currents

‘COVID can’t defeat us’

Tipis, the Homestead School and putting a pandemic in its place

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 9/9/20

GLEN SPEY, NY — Peter Comstock calls it the blooming: the brightly colored tipis that have sprung up on school grounds.

The Homestead School, Glen Spey’s Montessori school, has adapted …

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currents

‘COVID can’t defeat us’

Tipis, the Homestead School and putting a pandemic in its place

Posted

GLEN SPEY, NY — Peter Comstock calls it the blooming: the brightly colored tipis that have sprung up on school grounds.

The Homestead School, Glen Spey’s Montessori school, has adapted itself to pandemic learning. Tipis have been home to North America’s indigenous people for centuries. Using them now will be an important, experiential lesson in what that life was like and it will solve the social-distancing requirement that all New York schools are facing this year.

Traditional tipis were composed of wooden poles arranged in a cone, the whole covered with animal hides. More hides or reeds carpeted the floor inside. They were easily put together, easily taken apart and portable, which was important for people on the move.

Modern ones, like those Homestead has, are covered in canvas. “Each has a motif at the base and another at the top,” Comstock, the co-founder and Head of the school, said. “They’re 24 feet in diameter; very, very spacious.”

Respect for the people who built and lived in them was paramount, he said. “All classes [this year] will begin with indigenous studies,” putting the tipis in context.

Outdoor learning has come to the forefront these days. For Homestead, though “our inspiration was tuberculosis in 1910, in cities like New York and Providence. Kids were outside all winter long.”

Not that the Homestead staff plans that. As the weather gets cooler, students will wear layers and have blankets handy. “Half the class will be in the tipis, and the other half inside,” Comstock explained. As it gets colder, they will be rotated into the building more frequently, and all will then move inside.

Turning the needs of the pandemic into an educational experience just might be quintessential Montessori.

The method is a “hands-on approach to learning,” Comstock said. “Children learn by doing.”

A Montessori classroom isn’t your standard teacher-up-front-with-chalk setup. It’s prepared with materials appropriate to the students and to the lessons. “The children work independently and in small groups,” he said. The method can lead to a stillness and peace, a focus in their learning, that some might say is very unusual for children.

Of course, coronavirus impacted Homestead as well as other schools. And tents or other outdoor structures were seen as one way to get kids to school, to create social distance. “We knew that spreading children out as much as possible was an important thing,” Comstock said.

“One of the big motivators was getting kids outside,” he said, “but also something spectacular that would say to COVID[-19] ‘You can’t defeat us!’”

The tipis were pre-painted and arrived unassembled. Adults put them together. Check their Facebook page for photos of the process. And Navajo elder Jake Singer, a friend of the school, performed a blessing.

“Once the tipis bloomed on campus, everyone’s spirits soared,” Comstock said.

And so the school prepares itself: materials in place, teachers ready. And the tipis, like flowers, bright and welcoming, wait like havens for kids in a scary time.

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