What is school?August 17th, 2018
What is school?
“…as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.”
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I do a lot of moaning about the traditional five-subjects plus PE model. I could go on forever about that stuff. Life isn’t divided into discrete subjects. In my 25-odd years of working with teenagers, I’ve found that they at some point inevitably refer to school as a prison. They feel trapped, and so do I. But having been shaped by traditional education, it’s hard to imagine something different.
How about this: a school where students show up and continue work on problem-solving projects they’ve started, periodically meet with mentors and classmates to brainstorm next steps, consult with professional experts in the community, and present their prototypes to real stakeholders. A school where you go first hand to experience a barrier island before you engage in solving the problem of a disappearing coastline. A school where your principal, finance coordinator, and teachers ask you throughout the day: “What did you learn?” “What do you wonder?”
New Harmony High opened its doors for the first time last week. It’s in the heart of New Orleans, renting space in a building they share with New Orleans Career Center. Currently with 40ish 9th grade students, New Harmony High will add a grade-level each year. All learning at New Harmony High is filtered “through the lens of coastal restoration and preservation,” and their students will earn high school credits purely through experiential learning, supervised by teachers certified in the big five subjects. New Harmony High is a public school, which means this hands-on, customized education is FREE.
There are other innovative charter high schools in New Orleans, and I hope to visit them frequently and share with you what they’re doing. Another example is Rooted, a small public high school in its second year, which focuses on preparing students for careers in computer science. In fact, this kind of boutique, specialized public “school” is happening all over the country. We’re living in an important phase of the evolution of school. In my opinion, we can’t make the transition fast enough. It’s such a large-scale problem, though. I heartily believe that small high schools are the key; nothing much bigger than 200 students in 9th through 12th will allow the level of mentoring that fosters confidence and deep learning. But how much will that cost? How many of these little schools founded on mentoring relationships, student autonomy, and hands-on learning will it take to provide the same opportunity for every student in the country? Schools like New Harmony and Rooted will help us to figure that out in the next few years.
I got to hang out with the teachers at New Harmony after their third day of school. The students had gone, and teachers were still unpacking boxes of materials and preparing for the next day’s trip to Ship Island (one of the important barrier islands protecting the Gulf Coast). As busy as they were, one by one, they plopped down on bean bag chairs in their shared office space and talked with each other about their students. “Did you see Johnny’s face when he realized that visiting a neighborhood gym was school? It clicked!” “Stephanie’s really opening up. I saw her laughing with some other girls today.” The principal, Sunny, asked logistical questions from her perch on the floor, and talked about recent conversations she had with parents of her students. On day three of school, Sunny knows each one of her students, their interests and backstories. Importantly, she’s already forged strong relationships with each set of parents. Most of their students are trying New Harmony out of frustration with their school experience. They have varied stories and experiences: being bullied, having special learning needs that were ignored, feeling like they were cogs in an impersonal machine. Many have come from home school. Parents and students who had already opted out of a dead system, or would’ve without an alternative.
In the coming weeks, students at New Harmony High will collaborate with their teachers to clarify community norms and figure out how to make a giant paper boat watertight. For the paper boat project, the humanities teacher makes sure that writing practice is woven throughout student experience and teachers brainstorm about how this first of their projects will deliberately teach physics, math, and art. After only a few days of school, attendance is near perfect and almost every single student is engaged and excited about school.
We need more high schools like Rooted and New Harmony. The intensely personal mentoring they offer is the antedote to a purely digital school experience.