Moosey Goes to Farm School

Every year, one or two classes of Touchstone students visit the Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts: to help build fences, transplant seedling lettuce, train calves; to eat the freshest food we’ve had in months; to observe and absorb everything a rural hilltop has to teach us. Susan Doty heard about the Farm School almost twenty years ago, and said, “That’s Touchstone-style learning; let’s go.” She meant: hands-on, rooted in values, full of opportunities for every student to learn and grow and shine–and that’s what we’ve always found there.

For four years now, I’ve been joining the Farm School trip with my class of eleven and twelve year old students. The first year I fell in love. The second year I brought my classroom’s video camera. We were all hugely pleased with the Farm School video we made, but for various reasons we decided against putting it online.

This past year we took both the video camera and our pal Moosey, a medium-sized woolly stuffed moose who boasts an illustrious past: he ran for president, and won; he made a feature appearance in a video about fraction operations called Variations on Llamas and Bales of Hay. The class chose Moosey to be the star of a new Farm School video.

We had made only indirect preparations: no script-writing, but several weeks of projects involved with soils, plants, and animals. (These were focused particularly on the ways farmers modify the life cycles of plants and animals, to produce food or fiber or lumber.)

While we were at the Farm School, I wandered around with the video camera and tripod. In little moments borrowed from their work, but mostly in free time, students took turns setting up shots, running the camera, helping Moosey feed the chickens or spray a table with vinegar solution or play basketball. Eventually, everyone got into the act: visiting staff, resident staff, kids from Maple Dene (the school in Pepperell that has often shared our Farm School time slot.) Susan Doty herself set up one of my favorite shots of Moosey with a Farm School dog.

Back at Touchstone, full of stories and enthusiasm, we watched the video shots we’d captured. In a class discussion, we identified what was most worthwhile, for us, about time spent at the Farm School. Gradually, we began to imagine a voice-over narration that would be in Moosey’s “voice,” as channeled by all the students’ voices.

Five small groups wrote scripts for five sections: about the accommodations and routines; about the Farm School staff; about soils and compost and plants; about animals and their care; and about working and playing. On a warm day, with all the windows and doors shut and the fans turned off, we recorded the voice-over audio.

Then, working in our small groups, we matched up the video shots with the audio. Second by second we cut and fit. (Building a video can feel a lot like building a shed, piece by piece, but it takes longer.) When we needed a few extra shots to be taken at Touchstone, a small group set up scenes and shot them completely on their own. For Farm School shots we needed but didn’t have, we were able to borrow some from the project two years ago. When we needed just a little music for the beginning, Kate Keller helped kids invent and record percussion. Problems and solutions found each other.

In their time at the Farm School, students had watched the staff making decision after decision: where to locate pens that define grazing areas; whether it was time to transplant the Swiss chard; how to create a path from one garden to another. Making their video, the students themselves made hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions: which five seconds to use from a forty second shot, to give the clearest sense of the staff’s kindness to the animals; what to put first and second and third and nineteenth; how to communicate as clearly as possible, in this medium that is so much a part of their lives.

The resulting video, Moosey Goes to Farm School, overflows with our understanding of the Farm School’s ideals, and Touchstone’s ideals, and the overlap. It’s also funny. When I showed the finished video to my husband, he laughed and laughed. “But wait!” I said, “if it’s so funny, you might miss the point of how much we learn there.” But no–it seems that people watching the video can get it all. The students’ faces don’t show, but in their earnest young voices, in the words they wrote, in the shots they created, we feel the burbling-over joy of their stepping up: to be themselves, working hard, making choices; to celebrate and support things they believe in. Like laughter, that, too, can be contagious. Hooray!

— Polly Brown, Touchstone Community School, Head Teacher for 10, 11 and 12 year olds