Education: my high school Latin reminds me that at the root it means to “draw out,” to “bring forth.” Much of American education has been, until recently, the near opposite: to “pour in,” to “fill up.” Whether we consider students to be empty or full is a critical decision for every teacher to make, for it affects our approach dramatically. If we regard students as essentially empty, or in need of some major alteration, we will assume too much responsibility for their development. This is a responsibility which can, contrary to the beliefs of some, be delegated to the students themselves in some measure, and it is unfair to them not to allow it. A growing number of charter schools are turning “traditional” high schooling on its head. These schools operate under the conviction not only that students should have experiences during their adolescence that are full of meaning and purpose for them but that those experiences can take place in school, and indeed can be developed and orchestrated by them. It is the job of the staff to nurture an environment where students participate in a truly democratic decision-making experience. Advisors follow the students’ lead and encourage projects that integrate several learning areas. One example: students in an anatomy project worked with a local Mexican artist to create a mural depicting the cycles of life. Another example: students studying the Minnesota River discovered the deformed frogs that led to significant studies of environmental contamination by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The program at El Colegio Charter School focuses on the arts, technology, and environmental studies. Students are encouraged to participate in recycling, analyze where things come from and include the visual arts in much of their work. Last Spring some students enjoyed a two-week residency with a well-known Cuban sculptress. They combed the neighborhood for discarded objects ranging from bedframes to propane gas tanks, and then turned them into beautifully painted sculptures that are on display in one of the school’s galleries. By keeping the discarded objects in circulation, they are kept out of the waste stream and turned into public works of art. What could be a better embodiment of the school’s values?
These are not new ideas. They are grounded in the work of internationally known educators such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Paolo Freire. But they are so difficult to implement on a broad scale that we keep falling back on our conditioning. We need constant reminders that it’s a good vision and that it’s possible to realize our goals. This model of learning is invaluable not only for the students but also for the community at large. It is our hope that it will ground students in the experience of a participatory democracy. Today’s adolescents are worth the effort involved in making this dramatic shift. The whole world will be the beneficiary of their successes.