This afternoon, a Time Magazine headline caught my eye: “A High School Where Students are the Teachers,” by Alexandra Sifferlin. One part of my brain snorted derisively, while the other was instantaneously jealous.
And then I read her brilliant article, and was hooked. Upon further research, I found that journalist/social entrepreneur champion Charles Tsai spent a week with what’s known as the “Independence Project,” which is a school-within-a-school located just 2.5 hours away from me: Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Downtown Great Barrington. By Anc516 (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Basically, how it works is as follows:
Half of their time: Each student currently in the program (approximately 10) come up with a deep question every Monday. This question relates back to one of the core subjects they’re studying. They spend the week researching it, and give well-thought presentations that thoroughly explore the topic to one another. (The week Charles Tsai spent with them featured subjects like unexplained mysteries, Crime and Punishment, and HIV/AIDs in South Africa.)
The other half: the students embark on a semester-long “individual endeavor” that demonstrates “effort, learning, and a mastery of skills” (Tsai video). The week Tsai spent with them, he uncovered some of their results: learning to play the piano, writing a novel, and composing a mockumentary. In the age of film/TV like The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and even Borat, this becomes quite the worthy endeavor.
No quizzes, no grades, no set classes, and, as Tsai notes, “most of the time, no teachers in the classroom.” There are faculty advisors, and advocates like principal Marianne Young and guidance counselor Mike Powell.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This must be the best high school ever. (Although I do think that there should be perhaps a self-test each week, but that’s just me.)
I’m not surprised about what they’ve found to be benefits: accommodating all kinds of learners, teaching students how to be creative and resourceful, and promoting a group dynamic. Self-directed learning isn’t a new phenomenon, yet this level of dedication – and risk – is entirely unique.
Its creator, Sam Levin, is now a sophomore at the University of Oxford.
When I got out of college, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but also a professor. In my way? I was 21 and only beginning to publish. And while luck would have it that I wound up becoming a professor at a community college the very next year, I knew I needed to consider teaching at a high school first. I took the MTELs and became certified to teach grades 9-12 English in Massachusetts.
And never did.
My friend Jen and I at our second graduation together.
Today, teachers have to deal with the nightmare that is state testing (hello, MCAS). Teachers have very specific standards to meet. They have IEP plans to fill out for students who have learning difficulties or need help in other ways. They have parent-teacher night. Did I mention MCAS? I subbed in a city school system for five years, and I know that teachers are teaching to the test.
This is not good for our future.
In his 1978 essay “College Pressures,” author William Zinsser wrote about a similar phenomenon. Zinsser writes:
“Mainly I try to remind them that the road ahead is a long one and that it will have more unexpected turns than they think. There will be plenty of time to change jobs, change careers, change whole attitudes and approaches. They don’t want to hear such liberating news. They want a map — right now — that they can follow unswervingly to career security, financial security, social security and, presumably, a prepaid grave. What I wish for all students is some release from the clammy grip of the future. I wish them a chance to savor each segment of their education as an experience in itself and not as a grim preparation for the next step. I wish them the right to experiment, to trip and fall, to learn that defeat is as instructive as victory and is not the end of the world.” (Full text here.)
That’s the philosophy I’ve adopted not only for myself, but also for my college classes. For the last couple of years, my composition students wrote an essay on this very essay. For my really low-level courses, which often includes English as a second language or people who did not graduate from high school in an orthodox way, I challenged them to complete their own version of an “Individual Endeavor.” The assignment: Learn how to do something you’ve never done before, and then write about it. One soccer player turned in an essay on how to bake a cake. A single mother learned how to play the acoustic guitar. It was one of my favorite assignments I’ve ever given out.
I didn’t like math in high school. It was boring. But I was good at it, and I never had to take it in college, thanks to the credits I received from the AP test. I’m still good at it. I remember the Pythagorean theorem, and I still call March 14 Pi Day. Without looking, I can tell you that a mole, in chemistry, utilizes the equation 6.022 x 10^23.
I don’t use any of that. The internet balances my checkbook. I don’t feel “educated” because of that.
These students are going to have a huge upper hand in the world someday. This, my friends, is an enriched educational experience, and it’s one we should strive to have available in every school that we can.
This is a great equation, though.
What about you? What question would you have liked to explore in high school? What lessons might you have liked to learn?