I have spent the past four years, give or take, at a very large and very public high school. The nine years before that I spent at two incubator-like private schools. This has given me quite a range of educational approaches and environments.
So, in short, I have been very fortunate.
My education was arranged exactly to my liking, and I have benefitted from the flawless organizational abilities and individualized, nurturing aspirations of passionate teachers and skilled administrators. But I have also had to fend for myself, to correct others’ mistakes, see the effects of budget cuts, navigate bureaucracy, and make the best of far-less-than-ideal situations.
Though the latter group are certainly valuable experiences to have had, I’m not sure I would have chosen them over a continuation of the first, more positive group. I have, in my mainstream school, fared reasonably well academically, and I was better able to adapt my learning style to the conventional classroom than some of my peers were. I experienced considerable frustration in the process, however.
Given all of the other issues and difficulties that are bound to arise throughout high school, being left in the lurch when it comes to one’s educational trajectory should ideally not be one of them.
It was with these perspectives and experiences that I arrived at the Protopalooza event hosted by edu d.school fellows David Clifford and Tim Shriver and the K12 Lab Network. I had absolutely no expectations for the day and no idea what I’d signed up for. When introductions were made, I realized I was one of the few seniors participating. This meant I would be surrounded largely by younger students from either experimental charter schools or well-known private schools. So, I couldn’t help feeling cynical and old.
I was told only the vaguest principles of DSX, the high school David was creating. I knew that it was being designed to be entirely personalized to suit students’ needs and wishes with a flexible curriculum and academic yet practical focus. He wanted it to be rigorous but not overbearing, to offer minimal homework, to not be a strictly four-year program, to have well-paid teachers, and most importantly to be free.
This appealed to me in the way that invisibility cloaks are appealing: an amazing idea that would be revolutionary if realized but so far-fetched as to be almost meaningless.
Nevertheless, I was eager to be involved in the early stages of something that could remedy the issues I’d dealt with in the past -- a project that could help future students and potentially serve as a model in the much-called-for reform of the American educational system.
Over the course of the day, I participated first in a self-reflective activity. It called on participants to relate one’s strengths to their passions. The goal was to create a personal “mission statement” -- a succinct expression of purpose and intent -- and then craft a creative, physical representation out of any materials encountered in the area.
This activity served two purposes. The first purpose was to get to know fellow participants through their mission statements. The second was to get accustomed to working with very few constraints or specific instructions.
The second part of the activity -- crafting the physical representation -- seemed to come far more naturally to some of the other students who were perhaps frequently exposed to similar situations in their experimental charter schools. It made me feel uncertain, however, and I wondered a number of times whether I was doing things “right”. It took me a while to fully realize that the precise point of the exercise was to move away from right and wrong and towards open-ended opportunities to take initiative and adapt an assignment to suit one’s own strengths or preferences.
This theme continued after lunch, when we were told to, in groups of three, design our ideal classrooms and present our design to the larger group. Again, there was very limited instruction. The space and materials were ours to use as we saw fit, and we had to have something to show for ourselves by the hour’s end.
The d.school’s space and craft supplies (nearly every wall at the d.school is a whiteboard) served as a catalyst for creative, out-of-the-box thinking at every turn. We began with a brainstormed list of the issues we saw at each of our own schools. Though they were three extremely different schools, we had a surprisingly easy time finding common ground.
We moved on from there to discuss potential solutions to each of our problems. We stressed giving students options to personalize their own classroom experience to suit their strengths and concluded that there are multiple ways to achieve a desired outcome or learning objective. We agreed that students at a high-school level should have the opportunity to choose or design a method that they feel is most conducive to their own learning.
We created a visual representation of our design to make them easier to share with the larger group. This was, looking back, an eye-opening part of the day for me. We were never told to use the craft materials. We weren't instructed to have any physical component to our presentation either. I assumed that it was required because the idea of having something tangible to turn in to a teacher was (is) so much a part of my expectations for any school-like environment.
I didn’t mind the craft component, but it did feel a bit like busywork.
I attended Protopalooza because I felt invested in helping, however minutely, to change the American educational system. I had hoped to offer my ideas, insights, and experiences–not rushed arts-and-crafts skills. But it didn’t even occur to me that I could approach the assignment from a practical perspective and actively choose how I communicated my ideas. I didn't realize this was an option until I watched other groups’ presentations, which were verbal-only.
I had manufactured the busywork (or what I had seen as busywork) for myself. This is particularly astonishing when you consider that busywork was one of the practices in today's schools that my group identified as needing to change. I was so accustomed to it that I fell into it reflexively.
I left the d.school feeling optimistic and intrigued by the potential of a middle-school student arriving at their first day of high school and finding something similar to what I found that day. The simple fact that talented educators were willing to confront current issues, actively take risks, and eagerly craft their ideas into a real high school while listening to students’ voices was both an excitement and a relief. The day’s activities came as proof that not only is progress possible, but essential.
Hanna Weiler is a graduate of Berkeley High where she received an international baccalaureate diploma. She plans to attend Barnard College in the fall.