Like so many non-profits with a mission that is larger than their capacity, we recently held a staff retreat to clarify the Trust’s 2012-2013 priorities. In full retreat mode, we selected an “offsite” location to help us stay focused on the “big picture” and not be distracted by the to do lists on our desks. We did not go and fly to Las Vegas to drink oversized margaritas in the name of “teambuilding.” We did not even call Harry to book a room and lunch at the Newark Club. We chose a place where we could be surrounded by the only real focus of our work, the reasons why we are here—We went to a school.
On April 20th the Trust’s staff met in a side storage room that also doubles as a classroom at the Discovery Charter Schools on Washington Street in downtown Newark. Discovery was launched by long-time, Newark Public School teacher Ms. Barbara Weiland and Dr. Irene Hall in the second round of charter approvals back in 1999. When you are inside of Discovery Charter School it is hard to imagine these two women existing outside of this space. Barbara Wieland moves between explaining the philosophy of the school to us and her perch—a chair with arms, placed on a rise overlooking the large big room that is the school. There, with a microphone in one hand and a mug of tea in the other, she orchestrates extraordinary learning experiences day in and day out. Her partner, Dr. Hall, seems to just appear in different parts of the school (or room) teaching, working with students, talking to visitors, or arranging for a tour. I get a sense that nothing happens here—not a move—that is not noticed by either one, or both of them.
Granted, it is a quirky place. It is not your usual kids in rows, raise you hands, bell ringing, go to math class then science, kind of school.
It is more organic, with learning going on all over the place. Students are grouped with a biology teacher learning about the body in one area, while in another area, students are painting a boat they built that will soon sail. In yet another area students have built a model train display that illustrates the history of the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage either chronologically or geographically. We know this because our student guide, Nomase Iyamu, a seventh grader who is among the most well spoken, well educated young men I have ever met, explained it to us. He has an agile mind, is quick on his feet, and in possession of a razor sharp wit. During our tour we encounter a couple of bicycles that the students built with their mentor. Here is where our story really begins.
The bike that has been designed by students to be entered into a contest is extraordinary. The student designed it for areas of the Sudan where most people cannot afford a car. The bike can carry large and heavy cargo, has bamboo fenders and grips, has running lights and a cell phone charger that are powered by pedaling, and (my favorite part) it has a seat that can be pumped up and down to inflate or deflate the tires depending on the terrain. I should mention that the bike is beautiful too. Abdul Nafea-Syed, the young man who described the bike to us, not only understood the engineering and all of the functionality of the bike, he is a master salesman— charming, quick, and intuitive. At one point (and I am not kidding) I impulsively offered him a $1,000 for the bike. It is not for sale, but he does expect it to win some prizes in the coming competition.
What is truly remarkable about this school is that its teachers and students are not simply engaged in fun activities. There is real substance behind the learning activities that have been constructed for the students. Teachers are able to extract the learnings articulated in the curriculum that are embedded in the activities. Doing so is deceptively illusive and hard. Teachers must be knowledgeable about the scope of their entire curriculum as well as the curriculum of subjects other than that which they have been charged with teaching. They have to be able to exploit an activity to get to the deeper connections between disciplines and know how to determine what content the activity did not unearth, that now has to be taught in a more didactic (or traditional) fashion. When I see a good inquiry-based learning experience taking place that is real, rigorous, and cross disciplinary, I marvel at how much fun it must be to teach and learn this way. I also appreciate how and why it is so much easier to approach the curriculum the more common way—one day, one page, and one chapter or test at a time.
Everything about traditional schooling encourages a more direct approach that separates disciplines into classes, content into grade levels, and learning into linear lesson plans that are taught and tested. Here at Discovery we encounter a number of very creative young people who did not seem to suffer any loss of content knowledge in the process of unlocking their creative selves. We encountered a number of teachers who seemed completely alive, excited, and engaged in learning right alongside of their students. Dare I say that teachers and students were learning and having fun?
I know it was mentioned earlier, but it’s worth repeating. Discovery is essentially one big room. There are a few “side rooms” that provide space for physical education (integrated with life science), lunch (a nice little kitchen is used to serve everyone) and boat building. The “big room” is filled with everything but the kitchen sink (although I think I actually saw a kitchen sink). There are interesting objects, books, musical instruments, paintings, little cubbies where students read, fish tanks, turtle tanks, lizard tanks, Legos, blocks, trains, bikes, and looms (yes, looms—the kind that you make rugs with). Is it chaotic? Not in the least. It was remarkably well organized and students were universally focused right along with the teachers. Are students active? Yes. Noisy and out of control? No. Are their walls separating classes where different teachers are teaching different subjects? No. Does the absence of walls bother anyone? Absolutely not. When asked, everyone responded that it is “better” for him or her to teach and learn this way.
At first I was frustrated that our tour took so long and that it took time away from our precious retreat. Looking back I now realize that the tour of the school may have been the most valuable part of the retreat. We did not need to identify our priorities, just be reminded of them. The Trust ‘s mission is to align and coordinate resources, engage and empower the community with data, and hold all accountable for a quality public education. It is difficult to imagine working toward such a mission without embracing diverse approaches to teaching and learning. Each of us left the Discovery Charter School with an expanded view of how teaching and learning can be organized, schools and curriculum structured, and students engaged in meaningful activities that teach content, and foster critical and creative thinking.
For the better part of the 20th century we have expected American public schools to standardize how schools are organized, how teachers teach, and how student learn, while accepting great variation in the outcomes—the “what.” Today we find ourselves on the precursor of a great transformation in how we design and implement a public education system. Today we see a greater emphasis on standardizing the outcomes (the “what”), while allowing for great variation in the approach to teaching and learning (the “how”). That is a big idea. It is also a big idea that I came to more fully understand during our visit to Discovery. The school is not everyone’s cup of tea, and it may not be the best match for children who may require a more structured, direct approach and that is why we all should have choices. Not because one choice has to be considered bad and another better, but because children, their families, and their teachers, should have options that enable them to choose the school that is the best match with their preferred way of teaching and learning. To the extent that we “get it” and can more fully embrace the value of making such a vision a reality, our retreat was remarkably effective. Our only disappointment is that we can’t do the same thing every week in different schools across the city. We did decide to organize something like this on a regular basis, perhaps holding our staff meetings “offsite” in a school from time to time. Assuming that is the case, where to next? We welcome your suggestions.