University of Vermont

Innovative School's Archive Helps Inform Today's Educators

Prospect fellows
The 2013 Prospect Practitioner Fellows describe and discuss children's art from the archive. (Photo: Sally McCay)

While standardization and test scores dominate the U.S. public education landscape today, an archive at the University of Vermont has preserved another vision for the classroom and what takes place within it. For 45 years, the North Bennington, Vt.-based Prospect School and Prospect Center for Education and Research taught students, as well as teachers around the country, using unique processes of collection, observation, reflection and description. While the center closed in 2010, all of its documents, which together show the development of the Prospect philosophy, live on through the UVM Libraries' Special Collections and Center for Digital Initiatives.

It's a vast archive, complete with documentation from all of the school and center's activities. That includes some of the minutiae: a boiler receipt from 1968, for example. But if the receipt doesn't convey much beyond effects of inflation, the archive's impressive longitudinal collection of students' artwork and writing offers insight into a considerably more complex phenomenon: childhood. The archive is available for public use, and a portion of it can be viewed online, but for those interested in digging deeper, funds from the Prospect Center are providing an immersive experience eligible to anyone with a stake in education -- whether teachers, administrators or parents, higher-ed faculty or students -- to gain a better understanding of the trove and its legacy.

Begun in 2011, the Practitioner Fellowship Program brings a cohort of these stakeholders to Burlington to work for a week at the library with the materials under the guidance of a mentor trained in Prospect's observation-based methods. Now in its third year, the program is accepting applications for the summer 2014 session.

"It's a really unique way of bringing people in to use an archive collection," says library associate professor Chris Burns of the group approach. And for the past two cohorts -- which include educators local to Burlington and from away, those familiar with the Prospect philosophy and those new to it -- the program has been transformative.

Prospect in practice

For Erika Norris, a teacher at UVM's Campus Children's School and one of six 2013 practitioner fellows, the introduction to Prospect's signature "descriptive review process" was particularly enlightening. Norris describes how program mentor Ellen Schwartz led the group through a conversation of a child's drawing. Per the guidelines developed at Prospect and published by the school's co-founder Patricia Carini, each member of the group would take a turn describing an aspect of the image, the goal being to use precise and concrete language, steering clear of assumptions, labels or judgements. (Instead of remarking on a happy image of a girl, for example, participants might instead describe a figure smiling and wearing a skirt.) After one round was complete, the group would take another turn, pushing participants to look more carefully, teasing out additional specific details -- a challenging task, Norris says, that has helped hone her observation skills.

"The descriptive processes, whatever else they may accomplish, make a space for suspending these habits of snap judgments, classification, and assigning of labels," Carini writes in Prospect's Descriptive Processes, available online at the Center for Digital Initiatives. Prospect used this method to engage a number of issues at the school, from artwork or writing, to the individual child to the physical space itself, each process rooted in children's work as well as the observations and descriptions teachers would document on an ongoing basis (the body of which is now housed in the UVM archive).

Although the Prospect School taught elementary and middle grades, its methods can be applied in any setting. Norris is finding them useful in her classroom of that particularly mysterious breed of children: infants. "The descriptive review process allows you to see trends and really understand a child," Norris says, noting how through observation and documentation she's been able to identify one baby's propensity to cry specifically in reaction to other babies vocalizing discomfort. Keying in to the unseen mechanisms at work in a classroom -- and the individual traits of a student over time -- is a powerful tool for any teacher.

"If a teacher can make space for a child to see his or her strengths and teach to his or her strengths and recognize that child's capacities and make a place where that child can truly make a contribution to the classroom, that's no small thing," says fellowship mentor Ellen Schwartz, a veteran public school teacher, now retired, who participated in Prospect's Summer Institutes and conferences over many years.

Rebecca Mack, a teacher at the Burlington Children's Space and another member of this year's cohort, has taken the process itself directly to her preschool classroom, inviting students to engage in descriptive reviews of elements from the natural world, like moss or lichen. The careful use of language and sharing that the process encourages is a meaningful activity for children of that age, she says. Since introducing the practice, her students have begun offering up their own findings from nature for examination by the class, improving each other's eye for detail and vocabulary along the way, as well as creating a democratic space where each child is heard in turn.

Seeing students as individuals

"Within the archives and the processes and everything Prospect left behind, over and over again it goes back to their philosophy of the whole human being and how to relate to each other as whole human beings," Mack says, "and so to use whatever you take from the Prospect archive in that mission is an act of resistance in a world that moves too fast."

"A lot of it contrasts how education is viewed right now," says Dawn St. Amour, also a teacher at the UVM Campus Children's School and a member of this year's cohort. "It's not about rote education; it's not about stuffing, cramming, or any of that. It's about who children are. And who they are dictates how they learn."

That's not the starting point for many of the policy initiatives and programs brought into public schools, says Schwartz, who has co-edited a forthcoming book on the possibilities for using the Prospect philosophy in that system. "Those (initiatives) are created by people who have never met any of the individual kids I might be teaching. They're not thinking about those children as individuals…They're coming up with a scheme that they think is going to work for everybody. The philosophy of Prospect runs counter to that idea -- that there even could possibly be such a scheme that could work for everybody."

With access to the Prospect archive and its methods intact, Schwartz is hopeful for the future of education. "It's very exciting to me that even with everything that's going on in the political arena," she says, "that there are teachers who get excited about the Prospect work and how paying close attention to a child's work, or an idea that comes up in the classroom, can be so generative."