I know this sounds a bit far-fetched, but here goes: What if we were to scrap the traditional notion of a "school" as a set of buildings on a piece of property? What if we were to create a school on wheels? What if a school could be transformed into a series of buses or motorcoaches that traveled to the locations being studied?
Last week I had the privilege of spending five days in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Mission Springs Outdoor Education Camp with about 80 students learning about stream ecology, composting, plants and animals native to California.
Here's what I saw: kids highly engaged with content. They sat through lectures and then were rewarded with experiencing the subject matter firsthand. Afterwards they worked tirelessly on journals, reflecting on their learning and savoring the opportunity to have learned from a medium other a lifeless book or paper handout. I watched as kids cracked open acorns and ate grubs, as they let banana slugs perch upon their noses, as they sorted food waste after meals and learned how trash can be turned into soil! The lessons they learned will not soon be forgotten.
When I think about a "school" as I have known it, it's nothing more than buildings on property stocked with books and staff. It means mortgages and property insurance in addition to the millions of dollars spent on textbooks (are they really that good?) and district office personnel (are they really that necessary?). It means utility bills for water and electricity. It means contracting for police services (they really are that expensive!) and maintenance.
Why not put teachers and kids on reasonably accomodated motorcoaches and send them on learning expeditions? Lectures could take place on the road. Onboard televisions and computers with internet could facilitate research and learning. Hard work on the road would be rewarded with the opportunity to experience the subject matter firsthand.
I'm a civics geek. Earlier this year, I was in Washington, D.C. listening to a panel of scholars discussing the dismal news of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as it relates to Civics. Long story short: Our nation's students don't really understand much about the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the workings of government or their role in our republic. (Check it out for yourself by clicking here.)
But what if kids were able to have access to teachers passionate about civics and history? What if they got on a bus, read, researched, wrote about civics and citizenship and the workings of government and then had the chance to see these topics in action?
I had this discussion with several of our nation's finest civic educators while back in D.C. Their reaction: They loved it!
Here's a sample itinerary for a unit on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States:
Start in Delano, California to learn about Cesar Chavez and his efforts to organize the United Farm Workers as a means to protect the rights of Latino migrant laborers. Next stop: Manzanar, California to learn about the internment Japanese Americans and how civil liberties are affected during times of war.
Then, east to the Moulin Rouge hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada to learn about the nation's first major interracial hotel and segregation. Afterwards, on to Arizona to learn about the Navajo Nation and the nature of the relationship between Native Americans and the United States.
We continue eastward to Topeka, Kansas to better understand segregation in schools and the historic Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case. This could be followed by a stop in Little Rock, Arkansas to visit Central High School which in 1957 (three years after Brown) was still segregated. From there we go to Memphis, Tennessee to study the Sanitation Worker's Strike and visit the Lorraine Hotel, which is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum and the site where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assasinated.
Time to head south to Birmingham, Alabama to learn about the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, the Children's March, and the Birmingahm Civil Rights Museum. This would be followed by a stop in Greensboro, North Carolina to visit the F.W. Woolworth building and study how grassroots efforts to integrate one lunch counter spread to 126 cities nationwide one year later.
Our learning expedition would end with an extended stay in Washington, D.C. where students could do more than merely "tour" the capitol. They would spend a few weeks hitting the books at the Library of Congress, studying primary sources and artifacts in museums, interviewing scholars and experts, and visiting the National Archives film, audio, and photographic collections in College Park, Maryland.
The culminating activity would be the creation of a documentary film summarizing their learning and incorporating archival film, audio and photographs.
"Rolling schools" could be designed to teach science, math, literature, or any subject. Physical education could be integrated along the way to break up the time spent on interstates. A simple food truck could be a part of the caravan, serving locally-grown, healthy foods.
I wouldn't claim this idea is perfect or completely thought out, but I can say this with a fair degree of certainty: We need to do better than we are now. We have to find a way to deliver a world-class education to our kids in a way that is both cost-effective and able to engage kids in learning.