After being a student for many years, and now in my 12th year of teaching, I am in a state of constant amazement at what students e-mail to say they remember after years away from our classroom. It makes me recollect what is most vivid about my own schooling experience.
Way back in fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Looney, whose persona and experience in the classroom was imbued by everything his name suggests. Nothing was normal in that class—writing stories was a path into the heart of imagination. Words were not made of letters but rather of dreams. Reading was time travel. Even the mundane task of getting ready to go to lunch became some kind of adventure, full of humor and intrigue and danger.
On the first day of class that year, Mr. Looney stood up on a chair, holding aloft the dreaded spelling textbook with which we students had already become familiar over the past couple years.
“Do you all recognize this?” he asked.
“Yes, Mr. Looney,” we groaned.
“Good, then you can say goodbye to it,” he uttered, shocking us. But his subsequent action bequeathed an even more shocking reaction from us: Mr. Looney wound that textbook back behind his head as if he were a professional baseball pitcher.
Then, he let loose!
And the spelling textbook landed squarely in the garbage can across the room.
“We won’t be using that this year,” and his grin spoke a kind of zeal I have never since forgotten. For Mr. Looney, learning was about connection, imagination, application, and a sense of being fully alive. I wrote more in 5th grade than I did in any high school class. In Mr. Looney’s FLAIR writing program, we wrote pages and pages because he catalyzed us to write without fear of criticism and evaluation, Instead, we lived and breathed at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy: in the land of creation.
This is what I remember of school. I have forgotten so many of the memorized terms; I have forgotten so many dates. What I remember is a great passion for words: how writing them and reading them grows us as people and connects us to one another and the world around us.
Now, as a teacher and dad, I see my own 7th graders and my own two young sons craving the same thing: connection, imagination, and application. In this sense, my highest aim and my greatest hope it to make writing and reading anything but preparation for a standardized test; instead, my heart longs to make these skills bridges that enable students to cross into a world of What If?
This week, my 7th grade students are crafting projects that we entitle MY IDEAL SCHOOL, and within, they are re-imagining what school means. Some design schools where students create their own projects and presentations every day. Other students design schools where there is a veritable obstacle course—complete with trampolines and tunnels—that students must pass through to get from one class to another to help wake up the brain and move the body in an otherwise sadly sedentary endeavor.
This project asks 7th graders to create seven slides which explore the practical functioning of their designed schools, how decisions would be made, the school’s underlying philosophy, course offerings, and daily schedules. Additionally, the project asks students to create two slides that connect it to the themes in the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and a reading entitled, “Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.”
Students then present their slide show to the entire class, sharing drawings, schedules, leadership teams, mission statements, and overviews with all of us. I ask them to pretend that we are a school board or a group of state education leaders, and they have been invited to present their new school design and idea to us for consideration.
In short, these ideal school projects always inspire me because they show me that when we ask our students to create rather than criticize, we should prepare ourselves for wonder and surprise. We should prepare ourselves for that most beautiful of all things: imagination that translates into reality. As I sit listening to these presentations, I see sparks of energy and interest and empowerment: students believing—and helping me believe—that we can always re-create and re-think and re-envision. Indeed, this is the bedrock of education in a society that seeks to learn and improve.
As teachers and as parents, our greatest task and our most important responsibility to help out kids cross into a world of what if. This is the sublime gift that Mr. Looney once gave me, and it the generosity I hope to pay forward.
Luke Reynolds is a 7th grade teacher in the public school system in Harvard, MA and is the author of the middle grade novel The Looney Experiment and the picture book Bedtime Blastoff! On the web at www.lukewreynolds.com.