A Thousand Rivers — a Response to an Article by Carol Black

December 6, 2018

Every now and then I read an article that grinds me to a halt. That happened this morning. I readKid-in-Tree-Happy-800 the article “A Thousand Rivers” by Carol Black.

I met Carol in 2010 at an International Baccalaureate Programme conference where she was screening her new documentary Schooling the World, a memorable and brilliant survey of how western ideas are intruding and deconstructing the education systems of indigenous populations.

Today, on Twitter, Alfie Kohn, author of numerous books on education, posted her article, “A Thousand Rivers.” It kept me captive. I had other things “to do” this morning and yet I sat still and read and read and read and felt the words wave over me like a river. The stories felt familiar. The ideas like poetry. The visuals of the Vasquez rocks permanent.

My first teaching position at Sandy River School in rural Temple, Maine – a school founded by Mabel and George Dennison (author of The Lives of Children) – was my closest experience to be present, watch the children. That was Mabel’s mantra. “Stop with the lesson plans, listen to the children.” I had no idea what this meant – none – until one day I did. Just as described in Carol’s article, learning happens in authentic ways (I nearly wrote “unexpected authentic ways,” however of course they are expected when we trust that learning is ever-present for a child of any age when they are ready to meet it).

I have written about this in my book The Complete Guide to Service Learning, the story of how Dutch Elm Disease hit this central Maine community and how the children at the school, 22 in all, aged 6-16, wanted to intervene, to assist, to protect their trees and they did. Together we found ways they could go out, observe and report to the Dept of Agriculture the status of the trees, a much needed and time-consuming task.

The next full-time teaching job in Los Angeles landed me at Play Mountain Place, in Culver City, and still described as “ A progressive alternative humanistic” school with curriculum that is “organic, child-initiated, and primarily experiential.” My mother had a different description of the school. The one day she visited was the day an 8-year-old boy decided to stay up in a tree all day. That was fine with this school that did not have prescribed classes during the two years I was there, except the kids around the ages of 10 and 11 wanted me to teach “classes” so we had them, and they came – and I maintained a completely child-centered, inquiry and discovery approach to learning, following their lead. For my mother, Play Mountain Place would forever be “the school with the boy up the tree.” I could not argue with this description.

I taught theatre classes and they were popular and exciting. One day three girls walked in and announced something like, “We are putting on the play Alice in Wonderland, and you are directing,” and the girl-in-charge added, “and I am Alice.” We did full-on Alice, still my favorite book, along with The Little Prince. After reviewing the play and all the parts, for casting, each child wrote three parts they would be happy to play, and I sifted and sorted until everyone got what they wanted.

One boy, tall and lanky, would be The Mad Hatter. Perfect casting. I handed out the scripts. To date this boy could not read. At least that is what we, the teachers, knew to be true. He was perhaps 9, though I could be wrong – he could have been up to age 11. I thought nothing about handing him the script.

That he participated in a full reading of the play the next day was remarkable, in that I remember it clearly, and I am remarking on it right now, but was I surprised at the time?

At the time I wondered, is he reading now because he has something he wants to read? Is now his time? He was the first to memorize all his lines and he was truly The Mad Hatter in all his glory!

My nephew was thought to have an inability to read also. Diagnosed as autistic, he was taught the alphabet repeatedly until, at age 7, in a new program using facilitated communication, it was discovered by adults that he could read on a 6th grade level in English and at a 1st grade level in Hebrew – he had taught himself.

What do we know about learning? Carol Black lays out a hefty landscape in this must-read must-share article.

Those of you who know my work know well that I cringe at rubrics and agree with the educator I met in Finland who said, “Why test children, we know what they need” and this is true when we watch, listen, stop with the lesson plans, provide a welcoming environment including the natural one, and open the walls to connect with the real world. Oh, I know people will halt with “stop with the lesson plans,” however what is a lesson plan? We don’t learn from a “lesson plan,” we learn from experiences and many of you know I use that idea instead: learning experience. This is not just another term for that rock-solid lesson plan. I see this as an opening to possibility, to a journey where we do not know the outcome, and where the impetus is curiosity leading to discovery. Every time I have moved as an educator in this way or observed others, the richness is palpable. The wholehearted way the learner participates is genuine. And “wholehearted” is critical – Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

I am so grateful for Carol Black’s article. It has inspired me to write a blog after 8 months. I am fired up and hungry to remind us all about true engaged accessible luscious learning. The climbing the rocks learning. The Mad Hatter learning. The daydreaming learning. The up-in-the tree learning.

Please send comments, questions, and ideas to

Grateful for these opportunities to connect and grow.


Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A., is an educator/author who loves to dance, travel, take walks and collaborating with educators all over the world

Catch my latest podcast HERE.


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