Past Harmony teachers share memories, reflections, & where they are now

Past teachers/staff pictured above, L to R, top to bottom: David Christman, (Alumni Coordinator Mandy Skinner, Director Roc Bonchek), Jo Banks, Julie James, Libby Gwynn, Amy Baum, Barb Backler, Gina Weir

We’ve started reaching out to past Harmony teachers as part of our efforts to build a stronger alumni network. Because the teachers are really part of that network, too. So back in August we gathered a group of past teachers together on Zoom to reflect together on what they learned from their Harmony days and to share what they are doing now. We asked teachers to share memories of their time at Harmony and what it demonstrates about the uniqueness of teaching at Harmony. Many memories were shared about Harmony’s tradition of experiential education, getting kids out into the world and taking big trips every year. It was the first in what we hope will be a series of conversations. 

David Christman taught in the high school at Harmony in the 90s and early 2000s and now lives in LA. He shares, “When my daughter Madison graduated from Harmony in 2005, I remained as a Harmony School employee but moved to Hilo, Hawaii to work with a startup high school we were mentoring through a Gates Foundation Grant for small high schools. While there, I worked with former Harmony teacher Amy Baum. I remained there until moving to Los Angeles in 2012, where I taught high school chemistry for 5 years and am now the K-8 STEM Coordinator. I still remain involved with the National School Reform Faculty as a National Facilitator, so I have continued to work with Harmony teachers and former teachers for my entire career!”

David had us laughing with anecdotes from ways Harmony is still with him today. “Recently at an NSRF meeting, I waved my fingers in the air, and someone said, ‘What are you doing?’ And Emily Sprowls [former Harmony high school science teacher, also active with NSRF] who was there too, said, ‘That’s from family meeting!’ It just means I agree with you… I didn’t even know I was doing it! A lot of things from Harmony I use every day, it’s just what teaching means to me. So, at the school where I work now, we had no science program when I started. They wanted to start a science program. They had a little abandoned garden [that I took over] – and I’m not a gardener. But the kids think I’m a genius gardener now! And now it’s turned into this bigger thing. Someone wanted to donate a lot of money to the school and invest it in outdoor classrooms, and they asked me to work on it – and I was like, that’s all Harmony School. Because who am I being inspired by? Amy Gras, the garden in the back [at Harmony]… What do you do with leftover food from the garden at the end of the year? You hook up with the Food Bank… I’m very grateful for Harmony School for fifty thousand things like that. …A lot of the things that we did at Harmony, I’m still doing. We have electives now [at my current school]. I’m teaching ukulele again. I feel like I can now retire. It’s the circle of life!…”

Amy Baum joined the conversation from Hilo, Hawaii, where she’s lived and taught since the late 90s after leaving Harmony. “I really only taught 5th and 6th grade at Harmony for a few years, but Roc just couldn’t forget about me,” Amy jokes. “He was really excited about Hawaii. I think he and Barb came to visit 9 times…we got the Gates Foundation Grant to start a high school here. Right now I teach again at the little public school that I was teaching at before that high school started. I teach 6th grade. The ocean is out my window,  I go body boarding most days… I don’t know if I was somebody who just felt very aligned with the way Harmony did things or Harmony influenced me… It was both things. But, you know, I definitely still say, ‘I used to teach at this really cool place.’ For me [what’s special about Harmony] boils down to having a culture of thoughtfulness. And I feel it coming through this zoom phone call, listening to each other. One of my memories is of a faculty meeting that we had probably pretty early on when I was there, and I can’t even remember what the issue was, but we stuck with it until we got somewhere. I remember having this insight about consensus that, you know, it’s not necessarily that everybody agrees, but that everybody has been heard and can live with it. And that is really powerful.”

Jo Banks (3rd/4th grade teacher from 1977 – 2014) lives in Bloomington. She’s a gardener, a birder, volunteers for hospice and Meals on Wheels, and loves reading with her grandsons; reading with kids of course is one of her favorite things to do. Jo reflected on Harmony’s focus on relationships and community: “We didn’t leave children behind. We had wonderful connections with them and their families. And smaller class sizes, that really makes a difference. Small numbers, meaningful work, wonderful connections.”

One of the memories Jo shared was taking students to St. Louis and going up in the St. Louis Arch: “When we got up to the top they were so high up, looking out over St. Louis and the Mississippi River, and I remember watching a student who had never been so far away from home run back and forth between all the little windows. And then she comes over to me and gives me the biggest hug and says, ‘Oh, Jo, thank you so much for bringing me. I’m having a wonderful time.’ I can just see her wonderful shining face. Being able to expand kids’ worlds and give them new experiences – that was awesome.”

Libby Gwynn (Harmony’s Assistant Director from 1982-2010) shared that after she had worked for many years at Harmony, Ursina persuaded her to go on a trip when Camellia, her daughter, was in the middle school.  “We went to Florida for the longest trip the middle school ever went on, 10 days.  I remember it as clearly as if it was just last year, and it was a long time ago. Being with a group 24/7, cooking the meals, cleaning up, setting up camp, having to deal with everything that comes up (like a student wandering off on the beach, people playing tricks on each other, sunburn, alligators in the swimming hole)… Your relationships deepen quickly and you get to know people better than you would normally when you just see them during the day.  It’s an intense, quick way to build community.  And for someone who normally was in the office, it was particularly meaningful to get to know that group of students and adults so well. … Camellia often says to me how much Harmony impacted who she is. She is now running a film festival, and she says she uses skills she learned at Harmony family meetings and so on all the time. Thank you from her.” Libby is happily retired now, in Bloomington, where she spends lots of time gardening, knitting, walking, visiting friends and family when she can, volunteering, and making pottery.

Al Hagopian was one of Harmony’s early teachers who blazed the trail for the many, many trips to come after. He taught at Harmony from 1978 – 1981, and took a group of students on a memorable bike trip in the spring of 1980. Students had to work hard to convince their parents to let them go. Their original destination was New Orleans, but the trip was cut short at the border of Tennessee and Mississippi by stormy weather and tired riders. An article about that trip appears in the early Harmony student publication, the Hoosier Harmony magazine, that Al helped produce. Al now lives in Racine, Wisconsin, where he’s originally from. After leaving Harmony he taught and coached from ‘81-‘95 at a private K-12 school, and says the Harmony experience helped as he wasn’t a certified teacher. “The philosophy from Harmony also greatly colored my teaching style, which a la Summerhill freedom had me respecting students’ individual choice.”

Gina Weir commented, “It was amazing to me how easy it was to go out into the world with students when I taught at Harmony.  We didn’t have the barriers that other schools put up around having access to the outside world.” Gina came to Bloomington from NYC and was at Harmony from 2000-2002 as an Art teacher, Bike Project coordinator, and Social Action leader. She shares, “I earned my Ph.D. in special education in 2014. After earning this degree, I worked at IU as a coordinator of student teaching for a few years. For the last four years, I have been working as a community-based researcher studying school equity in Bloomington, IN. And last year I took a new job at Martinsville High School, as the director of their Alternative Ed. program.”

A memorable time for Gina was when a wave of students got really involved in learning about the protests against the School of the Americas that were happening every year outside of Ft. Benning in Georgia. “And all of a sudden, I knew that I had a whole bunch of high school kids who wanted to focus on this. And so we did some trips down to Georgia. And at one point, Roc called me into his office, and he said, ‘You know, I don’t want this to be one sided. It’s really important that we think about not indoctrinating young people.’ And I just listened, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah. Yeah, you’re right.’  Like, how do we make sure we’re offering many perspectives? And so, I quickly thought, OK, what can I do? And so, I talked to my sister, who lives in Georgia, and who’s a very conservative Christian. And I said, ‘Sister, I really need you. I want my students to have conversations with people who are very different than themselves and have very different views.’ So she gathered a group and we stopped and had a living room conversation one night on this trip, where we got together with people who had very different views about politics and across the board. And it was one of those moments where I could just sit back and listen to these amazing young people who were just so ready to carry on a very complex conversation. They kept themselves so composed. And then we, of course, debriefed when we had time to gather together in the car and talk. I think that advice that I got from Roc was so important.”

Julie James (high school social studies and math teacher at Harmony from 1992-1998) joined us from Boston, where she is now a math teacher in the ACE Program at Brookline High School; before Brookline, she taught at a charter school in Roxbury for four years. Her teaching career has been oriented around equity in education. “I could list a thousand memorable experiences [from Harmony] and many of them are around trips and networking outside the building, actually. And those are things that I still get to do. … When I was teaching in Roxbury, we were graduating our first class of seniors. Our operations team announced that if anyone wanted to plan a senior experience, a trip for the seniors, they would allow people to submit proposals. Oh, trip proposal?  It took me like 20 minutes!  I wrote a proposal to take 10 of my students to New Mexico for 10 days. As others have said, trips are a unique way to open people’s eyes to a variety of lifestyles and cultures. In New Mexico, we got to have dialogues about race that were way outside of anything my students were used to, because the reality my students experience is that the black community is poor and segregated and oppressed. This is what systemic racism looks like in Roxbury, where our school was. Race in New Mexico is a finely nuanced mix of the cultures of the Southwest. It’s very different, and the dialogue between culture groups has been happening much longer there. So, it was quite an eye-opening experience for my students. And I don’t know that I would  have had the courage to just plow into that and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take the kids’ if I hadn’t already planned so many trips and gone on so many trips, thanks to the leadership of other people before me who taught me how to do that at Harmony.”

Julie added, “Everything about Harmony was so authentically about letting our students find their voice and find their way and letting our teachers help each other find our own voices in our own way. And that translates across all communities, how to empower another person to find their own voice. Those were skills that I got to practice every day with my students.”

If you’re a past Harmony teacher reading this, we’d love to hear from you. If you’re a past student wondering what your old teachers are up to, email [email protected] and let us know! We’ll track those teachers down and share their stories in the next newsletter.

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June 2024

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