AL.com's Red Clay Readers, in partnership with the Alabama Center for Literary Arts, is a book club designed to take a fresh look at Alabama-affiliated literature with the help of our readers.Today,takes a look at the success of Indian Springs School, the alma mater of "The Fault in our Stars" author John Green.
Indian Springs School has had many turns in the limelight, and it's stepping into familiar territory again, thanks to John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars." The movie adaptation of the Springs graduate's novel was the No.1 film at the box office during its debut weekend, and
Green is only one of a number of notable Springs alumni; others include fellow author Daniel Alarcon, director John Badham, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia CEO and president Charles Plosser, Continental Bakery owner Carole Griffin, "Game of Thrones" TV show writer David Hill, Russell Lands chairman and CEO Ben Russell and many more.
we can't help but wonder what's in the water at Indian Springs. How has the environment at this private, 8-12 school helped these alumni and others become successful adults?
ISS Director Gareth Vaughan points to the school's philosophy of education, which is reflected in its motto: "learning through living."
The school is a community in which learning is valued, and Vaughn says that plays an important role in fostering creativity in all areas. He's quick to note that this influence doesn't show up only in artistic fields.
"I'm originally a scientist, and I think there is room for creative thought in science and math as well," says Vaughan, who just completed his sixth year at Springs. "To make progress in those fields, one has to be able to really step outside of oneself and step outside the box. The only way a field makes a paradigm shift and shoots forward is when someone looks at it from another perspective."
Writing teacher Diane (Martin) Sheppard has worked with a number of bright students during her 25 years at the school, including both Green and Alarcon. Sheppard taught at the college level before coming to Springs, and says the high-school students she has worked with hold their own against college students.
Part of that is because of Springs' academic environment; because it's a private school, she says, the faculty are able to teach books that wouldn't be taught in most public schools. "That (restrictions) sort of limits that free marketplace of ideas, and the more you limit it, the less the students are going to learn."
For example, Green's debut novel, "Looking for Alaska," was the Office for Intellectual Freedom's seventh-most challenged book in 2013 because it includes drugs, alcohol, smoking and sexual activity. (Challenges are formal complaints filed to request that a school or library remove reading material.)
Sheppard has taught "Alaska" in her classes, which she may not be able to do elsewhere. Books help students learn from stories and other people's mistakes, she says. "It's kind of amazing how much students are willing to open up when you invite them to read something that's not pristine and perfect, where the characters do dumb things," Sheppard says.
That invitation to mull over problems and life is part of what drew Birmingham-based writer Laurel Mills to Indian Springs. Mills enrolled at the school beginning with her eighth-grade year and was also one of Sheppard's students. In the years since her 1998 graduation, Mills has graduated from Georgetown University and received a master's from UAB, worked as a magazine editor, written children's book "Night Night Birmingham" and contributed to a variety of publications, including Birmingham magazine.
"The school was about real learning, examining evidence, evaluating claims, questioning logic and arguments and coming to your own conclusions," says Mills, who notes that when she was at the school, the headmaster's office even included a sign that said "question authority." "Your job as a student wasn't to parrot back what someone else said. Your job was to digest and question and stretch. Indian Springs offers its students a lot of freedom. Some of that freedom is physical a big campus, free periods, what some people saw as more relaxed rules. But the real freedom is intellectual to choose your classes, to pursue your interests, to explore different ways of thought. My goal was always to answer the question 'why?'"
Vaughan notes that the school's independent study electives allow students to delve more deeply into subjects they find interesting. The student must find a faculty member who will sponsor them for the self-driven coursework, which has a history dating back to the school's 1952 founding.
"We sometimes talk about what we see in the broader educational sphere, where there's this fear of being wrong. Life isn't that multiple choice question. Education shouldn't boil down to that sort of right or wrong, multiple choice question," Vaughan says.
"It's always a risk to let young people think for themselves and to encourage them to not regurgitate what you tell them about literature or what you tell them about philosophy or issues that are important," Sheppard says. But Springs staff aim to create an environment in which students can take those risks. "We try to do that in a lot of courses, it's not just writing courses. We have teachers who want them to see that history isn't about dates and facts, it's about people making choices and impacting lives."
It’s that time of year again, when the series the broadcast networks aired this season find out whether they’ll be returning.