I. Aside the schoolyard
Two columns of one-hundred-foot spruce trees follow along a meandering creek, forming a protective border aside the school playground, trees planted a century before in the aftermath of a devastating tornado, the proud spruce now serving as a wind break aside the crop cleansed fields. The school children use branches from these trees to build forts. There is a lore about the branches, the most valuable graced by insects’ etched designs, bugs the students identify from their studies. Golden corn cobs and pine cones are trading currency for the best sticks, with which to build their forts within the protective columns of mature spruce.
Approximately fifteen thousand years ago the Laurentide ice sheet, having covered most of Canada and the northern tier of the United States, approached this schoolyard. In some areas the glacier’s thickness was ten thousand feet, carving out the Great Lakes, and ultimately extending to this place in southeastern Minnesota. This particular psuedopod-like edge of the glaciation is within reach of the forts and an extended child’s hand, but cannot be touched because this is the precise point of recession. This is where the mammoth presence stopped.
Something else can be uncovered here by the students when scraping the soil, where 450 million years before during the Ordovician Period, a shallow sea left behind fossils resembling sea lillies, squid, nautilus, mollusks, bryozoan, and coral. Artifacts of the Dakota people may also be revealed, seemingly awaiting an eternity for the luck of a youthful scavenger’s discovery.
Keats wrote that “nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” The history of the world is real here amidst the towering spruce, where from their fortress students see and study the sky, and wind, and tones of light and dark in the visible world.
Trees, fossils, plants, leaves, insects, soy bean and corn fields, a glaciers’ legacy of depositing erratics and sculpting the earth’s surface, the noises and natures of what is untamed—all contributing to the young students’ sense of entrancement. The border between classroom and outdoors remains undefined, but is equally clear and steady as sunlight. Moving freely from the schoolroom and the outdoors encourages an experience of being humbled by what is unfamiliar, to inhabit this and these moments when the student begins to know who she or he was, or could wish to be.
This was before the rules changed, before we fully understood the signal, the warning, something beyond even the illusion of full apprehension, completely unforseen by most save for those soothsayers who anticipated an eventual and inevitable health crisis. Until we squarely saw the world-wide precipitant, the students at Praire Creek Community School, in Northfield, Minnesota, enjoyed a dedicated outdoors day every Wednesday, which students cheerfully called “wild Wednesdays,” though teachers settled on a more diffident term: “forest school days.”
Then, cessation. In Minnesota, schools closed in mid-March 2020, with the threatening circumstance of the coronavirus suddenly entirely real. Schools shuttered, kids were provisioned, and elementary education went remote.
II . The herons
Ordinarily, at the start of the school year, Michelle Martin, who teaches a class of commingled fourth and fifth graders at Prarie Creek, assigns a year-long project to pairs of students, one from each grade level. Her class (one of three fourth-to-fifth-grade classes at the school) is called the Herons. Each pair of students studies a tree, as designated from among the nearby red and white oak, green ash, birch, white pine, spruce, or maple. In the spring, the fifth graders bequeath the tree to the incoming fourth graders—passing on stewardship of the trees—a rite of passage for the past ten years, aspiring to the Japanese one-thousand-year tradition of attending to beloved trees.
This inquiry introduces the students to phenology observation, a study of changes, of mystery: budding, growth, flowering, coloration, even decay. The outdoors is the students’ place to explore, as Michelle explains, where “students find a centering weight, how to observe the phenophases of annual life, how to do one’s work, how to question and investigate, to record data and arrive at truth.”
When classroom instruction ceased in March 2020, Michelle began planning for a return. Not only how to fit twenty students in a classroom given the six-foot distancing regulations—which would allow for no more than a half dozen students given the existing furnture and classroom square footage—but how to continue the balance and actuality of being within and beyond the classroom.
Having watched as students used their hands, brain, and body when learning, Michelle approaches technology thoughtfully, seeing specific benefits, using Google maps, for example, to study longitude and latitude, discovering how video games can be “surprisingly social creating a woven conversation.” She was open to considering what was available, what spoke to the children.
The question remained. Ultimately, when returning to school, how to choreograph situating students for learning in a variety of settings? How to “take the anchor and place it somewhere else” given the pandemic’s strictures?
Initially, Michelle wanted to be outdoors, which suggested a tent would be useful, even a necessity. She sought to connect with the governor’s office and the National Guard, “but the puzzle had too many layers.” Using Craigslist, a tent was found that had been used for gospel gatherings, transported around the midwest for old school tent revivals: some preaching, nourishing food, bringing people to Jesus. The former owner of the tent told Michelle, “the angels will be watching over you.”
Michelle measured out the Herons’ classroom, determining how many students would fit in what she terms a “quirky space: a pole in the middle and a cozy nook for meeting.”
Initial measurements only provided functional room for five students. She reconceived the given workspace, and using circle packing—and with the help of Pythagoras—configured a plan situating eighteen children in the main part of the room, all six feet apart. The final diagram is beautiful enough to make a T-shirt design. A small desk would be perfect for this Pythagorean calculation.
III. Our rock
Michelle’s brother-in-law is adept at carpentry, and had built stools which he sells at craft fairs. She saw how her own daughter used the stool as a companion: ever present, sturdy, reliable. Michelle etched out a provisional desk design testing dimensions that fit twenty students in a classroom while adhering to Covid-19 guidelines. The desk would also be used outside “where the students feel they belong.”
Transportable (with a handle)
The desk in all its utility was for Michelle a symbol, both abstract and that which could be held in one’s hands. She imagined a portable plain of activity, a catalyst “challenging routines and asking how we can approach learning dfferently,” supporting students’ movement, moments of engagement, and intuitive relationships where the world reveals itself in new ways, something that could withstand the conditions that had seemingly lost a grip and become threatening.
The conception of the desk challenged Michelle to ask: “How could we do teaching differently, untethered? What’s the best way for students, instead of mourning what we had lost during Covid, to enable and open up to new possibilities? That’s been transformative for all of us.”
Is there something magical about this artifact, the notion of a grade-school desk, “your desk,” “my desk,” or is it a recollection seen through honeyed nostalgia, or even for some of us, reluctantly remembered as part of a residual grade-school drama, moments of doubt and diminishment? To borrow from Robert Frost, something there is that loves this honest piece of construction we term a desk, the respect and responsibility it offers us from the moment we enter our first elementary school classroom, where we sit for the first time untrained and uninformed and undefended, not sure of what is to be achieved. We sit before the desk, the classroom desk, something familiar, nothing ambiguous. It balances or enhances a quiet drama of learning. What you see in this desk is your own life. Curiously, there amidst the assembly of youth and teacher, the desk is both public and private, where the student is to look at all earnestly, a collective, but each questioning in her or his own way.
As Michelle explains, the desk is “our rock,” a solid companion, inside or out, a platted piece of the schoolroom precinct, where at first we are not only strangers, but are strange, unexplainable even to ourselves.
IV. The mystery of vocation
Drive south on I-35 from the Twin Cities for less than an hour. Be sure to turn east onto County Road 19 or the border to border interstate will deposit you in Laredo, Texas.
Northfield was founded in 1856, by New England settlers known as Yankees, within the homeland of the Dakota Nation, where today local agriculture supports mainly rotated fields of corn and soybean. The city’s motto is “Cows, Colleges and Contentment” and is aptly described as charming, Norman Rockwell incarnate. As much as the area was known for lumber and flour mills, wheat-based agriculture and cereal processing (only one breakfast cereal plant remains, where Post Cereal manufactures Malt-O-Meal products), Northfield is today also known for two liberal arts colleges. Its proximity to the Twin Cities attracts modern-era businesses such as veterinary pharmaceuticals, printed circuits, and video games.
There is an enduring form of something intentional and purposeful in Northfield, indelibly dramatized in 1876 by the town’s citizens defeating Jesse James’s failed and final bank robbery attempt, the James’s gang Waterloo. There are less dramatic and more creative forms of community cohesion, too. One citizen designed a low-gear bicycle and book trailer, eight linear feet of shelving painted luminous red—a portable lending library used as a “book bike on location.” With the benefit of WiFi, the mobile library invites chatting with a librarian about books, or perhaps applying for a library card. Several nights each week the book bike is steered to neighborhoods where the cost of books may be beyond reach: here, books are distributed for free.
The town’s sidewalks, when repaired or replaced, are impressed with lines of poetry from the winners of the sidewalk poetry festival, a competition both figurative and literal. In Northfield, one’s steps find inspired passage from the poesy touching the soles of one’s shoes.
Matt Eastvold creates sophisticated, elegant, not inexpensive custom furniture. His Northfield-based Eastvold Furniture Company builds what he calls “the jewelry of the office”—found, for example, in the Midtown Manhattan headquarters of ViacomCBS, Nickleodoen’s Chelsea Market location, or HBO’s Seattle office. Michelle Martin is Matt’s son’s teacher. “Hey Matt, can you do this?” she asked, explaining the idea for a desk.
The Prairie Creek Community School desk, what Matt calls and sells as the “Big Sky desk,” and what Michelle calls “your desk,” and the students know simply as “my desk,” was crreated, with material cost of under $9.00.
Matt and his company’s designers conceived of a trestle fortified structure, with six easy to assemble parts: a top, two legs, two apron pieces, and a cross bar. 17” x 11 1/2” x 14”: an itty-bitty thing of the greatest stature. The Russian Baltic Birch wood pieces, when assembled, become a desk, a chair, and when turned upside down a caddy, a carrying tray for crayons, glue sticks, markers, pencils and pencil sharpener (although most use a whittling knife, Michelle noting that the knife does a much better job), a snack, perhaps water, perhaps even an illicit pack of gum.
Eastvold Furniture built a prototype, initially just for Michelle’s class. Matt and his colleagues, using a computer numeric cutter, cut the Baltic Birch pieces, sanded, sprayed the pieces with water base laquer, contributing the labor. Grandparents, parents, alumni, teachers, and the craftsmen themselves assembled 180 desks for the entire school, less than $9.00 per desk, assembled in a few days. Six pieces, two screws, and wood glue.
Matt’s online company portfolio shows sophisticated design and construction, elegance and high quality craftsmanship. The desk is available online as well, incongruous in its tiny presence. The Big Sky desk, “your desk,” “my desk” has, according to Matt, “provided even more meaning. Countless people have been grateful.”
The community effort, the care of asssembly, remaking the world out of modest though invaluable fragments, involved the soul of the community, using pieces of Baltic Birch imported from Russia, fragments part of an unassailable whole. There was shared energy and focus at work, anticipating the enormous vitalty of the young students, greeted by a desk patiently silent, the mystery of its vocation residing within.
V. The Return
When students returned to Prairie Creek in September 2020, the weather was forty degrees and drizzly. The fire pit was at work as the students met in a field and sat at their desks. Students, dressed in layers, were given liner gloves from the local dollar store. Reusable hand warmers with embedded salt crystals became the subject of a science lesson. Runnng and periodic jumping jacks contributed to maintaining warmth.
While using their desks as their outdoor defintion of place, the students could suddenly be distracted by hawks and blue jays. Some distractions were put to good use. Students at first “freaked out” when a swarm of yellow jackets arrived, but Michelle steered the students’ concern into wonder. One student became especially intrigued learning to safely hold the yellow jackets as she studied their black and yellow bands and thin waisted design. Welcoming the unexpected, Michelle notes, “There is a serendipity to teaching outside. You don’t know what it will bring, but it brings something.
“You see so much when you are outside. The clouds, when we see the clouds, we learn about clouds. The things that caught our eye could also catch our mind. Our study changes, depending upon where we are and what we see.”
Students soon became attached to the desks, tying different colors of yarn and other distinguishing codes, a Baltic Birch sempahore of identity. Michelle describes the student-desk relationship: “The desks give the students a stillness. The desk identified where they were mentally and physically. The desk is a space that is their own and that gained importance as other parts of their world became unmoored.”
Classes were held outside until October, when an unexpected snow storm disrupted plans. After the snow melted, a portion of class time moved from inside to out. At first it seemed unnatural to be in an indoor classroom. Less space, more constraints, assigned places, less spontaneous movement, group work halted.
When Prairie Creek Community School turned again to remote learning in October, students brought their desks home, their anchor. The class is an eclectic bunch: farm kids, children of professors from nearby St. Olaf or Carleton College: a cross-section of Northfield’s community, sharing an overriding affection for their tiny desks. Students returned to the classroom in February 2021, with dedicated time outside, with desks, every day.
The desk has attracted attention beyond Praire Creek Community School. A short video, produced by journalist Ben Brewer and available on iPondr.com captures the compelling narrative. A Twin City television station broadcast a feature segment on the school and the collaboration between Michelle, Matt, and the community. A Montessori school in Cleveland has expressed interest in purchasing desks.
Imagine the ongoing challenge working with elementary age students given the headlines, the disunity and uncertainty, the introduction and adherence to pandemic rules and guidance: where to sit, stand, how to play, what to wear, seem to confine us in something both real and imaginary.
The desk, amidst the vortex of ongoing crisis, is something both simple and universal, its familiar size and shape, the place which has been platted for us, our homestead, the simplest and most general of things representing perhaps an anachronism in a digital age, yet still indubitable and certain. The desk and student make contact, develop a shared magnetism. This is the students’ space to be completely involved and completely responsible and so apparently capable under the watchful teacher’s eye.
Fifth graders, in anticipation of their spring graduation to middle school, have asked to keep their desks. The school decided, in the spirit of the desk and the involvement of the communtiy and their service to the students, that fifth graders would present their desks to incoming fourth graders.
A tradition is being introduced. Wood imported from Russia, designed by a devoted and irrepressible teacher seeking new possibilities, a furniture design company with national prominence appreciating the opportunity to dwell within the simplicity of things, a community stepping in to contribute. The desks will be passed on, year by year, from those exiting to those who are entering the Herons’ classroom. The diminutive desk, and the seemingly negligible things it carries, the size of these things, is as Walter Benjamin explains in inverse ratio to its significance. In its concentrated and simple form the desk contains everything else, where ideas and experience coincide, the tiniest essence appearing on the unassumingly elegant yet austere platform which awaits patiently the arrival of the young students, from whence everything originates. ◆