The Hippo


Mar 24, 2018








From The Penn’s 28-day backpacking trip on The Long Trail. Courtesy photo.

Watch The Penn

Where: 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth
When: Thursday, March 10, 6:30 p.m.; screening followed by panel discussion led by Andrew Fersch and Catherine Stewart
Admission: $5, comes with free hard copy of the film
More information:

Why do we educate?
NH filmmakers’ documentary on The Penn’s proposal

By Kelly Sennott

 Why do we educate? What’s the purpose, and what should the results look like?

It’s what The Penn — a sort of homeschool co-op based on the Seacoast — asks before determining curriculum and lesson plans for students. It was created by former public school teacher Andrew Fersch in 2014, and in its first year, husband-wife filmmaking team Catherine Stewart and Michael Rodriguez Torrent were so inspired. They decided to make a movie about it. The result, a 55-minute documentary called The Penn, screens Thursday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m., at 3S Artspace.
Fersch met the filmmakers at Breaking New Grounds in Portsmouth for the first time in February 2014. 3S Artspace founder Chris Grenier had connected them; he knew the filmmakers were interested in making a movie about education and that Fersch was on the brink of formulating something unheard of in New Hampshire.
“We’ve been wanting to do a film about education reform for several years but hadn’t quite found a good access point into that. Or exactly what we were going to be talking about. When Andrew presented this idea about this school … we thought, it’s something unique and interesting, there’s nothing else like it,” Stewart said via phone.
Without knowing very much about Fersch, or his first five students at The Penn, the couple jumped into the project that spring. The flick starts with student interviews in The Penn offices, which, at that time, were in Northwood.
“When you’re making a documentary film, you just have to go along for the ride for a little bit to work out whether or not there’s a story there,” Stewart said. “The students were really, really excited about what was to come, but they had no idea.”
Fersch, who’d taught in Epping, Rye and Northwood, started The Penn because he’d been frustrated as a teacher in the public school system. 
“The whole time I was teaching, I was trying to convince schools we should change the way education looks and try a program within a school where it was more experimental and choice-based,” Fersch said. “I’ve been thinking for years what the program could look like. … And two and a half years ago I started meeting with families, saying this form currently exists in the form of homeschool co-ops.”
Right now, there are seven kids in the program ages 14 to 17. They still meet regularly at the Penn offices, now in downtown Exeter. Essentially, Fersch works with homeschooled kids to create classes they’re interested in. Fersch helps find resources to put the curriculum together, seeking field experts or scouring books and the Internet for material. Topics range from novel writing to radio production, computer science to the violin.
Physical education is also part of the programming; a good portion of the film looks at the group’s 2014 Long Trail hike, which, at 272 miles, travels the entire state of Vermont. Last fall, the kids started hiking New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers, and they plan to complete all 48 by the end of this summer.
“The larger education system is really one we need to modify if we want to evolve. … It should be that the public school is offering a variety of ways to be educated. … We’re trapped in this idea of it needing to look this way, either out of habit or, dare I say, laziness — it’s easier to stick with what we have than try and change it. I’m proposing a fairly huge change in how we would live and work,” Fersch said. 
Filming ended in December. Filmmakers decided this wouldn’t be a money-maker but a passion project. Viewers will be able to buy DVDs at the screening. The goal is to get as many people watching as possible, and asking that question: Why do we educate? And does the system we have now support that?
“This country has such an unequal system that absolutely supports a very specific kind of person,” Stewart said. “Really, what I can’t stand, what makes me passionate, is the inequality we see in education in this country.” 

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