Over the ringing of bells on a WhatsApp call from Panama last Sunday—which is, it turns out, their Independence Day—I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Elaine Doss on the release of her first book: Nicasio’s Oldtimers, Newcomers & Remarkable Guests.
Going in relatively cold, knowing only that Elaine sits on the Nicasio School Board and is the president of the Nicasio Historical Society, I expected—not unenthusiastically—to hear about a historical account of the area told through the lens of intriguing characters who lived there, perhaps with an overall educational bent.
This book is so much more than that.
Elaine Doss was, for almost two decades, a teacher at the Nicasio School, teaching a variety of subjects—everything from soup to nuts, as she puts it—to third, fourth and fifth graders. In an endeavor to make California social studies more engaging to her students, Ms. Doss developed an idea that resulted in a truly magnificent piece of curriculum.
Noticing, when she came in and took over the class, that her students weren’t familiar or comfortable with writing and revision, and that teaching directly out of a U.S. history textbook didn’t hold their attention, she decided to have her class hold interviews with the local townspeople and write up the stories subsequently, to teach her students about the various nuances, rules and creative choices available in writing. “I thought, if I could give them an audience that made it matter to them, it would help,” Doss said.
All three grades worked on these interviews, and no one ever wrote alone. A partner was always picked, and the partner couldn’t be from the same class; so third and fifth, or fourth and third, would end up collaborating on an interview together. Not only did the students learn about their town’s history while at the same time honing their writing and editing skills, they also learned to collaborate outside of their age group.
The endeavor became a newspaper, which published six to eight copies a year. Eventually a subscription service was offered, and editions went out to grandparents, aunts and uncles, and sold at the Bovine Bakery and the Rancho Store. The proceeds zeroed out the cost of production, and sometimes paid for a field trip or classroom supplies. The paper included a sports section, an arts section and a food-critic column, but the shining stars were always the interviews. The paper ran for 18 years, resulting in an unparalleled and inimitable perspective of Nicasio’s community.
During the years in which the paper was published, students interviewed the older members of the community and then moved on to more recent arrivals, including NFL players, horse trainers, artists, puppeteers, pet psychics, courtroom artists and more.
“We just started asking people around the town,” Elaine said. “We ran out of old-timers, so we had to get creative, but then you realize, too, that history is in the making every moment, and this is the way to chronicle it.”
She explained a bit of the process to me, and it’s nothing short of adorable.
“Now, of course, the kids didn’t know how to interview, so I worked it out so that the day before the interviewee came, we would brainstorm the questions and write them on the board. And I told them, in order to take notes we had to keep our questions in chronological order, starting with their childhood and moving up from there. Then, when the interviewee came, he or she would stand up at the front of the room. The kids would ask the questions, and I’d be at the back frantically taking notes—we had the backup of a cassette recording, also. And to make sure the kids were keeping on track, I’d enlist the help of a student, usually a third grader because it made them feel helpful, to cross out each question after it had been answered. The kids got really good at it. And each writer’s workshop started with a mini lesson—a five- or 10-minute lesson on some point of good writing that they could incorporate into their pieces. And really, they did.”
During the years that the paper was published, the curriculum was awarded a Golden Bell Award by the California School Board. I asked Doss if the program was still in operation, but she said, “No.”
“Each teacher has their own preferred methods,” she said. “And when we won the award, one thing the judges said was, ‘This is magnificent, but can anyone else do it without your high energy?’ And I had written it up, and I assumed they could, but no, it wasn’t carried on.”
I expressed my sadness at hearing this, not only because of the evident benefit to every student who participated over the almost two decades the paper ran, but because of what the paper did for the community at large. American culture is in a connectivity drought—our relationships with our community are minimal, and our skill at crossing age barriers is often un-fostered. Elaine’s newspaper wove a network of connection between young and old, antiquated and contemporary, in such a way that each interviewed member of Nicasio felt a renewed sense of their value, and each child was able to deepen their understanding of the different dimensions of life in their community.
“We’d have farmers come in,” Doss said, “who at first hemmed and hawed, insisting they were nobody and had nothing to stay. Two questions in, they’re reliving their childhood and their eyes are sparkling.”
Though it took tremendous energy—Doss’s car was often the last in the parking lot—and while perhaps the newspaper may not return to Nicaso’s school, I hope this method of teaching through community connection is revitalized somewhere. Something Doss mentioned in the course of our call really struck me: As we were coming to a close, she mentioned that teaching and being with children for so many years was what had kept her young—she’s a bright-eyed, wide-smiling person with clear, strong energy. I realized it was true, and that when we separate our youth from our adults and elders, every generation suffers for it. Being around children, as demanding as it can be, keeps the child within us alive, and keeps our imagination and sense of wonder alive and healthy. We live longer and better lives when we live with wonder, and as Doss and I agreed, children possess wonder in spades.
Doss never had any intention of publishing the interviews, she told me. But upon retiring, she began re-reading the files for pleasure and found herself unable to put them down.
“I start to look back at my files, and I start reading them, and of course I’m totally amused and engrossed, and then suddenly I think, oh my God, this is such a chronicle of life in Nicasio over 18 years—starting with people born in 1903 all the way to techies at Lucas Film,” she said. “And I thought, I have to do something with it.”
And so, Nicasio’s Oldtimers, Newcomers & Remarkable Guests was born, and I for one can’t wait to read it.