Monday night was an important night for the Eau Claire Area School District. In a room packed with educators, ARCTIC Zone families, and other community members, a group of district parents presented an exciting proposal to our ECASD School Board. The proposal is to renovate the Little Red School building, which has been used as a district storage space since 2008. The building, along with its 30 acres of grounds, would be turned into a Project-Based-Learning middle school for roughly 150 students and a nature campus that would serve the entire district.
Though an official vote will not be made regarding any formal decisions just yet, the response from board and audience members was very positive. The proposal phase will continue with the committee seeking an opportunity at some charter grant money and nailing down more specifics on potential program needs.
Not surprisingly, the only concern voiced aloud by board members was related to cost. Beyond that, words of enthusiasm and support were many, words like, “Those grounds need children,” and “This is the future of education.” It was the two high school board members’ questions that really interested me, though. They were, by far, the most critical of the idea – or the most vocal about their concerns, at least.
They asked questions about how the students attending this school would be prepared for high school, how they would perform on state tests, and how they would learn to do things that “no students like to do,” like writing papers and such. Their questions reminded me of the Most Likely to Succeed documentary I was able to view last year where numerous high school students were asked what kind of learning environment they would prefer, a traditional approach or a project-based approach.
The majority of students overwhelmingly preferred the idea of PBL, however, there was a small group who were adamant that the traditional approach was better. This group happened to be comprised of very high-achieving students, all on accelerated tracks (taking AP/IB courses). What the interviewers found was these students had learned how to be excellent A+ students in the traditional setting. They knew how to jump through the highest hoops. They had perfected the art of “sitting and getting,” homework completion, exams, and any other prescribed checklist tasks. It was as if they were afraid of a different system because they had figured this one out. They weren’t even aware of their own creativity that was not being tapped. How disheartening is that?
To answer the questions of those high school board members, in our PBL environment, our students WILL be prepared for high school. They have learned so much about themselves and their learning preferences in their time in the AZ, they will be able to use their knowledge about themselves to navigate any educational environment. Though not yet a significant source of data to which to compare, our 6th grade students from last year DID perform well on the state test compared to the rest of the 6th grade students in our building. And finally, our students DO learn how to write papers, but they are writing about things that interest and inspire them and with a real purpose. In fact, not five minutes ago, one of my 6th grade students actually said, “I love writing essays.”
We have an opportunity here. We have a chance to unite as a community, a community who longs, as the proposal states, to “nurture in students a love of learning, a sense of awe and wonder of the natural world, and a deep respect for self, others and the environment.” Like a woman stated at the meeting Monday night, this IS the future of education. We can either sit back and watch it happen, or we can grab hold of the reigns and build our own version of it right here. I know where I stand. Do you?