Two Books About School

…but not books about reading, writing or arithmetic. Not exactly.

Both books tell surprising stories about creativity, and support the thesis that experiential learning can be far more powerful than anything that can be tested.

I really like the way elementary school John Hunter sets up his story, so I’ll recap it:

“Three children have made their way into the room, gazing silently at the Plexiglas structure that represents our planet. It’s an imposing, four-level affair—undersea, ground and sea, airspace, and outer space—covered with submarines and ships, soldiers and cities, tanks and oil wells, spy planes and satellites….There is a United Nations, a World Bank, two or three arms dealers, and a weather god or goddess, who controls the vagaries of tsunamis and hurricanes, determines the fate of the stock market, and tosses coins to determine the outcomes of battles and coups d’etat. The children are provided with national budgets, assets, stores of armaments, and portfolios outlining fifty global crises. Then they are given ten weeks to save the world.”

For a video overview, click on the picture:

World Peace Game

The game works because it is is difficult, requiring students to figure out the many things they need to know, but do not know. So they figure things out—a far better way to learn than memorization or textbooks. Hunter describes three types of thinking that improve by playing the game:

  • the development of knowledge based upon facts
  • the unexpected insights and creative solutions that result from trying and failing and trying again
  • the gradual accumulation of wisdom that comes from collaboration, cooperation, conflict, and observation

book-3d-340For thirty years, Hunter has been playing the game with his students, without much notice, mostly in Virginia and Maryland. Then came a documentary, then a TEDTalk, then, this book. He’s now quite well-known, but a cursory understanding is quite different from the deeper understanding that a few hours with a good book and a good author can provide. The book works best when he is the teacher, which, of course, means learning a great deal about himself. He tells one story of his desire to expand his own personal world view by traveling and studying eastern religions and philosophies in ancient monasteries. Feeling good about his worldliness, he (and his dreadlocks) attracted the attention of several Chinese school girls on long train ride. After trying out their English and asking questions about American life, they asked him several simple questions: “Sir, where do you belong? Who do you belong to? Who is your group?” This set off a series of questions in his own mind; he explains: “This struck me because I had been in so many different groups since I left my home community—so many spiritual and social groups—that I’d begun to feel that I had no particular allegiance anywhere, simple because I had come to have allegiance everywhere.” A short time later, woken from a  dream, he conceived of all of the mechanics of the Game in a single instant. “It came to be in a diagram, an interconnected matrix of countries aligned in opposition to one another on every possible level—vertically (undersea, ground and sea, etc.) and laterally—each country at odds with every other in every possible sphere: economic, military, social, ethnic. I would actually see the multifaceted crises floating there above my bed as I lay awake in the pre-dawn hours.”

Hunter teaches in Richmond, Virginia. Several hundred miles up the coast, just north of Philadelphia, Tracey Krause is continuing the work that her teacher, and then, her mentor, Lou Volpe began. They produce high school theater. At Harry S Truman High School, theater may be the most important thing they do. It’s the school whose test runs of Les Miserables and RENT were so good, the owners of those properties determined that these productions could, in fact, be produced in high school. In high school theater, that’s a pretty big deal. In the life of Truman, it’s a minor detail.

Drama HighWhen the author visits Lou Volpe in his home, the living room walls are covered, top to bottom, with theater posters. When he watches Volpe interact with students, the author comments, “over time, one of the things that I come to see is how deeply Volpe knows his students. How couldn’t he? They take chances on stage that reveal their inner selves. But it is also true that the very things they learn from being involved in theater—empathy, the ability to imagine lives other than their own, the actor’s gift for giving a character a backstory…allow them to know him.”

It all ties together. “The theater classes are the foundation of Truman Drama, an essential element in its success. Plays and musicals that Volpe puts into production are already familiar to his students because they have studied them in class….In Volpe’s classroom, thousands of books are piled into bookshelves and stacked so high that if you remove a volume, you have to be careful the whole tower of them does not come tumbling down. The books are a reflection of one man’s catholic tastes—works by Shakespeare and Sondheim; David Mamet and David Hare; Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Thornton Wilder, Yasmina Reza, Wallace Shawn, Horton Foote, Paul Rudnick, Athol Fugard and on and on and on. They are not for decoration; they are used. If a student is looking for a monologue to perform in a festival or for a scholarship audition, Volpe reaches into the pile, pulls out something from the stack, and says, ‘Look in here. You might find what you want.’”

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

Author Michael Sokolove was inspired to write Drama High, in part, because he attended Truman (then, Woodrow Wilson). He tells the story of Truman Drama, mostly, through individual students, their personal and academic lives, their hopes and dreams, and their lives as young performers. He also allows Mr. Volpe’s successor, Tracey Krause her time in the spotlight: “Her energy level is staggering.. She teaches all day, spends endless hours with the theater program, coaches her kids’ soccer teams (she used to coach the sport at Truman), runs half marathons, has an active dating life, makes frequent visits to the tanning salon, and finds time to jet off to Las Vegas for occasional weekends to visit her best friend.”

So what are we learning? Sure, there are lots of ways to do school, some more and some less traditional. This isn’t an English class essay, so I’ll steer clear of identifying common themes, but I’ll allow myself just one. The sense of community provided by a big game, and a theater program—a sense that some student enjoy because they’re good at sports and others enjoy because they’re just plain brilliant. Here are two stories about two teachers (three, including Ms. Krause) that open doors for every student willing to enter and engage.

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