I spent the weekend thinking about how we do high school in America and for the first time in a long time, I found myself in a space that was 100 percent student-focused. This space also gave parents in the audience permission to dream about schooling made-to-order, rather than a pre-packaged freeze-dried way of doing things way past its expiration date.
First, I must start by shouting out high school teachers who resist the century-old way of delivering instruction, adhering to outdated and irrelevant curriculum, maintaining an inflexible schedule and instead go the extra four hundred miles to nurture students’ innate inquisitiveness and inspire a love of learning. You’re doing the Lord’s work.
Reimagining High School
This past Saturday Nashville hosted XQ Super School and Pop-Up Magazine, a unique traveling education-focused performance production with a mission to get its audience to “reimagine high school.” Admittedly, when I first heard about this organization I simply could not wrap my middle-aged head around the platform. A live performance that includes music, readings, animations, and video presentations celebrating high schools, teachers, and even some school board members across the country who have reimagined their roles in a system that fails too many lives.
We heard stories about teachers in Massachusetts and Tennessee who redesign instruction and delivery models in ways that are inclusive and relevant. High school teachers across the country are creatively working outside 19th-century schooling to meet the needs of twenty-first-century students.
To satisfy the locals, XQ and Pop-Up Mag treated us to exciting presentations about a super sleuth-y classroom in East Tennessee and a successfully reimagined high school in West Tennessee
Elizabeth High School
Alex Campbell, a sociology teacher at Elizabethton High School assigned his class with a real-life thirty-year-old cold case called the Redhead Murders. First, the students were tasked with figuring out if the murders were one-off hits or a string committed by one person. Without hesitation, the students gathered information from old articles, police reports from the locations where the bodies were discovered, and worked with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. One student hopped in her car and drove along the route of the murders, ending in West Virginia where she conducted interviews!
For one year, these students became an arm of law enforcement with fresh eyes and unusual compassion for victims long gone from the public’s memory. Through their investigation, they learned most of the women were prostitutes and alone, so the students adopted the victims as sisters. This heart work culminated in a press conference in May 2018, whereby these students reactivated a cold case, pinpointed a twenty-one point profile of the serial murderer and named him the Bible Belt Strangler. Can’t wait to see what’s next for Mr. Campbell’s classes!
Crosstown High School
Crosstown High School in Memphis, TN breaks all the rules. The school labels itself as learner-centered. What the heck? Here’s what’s happening: students are learning, surpassing standards, and crushing standardized tests without realizing the hard work they are putting in to make these things happen. How you ask? I’ll let them explain.
Crosstown… engages students in meaningful, project-based work and authentic relationships that will prepare them to be self-directed, lifelong learners.
Project-based work and authentic relationships. The work is hands-on, high-level brain work and the budding entrepreneurs/creatives/scientists love what they do, their teammates and instructors. Do yourself a favor and visit the website and allow yourself to dream, or reimagine.
If I had to pick one thing I didn’t like about the high-energy, apolitical, non-ideological event, it would be the school board portion. Actually, it’s not XQ’s fault that Nashville has a nearly $1 billion schools budget, more than 40 percent of the city’s entire budget, and only 12 percent of registered voters vote in school board elections. The school board hires and fires the director of schools, approves the budget, programs, and other funding allocations. They vote on textbooks, uniforms, school calendar, open new schools and shut down failing ones, and are the final destination for serious student/teacher discipline matters. Yet, only a few thousand Nashvillians understand the life and death consequences of such authority falling into the wrong hands. We must do better.
I had more fun on Saturday night than I’ve had in a long time. Judge if you must. I loved dreaming for other’s people’s kids, my granddaughter, our future. Every student deserves more teachers like Alex Campbell who takes risks every day to honor the magic within his students. They deserve schools like Crosstown High School that focuses on student learning by every means necessary.
Someone recently asked me how I would design a school for my loved ones. I was stumped. No one’s ever asked and sadly, I’ve been conditioned to accept what’s assigned to me.
Don’t be me. Give yourself permission to dream and seek out a situation that honors your imagination, the excellence you wish to see for your child. Or run for school board and use your authority to approve schools that dare to reimagine.