If You Build It (With Them) They Will Come

I know I can speak for all of us in saying that starting a new school is a dream come true.  The idea that we could imagine a different kind of school and then make it a reality has still not fully sunk in.  Seeing students who were in elementary school when we first started thinking and working on the ideas behind the Sustainability Workshop walking through its doors sent shivers down my spine.  Here were twenty-nine young persons willing to take a chance on their senior year of high school and try our brand new program.  That takes courage.  It is also puts the pressure on us- and more specifically on Micheal and Simon, our two talented teachers- to “deliver.”

Here is where things get interesting.  Setting up a new school is a ton of work.  I am saying this mostly from the sidelines, from watching Simon and Micheal (along with Matt, Ann and others) log long hours dealing with the avalanche of things that must get done to set up and run a school.  I get lost in the logistics alone.  As they have told me more than once, one could spend one’s whole day and night on just the details, on just keeping the whole enterprise going.  When does one have time to teach?

Schools have solved this problem by creating administrative positions to manage and deal with many of these issues, leaving teachers to teach students. At the Workshop we have purposely veered away from creating a teacher/administrator divide because while it may help the school run more smoothly it can ironically get in the way of learning.  Just as we are striving to blur the line between teacher and student, so it goes with administrator and teacher.  This does not mean people do not have specific roles or responsibilities, but rather that these roles do not isolate or insulate anyone from the primary mission of the school: learning.  Not just student learning, everybody’s learning. This is not what most schools are set up to do.  These days most are set up for students to learn the curriculum as efficiently as possible.  Teachers facilitate this and standardized tests measure how well it is being done.

In the movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character crazily carves a baseball field out in a cornfield.  Famous dead baseball players from the past miraculously walk out the cornfield to play on his field.  The memorable line from the movie is “If you build it they will come.”  In many ways, the Sustainability Workshop is our attempt to do this, to build a school that students would want to come to. This is where the similarity ends.

Much like Costner, we could have built the entire school and then waited for the students to come and learn in it.  This is not how it played out for both intentional and unintentional reasons.   On the unintentional end of the spectrum, doing something that one has never done before means that there will be lots of surprises and bumps in the road.  The learning curve is straight up, which can make every day a bit of an adventure.  Mistakes will get made, and one can only hope to make them good ones in the sense that we learn from them.  Still, the amazing amount of work it takes to just get this off the ground means that the teachers are always, as Simon put it to me, “up to our eyeballs” every day, all the time.

On the intentional end, blurring the line between teacher and students means pulling the curtain back on much of what we call school.  Simon and Mike could draw a sharp line between teachers and students and present the school as something already built, much like the field in the Field of Dreams.  They could act as if The Sustainability Workshop was already there, already done to the point where it didn’t matter what students walked through the door.  They didn’t do this because to do so would violate a fundamental quality of the learning community they are trying to create- to engage students honestly and genuinely about their learning.  They also did not do so because the Sustainability Workshop is not finished, it is a always a work in progress for everyone.  The curriculum is never finished.  Instead it is always being built with the students.

After spending the last fifteen years of my life involved in one way or another with schools, I have developed a sixth sense about when students are on board or not in terms of their education.  I can feel when students are in or not, and it still never feels good when I sense they are not and I am sitting in my classroom.   When I visited the Sustainability Workshop I not only saw student engagement, I felt it.  The students are in. For me, this is 90% of the battle and the battlefield many teachers end up dying on. And yet here student engagement and interest were not even an issue.

I have been noodling over why this was the case and how it happened so quickly, as none of us thought the students would take to the Workshop Approach so quickly.  But they have, and this has left the teachers up to their eyeballs in the best way possible.  Instead of having to get students interested or motivated, the teachers now must deal with how to help students learn what they need to know to do what they want to do.  Simon calls this a “luxury problem.”  I see it as a fundamental shift in the school paradigm- the students are in because the teachers have invited them in to work on their learning.  And again, by learning I mean everybody’s learning.