Monday, April 20, 2020
Books: "Kid Quixotes" On A Transformative School In Bushwick
Kid Quixotes: A Group of Students, Their Teacher, and the One-Room School Where Everything Is Possible
By Stephen Haff
HarperOne; hardcover; $27.99; available Tuesday, April 21
In this time of uncertainty, in which our world has been turned upside down, comes a book about a school in Bushwick, with a teacher on a mission to help kids facing adversity find their individual and collective voices.
Stephen Haff, a former public-school teacher, created Still Waters in a Storm, a one-room, after-school program in Bushwick after a breakdown caused by bipolar depression.
This transformative program created a safe, supportive place for students - ranging in age from as young as five years old up to 17 and who live in constant fear of deportation - to practice reading and writing in English, Spanish, and Latin.
In order to make Still Waters work, Haff drew from his experiences inside and outside the classroom, and he developed a new teaching method using AA meetings, Quaker prayers, and psychotherapy to create a more empathetic and collaborative way to learn.
In this refuge, a welcoming environment for all who entered, there was one rule: "Everyone listens to everyone." It unlocked spectacular potential, and since 2016, the students have been collectively translating Don Quixote into English.
With the help of dozens of dictionaries and the approval of acclaimed Don Quixote translator Edith Grossman, they are adapting the legendary 400-year-old Spanish story about a traveling dreamer who never gives up into a bilingual musical based on their own lives.
As the kids perform their work across New York and beyond, they learn that they belong in this country, and they deliver a message of diversity, love, hope, and resilience. You'll read about six-year-old Sarah, tells the tale of her mother's journey across the desert from Mexico riding on the back of a tiger, and Alex, a very private teenager, who sings her coming out song to standing ovations.
Haff writes of the groundbreaking program and the inspiring story he tells: "Sarah's story, representing those of her classmates, is one of coming out of hiding - as is mine - and the story of Still Waters is the story of our shared sanctuary, a place where everyone is safe. Our show, The Traveling Serialized Adventures of Kid Quixote, takes us on the road, outside the safety of our little school, with purpose.
The kids and I meet in Bushwick, our Brooklyn neighborhood, five times per week: Monday through Thursday after the kids are released from their day schools, and on Saturday. All classes are free, there is always food (provided by me or by the families), and there is no admissions process. Whoever appears is part of the group. The name "Still Waters in a Storm" was composed by a student of mine at Bushwick High School, a young poet named Angelo who, before and after naming the school, has spent a number of years in jail. He said that the group, wherever we met, was a place of peace in his stormy life.
The one rule at Still Waters is 'Everyone listens to everyone.' It's a simple maxim that produces beautiful, complex results.
Everything we do - whether Spanish, English, Latin, or music - is based on the same ritual of reading a text, discussing it together, writing a response, and taking turns reading our responses to the group. There are no tests, homework, or grades, no punishments or rewards - just reverential listening to each and every person in the room.
The Still Waters practice of careful, reciprocal attention is inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous, Quaker prayer meetings, and psychotherapy, and it creates deep trust among all people in the group across a wide range of ages. Years ago, when I had my breakdown, I didn't know what I know now: this cross-generational group, this random family, was what I was missing.
The pedagogy of attention at Still Waters came to me in part through Denise, one of my high school students, who was also an alcoholic. At least twice a week she would drink so much she would black out, often waking to find herself in jail (one time for attacking a police officer). When she wasn't drunk, she was a brilliant poet.
Denise would call me often to read me a new poem over the phone, and the conversation would always turn to alcohol. More than once I was able to talk her into pouring a bottle of vodka - her favorite because it was hard for other people to detect on her breath -out of her third-floor apartment window. She held her phone out the window, too, so that I could hear the poisonous liquid splashing on the sidewalk.
Growing up in Canada, I learned that if we were playing hockey on the frozen lake and somebody fell through the ice, we were not to go to the hole to help them: the ice is weakest at the edge of the hole, so we would fall in, too. Instead, we were to go to the shore, and from solid ground, throw a rope or extend a tree branch for the swimming person to grab.
Likewise, there was no way I could sustain the rescue operation for Denise on my own, so I brought her to her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting nearby her home. It was very simple: everyone took a turn speaking while the whole group listened. This basic ritual was a solid footing for relationships that had a chance of pulling people up from drowning. Why, I wondered, is practice only for alcoholics?"