This book is an appreciation of a philosophy of education, of a specific school and its principal, and of the lasting poignancy of childhood. It is as well a daughter's celebration of her mother, the principal. The students who attended the Hoffmann School in Riverdale, N.Y. during its 50-year life number only in the hundreds. But this story of that school can extend its reach to all of its readers. The title gives the message very clearly: all children, yea all of us humans, have gifts which deserve to be fostered by caring schools and teachers. And once upon a time, there was a school built on that belief. The author, Jessie Hoffmann Davis, grew up in the embrace of the Hoffmann School as student, as daughter of the principal, and as resident with her family of the upper floors of the old riverside building which was the school. Although there is much of autobiography and family history in this endearing story, Dr. Davis cares most about pedagogy--the primacy of respect for individual children-- explored through the stories of individual real kids between the ages of 4-11. She has been able to talk with a number of now-adult graduates of the school and to add their recollections to her own. Her own professional career, as doctoral student and later professor with Howard Gardner at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (he the presenter of the idea of Multiple Intelligences) has enriched her ability to analyze this pedagogy in general and this one school in particular.
I was fortunate enough to attend such a school, called "progressive" by its founders, and to enjoy the lifelong benefits of its freedoms and its respect for students. In my own public school teaching years, I tried to foster that spirit in my classes. The Hoffmann School core belief that intelligences come in many shapes and should be honored by schools and curriculum, is as precious today as it was during the life of that one school. This warm and loving, while carefully analytical, book gives readers a chance to join the community of ordinary gifted children in a school which nurtured their spirits.
My son and daughter were fortunate enough to attend Hoffmann School for a number of years. Before Hoffmann they attended Columbia University Teachers College Lab School, which was experimenting with open classroom elementary education toward the end of the Vietnam war. Curriculum, possibly influenced by those political times, and it being Columbia University after all, was essentially Summerhill-ian. After two years, my children were essentially uneducated! I discovered Hoffmann School through a psychologist friend, and we were welcomed with open arms! My son gained three grades in his first year. My daughter made huge gains as well. This didn't happen through a standardized curriculum, but through a common sense curriculum, loving attention, and this tiny educational community's warm, confident embrace. Teachers were their heroes. Mr. And Mrs. Hoffmann were the biggest heroes of all. Anecdote: my son wore his hair long (there are photos of him in the book). Mrs. Hoffmann took him into her office and told him she was tired of seeing him with his hair hanging in his eyes every day so he needed to get a haircut. He was very upset. She told him she wanted a good reason why he should wear his hair long. He told her that it had been long most of his life--he was ten--and he would feel like a different person if he cut it. So she said all right then; if you want to wear it long you must wear a tennis headband while in school. So he did and she never mentioned it again. Another antidote: Peter, one of the teachers, decided to show the kids how to make a little rocket with household supplies. They put this thing together and went out onto the lawn to set it off. It went straight up, then curved over and exploded right onto the top floor balcony--the Hoffmann family's private balcony! They all ran inside, Peter included. Many years later, the school long closed and the mansion abandoned, my son and a friend drove down the secluded driveway to visit the school. The door was open so they went inside. They found a little wooden Radio Flyer sled that they remembered from winters past. My son brought it home and cleaned and varnished it. It's hanging on a large hook in a bedroom of my house to this day. This school--the time, the place, the setting, the Hoffmanns--is its own Brigadoon. It exists in our hearts.
This is a very beautifully written and moving book. On one level it is the story of an amazing woman who ran a unique school for "ordinary gifted children," as she thought of them. It is on a deeper level a memoir of growing up on the top floor of the school, knowing your place in it was special...not always in good ways, because your mother was the principal, and a fiercely determined person and the champion of all the children who came under her care. This was no ordinary growing up.
The book is replete with wonderful characters, from the little boy who sat on a chair outside the principal's office for two months until he was fionally ready to go to class, to the Italian relatives who brought so much life to the family, to the Jewish relatives whose story was often sadder, but no less vitally a part of Jessica's growing up.
Jessica Davis is no ordinary gofted writer and memoirist. This book will stay with you for a long time after you - reluctantly - put it down.
Ordinary Gifted Children by Jessica Hoffmann Davis is no ordinary book. Rather it is a lovingly told tale that is at once about an individual, Ann Hoffmann, and a place, the Hoffmann School, while addressing universal issues that are at the very core of the learning process. Early childhood educators who are interested in how best to engage and inspire young learners will find this book fascinating. Teachers who are concerned with the impact that can be made by one person and the pay-offs associated with dedication and courage will be inspired by the story of this brave colleague. Any one who has ever cared about a child will be thrilled by the personal stories that demonstrate how the recognition and nurturing of talent and the belief in the power of the individual can lead to great success. While the book is about a person and a place, its messages are huge.
This affectionate portrait of a wonderful school and the woman who ran it makes one wish that every child could have attended the Hoffman School, which, unfortunately, no longer exists. Combining her own recollections of the school (which was both home and school to the suthor), school and family photographs, and interviews with other former students, Jessica Hoffman Davis paints a verbal picture of the highly individualized educational support provided to a small number of children with a wide range of abilities and characteristics. This is an intriguing and very readable work which should be a required text for those in and entering the educational field.
The times, the place, the characters--all are individually and colorfully drawn. From the first to last sentence, I envisioned an independent film that would capture this highly original story---the fact that it's a TRUE story is what caffeinates "Ordinary Gifted Children",an inspirational, uniquely American tale which should be told and read, far and wide!