Why School?

Guest post by Ellie Mitchell

One evening this summer, following a visit to Baltimore’s Digital Harbor Foundation, a little book with a provocative title showed up in my e-reader. Why School? had captured the attention of Digital Harbor’s Executive Director Andrew Coy and his entire staff, and he had promised to lend it to me.

The book was a quick read on the short plane ride from Baltimore to Boston, where I was meeting with CBASS colleagues and visiting Boston’s award-winning summer program, and my brain has been buzzing with the question posed by the title ever since.

In Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, author Will Richardson makes a compelling case that technology and the information age should fundamentally change how we think about teaching and learning. As a parent and advocate for youth-development centered out-of-school time programming, I, like many others, have been frustrated with the education reform conversations I hear all around me—and perhaps even more concerned with the implementation process. While well-intentioned education advocates passionately debate a myriad of changes, including new standards and teacher/student assessments, we often miss the point that at the center of education should be the basic questions: how do students learn best, and what strategies support their success?

The work of the Providence After School Alliance, where high school students are receiving school credit for participation in after-school activities focused on video game development and app development, debate, and environmental science, is a perfect example of the type of new approaches for which Richardson is advocating. At the rec-center turned tech-center run by the Digital Harbor Foundation, high school students are building websites for actual clients and learning enough about cyber-security to gain clearances to work at the National Security Agency. These innovators show that students can lead their learning; that the content and skills they acquire are relevant to young people’s lives and future careers; and that assessment should be based on demonstration of knowledge through action.

Richardson argues that schools can and will continue to play an essential role in communities only if there is a revolution in our thinking about how, where and when learning takes place. After-school and summer programs are leading the way, collaborating with open-minded school partners. Why School provides the perfect opening for changing the conversation and thinking in a new way.

Ellie Mitchell is the Director of the Maryland Out of School Time Network, an initiative of Baltimore’s Safe and Sound Campaign.

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Summer Learning in Boston: Making it Fun, Making it Count

We’ve been hearing a lot this summer about retooled programs that are making learning fun for kids while combating the summer slide. Across the country, in cities from Jacksonville, Fla., to Oakland, CA, public school districts are partnering with nonprofit organizations to offer their students rich programming that combines rigorous academics with enrichment such as arts, outdoor exploration, and vocational experiences.

Last week CBASS had the chance to visit one such program. Thompson Island, located in Boston’s harbor and managed by the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center, is home to a variety of outdoor adventure and experiential learning programs for youth—including one participant in Boston’s Summer Learning Project. A collaborative initiative between Boston Public Schools, the Boston Opportunity Agenda, and Boston After School and Beyond, the Summer Learning Project draws on the resources of schools and community organizations to offer k-12 students opportunities to increase their academic achievement as well as build valuable skills for school and career success.

Boston Summer Learning Project students and their counselors exploring Thompson Island.

Boston Summer Learning Project students and their counselors exploring Thompson Island.

What does summer learning look like in Boston? Well, for rising fourth-graders on Thompson Island, it includes a ferry ride, team building, and hands-on science learning. The day begins at 9 am, when school buses drop students off at the dock to be greeted by Boston Public Schools teachers and Outward Bound facilitators and ferried over to the island. As at all Summer Learning Project sites, students spend mornings buckling down on math and reading in classrooms, but in the afternoons they’re outdoors, working to balance as a group on a teeter-totter in the woods, or exploring the island with rangers from the National Park Service. The latter is particularly popular. With a diverse environment that includes bluffs, intertidal zones, and salt marshes, “every little ecosystem becomes a learning place,” says Arthur Pearson, president and CEO of Thompson Island Outward Bound.

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