12 Degrees of Freedom
In 1833 The Boston Farm School is established by a group of Boston philanthropists who purchase Thompson Island for $6,000. The Farm School is conceived to instruct young, at-risk boys (principally orphans or boys with single parents) in “agriculture, gardening, or other useful occupations as would contribute to their maintenance and tend to form in them habits of industry and order.”

During the summer 1977 after one too many run-ins with my boss at a Harvard Square bookstore, I quit that job and accepted a $50 per week teaching position at the Thompson Island Education Center (TIEC).

TIEC had received funding to establish an alternative program for a group of self-selected students from the forced-busing-beleaguered South Boston High School.
The young woman hired as the program manager had it in her head to build a windmill as  a community service project for the island.  When she was forced to bow out of the program after being diagnosed with leukemia, Phil Reitz a very talented industrial arts teacher and I were determined to get the windmill built.

We argued strongly for it before the TIEC board of directors, who felt something less challenging like a nature walk might be more appropriate for the Roxbury-Southie students. Phil and I prevailed.  As we walked out of the meeting he looked at me and asked: "Have you ever built a windmill?" My response was, "No, have you?"  Of course he hadn't either.

That night he went to the library and I searched bookstores (no Internet back then).  I found a book on bow to build an inexpensive vertical-axes savonious wind turbine using readily available materials.  We were off to the races!
Some students made anemometers from paper cups to check out the best wind conditions.  We created a "scrounge crew" that scoured the island looking for materials we could use.  They actually came up with two 55-gallon drums that we needed to capture the wind!

Some built kites and flew them to better understand the dynamics of lift (seriously).  Still another team studied the topography of the island to help determine the best place to site the turbine.

Everyone played a role.
We actually completed the turbine on the very last day of school.  We were hoisting it into position as the boat from Kelley's landing was bring the principal and parents over to the island for our final ceremony.

Dare To Be Naive:  Island Education

Hanging Tight on Thompson's Island

Students Learn In the Open Air

By Jonathan D. Ratner,

Harvard Crimson

Published: Thursday, October 20, 1977

The prognosis for South Boston High School this fall is guarded. Three years after the start of court-ordered busing to integrate Boston's public schools, there are some signs that the racial tensions that turned Southie High into an armed camp may be beginning to abate. The fights are far fewer and disciplinary suspensions are way down over last year. At the same time, state troopers still patrol the hallways of Southie High. Still, observers estimate that as many as one-third of the enrolled students are absent from the school each day. The mood of Southie High administrators, then, might well be termed one of cautious optimism.

Analysts may provide a variety of airy sociological explanations for the apparent improvement at Southie High. One major cause, however, is quite concrete. Walk down to Kelly's Landing in Southie, turn to the southeast and take out a good pair of binoculars--you can see signs of the infinitely promising educational enterprise unfolding a mile out in Boston Harbor. Every school day for seven weeks this fall, a specially recruited group of 30 ninth- and tenth-graders from Southie High--both male and female, black and white--will travelout to Thomson's Island to participate in an innovative environmental education program.

The educators who operate the private and state-funded Thomson Education Center set a wide range of high-minded goals for the students who participate in the program, ranging from the development of scientific skills to cultural awareness. Fundamentally, the two-and-a half-year-old program attempts to help students from a divisive, conflict-oriented school environment learn to function as a tight-knit group and have confidence in themselves and in each other. And that is a goal that most observers believe the Thomson's Island students are achieving. As Jerome Winegar, federal court-appointed headmaster of South Boston High School, says, "There's no question that the kids who go out there learn to get along with each other."

The day starts before dawn for the students, participating in the center's Harbor Environmental Program. By bus, subway and on foot, they arrive at Long Wharf in downtown Boston by 8:15 a.m., in time for the 20-minute ferry ride to the island. Aboard the boat some sit quietly smoking cigarettes and talking among themselves, others lean out over the railing, staring out at the docks, ships and shorefront of Boston Harbor. Below deck on the 50-foot launch, some of the students drink coffee and chat with their teachers from the island school.

The contrasts with the mainland school are marked. At Southie High, the students are quick to report, athletic activity begins and ends with football. Yet out on Thomson's Island, every morning the group devotes an hour to "initiative games" that take place in the open air. These specially designed athletic activities--with names like "The Regain" and "The High Wire Tension Traverse"--are designed to help the group learn to solve problems together, to aid in building a cohesive sense of trust among the students.

On a recent Thursday morning, for instance, Thomson teacher Greg Watson asked his group of 15 students to try to complete "the suspended log obstacle test." Within 20 minutes the group would have to get every member up and over a log suspended nine feet above the ground between two trees--with the proviso that once a student was over the obstacle, he could not help the rest of his classmates. Working as a team the group succeeded with minutes to spare.

Click here to read the entire story

Led by director Alan November, a bright and inspiring educator, the teachers in the high school program at Thompson developed an innovative team approach to learning that was interdisciplinary and assumed that we were there to learn as well as the students.  Anything we required the students to do on the island ropes course, we had to do as well including the suspended log obstacle test.  Thank the gods that the Crimson photographer didn't get a snapshot of us trying to figure it out.

We stressed team building, problem-solving and trust.

A group called the South Boston Marshalls accused us of brainwashing their kids into playing a bunch of 'touchy-feely" games.  They demanded to be allowed to visit the island one day and to "monitor" our activities.
Boston police officers and state troopers escorted the buses carrying kids from their neighborhoods to hostile neighborhood schools as a means of achieving quality education for all.

In fact, very little education of any kind was going on in the desegregated schools at all from what we could see when we went to Southie to recruit students for the Thompson Island program.
Teachers learned and built the wind turbine right alongside the students.  Sometimes as we struggled to solve a particular problem a student would take a look at what we were doing and comment: "I think there's a better way to do that."  More than once they were right!
Although our program was far from perfect and had more than its share of dramatic and tension-filled moments, I have no doubts that it was a very successful and desirable alterntive to what was taking place at South Boston High School.