“Why not have Project Year and School week?” Thinking about Vito Perrone and Innovation today

As I look around the country, I get more and more concerned that our state and federal mandates have caused us to ignore the idea that education is about empowerment and the ability to make change in one’s own life and community. Vito Perrone, my mentor and a mentor to hundreds of educators around the country, wrote in his book A Letter to Teachers about how quality education is about the ability to connect learning from the community to school and the school to community. Perrone wrote that education is about “build[ing] bridges…” and not just about reproducing the materials and expectations of our current society. He asked, “What do we most want our students to come to understand as a result of their schooling?” Perrone urged us to think about “setting ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement.” By that he meant the opportunity to discover joy and play and the power of community. Perrone didn’t shirk away from recognizing the devastating impacts of poverty, poor nutrition, unemployment, or racism, but he pushed us as educators not to allow the trauma surrounding so many of our students’ lives to prevent them (and us) to think about aesthetics and authentic learning. Perrone used these terms before they sounded trite to our 21st century politicians. He exhorted us to think about larger possibilities for learning, and not to settle for quick fixes and test scores. He often paraphrased Dewey, especially in the ways that Dewey thought about the importance of habits of mind, heart, and hands. For Perrone, vocational education, project based learning, was for all students not just those who couldn’t “do school.”

Recently, I learned about the Workshop School in Philadelphia http://www.workshopschool.org/, which is a small school that focuses on solving real world problems. The four co-founders are Dr. Matthew Riggan, Executive Director and engineer, Simon Hauger, Principal, Dr. Michael Clapper, teacher, and Dr. C. Aiden Downey, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

The web site describes how the school is different from most schools because “students spend their days working on meaningful projects that solve real world problems.” Vito would have loved this school. Simon Hauger, one of the school’s founders and an engineer says, “We believe learning should be interesting, even fun. The Workshop is a place where your ideas matter.  Sure, we focus on all of the stuff you need to be successful in school, like reading, writing, and math. And we definitely work hard. But we also learn the things you need to be successful in life. Like how to ask the right questions, push through adversity, make positive change, and work well with other people.” Projects run the gamut from building a solar powered house to investigating topics such as immigration or climate change. Students say that the school feels like “family.”

In today’s high stakes turnaround approach to learning, “family” is almost seen as a curse word. At the very least, it is seen as being “soft on standards.” We are not allowed to talk anymore about the trauma and pain that our kids come to school with. Double periods of English and math and scores on tests are all that is measured and all that is reported. But we know that when school is truly about engaging young people, learning really occurs. Schools like this might show us the way forward.

When I first began at Fenway High School, Vito Perrone suggested that we visit Ann Cook at Urban Academy in NYC. Vito wanted us to see how they did Project Week.  We borrowed many of Urban’s ideas and introduced Project Week to Fenway in the early 1990s.  One of our essential questions was: “What makes a good museum?” 250 students fanned out across the city to study this question in various forms. At the week’s end, we reported out our findings to museum directors, city councilors and other interested officials. It was an exhilarating learning expedition for students and teachers. To this day, Fenway continues Project Week and Boston Green Academy (another Boston Public School) also has introduced Project Week. It has morphed a great deal and is not necessarily one essential question that everyone studies, but it continues to be a high point of the year for everyone. I vividly remember one of our earliest discussions after Project Week with Vito. As he listened to our excitement about all we had learned he asked, “Why not have Project Year and School week?” That question has stayed with me.

I had always hoped that the Boston Arts Academy would find a way to bring “project week” into the school’s curriculum. Finally, under the leadership of Anne Clark, BAA’s headmaster, and Monika Aldarondo, Creative Director, “Intersession” was born at BAA. Students and teachers offered 33 different sessions. In the proposals the leader had to describe the goals of the learning experience as well as the activities and the community partners (if any) involved. “Think about all the actions you can take to understand and experience a topic more deeply. In addition describe all the ways your experience will allow people to learn to explore, create, investigate, make, do, engage, perform, play, question, connect, practice and deepen.” These words and their meaning are so compelling to me and to students.

Some of the projects included: Site Specific Dance (students studied exhibits at the Museum of Science and then responded in dance), Mini Musicals, Youth Activism, Documentary Film Making, Healing with Music (including learning about Alzheimer’s and performing at a senior citizens home), Cooking, CosPlay which allowed students to study anime characters and construct their costumes, Exploring Local and National Monuments, Study of the Caribbean, Sculpting Fashion, Basics of Owning a Car, Jewelry Making and the list goes on and on.

A dancer working on a site specific dance showed me his duet on balance. “I went to the exhibit about the human body and spent a lot of time learning about the ear. My dance is an exploration of how the ear helps us balance.” Another dancer showed me her quartet she had finished choreographing about planets and their inter-relationships. “We spent a full day at the exhibit learning, reading, playing, choreographing. We made our dance right there. No one wanted to be Uranus at first, but we had to figure out how that planet was interacting with Pluto and Neptune. It was fun to learn about planets in a different way.” The idea of interacting with a museum exhibit through dance was exhilarating and challenging for these young dancers. I’m certain they wouldn’t have spent so long at an exhibit if they hadn’t had the chance to use their passion and their way of experiencing the world—through movement—as their medium for understanding.  One of the students in the cooking group talked about how much he had learned about shopping on a budget and how you could still eat nutritious food but how planning was so crucial. A small group of girls (with a male teacher) studied pregnancy both from a scientific and emotional perspective, reading literature, studying reproduction and even carrying an 8lb weight around to learn about the physical dimensions to pregnancy.

I believe that because students to chose their projects (and even volunteered to lead projects) the level of enthusiasm and engagement was breathtaking.

But while I was thrilled to see Intersession at BAA, I also was sad. This kind of open-ended exploration with joy is not generally the norm in schools. We are continuing to feed our students a steady diet of discrete and disconnected facts and text book learning. We seem to avoid the obvious: when students are engaged they will learn. When students are included and asked about what they want to study, they will respond. This doesn’t mean that students should never be exposed to stuff that they don’t like or don’t want to learn, but at least half the day should be spent engaging in activities that directly relate to questions students are asking.  This is what Vito meant when he talked about the “larger purposes of school.”

Check out these pictures from intersession. I hope you can begin to ask, “How can ice skating be part of school?” Or “What does it mean for musicians to study abstract painting?” Or even better, “What does it mean when students are leading the sessions?” We must not settle for what currently passes as schools. We must keep pushing ourselves to ask how our classrooms can become more open to real community and interests of our students. Then, and only then, will school be a place where we all want to belong as a family.

Vito and me

Vito and me

Students learning to figure skate during intersession.

This student group learned to figure skate during intersession.

Students learned to make their own candy and constructed a "candy land."Students learned to make their own candy and constructed a “candy land.”

Learning to make jewelry

Learning to make jewelry

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