Kids Go Holistic at Robert Muller Center

Wait, you can teach kids without boring them? Since when?

Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to be an integral part of important research being done at a site in Tarrant County. It was an ongoing excavation project, already in progress for several years before my team arrived. While much data had already been collected, I recall well the day we made a key discovery. It was hot, and it had recently rained. Our protective uniforms, usually Osh-Kosh B'Gosh overalls and Keds sneakers, were covered in mud. I was 6.

I was on break when someone ran into headquarters—a clearing between three trees noted for its especially cool root formations—and yelled, "We found 'Grandma's Sidewalk!' It was a cross-section of a hunk of concrete, just visible under a layer of dirt in the side of our dig site. Besides getting chased on repeated occasions across the playground by local hottie Jared Hinton, it was the most significant moment of my first-grade year.

This memory came back to me while I was standing in the "children's village," an expanse of land behind the Robert Muller Center for Living Ethics, a private school in Fairview, near McKinney. At my elementary school, one of Mansfield's finest public institutions, we had a state-of-the-art playground with colorful equipment meant to excite imaginations. We didn't bother with a bit of it. The mud pit at the edge of the playground, where we could dig and scoot in the dirt, was more interesting.

And so when the Robert Muller Center's founder, Vicki Johnston, shows me the "children's village" at her school, I figure she knows something about the way kids' minds work. I'd been skeptical at first, when I heard Johnston taught children about "harmonies" and "unity." Whither reading, writing and 'rithmetic? I had prepared myself for crazy, but the children's village lifted my spirits and pushed hippy-dippy hoo-hah to the back of my mind. This was surprisingly logical.

The "village" is a path through the woods strewn with seemingly random pieces of cardboard, blankets and pieces of wood nailed to tree branches. No high-tech play equipment in sight, just the makeshift army bases, castles and outer-space laboratories kids make out of whatever material is around and not too heavy to carry.

"This is their place," Johnston says, toting a cup of something warm and absentmindedly fingering the sleeve of her tracksuit. Her shoulder-length hair is a soft gray, her shoes a delicate pair of flowered slip-on sneakers. Johnston founded the Robert Muller Center 22 years ago on a tract of land she inherited from her parents. The school's namesake, Muller, is a peace-minded former assistant secretary general to the United Nations. The winner of the U.N.'s peace education prize, Muller now lives in Costa Rica at the U.N.'s "University of Peace." The lady my elementary school was named after was known mainly for her dedication to sensible footwear.

The Robert Muller Center started as a Montessori school. Today, 30 kids ages 3 to 11 attend Muller, and while Johnston still uses some Montessori learning techniques, especially in self-directed activities, she's developed a unique style of learning.

"To bore a child is a crime," she tells me. To Johnston, the rigid teaching styles of traditional public schools don't speak to "the whole person." Science happens in one classroom, math in another. History is for another hour. Johnston's curriculum centers around what she calls "teaching stories." These tales, written by Johnston, about a journey through Russia or Mexico or the boreal forests of the north, combine science lessons about the nitrogen cycle, history lessons about the settling of the Western world or civics lessons about government. They're meant to stimulate the imagination and improve memory.

Of course, I don't get to the Robert Muller Center for a teaching story or lesson in horticulture out back, where the kids have dug a spiral-shaped garden, growing herbs and flowers. No, I get to the Robert Muller Center just in time to see a 3-year-old girl stab a squash—and nearly her tiny hands—with a pair of scissors. This is the kind of thing that always happens to me when kids are involved. Somewhere else, kids are being adorable, but when they get within my range, they start breaking themselves and others.

I'm visiting the 3- and 4-year-old class, where kids are making costumes out of paper sacks for a fall festival. The school smells like a mix of gingerbread and sugar cookies. Nothing like the sterile, Clorox-scented primary school classrooms I remember.

One particularly cute little girl with a blond ponytail wants to decorate a squash. As she stabs and digs at the squash, I notice that several of the squash's finished cousins are strewn around the room, pipe cleaners protruding from their skins like porcupine quills. What I don't want to see are her little fingers strewn around the room.

"Be careful," I say gently, putting down my notebook. She stabs away.

"Uh, don't hurt yourself," I try. Stab, stab, stab.

"Let's, um, find some help!" She looks up at me and begins to speak. I stare blankly at her, because I cannot understand little kids. I've never been able to interpret the gobbledygook that comes out of their mouths, and I feel bad because I'm sure they must be frustrated with the lady shaking her head and backing away like a cornered dog. But the child's caring teacher, a goateed guy named Chris, swoops in at the right moment to help the little girl retain all her precious digits. Pretty typical pre-kindergarten class, I think. But when I step into the 5- and 6-year old class, I get a glimpse of the Robert Muller Center philosophy.

It's snack time, which means hand washing. As the kids line up at the sink, I hear one boy cheer when another boy ends up at the end of the line. The ridiculed boy begins a tantrum of monumental proportion, while the laughing boy runs over to his lunch pail and begins extracting a box of sushi. After their teacher gets the story between tears and yelps, she pulls the sushi-eating boy aside. This is "problem-solving."

"He says you said yay when he was end of the line, is that true?" she asks the laugher. He shrugs, which makes the other boy scream all the more. A few minutes and a few repeated questions later, the boys are both quiet.

"What we have here is a misunderstanding," she explains to both of them. They apologize, and seconds later they're at the snack table. This is part of Vicki Johnston's core goal: Nobody is humiliated by punishment, and everyone "shows the children respect."

Johnston's holistic education comes at a price: $4,700 a year for elementary school students. But the Muller Center's earthy, spiritual approach to learning appeals to parents who recoil at the thought of standardized tests turning their children into factoid-spewing zombies.

"We play to their strengths," Johnston says. If a child likes drawing, her reports on teaching stories can be through art. If a kid likes music, he's permitted to write songs. Late one morning, as Johnston's working with a brown-haired girl on a scroll-like timeline about the history of the world, the girl laughs when I ask if they're in school five days a week.

"I don't want weekends!" she exclaims. I look at her quizzically. She continues, "I want to stay here." Peace curriculum? "Problem-solving" instead of time out? Those things are interesting. But kids wanting to go to school on weekends? That's just crazy talk.

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