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Succotash and Standardized Teaching


stuartDr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at email Stuart

“If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.”  (Confucius, BC 551-BC 479)

Part I: The 7th Generation

When we imagine the “traditional school” many of us automatically think of the public schools in all of our neighborhoods—or districts.  But to the Newkirks, now in their 7th generation of purebred Labradors on the farm, tradition meant something else.

We had taken the back road to get home from five days hiking the Southern Yosemite, Ansel Adams Wilderness, in no race to leave, winding down.  Reaching the foot of the mountain, we were drawn to a paper sign tacked onto a telephone pole and we pulled over.  We had walked many steps renewing our connection to the land; we were rested and calm and fulfilled from the mountains, the mountain air, and we wanted to hang on to all that, even for just a few days; we were taking our time for a change.  The sign read, “Labrador puppies for sale.”  We scribbled down the information and headed south, then east into the valley, into the farm town of Lindsay, California, driving fast down the long straight lanes of orchards and fields.  We pulled into the Newkirk farm, parked on the dirt, and there off to the left was a portable wire fence containing seven yellow-tan eight-week old slugs all cuddled up together. 

It was sunny and hot and quiet.  A tall, stern man in boots ambled out across the dirt and straw, in slow motion.
“I’m Newkirk. Paul.” We did the introductions and bargained on the price for our pick.

“What made you pick that one?” asked Newkirk, reaching down and giving him a little rub.

“Maybe he won’t eat as much,” I said, being clever. “Anyhow, my wife likes an underdog.” He gave a hint of a grin. You could see there was something more behind it.

“Well, you ought to live out here, then.” We looked at the farmer, puzzled. “C’mon in, it’s lunchtime.”

Next thing, we were going through the fence gate, through the porch. The aroma was in our noses before the screen door slapped closed behind us. Mrs. Newkirk was closest to the new mother, Old Yeller Sprig. It was her dog, and she told a hunting story as we ladled thick white gravy out of a small wood bucket. Sprig had fetched plenty of duck that had ended up on the long, rough-hewn pine table that was all set up for us. We kept quiet and polite, talked a little about schooling like we always do, and dove into the succotash mix, old-time America’s effort to make okra palatable by mixing in everything else you could pull in from the farmyard. 

“Where do you go to school?” we asked Newkirk’s daughter at the end of the table. She said nothing, but Newkirk opened up like church doors.  We did not necessarily want to hear all he had to say, but by the time we could only see the bacon chunks at the bottom of the bowl, left for the hogs, we had learned plenty.  Except it was more like remembering than learning.  Later on, we showed Newkirk’s words to some teachers and one of them said, “What he was saying is what a lot of us are thinking, but might not have put into words yet.”

“Schooling kids is a lot like growing crops,” Newkirk held forth.  “And we can’t get the heirlooms. (1) anymore. If we want to sell what we grow, we need to stick to the standard picks of the big chains.”  A sharp man.

I related that I could hardly hang on to the ‘heirlooms’ in my classroom either;  how every year less and less of my English students had ever even heard of the classics. “Rapunzel.” “Pandora’s Box.”  Gone.  They knew of "Snow White,” but that was just a Disneyland image. Later on, we’d see how very much further along the situation would escalate, as classic literature pieces were steadily replaced by whatever would grind through the interest group debates. “The heirlooms, they’re gone from the textbook.”

Newkirk looked straight ahead, then down, then scrolled though some thoughts: “Fast food schooling. Junk food …junk culture.”  And he reflected back: “The school keeps getting bigger—it’s got nothing to do with our lives out here, or our living, nothing from our area. It’s one size fits all. The kids all learn the same thing from one region to the next, just like the local crops getting crowded out.”

We nodded. “You mean the state curriculum.”

“This is our place. This is our work. But I guess we’re not allowed to teach it in the schools.”

It took years to mull all this over, but eventually it occurred to me and, I think, quite a few others, that the near-extinction of traditional and heirloom seed varieties on the farm had become controversial and political—many seeds and crops had been replaced in huge single-crop fields, ready to be transported across the globe, often supported if not monopolized by global corporations or even governments seeking favorable trade balances.  But the “ahah” that Newkirk’s words and attitude eventually brought out is how all this was paralleling large-scale educational programming: the institutionalization of learning and textbook generation, remote from the community, disconnected from a real heritage, a heritage from the land. 


Today’s (by comparison to the past 100 years) gigantic schools and districts in our country have brought with them unintended consequences. The “progressive era” consolidated many rural school districts in order to bring the country folks up to date with modern America (Reynolds). Later on, in the 60s and 70s, came the school consolidation movement resulting in imperfect and often unwanted educational unions of politically and culturally distinct villages.  While new, large, consolidated districts were established on the assumption that the primary purpose of schools is equal educational opportunity of children everywhere, unintended or uncalculated issues began festering under the surface in these socially engineered communities. The very nature of a community and its boundaries was challenged; the meaning of a school to its community seemed distant.  In the small schools of Newkirk’s youth, all the questions seem answered:  a real community is of a size where people know one another.

“When my father got those groves going in 1940 the high school had 127 kids in it,” Newkirk recalled, as his wife looked on with a “there goes Paul again” expression; but I was loving it.  “The principal knew every family, and their dog.  Today it has almost 700 kids—you think that makes no difference?” 

But we understood that that the principal knew a whole lot more than that. He knew the land they were raised on, the meaning of the seasons, and the values of their elders. Just this year, I looked up Yosemite, great American treasure, in our own high school American history text, a book of 906 pages; but the ultimate jewel of California and the nation’s first national park is nowhere in there.  Nor is there mention of the White River National Forest, so kids in Colorado will rarely (past the 4th grade) study one of the world’s great wilderness areas in their own back yard, any more than the kids in Vermont will understand the impact of their own, historic White River. (2

I told the Newkirks about my old friend Hanja from Sweden who, back in the early 80s, quipped, as though I were responsible for it, “What’s wrong with America!  Every part of the country has different curricula, textbooks and teaching standards.” I had thought to tell her that we love our maritime traditions in New England and our cowboys in Texas—and how folks from those regions already know all about those orange juice fountains flowing everywhere out in California. Historically, our regional differences make teaching and learning requirements in Florida and the California Central Valley almost as different as they are in Sweden and Spain.  The great European treasure is the distinctions among nations and cultures. In the United States, for all our talk of our enormous diversity and grandiose land of bio-diversity, we somehow ended up watching our country race towards uniformity and standardization.

Like a freight train taking on John Henry, Hanja would eventually have it her way:  The No Child Left Behind Act and national teaching standards set by The Race to the Top rolled over local educational practices through the first decade of the new millennium. It would no doubt stun our founding fathers that, eventually, in the new millennium, states that adopted the national standards would win points in the competition for a share of the billions of dollars to be awarded to the most compliant among them.

In schools and textbooks, there had been little mention of the farm life since the days of the McGuffy Reader of the 50s—by the 1980s, to farmers like Newkirk, the American farm tradition of their forebears came across like a quaint and subtly angry fragment of an anachronistic labor movement. We had to wonder:  If not elders, who is in charge of cultural transmission from one generation to the next? (3) 

At the table, I could see Newkirk sitting a little straighter, his face stiffening. Like many farmers and ranchers across the Central Valley and countless rural areas, it was clear that a powerful sense of place and the deep work ethic attached him to the land. Of course, the land was changing. Traditionally on the farm, heirlooms kept their traits through open pollination, which kept them strong. This preserved genetic diversity, ensuring strength and adaptability.  Heirloom and local seed varieties are more resistant to local pests and diseases and weather extremes.  But what Newkirk was conveying for us up in the central farming valley, in his apparently simple but deceptively complex detail, was a story of how local and regional heirlooms and intergenerational wisdom were becoming endangered species both on the farm and, relocated to the edge of town, in the classrooms.

By the new millennium, approximately around 70% of American high school students would be attending schools enrolling 1,000 or more students—an end of the local learning community. Newkirk, not just in his words but in his life, blocked out a vision of a school no longer regional, no longer entrepreneurial, no longer in the hands of teachers as we once defined them: a huge, single crop production--American kids a monocrop. The spectrum of what you needed to be like in school, of the intelligences that were considered manageable in the classroom, of the non-medicated behaviors, were narrowing. 
“Is she your only one,” we asked.

“She’s the one, right Jenny?” he said, winking her way. Old man Newkirk smiled at his daughter at the edge of the table, about eight, corn silk hair, pure smile--she never said a word—and he showed just a little strain there, he loved her so.  We could see abandon in his eyes when he looked down.  She was shy, and she tucked in her chin.

“We live on farmland as far as the eye can see.  Our life is land.  Jenny’s class has kids who never picked an orange--they drink juice canned 3000 miles away or eat produce plastic wrapped in Sacramento.  A lot of them hardly sit down together for a family meal.  Today,” Newkirk explained, “the kids’ schooling is trucked same as those cans.  Yea, anyhow, Jenny’s changing teachers this year.”

It was August.  Though I was only a transient driving through, I could see the Newkirk’s tenacious sense of place and devotion to their inherited work—traits that are more likely to be seen as encumbrances in the city and suburbs. And although I deny having any of those encumbrances, what I learned from the Newkirks disturbed me for some years before I was able to work it all out.  It took me twenty years. By 2011, there wouldn’t be a locally made rhubarb pie within 100 miles of any school in the nation.  In fact, by 2011, in school cafeterias, for lunch and often breakfast, kids would be eating mainly things that were once food, processed into high fat and salt, low fiber and nutrient stuff that makes kids fat and sick while lining the pockets of a small handful industrial food giants that are efficient by virtue of cutting out local farmers and cooks. By 2011, there would be a handful of powerful textbook manufacturers comprising the national oligopoly, as well. In a striking parallel with the departure of local growers and cooks from school, in our textbooks, actual authors have been replaced by a long list of contributors, censors, and powerful special interests airing and venting to their concerns.

“We’ve been on this land for 100 years and we don’t know how we can continue.  My father and his farmed what they needed, and put everything they had back into our land.  But I don’t know how much of this new crop our fields can take. It’s a lot of seedless hybrids coming in now if we want to sell.  We can’t grow what makes sense around here, for our land.” 

I looked at his wife, then to him, “Who really wants standardized crops, anyway?”

He glanced at Jenny, then fixed his eyes on the table and said, “Who wants standardized kids?”

Part II

A lot more was to happen in the next 20 years that Newkirk may have intimated but might never have imagined.  Farms and schools both would undergo steady consolidation, and the widening gap between our convictions and our actual lives would strike many of us in a new millennium.  Americans students would become the most obese on earth.  Online, we’d have FarmVille, a website that grew to around 40 million active users within a year of launching. For all of you who will never see this site, this is their surreal slogan: “Everything grows in Farmville.” By 2010 or 2011, over 10% of Americans, very few of whom would almost never eat any whole foods from an actual “village,” from anywhere they actually lived, were planting and harvesting crops and turning cyber-plots of land into idyllic little cyber-farms …online, in Farmville. For many kids, Farmville had become the most accessible means of controlling the environment they lived in, their way out of powerlessness and institutionalization.

Back when we met Newkirk, most American families still sat down together for dinner but, by 2010, only 20% claimed to (Zimbardo, 2010). Education was proudly referred to by our wildly growing federal Department of Education as a national race. As of 2010, a child dropped out of that race every 9 seconds. If those drop outs, who are mainly boys, wanted an environment that was active or wanted a say in what happens (versus passive environments where they had little or no control), they could easily spend several hours a day in a video/digital/wired environment.  And that is what was occurring. 

Kids and other free-range critters naturally seek out environments where they can exert some control, hence the epidemic of online addiction.  (Research data substantiating this online preoccupation is ubiquitous.) The fastest growing movement in education was online, home schooling; kids will always seek freedom wherever they can find it. Studies started turning up documenting the degeneration of empathy among the young.  Of course they felt less empathic: their access to actual relationships with teachers or offline forms of teaching had grown relatively sketchy and unreliable.  Community service was for many students more something you logged than something you offered. And by 2012, when the whole thing was about ready to implode, the most creative cries from the policy makers and pundits was primarily this:  even bigger classes.

In the symbology of the American country, traditionally, each animal has wisdom:  the crow has no sense of time.  He sees past, present and future simultaneously. At school today, the future orientation has almost completely replaced the past and present orientations. It makes increasingly less sense to refer to schools as institutions of cultural transmission or preservation--it’s a lot easier to see schools as instruments of social change and political agendas.  We were still imagining the crow flying back to a whole new movement called slow education.  School gardens and locally made food. Local history and elders on campus. Smaller schools with less institutionalization and influence from outside interest groups, more self-determination coming from within their own communities. 

Lunch was slow, but we finished up with local oranges and almonds and a lazy smile. It was hot outside, and we strolled out to the dirt courtyard and there along the edge of the fencing were the seven puppies mewling and wiggling all over each other in the shade of the oak tree, and there was our runt of the litter.

When we got home, our daughter knew right away to name her Rosie.  She could tell.  Eventually, Rosie became something of a mascot at our school. In fact, once when we were interviewing teachers a fellow showed up, and he saw Rosie out front and asked me, “Does the board of health know you have a dog at school?” That interview ended quickly.

For the first two, whole dog years--14 people years--Rosie was incorrigible and high maintenance; she even chewed up the sprinkler system our major donor had put in the school.  We had to throw the ball for her probably 30 times, to work off the teen energy, before we could even think about teaching her.  We added a middle school around then and learned that they are not totally different, either, and to this day we never let them spend a day at school without exercise, even if it’s a few laps around the green before English class.  We serve free-range kids.

Suddenly, at two, like a kid finishing eighth grade, all the wildness was gone out of Rosie and she was ready to start coming to school regularly. She loved to graze and lie around our grassy field near the garden; it must have been her farm roots. Rosie grew up strong, calm and beautiful, and she came to school with us every day for the next 11 years, and received about 100,000 hugs, until one day our old farm dog couldn’t jump into the back seat of the car anymore.  Most likely the Newkirks are in their eighth generation of Labradors now.  I hope so. In my opinion, we will have a tad less ADD and a whole lot more comfort and friendship at school when there is a beautiful creature like Rosie on campus.

Encinitas, CA

1.Vegetable varieties that have been around for 50 years or more.

2. In fact, there is practically no geography at all in the California high school “History and Geography” curriculum where, the way it is written, students would spend the whole year analyzing things, as though analysis were the only form of thought.  (California Department of Public Schools, p.  140-167)

3. In the 1980s, the prolific E.D. Hirsh published his books on Cultural Literacy—it was like an educational swan song, last-ditch effort to hang on to what Hirsh saw as our heritage, our classics, Hirsh hanging on as his generation faded.  According to Hirsh, 80% of the material in his book on “cultural literacy,” written in 1987, had been in regular use in schools for 100 or more years.  Commonality of heritage is lost in textbook committees formed of those representing the American kaleidoscope of interest groups. The classic literature and the historical legends of the 20th century are rapidly disappearing.  It is natural for textbooks to be updated and re-ordered every three of four years in schools, but the pace of change and the horizontal generation of knowledge by the millennial generation (witness: Wikipedia, Google rankings, online publications) enables legends to reform or be replaced almost on the fly.  In today’s English textbooks, far less than 20% of the stories have been around for 100 years.  Hence: we can no longer account for the body of shared knowledge in our nation.


Grauer, S. (2009). Small Schools, Very Big Gains – A White Paper. Retrieved from

Hirsch Jr., E. D. (1987). Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York, NY. Houghton Mifflin.
Weight-control Information Network (WIN), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2010, February).

Overweight and Obesity Statistics. Retrieved from

Zimbardo, P. (2010, May 24). RSA Animate – The Secret Powers of Time [Video file].  Video posted to

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