Last year, I took a learning trip to Seattle on my Spring Break. In March, while kids in Texas are drinking two-liters of Coke and staying up till 6 playing Modern Warfare 3, kids in Washington are still hard at work, dreaming of their Spring Break still to come. So, it worked out perfectly. I managed to line up nine school observations, and seeing all those different schools in a week was a whirlwind. It was also eye-opening.
I visited public schools, private schools; schools with small class sizes, schools with large class sizes; schools crunchy as granola and as slick as a New York design studio. Watching all these schools flicker by my awareness as I observed for three hours in each helped me realize how much I had changed in my personal philosophy of education.
I recall the morning I drove over to Lake Washington International Community School. It is reputed, according to NewsWeek to be the #22 best high school–not in Washington–in America. My school in Arlington, Texas, is #59. LWICS is a college prep model. My school is a college prep model. I knew what I was getting into. When I arrived, I saw the new building going up, a sure sign of success. I found my way around the construction mayhem to the front office, which had to be entered through a side door. The principal, Dr. Livingston, was very helpful. He arranged for me to observe in a math class, and then a science class. What really struck me was, in the science lab, the students were literally teaching the lesson: I had arrived at the culmination of a project about weather and climate, and all the kids had web-ready resources, a PowerPoint to present, and guided notes, and they were doing a very competent job of both presenting well-rehearsed projects and leading their classmates in getting the salient information down on paper. What further impressed me was that they were on candid camera. They were being video taped. Some academically strong schools will do that for teacher coaching purposes, but this was different: there was a parent-substitute in the teacher’s chair, and she was both manning the camera and asking surprisingly challenging questions to the groups at the conclusion of their presentations that the teacher would then watch herself upon her return to arrive at a grade. That’s a delicate ballet that, in my experience of three schools, one of which is also tops in the country, would be hard to accomplish. From the academic vocabulary I heard and the puffy bags under students eyes, I knew these kids were college bound and determined to be. On the other hand, this is a school of affluence, so the expectations the scholars were carrying of college shouldn’t come as too big a surprise. LWICS was a high-performing school. As I roamed the halls at lunch, encountering image conscious students, and feeling a bit like I was in high school myself, I realized that college prep wasn’t much of a fit for me any longer: I couldn’t get the school I had visited the previous day out of my head.
It’s called The Attic Learning Community. It’s private. It’s tiny. It’s on a wooded lot, and includes an optional once-a-week nature immersion program. School there only meets three days a week, and it introduced me to a totally new concept: the homeschool partnership. It’s a lot like a homeschool coop, with which I still have dreadfully little experience, but, instead, it’s an actual factual school for homeschoolers, an irony I find delicious. The days off are actually meant to be days on, where the family can take over the children’s education and do whatever they see fit. (There is another allied movement I have discovered called University Model Schooling, which has even come to the Dallas area where I teach. Grace Prep is an example of a private school using this model.)
The thing that I found incredible about The Attic was how little talking at students was happening. Young students were being mesmerized; older students were having their assumptions challenged. It felt like a home, where children of all ages had to avoid stepping on each other’s toes during passing periods in the carpeted halls, where children of different ages had affection for one another, where every teacher’s personality loomed large and formed an authentic piece of the puzzle that is a kid’s life, where every child knew every other child, perhaps better than they wanted to. Conflict resolution was dazzlingly close to an explicit part of the curriculum at this school, and the whole point was to love and to guide these kids, but not to solve problems for them. A common question was, “That sounds like it might’ve really hurt your feelings. So, what’s your plan?” And it worked! The multi-year students I met were kind, self-possessed, creative, smiling. It was clear that they felt wanted.
Perhaps the greatest gift that my day at The Attic gave me was a living, breathing example of a school where children’s impulses were valued. Yes, the young children were still learning to read, but when it was math time, there was still one child quietly reading on the rug, and he wasn’t made to feel wrong. Instead, his kind teacher played the pied piper and eventually charmed him over to the math station with colorful blocks. The buzz and activity of his classmates drew him out of his reverie into a new adventure, and I felt learning flourishing. There was an element of this school that I found almost magical: student-directed learning. It was everywhere. The teachers had the ideas, but they were shaped and molded and added onto by the unique and wonderful contributions of each student. (Of course, the blessedly small class sizes contributed mightily to this being possible, but I no longer have any shame in declaring that I want tiny, itsy bitsy class sizes!)
Was this homey school an ideal fit for every child? No. Not even every child there. No doubt some of the upperclassmen felt that they had outgrown it, and I met a high-school aged girl while staying in a local intentional community that had craved structure while attending The Attic and asked to go to public school, which had worked out better for her. But at the same community, I met a teenaged boy with long hair who was clearly living with his head in Middle Earth, and what I saw in him on the day of my visit to The Attic was a misfit, fitting in. It’s all thanks to the vision of the founder, Pat Orrell. She was a parent who wanted a different type of education for her child, and came together with a tiny number of other families to begin a homeschool coop in an attic, hence the name. When I met her, her child was graduating–or had graduated, I can’t recall–from The Attic and she had become an out-and-out school director with the busy calendar that attends that role. But she had not lost her grounding in that passionate search for the right educational fit for her child that had led her to that attic ten years earlier.