Recently we had a conversation in our family that has really stuck with me. At the time, it left me a tiny bit unsettled, sad yet happy, longing yet not, and questioning a few things. I had been thinking on it and thinking on it, mulling it over in my mind for quite some time, and hesitating whether or not to publish a blog post about it or not. Last week I watched a video which confirmed that yes, I did want to publish this post. I encourage you to watch this video from beginning to end. It is well worth your time. Thank you to the Attleboro High School students who spent many hours of time on such an important topic.
In the meantime, here is my post.
It was summertime.
We were all together and we had the occasion to find ourselves in a warehouse. There was an event there and we were attending, but the event only used a small part of the available space. It was a big, open warehouse, a different experience than warehouse shopping, like at BJ’s or Costco or Sam’s Club. The walls were black, the floors were black, it was an exciting open space, big and empty: seemingly like a giant blank canvas.
As we walked through the space, we marveled at the vast openness of it; it almost encouraged you to run wild, to yell out loud to hear your voice echo in the space, but we didn’t do that. We walked and we talked.
“What if?” Some one of us said it. I truly don’t remember who.
But I do remember what followed next.
“What if we lived here?! What if this was our house?!”
“I’d want a big space to dance!”
“A huge kitchen for cooking!”
“An art studio!”
“A room filled with books on all the walls!”
“A sewing room with tons of space for fabrics!”
“A place for a 3D printer and doing science experiments!”
“A music room for playing piano and instruments!”
“A photography studio!”
And on, and on and on.
We laughed and talked and called out ideas to each other as we designed our new home. In real life, we live in a regular-sized house, like regular people do, and sometimes (okay, many times) it seems too small for all of us, but we always pride ourselves in being creative with our space, always finding ways to make it fit our needs at the time of our lives that we’re in. We’re comfortable with making changes as our needs change, and that’s just what we’ve always done. We make it work for us.
But this, this imaginary blank canvas of a home, it was exciting to think about for a few minutes as we walked through it and out, out into the bright sunshine of the outdoors and towards our car.
Once we got in the car, the conversation was over and we moved on to the next thing, back to real life and back to summer and then eventually back to school and work.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it though. As two educators, we’d always imagined starting our own school. Hands-on, experiential learning is our thing. As parents we have fostered that passion in our kids too.
In my mind I pondered the conversation. What did we really imagine? Was it our imaginary house in a huge open space, or had we created the school of our dreams?
And really, the school of our kids’ dreams?
It made me a little bit sad. Sad at first, because most likely we won’t ever get to open up our own school in that warehouse with all of the hands-on learning experiences. Sad second, because in reality, so much of what our kids called out as the things they’d love to be surrounded by on a daily basis, is so much of what’s been removed from traditional public schools as the years go by. I am very thankful that our school district offers a stellar option for high school students through a regional career and technical school which is located on one of our city’s high school campuses, but I know that not everyone has that option everywhere, and that the guaranteed hands-on, engaging education that’s found in a career and tech program is only for high school students, at least in our neck of the woods. I’m also happy to see instrumental music education returning to our elementary schools here, after having been gone for so long thanks to budget woes which are not unique to just our area.
That said, so much of what I used to see in schools as I covered story after story, is no longer done as teachers have said that they have run out of time to do the types of things they used to do. As more testing and seat-work move in, more hands-on experiences and creativity move out. Sometimes, if schools specialize in the arts, they leave out the sciences. As they specialize in science and technology, they lose focus on the arts-things like theater, music, visual and performing arts. That makes me sad. Home economics, cooking, sewing and fashion, wood and textile design…don’t even get me started. In so many places, although not everywhere, these areas of study, these life and career skills that students need the minute they are out in the world on their own, are gone. It is so much so that on a recent college tour, we were even told of basic cooking classes that are offered to college students getting ready to live on their own who don’t possess those types of basic independent living skills.
But yet despite my sadness, I soon had an awesome realization, and ultimately it made me happy and it made me proud.
No, we didn’t open our school (at least not yet), we don’t have a giant home and we definitely don’t have a school-sized budget. But that said, all of those things that our kids dreamed of having in their space, they dream of because they have experienced them. As they’ve grown we’ve designed our open spaces in our home to be spaces that foster creative play, learning and hands-on experiences. Whether it was dress-up and school, arts and crafts, or library and kitchen imaginary play spaces in our basement when they were little, or lessons in things like sewing, dance, music, theater and art as they got older, they’ve been able to be exposed to so many things and have had the time and the opportunity to explore and experience them all. Books have always lived on shelves in every bedroom, under pillows with flashlights and book lights. Play-doh, paint, glue and glitter have always been regular staples in our craft supplies. We have had a garden in our backyard almost every summer since our kids were young. As they grew, the books, spaces and activities grew and changed with them, and the play kitchen space became cooking with us in the real kitchen space, a passion of ours that they all share.
When learning experiences were offered in our city or nearby cities and towns for free, we exposed them to them, while enrolling them in regular lessons for some of the things they loved whenever we were able to. They’ve always been exposed to things that interest them and spark their creativity: free workshops on 3D printing or stop-motion animation at the library, free reading events and encounters with famous authors at the State House, science experiments in our kitchen, lots of opportunities for great experiences through the Girl Scouts like photography lessons and outdoor camping trips, for example.
As teens and tweens they now have a sewing machine in every bedroom. We have paint and canvases, fabric, easels and musical instruments in our home, and so many books. We cook together and they cook independently. As I look around in this instant, there are sketch books sitting out right now, out in the open here in our living room, awaiting the next burst of inspiration, and there’s a draft of someone’s book on my laptop, a dress form with an almost-finished dress on it in a bedroom down the hall.
So as sad as I was that I know we probably won’t ever have our school, and sad for what many students won’t ever have because it’s lost from so many schools and out of reach for many family budgets, after much thought, I was ultimately happy and proud. I felt that if these were the things our kids wanted in their imaginary home, or maybe in their vision of the ultimate perfect school, and if we’d somehow managed to dedicate ourselves to being able to provide them all for them over the years in our own home, in their own real lives, then we’d done a good job of teaching in a hands-on, experiential way. We have succeeded in fostering a love of hands-on learning, of reading and of writing, a passion for the arts and for the sciences, and we’ve given them life-long skills they need to be successful when they are living independently. As we now tour colleges and see the hands-on experiential learning that is taking place there, we see too, that it is the desired outcome for secondary education over any standardized test, and we know we have prepared our kids well for this type of learning which will later transcend into the jobs of the future. Colleges look for students who have experienced true learning, not the one-sided delivery of a curriculum or the passing of a test or of dozens of tests. Employers look for a well-rounded problem solver and critical thinker with a wide variety of skills in their repertoire, not just someone who can ace a test.
Although my mulling over of this conversation was initially one tinged with sadness for what wasn’t or what will never be, it is ultimately one that makes me smile. We had a dream, we had a goal, and in essence we did it and we did it for those students who matter to us most of all: our own. We did it in a small space and on a tiny budget and we continue to do it each and every day. We have always sacrificed a lot, often, and in so many other areas, but we are our children’s first teachers, they are our ultimate legacy, and hopefully when they leave our nest, they’ll be able to continue to live a life filled with a passion for hands-on learning and experiencing life to its fullest.