Franny Shuker-Haines, Associate Director at Buxton School (Williamstown, MA), was kind enough to chat with us about Buxton and how the school carries John Dewey’s framework of progressive education into the 21st century. Buxton students are an engaged, active group. Through academics, work and community Buxton students practice their responsibilities to each other and to the larger world every day.
Question: What’s the Buxton story?
Franny Shuker-Haines: Buxton has always defined itself as a progressive school. The school was founded in 1928 by Ellen Geer Sangster, a social worker, who was deeply influenced by the writings of John Dewey. Her goal was to create a school that would allow kids to learn from their experiences in the living present. To that end, she was determined that the school be diverse, interactive, intellectually stimulating, artistically rich, and community-oriented. Buxton continues to be all of those things; it is through students’ interactions with each other (across every kind of societal “line” you can think of: race, gender, class, interest, ability, talent, educational background, etc.) in a variety of settings that they really get educated.
Q: What are some of the special qualities and programs that make the school?
FSH: Classes matter, but they matter as much for the content of the student-oriented discussion as for the raw content the teacher is hoping to convey. Community matters enormously at Buxton: the students maintain the physical plant through our twice-weekly Work Program, they maintain the dorms through daily work jobs, they maintain the spirit of the school through various leadership roles and caretaking duties. And the arts matter: virtually every student takes some kind of arts class at Buxton; many take many!
For a small school, we offer a wide and deep arts curriculum, because we believe in the outlet for expression that art provides, the discipline it requires, and the richness it brings to our collective lives. At the end of their time at Buxton, our students have learned what it means to take care of themselves and each other, they have felt the weight and rewards of real responsibility, they have lived among a small but very diverse group of peers, and they have learned to value their own curiosity, creativity and ability.
Q: What’s specially valuable about a Buxton education?
FSH: It gives young adults a sense of agency. They know that lawns don’t mow themselves, for example; they also know that dedicated people doing the right thing can make an enormous difference. Through our investigative all-school trip, they learn that the world is a complex place, but that it is being run by real people who you can talk to, learn from and challenge. They learn first-hand that “diversity” is not just an abstract term, but a process of getting to know individuals well, taking them seriously, and negotiating a shared life with them. And, maybe most importantly, they learn that they do not live in a vacuum–that their actions have real repercussions in the lives of others. In an increasingly global world, these skills and lessons seem more important to me than ever.