In honor of banned books week, middle school teacher Marsha Hoem discusses how students in her classes explore concepts of utopia, conflict, and freedom in the language arts curriculum
By Marsha Hoem
Many of the books we read in seventh and eighth grade are also, coincidentally, on lists of the most frequently challenged or banned books in this country. I didn’t load the curriculum this way intentionally, really, except that I was looking for well-written and provocative books for middle schoolers, and many that fit my criteria have also been lightening rods for the First Amendment.
Eighth graders are currently reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, so they spent a couple of weeks beforehand researching the concept of utopias before diving in. It’s an idea that has shaped American literature from its beginnings – from John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon to the persistence of “The American Dream.” So we consider the full range of its influence – in painting, history, poetry, children’s literature, and so on, and then we try to boil it down to the question “Is it possible?” Or, was Plato right when he said that a utopia might only ever exist “as the structure of a just man’s mind”?
In answer to Plato, this class wrote:
“I agree with him because there will always be conflict, and there will always be people who have different views on the world…without conflict and problems, we as humans [would] lack a purpose in life because we wouldn’t have things to learn from.” ~ Leila Duarte
And: “I think that a truly equal utopia will never be accomplished…We need people with differences to help us, in a way, to have new, more innovative thoughts…If we didn’t argue, we wouldn’t have that much passion, since we would have nothing to feel passionate about, and without passion, we would not have the will to progress.” ~ Charlotte Sedlak
They get it.
Many of the books in our curriculum tend to question society as it is or as it might be: Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men... though we read plenty that is not so dark to balance things out. The rationale for reading these works is validated for me every year when students see that the ideas of uniformity and perfection that are the inspiration for most utopias, easily flip into autocracy, propaganda, and loss of freedom in all realms because human beings are hard wired for change and to see things differently.
The history of banned books inevitably generates questions in the classroom as students see that trying to control the human instinct to question things as they are is almost always futile. Differences of opinion and of personality – this is what makes things interesting and beautiful. Fahrenheit 451 is the perfect book for introducing these ideas, first, because Bradbury was such a large-hearted poet – full of love and truth, and secondly, because what he writes is so rich and layered with riddles, questions, allusions. When they see the place he was writing from – love of mankind, of books, of the texture and quality of life – set against the apprehension of what could happen in a totalitarian, technological state – something connects. The fact that Fahrenheit 451 is an extended ode to love, language, and nature resonates, and so knowing it was verboten reading makes the light switch go on. Why is knowledge considered dangerous? If conflict is a constant, how do we deal with it? Is conflict necessary for a healthy society? These are the things we wrestle with in room 27 – the “big fish” questions. …
OVS cross country heads to league finals this week and the final meet of the season. Senior runners Jacob Tadlock (L14) and Peter Weckerle will run their last race as Spuds, and with fellow runners Elliot Oechsner, Sebastian Wayman-Dalo (L16), Ethan Gao (L17), and Aaron Wolf (L16) are eager to step up their placement among the Condor League boys’ teams.
On the girls’ side, sophomore Avery Colborn (L16) has led for the girls, followed by the formidable grouping of Jolene Fan (L16), Caspian Ellis (L16) , Joy Campbell (L14), and Sunny Chang. The girls have the potential to earn a CIF berth if they run well on Wednesday, November 1, at Besant Hill School.
A bobcat prowls the soccer field at the Upper Campus, shifting its gaze late at night at any slight crunch of the brush. A fully grown black bear plops into a water trough at the nearby baseball field to cool off after an active, hot summer day. A young deer casually strolls up to a gate on a dirt road that doubles as the high school cross country course, sniffing the flowers sprouting up alongside the road.
With the large number of noteworthy animals that call the 195-acre Upper Campus home, you’d think the high school students who live and go to school here were tending a zoo. However, all of these animals roaming what is affectionately known as “The Hill” are part of a different kind of exhibit.
Instead of being live in front of smiling faces, they’ve been captured by game cameras set up in recent years by Advanced Placement Environmental Science students. The game cameras add an innovative aspect to the AP curriculum while pioneering a new way to see wildlife on campus. Most who study and work at the Upper Campus will never see half of the creatures captured on the cameras, so these photos provide a taste of what happens in the outdoors when nobody is around and nobody is watching.
Last year, the game cameras were a supplementary assignment to the curriculum, but this year they are serving a more vital and science-centered purpose, allowing students to record yearlong changes in the animals that roam campus.
“Before we were just looking for cute animals, but we’re now making it more scientific,” Wickenhaeuser said. “We can get an idea of what animals are out at what time, what they’re doing, and what their seasonal variations might be.”
The people make the place. Just ask our alumni. They will tell you it was the close-knit community of students and dedicated teachers who made their OVS experience great. We agree. Meet the faculty and learn more about their backgrounds, interests and favorite experiences at Ojai Valley School.
By Lee Roberts, Sixth-Grade Language Arts Teacher
March 9 – Last week, 80 young soldiers donned armor, carried shields, shot arrows, and galloped steeds in a battle for the British Isles. Like the original battle, William, the Duke of Normandy, led his army—in this case, the entire sixth and seventh grades—to victory over King Harold II, the last Anglo Saxon King of England, and his eighth-grade defenders. However, unlike the 1066 combatants who crafted their crests, armor and weapons from chain mail and beaten metal, these local soldiers wrought their armaments from cardboard cadged from Ojai Valley shops and donated by local families. While the field of soldiers kneeled, the entire Lower school looked on while Head of School Gary Gartrell, standing in for the Archbishop of York, crowned seventh grader Violet Ruby as King William the Conqueror of England.
For the eighth consecutive year, OVS history teacher John Rowan orchestrated what has become a fond tradition among participants and alumni. Math teacher Doug Colborn said his children, Nolan and Avery, who are now enrolled at the Upper Campus, participated as middle school students. Colborn described the importance of lasting memories like these. His children, and all who join in the fray, “will never, ever forget the Battle of Hastings.” Gartrell said the Battle of Hastings has become part of the fabric of OVS. “It connects generations of OVS students,” he said, adding that the elementary students watch every move of the cardboard wearing soldiers in anticipation of their own battles. “They can’t wait.”
One of the reasons this school-wide event works so well, according to Gartrell, is the level of the middle school-aged children’s willingness to participate in an imaginary event en masse. “At this age, they buy into it 100 percent,” he said. Amateur historian Tigran Nahabedian, a sixth-grade Norman archer, said, “It’s a fast-paced historical lesson for the whole school.” Even the smallest children have a vested interest.
At dinner following the battle, John Rowan’s daughter Clementine, in second grade, mused on the fact that William and the Normans had won again, saying, “I thought the Saxons would win, since the Normans won the last few times, Dad.”
The cardboard-rich reenactment began as a way to make an abstract historical event real to children nearly a thousand years after the fact. Using the Bayeux Tapestry as a guide, Rowan’s students follow the strategy. The archers’ volley—in the OVS version, paper folded into wings, launched from oversized rubber bands—starts the battle. The Saxon’s resist, their lines break; the sixth-grade Norman cavalry encircle the disconnected foot soldiers, galloping pretend warhorses in formation; and the Norman Knights finish the fight victorious. Ojai Valley School’s entire middle school plays a part, according to Rowan, even acting out a metaphor for the students’ progression on to high school. The soon-to-be graduated eighth-grade thanes fruitlessly defend the Eighth Grade Lawn against the seventh-grade Norman knights, and the sixth-grade cavalry and archers fulfill the Norman’s strategy.
Next winter, as the pile of Christmas cardboard at the ends of Ojai driveways disappears, residents might know where it will find a second life, before eventual, inevitable recycling.
To view photos from the event, visit the website Images of OVS gallery.
It was windy. It was cold. And, oh yeah, it snowed.
But for a group of eight seasoned Ojai Valley School students – all alums of the Lower Campus, known for its vigorous outdoor education program – none of that mattered.
Boldly setting out to conquer the eastern Sierra Nevada, the students traveled up Highway 395 to Rock Creek and then hiked nearly a dozen miles to Gem Lake, elevation nearly 10,000 feet. After setting up camp, some hiked even higher. And they all soothed their sore muscles in hot springs just south of Mammoth.
All in all, it was a memorable outing and an excellent example of the reinvigorated Outdoor Education program at the Upper Campus, now under the direction of new history teacher and outdoor education coordinator Zach Byars. Read more in a story by sophomore Caroline Morrow (L15) on the student journalism website, On The Hill, and click here to see a gallery of photos from the trip.
Cross Country Runners Headed to League Finals
November 2 – Twenty three cross country runners from the Upper Campus are traveling to Midland School today to take part in the Condor League championship race. Both the boys’ and girls’ teams have been training since the start of the school year for the league final, and many of the runners have been logging their best training and racing times in recent weeks. The league final will feature nearly 100 runners on the boys’ side, and about 50 running in the girls’ race. “A lot of these runners are peaking at just the right time,” coach Fred Alvarez said. “I’m expecting all of my runners to have a good day out on the course.” Stay tuned for results!
September 30 – The OVS middle and high school fall sports season began this past week with our soccer, volleyball, and cross country teams competing against other schools in the region.
At Lower, the middle school boys’ soccer team opened the season with a win over Santa Barbara Middle School 3-1. Eighth-grader Henry Fisher scored all three OVS goals and earned a celebratory ice bath after the game. The girls’ volleyball team also won 3-1 against SBMS, led by strong performances by Grace McHale and Sophia Valenzuela. The girls lost 0-2 against St. Raphael School, but are showing great potential as their skills develop. There are six more games this season following the fall camping trips. All future games start at 4:00 p.m. Please check the schedule for details.
At Upper, the high school girls traveled to Oak Grove for their first volleyball match of the season. The JV team won in 2 sets and varsity won in 3 sets. Meanwhile, the boys’ cross country team traveled to Cate School for a meet on September 28. They were joined by solo runner Gilim Bae, a member of last year’s CIF qualifying girls’ cross country team, who placed 19th in the field of 61 girls on the Cate’s three-mile course. The boys, led by juniors Jacob Tadlock (L14) and Erick Liang, show strong potential and are running hard in preparation for a tough fall schedule. The Spuds host the opening Condor League meet on Wednesday, October 5, at 3 p.m. on the always-tough Pi course at Upper Campus.
Ojai Valley School offers a fun and enriching summer experience for day and resident campers, ages 8-16, at our two beautiful campuses in Ojai, California. OVS opened its 2016 summer camp on June 26 and the fun continues until the first week of August. Our flexible schedule allows campers to enroll for 2, 4, or 6-week sessions. Learn more about our offerings on our summer website at http://summer.ovs.org.
Check out the first week of photos in our media gallery.