My Dream School

At my new school, students and teachers look happy in the morning. The atmosphere sparkles with positive energy. I come in knowing I can spend the first hour however I wish. Ease into the day’s rhythm, warm up for the day, get my mind ready. And so can everybody else – students and teachers alike. Some spend this hour on social media and news updates. Some play computer games. Some chat. Or read. Or exercise in the gym. This is a time for daydreaming too, if one so chooses. Or for doing school work. The point is, this school time is totally free, unstructured – which lightens the mood.

I meet with my advisees at nine o’clock. I’m school advisor to ten students of various ages, between 12 and 17 years old. They take turns to share with the group what they are up to today. I keep track of everyone’s individual learning plan on my laptop. Do they know their schedules? Does any of them need my immediate assistance with anything? Is everybody doing ok? In half an hour we disperse, each of us to our own tasks. I’m scheduled to give a two-hour workshop on Chemical Reactions, while some of my advisees will work on their individual projects. Two of them will tackle playlists tailored for them individually as part of their online courses. And others will be busy with their group project work. One of my advisees wishes to retry an evaluation package – see if he achieved competency in the Research Methods module. I wish him good luck. See you all back here at eleven thirty! I say. And off everyone goes…

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The request for a workshop on chemical reactions was sent two weeks ago. I’m one of the science specialists who are in charge of the mandatory science curriculum, as well as any science-related topics which come up during various project work. In the first part of my workshop I’ll discuss the basics of chemical reactions; then, I’ll address project questions of which I knew from before. I had time to research these questions, and have prepared suggestions, which will hopefully move some of the projects forward. And I can’t wait to talk about them! This is what I love the most about my new school: Feeling that learning has a purpose, that it isn’t just a routine everyone must comply with. Indeed, everybody attending my workshop will be there by choice, including myself. Several two-hour science workshops are being held at the same time, so science specialists can choose between different topics. And because the same topic is covered a few times a year – at least the mandatory part – students have choice, too.

My workshop runs smoothly. As always, the demos on types of reactions are lots of fun. In the second part I talk about plastic and polymers to help with a recycling project. And about enzymatic reactions for a project on food preservation. Seems like the two hours just vanished! I feel fulfilled, energized.

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How was it? It’s past eleven thirty now and I am back together with my advisees. I’d opened the computer program that helps me manage my advisor group, and have already seen the updates. I want to know how everybody is doing, how their morning went. The test was tough, says the boy who’s being evaluated on Research Methods. I got something new to work on, he adds. The new assignment is supposed to help him improve on things he didn’t do too well on today. Once he’s done with it, he’s free to try a new evaluation. And when do you think you’ll be done with the new assignment? I ask. It shouldn’t take me more than a week, he says, and I make sure to record this in his file. I hear from most of the others, too. Project work this morning caused some excitement, but also some frustration. I need to talk to someone who works for the city, one of my advisees says. I’m not clear on how public spaces are managed based on what I found online, she explains. Let’s chat this afternoon, I offer. I’d like to hear what you did so far, and we can brainstorm next steps. I’ll meet you here at three!

From twelve to one everybody has lunch. We can eat in the room we’re in, or go to the school cafeteria. Most students prefer the cafeteria, and it’s obvious to me why. The large and bright room has a distinctively young vibe – not to mention the music. Some days, when I’m done eating, I like spending time there, too. Just chilling…

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This afternoon, between one and three, I’m on duty in the study hall. Here students work individually on their laptops, with three teachers available for guidance and help. Our job is to clarify and assist without providing answers. It feels stimulating to me, and often times I do not even have an answer; the tasks the students work on are very diverse. For instance, some conduct virtual lab experiments, others solve financial case studies. One student puts up her hand. When I am near her, she unplugs her ears. She is evaluating the health of a pond ecosystem. How does one get the concentration of something in ppm’s, again? she asks. Let’s see, do you remember what ppm stands for? I begin, while I consider how to help her discover the answer for herself. Another student can’t get to the next level in his practice electricity gizmo. What am I doing wrong? he wonders. Show me, I say. He does and I ask him to explain why he’s doing it that way. And, as he explains, his face relaxes: Aha! Now I know! he exclaims, and quickly puts back his earplugs.

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I’m not surprised you aren’t clear on how public spaces are managed, I tell my advisee shortly after I meet her at three. I explain to her that the information on the Internet is vast and mixed, and the language too specialized. Then I suggest that she narrow her search based on the goal of her project, which is a proposal for a new school in her neighbourhood. Contacting the City Hall to ask for specific directions with this is a good idea, and I encourage her to pursue it. But I ask her to run by me the contact information and the letter she’ll put together prior to making use of them. She thanks me for helping and tells me she’ll have them in a couple of days. I make a note of this in her file.

After three thirty there are no more scheduled activities at school. No one has to stay here longer. But many of us, both teachers and students, choose to stay. I check the school intranet and my advisees’ files. I find two flags. One is a note from a father; he wonders why his daughter is taking so long to finish her current playlist for her math course – would I be able to investigate? Of course! I confirm to him, and then add a reminder to my notes for the staff discussion scheduled for tomorrow. The other flag is a request from an advisee who needs help with his individual project. He wants to build a robot to help him unclutter his room. He’s got a general strategy from a robotics and engineering expert and he would like to sit with me to put it into simpler terms. His goal is to make sure his understanding is correct before the purchase order for materials goes in. I book tomorrow’s three o’clock to see him. Notice of this gets sent to him immediately through the computer system.

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I look forward to the next day. Tomorrow morning I’m scheduled to assist with a couple of group projects, and in the afternoon I’ll meet with my colleagues. It will be our weekly discussion on current and pressing school issues. A session where we give and receive feedback. How are the students doing? Any flags?

After I check the status of the ongoing group projects – any progress? roadblocks? – and get ready for tomorrow, I work on preparing my next workshop. It will be on Mutations and Evolution – one of my favourite topics! I’m particularly excited about the fact that one of the workshop attendees wants to organize an art exhibit themed around evolution. She’s sent me a couple of questions on transitional fossils, which I plan to address.

I leave the school building around five thirty. It’s been a good day. My energy and enthusiasm were put to good use, and I’m tired, but happy. It’s likely tomorrow will be good, too.

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2 thoughts on “My Dream School

  1. What an encouraging blog post! Actually, this post along with your pieces on Unschooling and the Maker Movement have struck a chord with me. I am encouraged to see that there are other people passionate about the very same things that excite me; self directed learning, unschooling, and meaningful, productive learning. Your words makes my heart sing!

    I am 20 years old and ever since I graduated high-school (after a horrendous educational experience) I decided to not pursue traditional higher education but rather to self-direct my learning. It’s been a bit over two years and my educational path has evolved after facing many challenges and making many many mistakes. I have very recently completely re-structured my whole learning framework and I want to incorporate mentorship and peer accountability. I have very little clue about how to go about doing this. Given your experience and eloquence when speaking on the subject, what tips would you give me??

    If you want to see an overview of my learning plan, ideology and methodology, I’ll leave you a link to my blog.

    https://unabashedlyskeptical.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/open-source-learning-a-personal-manifesto/

    • Luis Francisco, Thank you for reading and your kind words.

      At this point, I don’t know much about you. Just read your comment and browsed through your blog a little. I’m reticent to give advice too fast. You say you faced challenges and made many mistakes. And, as a result, you revised your plans. As far as learning goes, this is very encouraging and as it should be – Do you agree?

      One thing I can say for sure: Your passion and sense of urgency are palpable. This alone makes me think you are on the right track. You quote late Christopher Hitchens – a writer I myself discovered much later in life and from whom I learned a lot. This, to me, is another promising sign. When you have some time, check out this: http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/05/13/dont-go-back-to-school-kio-stark/ It will probably resonate.

      What moves you to learn? What makes you pick one particular topic/author/activity over another? What makes time disappear for you? When do you feel fulfilled? I’d never lose sight of such questions when looking for directions in learning/life.

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