Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education
Fairhope, Alabama seems an unlikely setting for what may be the oldest continuously operating progressive school in the nation. The town was founded in 1894 as an experimental utopian community based on Henry George’s book Progress and Poverty and embraced the radical concept known as the “Single Tax Colony”. The Colony still exists today and owns most of the original settlement where humble cottages and stately homes alike rest on lots leased for a period of 99 years. Many of the town’s founders were Socialists, including a Minnesota teacher named Marietta Johnson. She saw the open-minded town to be the perfect setting for her unconventional school and, with a little financial assistance from her friends and the support of the community, The School of Organic Education was founded in September of 1907. The term organic stems from Mrs. Johnson’s belief that learning involves the entire organism – mind, body and spirit, and that one must educate the entire organism in a non-competitive environment.
A contemporary of Maria Montessorri and Rudolf Steiner, Mrs. Johnson traveled the world advocating her unique form of progressive education and raising much needed funding to keep the school going from year to year. In 1913 John Dewey visited the school and was so impressed he devoted a chapter about it in his book Schools of Tomorrow.
Mrs. Johnson died in 1938 but her legacy and her school have remained alive. Recently an old file folder was found tucked away in the back of a forgotten cabinet. It included copies of Mrs. Johnson’s correspondence during her last few years. Many of the same questions asked today were answered in much the same way then.
Testing and Grades
From a letter dated August 28, 1933, Mrs. Johnson wrote, “I am very happy to say that we do not have any report cards whatsoever. I am also delighted to say that we have no grades or standards for promotion . . .We believe that grades and marks and promotions and all external standards make for insincerity and are inimical to character.” In a 1937 correspondence to Francis I. DuPont of Wilmington, Delaware, she wrote, “We believe that all external standards prevent equality of opportunity, and believe that the school should strive to meet the needs of growth at every stage in the development of the young.” In yet another letter, Mrs. Johnson wrote, “teachers may fail, children – never.”
Today we occasionally “assess” whether or not children are learning the concepts we teach but we do this for the purpose of testing our effectiveness, not for assigning a grade to the student. Some subjects, such as spelling and math, require frequent assessment. A child’s spelling words remain his words for as brief or long a period as he needs to master them. We also provide a quarterly narrative report to parents regarding their child’s mastery of skills. In order to insure a smooth transition to other schools, we do maintain a “permanent record” for each child.
On December 6, 1937, Mrs. Johnson wrote, “We have no printed course of study, our work is not a system nor a method but rather an effort to work from a new point of view. We believe it is the business of education to try to meet the needs of the growing child. We insist that all children need singing, dancing, hand work, story, nature and free play. We believe that reading and writing should be postponed until at least eight years of age . . . There should be no external standards but an internal standard be developed, that of providing conditions which bring about the best physical, mental and spiritual growth.”
Today we use the Alabama Course of Study as our starting point for planning. We have the luxury of meeting each child where he or she may be academically and progressing through the course of study at his or her own pace as well as fostering each individual’s areas of interest and talent. When students pose questions that deviate from the lesson plan, we make every effort to address their questions and satisfy their natural curiosity. Lesson plans fly out the window in deference to those lessons requested by our students. We are not bound to the classroom for study but rather take every opportunity to go outdoors. Our campus is still mostly wooded and we engage in nature study much the same as Organic School students have done for the past hundred years.
Rather than focus on testing to measure the child’s attainment of goals, we find practical applications and projects which enable the child to use his hands to solve problems and learn concepts. These projects build self-confidence and give students a sense of accomplishment and achievement. Our academics are very much the same as those taught in any school. We do; however, still find the time to include such subjects as cooking, woodworking, drama, music, dance, art and ceramics into each week’s schedule and often incorporate academic concepts into the arts program.
Occasionally we are accused of just being a “play” school where children make the rules and little learning takes place. This could not be further from the truth now and certainly wasn’t the case in Mrs. Johnson’s day as evidenced by her letter of August, 1934 in which she wrote, “We are not a do-as-you-please program. Children and young people need guidance, control, association, instruction and inspiration. In the measure that the school program provides conditions which tend to produce a sound, accomplished, beautiful body, an intelligent, sympathetic mind, and a sweet, sincere emotional life, it is educational.”
This is not to say that we do not value play. Mrs. Johnson firmly believed that “the greatest minds are those able to use the spirit of play in their work.” We provide time each day for our children to engage in the free play so vital in social skill development. In July of 1937 Mrs. Johnson wrote to a former student, “The weather is pretty hot but children are always happy if they are free.” At our school we strive to extend the freedom of childhood for as long as we possibly can.
Transition to Other Schools
In March, 1936, Mrs. Johnson wrote to the President of Clifton College (Texas), “Students going to other schools have found very little if any difficulty in adjusting to the examination system there. In many cases they have superior confidence in themselves which carries them through any difficulties they may meet.” The question of transition from our school and future success in public or more traditional private schools is almost always asked by prospective parents. We firmly believe that by nurturing each child’s curiosity and eagerness to learn new things, we prepare him for the world of tests and measurements. Our students leave us with a love of learning and desire to meet new challenges. Testimonials from past parents and students alike confirm that our students, even those who come to us after experiencing failure and anxiety in other schools, are successful in their future studies.
A Final Word
At the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education we are excited about beginning our next century of nurturing children to develop a love of learning. Alumni of all ages describe their schooling as the best time of their lives and without fail describe Christmas and summer vacations as long periods of drudgery between exciting terms of school. This year one of our families visited Disneyworld the week after Thanksgiving and, upon their return, the mom announced that she would never make that mistake again. “First thing each morning my first grader wanted to know why he couldn’t go to school instead,” she told us. Our teachers, too, relish the freedom to teach without the constraints of approved lesson plans, curriculum guides and testing. When asked what she liked best about teaching at the Organic School, one teacher wrote, “I love the family atmosphere. I have a part in everyone’s education, not just my own class.” At our school we are a family – one that spans 100 years and includes graduates who still return from time to time much as distant relatives return to the old home place.