“Experimental Education”

Two events converged this past week- our annual Open House and a discussion on vaping given by our regional health department. In one instance, the event was positive- the Open House was about showcasing the various elements of the school and all that we do. In the other case, I got a look into the increasingly unsettling and growing world of e-cigarettes and what appears to be nothing short of a nicotine revival.

Amidst the statistics and stories and science and history of vaping, the presenter made an almost offhanded comment that was also the most unnerving, “We learned about the dangers of tobacco from people getting sick. That’s how we’ll know how harmful vaping is; we are experimenting on our kids.” Sitting through this presentation, it was hard not to come to the conclusion that a huge portion of the vaping world is directly targeted at teenagers. And even if it isn’t, teenagers are definitely a growing and significant demographic of users.

What keeps popping to mind with these two events stems from the word experiment. It reminded me of the first years of the school when people would say, invariably negatively, “You are experimenting on kids.” There is a part of me that understands this perspective. However, there is something that it misses also. Our current ‘traditional’ school system is also an experiment run out on a grand scale- what happens when we demand a group of curious, adventurous souls be confined indoors and made to sit in rows and memorize facts for hours a day? Why are we the ones who are seen to be experimenting? Their ‘experiment’ has been going on for a hundred years, and by contrast, ours appears new.

However, while what we started seems to be new in the world of education it is only ‘sort of new’ if we consider education over the vast scope of humanity. If you walked around our Open House, you would have seen projects on family trees, and hominid history in our 6/7 Band, where students are studying their ancient roots. In the 8/9, there were explorations of social justice and displays around our relationships with one another and the natural world. The 10/11 are diving into the American Story, looking at emigrant trails, the gold rush, and westward expansion. And the seniors are discussing comparative religion, milestones in science past and present, and what it means to have a global perspective. There were tables of books read, math projects from pre-Algebra to Algebra II, and what a fully immersive Spanish program looks like. One room featured dozens of our service partners and projects, another a growing list of where this year’s seniors have been accepted to college (now totaling 29), and on the wall in between the two a list of clean up jobs around the school, a simple roster of which students are cleaning which part of the school this week.

In all of this is something new- evidence of a different kind of education. It also reflects something ancient- that humans are social, that we learn from stories and from each other and from experience, and that adolescence is about engagement and discovery and meaning. It is about trying on the world and figuring out one’s role in it. And it is about doing all of these things in the company of caring teachers and mentors and adults who realize the importance of our students’ experience today and the central role that each of them will play in the future.

We embark on our “experiment” with both expertise and humility and find ourselves in this wonderful place- where we are old enough to demonstrate that what we are doing with our students is working, small enough to adapt to and respond to what we are learning in the classroom and in our community, idealistic enough to believe we are adding a demonstrably different narrative to education, and cautious enough to know we do not have all of the answers. We can also see the results of the traditional school’s “experiment”, and know that we are seeking different results.

I realize there is one striking similarity between these two events, and it is an important one- the focus on our kids. The constantly evolving world of vaping highlights that our students need us as they always have. Education, too, has its outcomes that we need to be there for our kids during. It is our ongoing work to support our adolescents and to fight for the kinds of experiments that help them thrive.

Harry Weekes