Want Passion (Not Just Data) to Drive Learning? There's a School for That!

Teachers and parents are frustrated that our test-prep obsessed schools are leaving their hands tied, preventing them from doing what is best for our children.
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"The older I get the more I realize that
the only thing a teacher has to go on
is the rare spark in a child's eyes."

~ The Rector of Justin, Louis Auchincloss

I was inspired recently after visiting a school where students, as principal Barbara Slatin likes to say, "found their lightbulbs." These were students working on projects of deep personal interest in groups, pairs, or alone depending on what worked best for them studying topics of their choosing. When colleagues and I went to visit the school the children were literally bursting with excitement and pride as they explained what they had discovered and why it was important. One pair presented to us. They knew the material so well you knew it was coming from experienced experts, who in this case happened to be 10 years old.

As I was leaving the building. I stopped to use the restroom and saw the teacher of this class who confided, "You know come next month, this goes out the window and all we'll be able to do for the rest of the year is worksheets and test prep." She said, "It's so depressing when you know you can help kids get excited about learning, but you're forced to put that aside to teach to the test. You see the excitement and love of learning drain right from them and right from me." "Today was wonderful," she said, "but it just makes me more depressed when I think about what I'm going to have to do to these kids and I don't know how much longer I can do this for a living."

Ugh, my heart sank. Are we going to lose another excellent, passion-driven teacher to a compulsory system of education that as Seth Godin so aptly expresses, "only values compliance not initiative, because, of course, that's what's easiest to measure."

Where I work in New York City about 25 percent of teachers leave the profession within three years and that percentage doubles at the five year mark. If you were to ask our new school chancellor, she sees it this way.

Teaching is a hard job. We want the ones who are committed. We want the ones who make a difference. We want the ones who want to work hard and really change the lives of these young people. They're there on a mission. So, you know, some are going to leave.

When I heard that, and thought of all the passionate, committed teachers who want to make a difference, but quit because they couldn't, my heart sank too. I felt insulted for me and insulted for them. Perhaps if Cathie Black put in her time as her staff is required to do she would understand that our teacher retention issue isn't the result of weeding out the uncommitted teachers who have no interest in making a difference. Rather those who leave are often our most qualified. Like New York teacher of the year, John Taylor Gatto, who publicly declared, "I'm no longer willing to hurt children", effective teachers who find their hands are tied when they want to make a difference often resign.

In desperation teachers like this one ask me in confidence how they can find schools to teach in that honor educators who value the passion- (NOT DATA-) driven learning that some of us (Angela Maiers, Will Richardson, Marc Prensky, etc.) have been talking about. They want to know if these type of schools really exist or is it just a subversive "teaching style" secretly practiced behind closed doors? Parents of these students are also often equally frustrated. They often don't know who to blame for this Race to Nowhere in which they see their children participating.

Fortunately, even in these times where those in charge think the answer to education success is more tests and harder tests, there are school models that indeed honor the passion-driven learning that dedicated teachers and parents value and students deserve. Below is a compilation of such schools.

Passion Driven School Models
There are a couple models of education that I'm familiar with that have passion driven learning at their core. Below is an overview of each.

Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM)
The school-wide enrichment model provides enriched learning experiences and higher learning standards for all children through three goals: developing talents in all children, providing a broad range of advanced-level enrichment experiences for all students, and providing advanced follow-up opportunities for young people based on their strengths and interests. The SEM focuses on enrichment for all students through high levels of engagement and the use of enjoyable and challenging learning experiences that are constructed around students' interests, learning styles, and preferred modes of expression.

Not surprisingly, in the years following the implementation of No Child Left Behind, this model has lost favor, but it still exists. Here is a Directory of SEM schools. Sadly, it is outdated, but staff at UConn assures me it will be updated soon.

Free Schools / Democracy Schools

A democratic education is a theory of learning and school governance in which students and staff participate freely and equally in a school democracy. In a democratic school, there is typically shared decision-making among students and staff on matters concerning living, working, and learning together. At such schools students individually decide what to do with their time, and learn as a by-product of ordinary experience rather than through classes or a standard curriculum.Students are given complete responsibility for their own education and the school is run by a direct democracy in which students and staff have an equal vote.(Wikipedia).

Here is a list of Schools:
Big Picture Learning schools have a mission is to lead vital changes in education, both in the United States and internationally, by generating and sustaining innovative, personalized schools that work in tandem with the real world of the greater community. They believe that in order to sustain successful schools where authentic and relevant learning takes place, we must continually innovate techniques and test learning tools to make our schools better and more rigorous. They believe that in order to create and influence the schools of the future, we must use the lessons learned through our practice and research to give us added leverage to impact changes in public policy.

North Star Self Directed Learning for Teens
North Star is a center for community-based education functioning like a YMCA or other member-based organization. Member teens choose from among a wide array of educational options depending on their needs and interests. Founded in 1996 by two middle school teachers, the school serves teenagers who prefer to pursue their educations outside of traditional schooling.

Visit this link to find out what students who attend North Star (and their parents) think about the school:

Nuestra Escuela
This school has five educational programs in Puerto Rico based on a mission of love. Founded in 2000, it enrolls 300 students who are typically between ages 13 and 22, and their families. The vast majority have had major academic or life challenges. In addition to core academics, students engage in arts, sports, and entrepreneurship. Read this feature on Nuestra Escuela

EdVisions Schools
EdVisions Schools in a non-profit educational development organization affiliated with the EdVisions Cooperative, the first public school teacher cooperative in the nation. EdVisions Schools help create and sustain a network of small, innovative high schools across the U.S. using the EdVisions Model, which consists of these essentials: small learning community, self-directed project based learning, authentic assessment, teacher-ownership.

The Fertile Grounds Project
Based in New York City, this nonprofit organization reaches young people typically left behind by public school education. The Hallway Project helps at-risk high school students get on track to graduate through project based learning, and Camp Kadia teaches survival and leadership skills to inner-city youth through outdoor education.

Jefferson County Open School
Jefferson County Open School: JCOS is a public pre-K through 12 school in Lakewood, Colorado, based on student-directed learning, mentorship, and caring relationships. Students have plenty of opportunities to learn off campus.

Teachers and parents are frustrated that our test-prep obsessed schools are leaving their hands tied, preventing them from doing what is best for our children. The teachers are prevented from letting their passion-driven teaching become contagious because of administrators who do drive-by test prep worksheet collection and write them up for noncompliance and insubordination if they don't follow the mandates. The parents of these students often don't know which way to turn, but there are other options. Fortunately the resources shared here will introduce readers to a whole world of people out there who see students not just as data, but as precious beings with passions who are yearning to be discovered and developed.

A more detailed version of this article with additional resources is published here at The Innovative Educator blog.

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