Infest the Waters: A Blog About Design, Life and Making Stuff

If I Had to Go Back to High School…

I did not like high school.  If you had asked me at the time, I probably would’ve said it was okay, but in looking back on it, it really wasn’t.  I didn’t like it.  I was bored, and my boredom was compounded by the fact that I felt like the vast majority of stuff I was learning had no relevance to my life.  Oh sure, there were a few notable exceptions, like music theory and math,–I always liked math–but by the time I graduated, I was so ready to move onto learning something that I was actually passionate and excited about.  For a couple of years, that was music.  And then it was engineering for three more.  And I’m still amazed that I even managed to find the field of engineering after the battery of lousy science teachers I had in high school completely turned me off to science.

So when I walked into The Sustainability Workshop last week to hang out for the morning, it was like walking into a whole new educational world.  Nothing could have been more different from the high school experience I had.  High school seniors were working in light-filled rooms on projects they were genuinely excited about.  There was meaningful discourse and witty banter going on between teachers and students.  And the building itself…well, let’s just say it’s about the furthest away you can get from the drab gray environment I spent four years of my life in.  It was exhilarating to say the least.

The Sustainability Workshop is a senior year program for high school students from three different public schools in Philly.  Kids come up with projects they’re excited about, they form project teams, and they solve meaningful real-world problems.  They get regular progress reports, and because we (unfortunately) live in a standards-based educational world, their progress gets mapped to standards and the students receive grades on their high school transcript.  I was lucky enough to be invited to spend the morning there by my friend, Mike Clapper, who’s one of the founders of the program.  I floated around from team to team learning about what they were doing and offering guidance where I could. As you might imagine, because the workshop is focused on sustainability, the projects generally skew more towards math and science-related topics, but one group was researching the Dream Act and working on how to increase awareness of and garner support for it.

It was while I was sitting in on a discussion between that group and Clapper that I had the strangest feeling I was sitting in one of the pavilions on the lawn at the University of Virginia listening to a conversation between a faculty member and a group of students.  If I had closed my eyes, you could’ve told me that was where I was, and I wouldn’t have known the difference.  These kids were passionate, inquisitive and well-spoken, and the discourse was better than some I’ve heard at the college-level.  It was pretty cool, and I was a little jealous that I don’t get to be a student there.  Even though I really didn’t like high school, I’d go back in a heartbeat if I could go somewhere like this place.

I think there’s something really empowering about allowing students to be more self-directed in their learning process–to take responsibility for their education and learn how to learn on their own.  The model for the workshop is awesome because it uses the framework of a project that a student is actually interested in to teach the core skills–math, science, writing–one would learn in a traditional classroom setting.  Additionally, these kids are learning how to work and communicate with each other on a daily basis.  When I showed up, I sensed none of that “who is this strange adult, and why is she telling me how to do things?” skepticism you often get from high-schoolers.  Instead, everyone was excited to tell me about what they were doing and listen to ideas about how they could do it better.  And when you think about it, it’s no wonder they’re excited.  Because they get to work on something meaningful.  And isn’t that really what everyone wants–to do meaningful work?  There’s something really powerful about allowing students to do that while they’re still in high school.

I think a lot about education. I think about how our current standards-based system is failing the vast majority of our school-aged children.  I think about how we push graduating seniors to take on massive amounts of debt to go to college even if it’s not right for them.  I think about how we don’t give students enough opportunities to figure out what it is they may really like to do when they finish school before we demand they choose a major.  I think about how we don’t really support and encourage women who want to pursue engineering or the sciences.  And then I think about the fact that, if I have children, I may have to send them into an educational system that is fundamentally broken.

But then I see a place like The Sustainability Workshop, where education is clearly working, and I am completely inspired.  Sure, they may only be serving 27 students right now, but I am hopeful that there is a slow but steady push to change the way we educate our youth.  And I am energized to help that push in whatever small way I can.  I’ve already been invited back, and I’m certainly excited to go.  In fact, they may have a hard time getting rid of me.  Who knew going back to high school could be so fun?

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