There is a three-by-three matrix at work in our classroom, a way of understanding the means and power of progressive education.
Here are those nine elements.
projects, themes, and places
These are the frames of our students’ work at Summers-Knoll. Our students embark on projects, beginning with large-scale assignments crafted by teachers and evolving into fully independent designs. These have ranged in the past from a published children’s book on bias to the construction of a working model of a nineteenth-century prosthetic arm.
All SK students engage in content via themes, which serve as organizing principles for content and rotate on a two-year cycle. This arrangement means that this year’s overarching themes, Identity, Innovation, and Sustainability, will be encountered by students with increased sophistication at each grade level.
Summers-Knoll operates three fourteen-passenger buses, and all homeroom teachers have a chauffeur’s license. This means that we frequently leave campus for both near and faraway places. Learning should not be contained within the walls of a classroom any more than it should be limited to chunks of forty-five minutes. Neither model reflects lifelong, durable, resilient learning. The bus has always been an additional SK classroom. Recent destinations include many divisions of the University of Michigan, sites in Detroit and the Upper Peninsula, and forests all over the county.
authentic, dynamic, and challenging
These are the characteristics of curricula at progressive schools. Work is authentic if it has meaning outside the classroom. Our Exhibitions, wherein students teach a lesson to adults and peers on a recently completed individual project, provide an authentic test of knowledge, much as a game is an authentic test for an athlete, or a concert is an authentic test for a musician.
Our work is dynamic in that it is never precisely the same from year to year. Progressive educators are allergic to the status quo. This is necessary because learning is inherently a creative and individual act. That being the case, great teachers must reboot their curricula every year to reflect the passions, strengths, and particular needs of the new crop of students.
We can say that the students’ work is always challenging; it might be more accurate to say that the work is hard. Observers often comment that what we’re doing looks like fun and the kids look relaxed. SK kids always know what they’re doing and why. They are responsible for so much of their own work, and that is so much harder than being told what to do all the time.
autonomy, mastery, and purpose
These are the fruits of these labors, the characteristics that any given project or job of work is expected to help SK students develop. What our kids are doing looks cool, but that isn’t why we do it. We do it because we believe it’s the best way to learn. First, our kids develop the ability to manage their own work. This degree of autonomy gives them tools to manage their academic, social, and personal challenges in any future environment. They have (in carefully curated ways) some degree of choice in what project work they undertake, how they do it, how long it will take, who their collaborators are.
Such independence is necessary, but it is not sufficient. SK students are expected to achieve mastery of a wide range of skills. They can read with intent; they can write with verve; they can marshal numbers to work for them; they can investigate the natural world. They are both literate and numerate. Ideally, they achieve a sense of flow--the state of engagement in which, to put it simply, time flies.
Finally, armed with the ability to manage their own work and the tools to execute it, they develop a durable sense of purpose. The eighth graders’ Legacy Projects epitomize this. Designed to benefit the SK community, they have included a work crew system, three murals, a painted playhouse modelled after the Heidelberg Project, a yearbook, a community service program, and a dozen other sustainable programs.