Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Sandbox: A Passionate Learning Cooperative.

What makes education really work for children?

What makes learning wondrous and exciting for your child?

Think big. Think wide. Imagine roads, paths, mountain treks, even spacewalks...but don’t put anything in the way that might make your child stumble and fall.

While you work on that, let me tell you a little about The Sandbox: A Passionate Learning Cooperative.

The Sandbox is an idea that has grown from a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve for nine years: how can the community provide high-quality education, despite the growing impact of high-stakes testing and standardization?

Not all communities can pull it off.  I think Waldo County can.

The Sandbox will be powered by the idea that alternatives to public school can be made available to those who need it, regardless of the ability to pay or the feasibility of homeschooling.  We believe that quality education consists of children involved in play, experimentation, inquiry, discovery, creation, and reflection.  

The day will look different for every child, depending on age, interests, projects, or events. With curricula that is set by the passions and goals of the students, they will not miss out on unexpected, unplanned opportunities to learn, and be under no pressure other than their own curiosity, drive, and purpose.

The assessment of learning will lie in the accomplishment of their goals. A gallery opening; a video launched to the public; a book of poetry; a recital; the creation of a robot that works; a garden plan that turns into a real garden...all these things involve an authentic, built-in assessment that doesn’t disrupt the learning process, create competition, or emphasize more mundane aspects of the accomplishment.

For most people, that’s hard to do. We’ve all been trained to trust a numerical grade or a criticism that emphasizes weakness. Younger Sandbox learners will grow up knowing the value of their strengths. Gradually, older Sandbox learners will find that that the joy of leading their learning and the accomplishment of goals will create the genuine satisfaction that climbing the ladder of standards and preparing for tests cannot.

The Sandbox will be a parent-run cooperative dedicated to providing student-led education for the children of our community.  The Sandbox will require a small monthly membership fee and ample opportunities for raising funds...but other than that fee, probably amounting to $300-$400 a year, there will be no cost.

An endeavor such as this must be built on the assumption that day-to-day life will be on a shoestring. Grant-writing, fundraising, and the offering of services to the community for small fees, plus the fact that all the “teachers” will be parents and volunteers, helping theirs and others’ children, will make it possible.

Working parents or those otherwise unable to satisfy day-to-day work requirements of the co-op will assist in other ways: providing transportation of children before and after school, preparing lunches for the week, seeking donations of needed supplies, arranging for special learning experiences, or organizing fundraising campaigns can be among the contributions of members.

So often, families who most need to find an alternative to public school don’t have access to such alternatives.  Full-time working parents may believe that homeschooling is unfeasible, and it’s only those with a comfortable income who can consider private school. Is there a way we can use the power of our community to provide the best possible learning for your kids?

While the Sandbox will rely on its members to do the work of the cooperative, no family will be turned away for inability to pay. This alone makes the endeavor different from other alternatives to public school. The Sandbox will be open and available for similar hours to public school.

So how is it possible that this learning center will survive without charging tuition?

There are a few possibilities.

  • The monthly membership fee will give a small amount of operating cash.

  • Families who can’t devote time to the working of the school, or participate in fundraising, will be able to opt for a second category of membership. For perhaps a few hundred a month, these members will help add to the co-op’s budget;

  • The need for constant fundraising will involve everyone in the co-op community. Students will learn that any idea they have will be considered, and any project they take on will be supported. Think of the educational opportunities that the need for fundraising will provide!

  • The Sandbox may offer after-school enrichment activities for public school children; parents can offer weekend workshops and activities open to the whole community for a small fee.

Have more ideas? Then you are perfect for The Sandbox!

You’re probably thinking, “This ship will sink! This plane will never fly!” But we’ve set out our obstacles as part of the fabric of the endeavor. Solving these problems will be the daily work of the Sandbox.

There’s lots of work to do. We need to create a nonprofit organization. We need to find a board of directors and establish bylaws. We need to find a space that has minimal rent and adequate facilities.  We need to raise money.

Meanwhile, let’s go back to that image of wonderful learning we started to imagine at the beginning of this post. Do you think the Sandbox would work well to create this experience for your child? Is this the learning that your children deserve?

It is time to offer our children a path to success in an environment designed to inspire and motivate kids to keep on learning -- without the damage done by high-stakes testing and standardization. It is time to try innovative, community-based ways to address the challenges of a 21st century education. We can prepare students for success in life by delivering authentic learning experiences that matter to them.

It's not going to be JUST a school. It's also activism. By showing what is possible, we will work for better education for all.

For more information, contact Lisa Cooley or join us on Facebook.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Cooley on the Red Carpet?

This kind of glamour is not usually associated with education. Plain clothes and sensible shoes are more the order of the school day. But those heels and long dresses you see are adorning, of all people, teachers.

It's the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences Awards: The Bammys.

"The Academy exists solely to recognize what is right in education by identifying, honoring and celebrating the collective contributions of professionals, paraprofessionals and support staff across the entire education community." 

Lisa Nielsen, who writes the Innovative Educator blog, has been a friend and co-conspirator of mine for a few years now. She is an Academy member, and put my name forward, in addition to a few others from the 31 categories. My category is, of course, School Board Member.

From the nomination page:

"Lisa Cooley brings real education change to the school board table. Her position on progressive education and opposition to high-stakes testing and standardization bring the wider world of school transformation to a rural New England school district. She brings her ideas on meaningful student learning to every aspect of school board activity, from the budget, to curriculum decisions, to student expulsion hearings."

Perhaps most important to me is the fact that each vote has a short statement by the voter. It's an amazing feeling to be praised for exactly those qualities that I value and strive for. This one comes from my friend and fellow-nominee, Deven Black:

"Lisa is an inquisitive school board member working hard to keep student needs front and center in her district. The most striking thing about Lisa is her ability to admit she doesn't know enough about a topic and her tenacious work to learn what she doesn't know. She asks good questions, listens to the answers and then asks more questions, the mark of a life-long learner."
Take a look at the site, and read about some of the nominees. The purpose of the Awards is to call attention to the education profession, take a break from being attacked, villified, tested, evaluated and judged, and honor the best of what we do for children. If you feel like voting, please do! It takes less than a minute to create an account for yourself. 

I know that I would do this work even if I had no support and no appreciation...but I can't tell you how nice it is to have it. So, thanks to Lisa Nielsen (who is also nominated for an award, in the Commentator/Blogger category) for putting my name forward -- and for encouraging me push past thought, and into action.