relocate them to London for a couple of years. She was excited for the opportunity and knew that she didn’t want to sit in their little apartment alone for those 2 years. She was a teacher and thought if she could teach in London, it would be exactly what she needed to fulfill her desire to interact with new people. She found out that the London schools would not let her teach with her American teaching credentials. She learned of the American School in London, with locations in other places around the world, where Americans living abroad can send their children. Right before they were to leave for London, a position opened up and she took it.
She was teaching 5th grade. Her approach to her classroom was different from many of the other teachers of the time. She had the children gather in circle on the floor to have conversations and work through problems. She let the children explore the classroom on their own and ask questions. She did a lot of hands on learning. It was during one of these hands on math sessions when an opportunity walked in.
Her class was making cookies. Actually, they were learning about measurement and the science of baking. Just as they were pulling the cookies out of the oven, in walked a gentleman who was touring the school. Carolyn, welcomed him, invited him into the class, and they served him cookies and milk. She was about to start a read-aloud session with her class (this is when the kids sit and relax and listen to the teacher read a book, it helps kids with cognitive listening) and they invited him to stay. This gentleman told the class that his brother was an author of some books, and asked if he could return one day with the books for the class.
A few weeks later this gentleman came back with the books and an invitation. You see, his brother ran a zoo on the Island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands in the English channel between England and France, and his books were about the animals he cared for. His brother , and zookeeper, and author, Gerald Durrell, wanted the class to visit his zoo.
What an opportunity! Carolyn quickly contacted the parents and asked them if they would be willing to purchase the airplane ticket to Jersey for their children. To her surprise, all of the parents agreed and the plans were set in motion. The class met at Heathrow airport early on morning with their day packs and their lunches, boarded the plane, and set out on an adventure. Outside the classroom to someplace new and unknown to them with their teacher.
When they arrived at the small airport on the small island closer to France than their home in London, they were enthusiastically greeted by Gerald and a caravan of Land Rover Jeeps that would usher them around the zoo. What they found, was that this zoo was unlike any other zoo that they had ever been to. It was a wildlife refuge and instead of small constricting cages, these mostly endangered animals we free to roam in large areas.
During the day, they were treated to an unexpected lunch buffet and met in person many of the animals that Gerald had rescued and wrote about in his stories. After an exhausting and exhilarating day, Carolyn and her students thanked their host and headed back home to London. The experience they had because Carolyn was teaching outside of the traditional teaching box provided her students an experience of a lifetime.
A few months later, still within that school year, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning for President of the United States. When Carolyn heard this news, she thought it would be a great opportunity to take her American students to the US Embassy in London to experience with all of the other Americans in London the moment in history. When she asked the headmaster of the American School in London if she could walk her students to the American Embassy so they could experience real history in the making, the headmaster proceeded to argue with her, then recommended that she stay on campus. Carolyn was compelled to leave so they did. It was a good lesson for her in following her heart and believing in herself as an educator. Ever since she has been compelled to give kids authentic, purposeful and hands-on learning experiences, and she knew that teaching and learning didn’t have to be the same for her going forward. She was ready and eager to make a difference in children’s lives and let them learn how they wanted to learn – in the real world, having real experiences.
When she returned to the US to teach in the public schools in Utah, she found it difficult to go back to the traditional classroom. How do you go back to standing in the front of a classroom full of desks and bored, unengaged children after you have had a classroom full of excited, enthusiastic learners? She met other parents and educators who felt the same way she did about education. They wanted to teach the whole child. They wanted kids to be active self-directed learners. She wanted a classroom full of kids who woke up every morning excited to go to school and share life with their classmates and teachers and parents.
It was a few years later that she met a gentleman in the Salt Lake School District who embraced her vision and was crucial in helping Carolyn and her band of education rebels found what is now the Open Classroom in Salt Lake City Utah in 1977. I am lucky to have found our school and Carolyn and will forever be grateful to her and the teachers and parents that have helped in making my children independent, confident learners.