Stephen Haff has an interesting take on education. After earning his master’s degree at Yale University, Haff entered into two decades of teaching in the public school system. Now, Haff has transitioned to operating an alternative venue for education, of which he consents, “I really just follow what the kids get excited about.”
Stephen Haff runs Still Waters in a Storm, a reading and writing sanctuary in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Still Waters is a one-room schoolhouse where people of all ages and backgrounds come together, a neighbourhood within a neighbourhood; a random family.
In addition to reading and writing, students at Still Waters are privy to an education in music, yoga, art, French, drama, chess and photography, all completely free of charge.
Speaking at Words Worth Books in Uptown Waterloo on Oct. 26, Haff divulged that the majority of the students at Still Waters are recent immigrants, largely from Mexico. Haff offers a full-time home school education to five students currently, and has over two dozen involved in the after school and weekend programs.
Frustrated with the public school system, Haff made the decision to leave and pursue alternate forms of education several years ago.
“I wondered why drudgery was the norm in schools. Why, when year after year, kids complain about not enjoying school, so we attribute that to something that’s wrong with them, rather than the whole system,” said Haff.
“I felt like the kids were captive. Even when I was doing good work, it was like I was decorating the inside of a cell,” he continued.
Now in its fourth year of operation, Still Waters has allowed its students the opportunity to explore all that New York City has to offer its inhabitants, including the New York Aquarium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Staten Island Museum and many other fascinating places that the students’ socio-economic standing would likely prevent them from experiencing otherwise.
Furthermore, Still Waters students are engaged in an on-going correspondence with students at a school in Dublin, Ireland, through which they collaborate on stories. “We write one paragraph and send it to them, and they write one or two and send it back,” said Haff.
The students at Still Waters are also engaged in “art correspondence” with students on an army base in Colorado. “It’s wonderful because they get a letter in the mail, nobody gets letters anymore,” Haff exclaimed during his discussion at Words Worth.
The pinnacle difference in the education Haff now provides? “There’s no coercion. That’s the big difference.”
Haff’s alternative ideas about education have been garnering a great deal of attention, made clear by the impressive turnout at Words Worth Books.
Speaking to the crowd, Haff explained some of the ways he succeeds in getting kids interested in learning without the help of a structured curriculum.
“Every day I ask them to look through our books and find something that they find amazing. Then we share the amazing things with each other. In one day, you can learn about sharks, nature and genetics. One thing they’re really interested in is atoms.”
On the off occasion Haff is rendered unable to answer the questions of his fascinated students, “I tell them, sometimes it’s fun to walk around with a question. To be amazed by something.”