Joseph Featherstone Review

FULL REVIEW BY JOSEPH FEATHERSTONE, author of Schools Where Children Learn, Dear Josie, and other books, emeritus faculty leader Michigan State University’s acclaimed teacher education program:

“August to June,” is a wonderful movie that documents the entire year of an 8-10 year old classroom presided over by a veteran teacher whose husband is the film-maker.   The classroom is in a small, long-established progressive,  public school of choice out at the rural edges of Marin County in California.   The teacher narrates; this is her last year of teaching.   I’m particularly struck by the arts-laden work it describes because I am part of a group that is starting a k-8 arts-based charter school in Gloucester, Ma.

In our time of extremes of standardization and increasingly obsessive test prep this film demonstrates painstakingly the fruit of a powerful, engaging community-and-arts as well as a child-centered curriculum.    This classroom  is guided by a number of commitments on the teacher’s  part that unfold over time: an emphasis on children’s choosing and planning; a  focus on the arts and a commitment to children as disciplined and avid individual readers and writers;  public projects and performances and democratic community discussions that are catalysts and culminations of kids’ individual experiences; a tradition of parent participation and parents-as-teachers, taking in a lot from what the community has to offer.   The patience with which the film shows the viewer how a culture is established and classroom routines flower into rich learning is  extraordinary.

Particularly interesting, given the age-old stereotypes of progressive practice, is the way that this teacher really pushes individual children hard, both in subject matter areas and in the crucial zones of what might be called emotional and civic intelligence.  She is tenacious and tough, and she is on their case in scene after scene. The teacher has a philosophy and says what it is, but most often the screen shows the viewer precisely how learning unfolds; the film does not need to preach.  The result is a series of portraits of individual children growing into active, informed, disciplined, enthusiastic participants in the life of the school, and creating in the process a terrific, democratic community together.

The democracy piece, as evidence accumulates in the viewer’s mind, is central to this school’s practice.  These children are used to working hard matters out in public and working together in a way that is very rare in US schools today.  The children’s growing initiative and educating and rearing of each other; the really outstanding quality of the art work; the music and dance that fill the air of each day; the general atmosphere of hard, hard work and sheer pleasure; and the way the viewer comes to see vital evidence of individual children’s intellectual and esthetic and social  passages over a whole year’s time, make this one of the best films of progressive practice I’ve seen.  It’s also a fine portrait of the true necessity and awful complexity of good teaching, and the huge even operatic emotional range and strong stomach the work requires.

It’s also just a flat-out gorgeous, beautiful movie, a brilliant poem of childhoods in motion over time.    Among a myriad of other questions, this film dares to raise is the brave, too generally unasked question of whether children in many of our schools today are happy.   It establishes through its multiple stories and varieties of evidence that great curriculum, hard work and opportunities for creativity and an intense and directed social life that respects the individual and draws him/her out are what young children need to grow well.   “August to June” makes me reflect that without this kind of record of children’s lived experience  over time,  most other sorts of educational evaluation  and writing about classrooms look awfully thin and paltry; here it’s impossible to lose sight of the kids or forget them after the film stops.  They have signed the air with an individual presence that honors both the film and the education they are getting.”