by Darlene Blasing
More than two decades ago, a Swiss educator came to the United States to research alternative methods of teaching. The Swiss were seeking a way to improve their schools. He traveled throughout the country, stopping for a time on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. His subsequent book was dedicated to a school he found there that best embodied what he thought was essential for an effective system of education. The school was founded by Norman Creamer, his wife Katy, and mother Virginia.
Norman had a dream, when just a youth, of bettering the lives of the poor. That dream evolved into the experimental school he called SOLAR, established on farms near Sutton’s Bay. Dissatisfied with the public school system in this country, he set about creating what he hoped would be a model for the future…a school where children would be taught more than the three R’s…where they could be given the keys to living happy, successful lives. The Creamers, along with other teachers, created a setting where young people were actively engaged in the day-to-day business of running the community. School was not kept separate from life; life, as well as the classroom, was utilized as a teaching environment.
The property contained a cherry orchard, a grove of sugar maples, trout ponds, a three acre garden, a candle factory, a small general store and post office, and barns where a horse and chickens were kept, as well as a carpentry shop. A printing shop in the basement of one of the old farm houses also served as a classroom. Meals were served in a community room, which had a large kitchen. Though adults had charge of the meals, the children were encouraged to help there, as well. All adults in the community were viewed as teachers, and the students were encouraged to learn all they could from them. Of course, every good teacher knows that they learn from their students, as well.
The general store was entirely under the direction of the students, with the older ones helping instruct the younger. They ordered merchandise, stocked shelves, kept the account books, even conducted advertising campaigns. They ran a small post office in the store, sold stamps, and sorted the community’s mail.
At SOLAR, no opportunity for instruction was overlooked. It is one thing to learn math equations in a sterile classroom and quite another to apply them to figuring the number of bags of concrete required to pour a floor. Computing the number of seeds needed for a garden and reducing or expanding a recipe are also good exercises to help children apply what they learn in the classroom. Trusting them with tasks gives them a sense of accomplishment, and praise goes a long way in encouraging them to continue to learn.
The school was partially supported by sales of products produced by the students and teachers. These items included; jewelry, maple syrup, candles, plant pots, macramé hangers, stationery, and books. When young people have a hand in raising money for their school or community, they learn valuable self-sufficiency skills and acquire a sense of ownership and responsibility.
Though the rural setting of SOLAR was different from the environment most of Muskegon’s children grow up in, it is still possible to apply the precepts of the Leelanau school here. The public school system, no matter how good, can only partially prepare them for life. Education, to be successful, should involve the community.
Norman practiced and taught positive thinking. It had enabled him to become the youngest member of the Million Dollar Round Table of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. He also understood that amassing large sums of money was not the secret to happiness. His grandfather taught him that. The elders of any community are a valuable resource. Vital wisdom gleaned from years of experience should not be allowed to fall by the wayside.
Although it is essential to make enough money for survival, happiness is not dependant on, and is often hindered by amassing a fortune. At SOLAR, students were encouraged to pursue paths that utilized their talents and gave them a feeling of fulfillment. They were taught that inner peace was more important than a large bank account.
The children and adults of SOLAR were taught that every great endeavor begins with a dream. They were shown how to set goals and focus on achieving them. They were encouraged to continually challenge themselves. They were taught that in order to accomplish something great it was necessary to put forth a great effort.
I once heard a parent say, “That’s too complicated for my child. He won’t be able to put that together.” Let’s not be afraid to challenge children. Trials and tests contribute to their mental growth.
Through the day-to-day activities of the community, the students of SOLAR learned discipline and self-reliance. They were taught by example and loving instruction. The Solarian teachers knew that children who are discipline problems are often the most intelligent. Their minds need to be engaged in constructive activities that will give them a sense of pride and accomplishment, and always they should be assured that they are loved. The more rebellious they are, the more they are crying out for that.
The school called SOLAR does not exist anymore, and the students and teachers who shared in that grand experiment are scattered throughout the country. They were taught well, and continue to utilize what they learned to enrich their lives and the lives of the people around them. With a little effort, Norman’s dream of a good life for all people can come home to Muskegon.