All good Muslims are expected to go on Hajj once in the course of their lives. They are to go to Mecca, if they can afford to make the journey, to perform the seven circuits and throw their stones and traverse the ground between the dry wells. If they have time and energy left over, there is a secondary journey they may undertake to Medina. Those Muslims who make the journey, it’s said, are ever afterward changed by what they saw and felt in those holy places. They take on new roles of leadership in their community, and they are shapers of what is to come, and not just what was. Christian pilgrims who had gone to Jerusalem or Rome underwent similar experiences of transformation.
That’s sort of how my trip to California went.
On April 29, 2011, I flew out to San Francisco, to pay a visit to Kim Saxe and the dLab, or design space, at the Nueva School. The kids there are doing amazing things. But I’m not here to steal Mrs. Saxe’s thunder. I can only say that what I saw changed what I think it means to be a teacher.
My boss says I’ve swallowed “the blue pill” in a reference to The Matrix. I can’t say I disagree with him. Since I came back, I’ve turned my classroom around. I reorganized the desks so there’s a less obvious stage in the classroom. I turned the organization of the two bulletin boards in the room over to my students — one for the sixth grade, and one for the seventh. My classroom windows are covered with sticky notes as I try to track the changes and note my inspirations and goals for rethinking next year. There’s a box of very sharp tools available to students (with permission) for cutting paper and building things. I spent some of my budget on books about building objects out of cut paper and other materials. I brought in geometry tools, and I reorganized my desk to give kids access to the tools in every drawer of it but the file drawer. The camera tripod and the camera are labeled in green tape, mean “use any time to advance your learning.” There are T-Squares and triangles hanging on the wall.
The results are encouraging. I have about 3.6 GB of movie footage, and about 1.2 GB of photographs of kids building things. There’s a paper model of a pulley system, built by some of my kids, hanging from my ceiling. There’s an in-progress Rube Goldberg machine built out of paper. The corkboards are covered with photographs of American historical events (for the 7th grade) and images from the English Civil War through the French Revolution. There’s a partially completed model of a house here in town, built entirely out of cut, folded paper. It’s the fourth prototype of this particular model; the kids and I are sticking with it.
The visitors to the class are noticing that it’s not the typical classroom any more. It’s functioning differently. I’m teaching differently. They’re having a hard time putting a finger on exactly what’s different, so far. All they know is, it’s changed.
I can’t say where I’m going yet, either. All I can say is, I’ve seen a different way of doing school, and I’ve decided to do it.
I’m the happiest I’ve been as a teacher in years. And my students are SO VERY EXCITED.