I peer into the window of the classroom. The students sit in their desks, a rapt audience, hanging on the teacher’s every word. Their excitement is palpable. Once instructions are given, the students leap from their seats and appear to spontaneously form two teams, one on each side of the room. Their activity hives around several different stations, where supplies are piled high - notepads, pens, and art supplies on one table, multihued metal discs and metal-working tools on the other. The collective energy of all students has been simultaneously ignited and harnessed. Exploratory Hour has begun.
Exploratory Hour is a time of unstructured, hands-on discovery in which the middle grades at the Academy participate on a weekly basis. There are no lesson plans, and the students’ interest largely dictates the direction the exploration will go. Learning transpires in an incredibly powerful way as each student engages in self-directed exploration, in tandem with their peers, and under the guidance of an expert.
Teachers facilitate this class on a rotation, so each week there’s a different combination of teachers in the classroom. Within one semester, students will have 30 different teachers for Exploratory Hour - and according to Mr. Munoz, an Academy homeroom teacher, this is their favorite part. “The mystery of Exploratory Hour is a big draw for my students, but the thing I appreciate about it is that they’re always more excited to see which teachers will be there to facilitate, even more than what the particular activities will be," he says.
The rotation of teachers becomes integral in the practical application of this learning experience. Rather than having one teacher up until all hours the night before Exploratory Hour, googling things like “creative hands-on play-based learning” and “how to stimulate discovery in one hour," we allow the weight of the burden of creative excellence to fall across many shoulders. In this way, teachers have only to come in and bring who they are, and the expertise they’ve acquired over their lifetime. The joy of personal interests, giftings and hobbies is exponentiated as it burns through the student population like wildfire. Academy teacher Corey Foster introduced a group of students to origami in Exploratory Hour. That day in class, all other activities went unheeded as the students devoured the magical folds that create little paper creatures. Not only did the students love it, they went home and taught their siblings. Soon, paper cranes were commonplace around campus.
While intricate folding art might not change the world, what might become of a group of students whose minds are engaged in learning because of the joy it brings them? Each week, new areas of study are offered. The journey into learning deepens, children are laughing, collaborating, questioning, growing, dendrites are firing: learning is happening - and all the students know is that they are having the time of their lives, as they perfect a new origami fold, or don beekeeping gear and identify the queen for the first time. As they plug in an electric guitar and turn the amp all the way up. As they learn how to fashion a binding for the stories they’ve written. As they learn to write songs. Learn to sew. Make tortillas. Research the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Take a nature walk and create a collage with the things they gathered. Learn detailed paper airplane patterns, and then test them out. Make jewelry. Learn photography. Dismantle electronics and rebuild them. Try out power tools. Sculpt clay.
Eleven year old student River says it’s a high point for him each week. "Exploratory hour is what i wait for all week. It’s completely random, you never really know what it’s gonna be, it could be something super fun.” And what if, perchance, it’s NOT something fun, I ask. River is unfazed. “There are always multiple options,” he counters matter of factly. Jayden, age 10, says she "feels free” in Exploratory Hour and she should, because - as she has correctly intuited - the hour is intentionally structured to be a unique experience for each child.
Children are naturally inquisitive, curious beings, and they thrive in environments that afford them the time and space to explore the path; when, unfettered by rules, they can gather information, engaging their minds and bodies to arrive at conclusions and discoveries on their own. These moments sink into the muscle memory of cognition, and they alter the way the students see themselves, and the way they engage the world around them. They become problem solvers, philosophers, artists, builders, and in those moments, the world isn’t so difficult to navigate. If we can give our students this moment, every single one of us - and the future at large - are better for it.