Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Best School-Year Ever

"Friends and good manners will carry you where money won't go." - Margaret Walker
When I was in elementary school, there was an experimental class with both 4th and 5th graders who had been deemed "independent learners." My best friend was in this class as a 4th grader, and she was always talking about how awesome it was. I wanted in, so I wrote a letter to the principal outlining my reasons why she should put me in it the following year. Some time later, my parents were called in for a conference, and my request was accepted.
It was everything I had hoped for. My mother, on the other hand, was...disappointed. We ignored the curriculum to the point that I may as well have skipped that grade in terms of things we were supposed to be learning. We created to-scale models of the solar system. I drew Kansas for a wall-sized map of the country that was sadly never completed. We designed class currency, paid rent for our desks and cubbies, and "bought" stocks using actual data from the current market. We were told to research anything we wanted and then present our findings in any way we wanted.
Second semester, we moved out into one of the mobile classrooms and things got even better. We ate lunch in our classroom rather than the cafeteria almost every day, playing cards and Clue. Our "morning work" consisted of problems such as "elf + elf = fool" (each letter represents a different number, and you have to use logic to figure out their values), only ours were often 5-digit multiplication. Sometimes we spent the entire day working on them. Our afternoons were taken up with brain teasers, and we once had a class-wide "learn to blow bubbles with gum" session.
Group projects were the most common assignment--designing and creating a miniature theme park, or building a Greek temple. At recess, our teacher played with us rather than sitting on a bench and watching, and when we were back in class he would read aloud. When it came time for middle school recommendations, nearly everyone skipped two grades in math.
My mom says I didn't learn anything (and the program was pretty much eliminated the following year). But I would argue that in some ways I learned more in that class than I have in any other either before or since.
I learned about teamwork. I learned about people. I learned to problem-solve in creative ways, and I learned critical thinking both inside the box and outside of it. I learned about Powerpoint (Good God, did I learn about Powerpoint). The more linguistic brain teasers taught me how to play with words. There was such a sense of unity. If I could have the rest of my schooling be like that (with a bit more "here, go this way," since sometimes curriculum really is important), I would be indescribably happy.
Some of our projects never came to fruition, so it could be argued that my teacher was too idealistically ambitious, but I firmly believe that if we had been able to continue like that (and I so would have gone to school through the summer if I could have stayed there), we could have finished them, and they would have been amazing.
Now it is too idealistically ambitious (and naive) to make that sort of education nation-wide, and it probably isn't the best model for every student, but...if only. This ties into a TED talk I watched several months ago and something my dad and I were discussing this morning, but those are posts for another day, and I have homework I need to do before the photo shoot I'm helping with tonight.


  1. I wish mine had done that, but I can make do with what I have. I tend to. Still, I think that education ought to be fun and not ominous: it's all about approach. That's why I like Bill Nye, even if I don't like WCPSS science classes. It's almost like the "attracting flies" proverb. *If* I ever have/adopt/foster a kid or kids, I probably won't put them in public school. Home- or unschooling sounds better to me; I wish I'd gotten the chance to try them, but as I said, I make do.

    Also, I tend to forget things about subjects, so I try to reeducate myself through readings and such. Modern Scholar audio-books are good for that.

  2. I think I'm too lazy to appreciate this style of education. I quite enjoyed the traditional lecture/homework paradigm that left me plenty of time to read whatever book on which I was currently working. Also, mentioning a TED talk without linking it seems mildly cruel ;)

  3. @Kenny

    Oh, I'd forgotten about the reading. Yes, that's a distinct benefit.

  4. You do realize what that basically is, right?

  5. I thought so. Wanted to ask Matt to make sure, but she's out of town. I think it's a bit more structured than that by nature, though.


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