I love surprises in education and if you do, too, read on!
Yesterday afternoon when I walked past the McGehee School in the heart of the New Orleans garden district, a neighborhood block clustered around an historic mansion, my first thought was “traditional girl’s school”. And when I got briefed this morning about the Regio-style pre-K, I thought “sure, but when I see the high school, I will see a mostly sit-and-get, teacher-centered pedagogy”. I am conditioned, like all of us, to see trends more than outliers, and was therefore wonderfully surprised, and am so happy to share that I was very, very wrong!
McGehee is a preK-12 girls only and early childhood school with more than 700 students. The buildings are a mixture of historic, ornate, high ceilings and tall, winding staircases with more modern classroom additions. My big takeaway is that the arc of student-owned learning reaches from youngest to oldest; they do not box in that range of learning opportunities as the students grow older with the traditional rigidity of the Industrial Age model of education. And yes, while offering just a small handful of AP courses, their graduates get accepted to a wide range of top-flight colleges.
Here is a quick tour:
The pre-school has big, Regio Emelia-styled classrooms, each a combination of design and randomness; creative fun; thoughtful, student-oriented play/learning spaces.
In the elementary school, we visited the Tinker Lab, one of the best elementary-level maker/innovation spaces I have seen. Why? Because it warehouses lots of low-tech “junk”; they encourage students to both destroy and build; there are simple tools; the students are making and experimenting with a wide range of both planned and unplanned activities. We also visited an elementary level science class where the girls were perched all around the room, collaborating on skits to demonstrate cell mitosis.
In the Middle School we stopped to talk to some students in a more traditional classroom, interrupting a book discussion. While the desks were organized around a traditional “U”, girls flopped together on the floor, or in a beanbag chair, and the walls were hung with their visible, informal brainstorming. And when we asked, “what are you doing?”, the teacher immediately defaulted to the students for the explanation. A Middle School science class was working on an all-year big theme: The “McEco” system, where they are learning outside the classroom, studying, researching, mapping, and cataloguing the elements of the campus ecosystem.
By the time we got to the High School I was pretty sure we would see the degradation of student-directed learning that is typical as schools cram students full of content in order to perform well on college entrance exams. I was wrong. The physics class was as full of “junk” as the elementary Tinker Lab: wiring, plumbing, old guitars and lamps, tubes and balls, the kind of materials that students can use to build things that inform our understanding of physics according to their creative leaning, not to a lab book formula. A biology class was reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a provocative text to scaffold their year long investigations, and using free curriculum from CK-12.org and Khan Academy instead of costly textbooks. A social studies class was organized around a central Harkness-style cluster of tables, but the teacher said that, unlike many more traditional Harkness-styled schools I have visited where the table is an impediment to movement, the girls often work on the floor, out on a balcony, or in the hallway, as the work requires.
“I love working here”, one teacher told me, “because after 20 years, I am surrounded by colleagues who still say ‘we are not satisfied with what we are doing; we don’t want to stop thinking about how we can do it better’”. Part of this ability to maintain dynamic flexibility along the K-12 arc is that McGehee believes that the AP curriculum stunts deeper, more individual student pursuits, and so they teach just a few AP courses. Their Honors-level courses are viewed very favorably by colleges, and students still take the AP exams if they want and do quite well. The social studies program is backward designed, for example, to bring students over a four-year arc to the point of writing “a thoughtful and defended 20-page research paper”. The teacher said, “we want our students to be able and willing to hold a debate amongst scholars”. With all due respect to the College Board, THAT is a more important learning outcome than a 4 or 5 on an AP test.
When I visit schools, the first thing I look for is student engagement. If students are engaged, learning is inevitable. Are students digging in on their own, or are some or many students going through the motions, looking at random pages on their computers, nodding off, or just sitting politely? At McGehee, I did not visit a single classroom where students were sitting down listening to a teacher lecture at the front of the room. Does that happen sometimes? I’m sure it does, and rightly so. But it appeared to me that many of the McGehee teachers are working hard to engage their students in the direct ownership of their own learning…most of every day.