Every Friday at Classroom on Carpenter Lane was Pizza Day. Children brought $1 per pizza slice they wanted. Each child in turn placed their money in the pizza box, and selected one plastic “slice” per dollar. They would put their piece into the pie labeled with their choice of topping. (In the photo below, the choices were plain and mushroom.) Then came the trades! Sometimes a pizza could be ordered with a different topping on each half. How many eighths (slices) would the class need to make a half pizza? It was a conversation in which children had a personal stake! “Pizza Day was a 4th grade arithmetic lesson that Dee was giving to 5 year olds!” according to “mathemagician” Bob Pollack, Dee’s husband.
Walking around downtown Mt. Airy putting up fliers for the Saturday May 18 screening of Empress of Everything: Messages from a Master Teacher, I stopped in to Fino’s Pizza . When I was the assistant teacher at Classroom on Carpenter Lane, one of my jobs was walking to Fino’s on Fridays to pick up the pizza for Pizza Day. The proprietor of Fino’s has been in this location for 33 years, and I saw him every Friday for two years, many years ago. He didn’t really remember me, but he was delighted to be reminded about his good neighbor Denise Dee Haines. He showed me the two pies on his wall, each with a slice made by a different child at Classroom on Carpenter Lane, in art class in the studio of Karen Singer.
The day after the First Screening! of Empress of Everything–Messages from a Master Teacher, the parent of a student featured in the film posted a heartfelt comment on Facebook. She permitted me to share it here.
Gretel DeRuiter writes (6/12/17): Yesterday afternoon, Peter and I went to the first screening of Empress of Everything, a thoughtful documentary directed by Wendy Galson about Dee Haines and the unique school she created and ran for decades in her home on Carpenter Lane. Peter attended the Classroom on Carpenter Lane (CCL) for 1st and 2nd grades, and this movie was filmed throughout his — and the school’s — final year before Dee retired.
Peter was one of the more challenging kids in this blended class of 11 students from 5-8 years of age, and he and his issues are featured prominently in the film. It was both familiar and startling to see Peter again as a 7-year-old boy, figuring out his place in a community so expertly led by this master educator. I know no other teacher as attuned to her students as Dee Haines, and I felt all over again how fortunate we were to find our way to her doorstep.
Denise Dee Haines and Peter Pillar at the First Screening! of Empress of Everything (photos Greg Windle)
The school had one Prime Directive: “Take care of people and things,” and the clarity and simplicity of that message made it profound to the young children who lived with it at CCL. The centerpiece of the film was the part of the school day called Class Meeting, where students could share thoughts about their interactions with each other and find their way to better understanding about each other and themselves. I rarely see adults engage in such productive, respectful discourse — and these were YOUNG kids!
So my heart is full right now
— of compassion for my delicate-featured little boy who so wanted to be knowledgeable and powerful but needed to know how to balance those urges with behavior that would also make him a good friend;
— of continuing reverence for Dee Haines and her non-judgmental, never humiliating, but always lovingly firm and clear guidance and instruction;
— and of gratitude to the filmmakers for having the presence of mind to capture this extraordinary educational environment on film.
Sitting with Peter this morning over coffee, still talking about all the thoughts percolating after watching the movie, he said, “I loved the movie, but seeing it through a filtered lens was not as warm as actually being in that house with those people. You had to be there to get that feeling.” I am so glad for every child who got to experience that warmth.
I am grateful to Gretel, for her testimony, and to Peter, for being willing to talk so astutely about his journey.
Making this film has taken many years for me, starting from the time (26 years ago!) when I felt (like Gretel) that Dee was “my angel” for accepting and loving and understanding our own challenging son. The members of the audience at First Screening! included people with many years of history with Dee, and people who had never heard of her. All of us witnessed, not only a master teacher at work, but a compelling vision of the kind of learning communities we want for all children.
For 15 years, THE CLASSROOM ON CARPENTER LANE was a school for a few young children, for their kindergarten first and second grades. Denise Dee Haines gave my two boys a great start, and I love her for it!….and CCL can model practice with young children in other settings.
In this video segment, Dee describes an especially important part about how things worked at CCL:
“If I was having a turn with a child, I knew there were other kids who wanted that attention. They ALL wanted that attention. So that I would use my powers to give them fair turns. They were usually quite patient, because each child was getting what EVERY child wants, which is INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION….
“So, the circle set up the tone for the day, and the grown-ups were in charge of what got done….We paid a lot of attention to setting up things so that children were active, and that we were supports, but we also gave them individual attention, their own time, where someone would come and get in line, but …eventually…not interrupt, but just wait, for a turn just like that, where you’re only looking at me and you’re only talking to me…..”