How the Academy harnessed students' interests to create a semester they won't forget
We all know that enthusiasm drives the learning process. Give someone a topic they’re excited about and they will find the determination to push through great challenges to accomplish that goal.
As a homeschooled student I can remember watching my older brother sit at the table with my mother each day, struggling through algebra. He cried through every single lesson. It was such a sad sight that it’s been burned into my memory. He despised math and thought he was terrible at it.
But when my brother turned 15 and began to pursue his pilot’s license, he began to apply math when planning flight routes, calculating angles of descent, and considering fuel needs. With the incentive of being able to fly, he dug into his math studies and passed one exam after another. Private license. Instrument rating. Commercial license. Today my brother is a successful pilot. His love for an activity carried him through the challenge of learning an academic skill that didn’t come easily. Enthusiasm.
This has been a weakness of the current primary educational system in our country, which teaches a set of information or academic skills devoid of real-life application that would produce enthusiasm.
At the Academy for G.O.D., Headmaster Garner has created a schedule of classes that many professional educators dream of. He took time to hear from students what it was they were enthusiastic about and put together a (complex!) grid of courses that use that particular subject matter to teach the academic skills that kids need.
I’ll explain. Throughout the fall semester, Mr. Garner and Principal Johnson met with representative students of every level, from 6 year olds to graduating seniors, to find out what they were enjoying at school, and what they wished they could do more of. After each meeting Garner and Johnson walked away with lists of topics that our students wanted to study.
The 6 year olds wanted to learn “how to make beads, tie bows, and draw animals!” The next group of students (8-10 yrs. old) asked for “robotics, soccer, baking and anatomy”. Students preparing for Jr. High wanted more worship band, survival skills, first aid, and ‘how to socialize’ (yes, we had to sit with that one for a minute too). Jr. High and High students asked for more service opportunities (What?!), science classes and performing arts.
After gathering these perspectives and organizing them by themes, Mr. Garner sat down with the Academy teachers and we began planning how we could use that content to teach important academic skills. We did this by focusing not just on the “what” (raw information) but on the “how” and the “why” (how to access that information, and why it’s important). We then organized the requests into a rubric that connected each topic with one of the three disciplines of study: Language Arts, Creative Arts and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). The result? Classes with titles like “Sew, Sew, Sew Cool!” (Creative Arts) “Robot Gutz” (STEM) and “Intro to Medical Terminology” (Language Arts).
I teach 10 year olds, and they wanted to learn about ‘exploding stuff.’ However, I’m their Language Arts teacher, so I had to find a way to teach Language Arts concepts while still satiating their curiosity about explosions. So, the first two weeks of the semester I spent teaching them a unit titled “The History of Fireworks”. While we did learn that fireworks were likely invented by a Chinese monk in the 7th century, what I was more concerned with teaching them in those 2 weeks was the skill of note-taking. I taught the students how to identify the main idea in a paragraph and write relevant points down in an organized, abbreviated fashion.
We practiced using a dictionary app on their iPads to define any new vocabulary, and how to follow the trail of a word back to its origin (e.g., search ‘combustion’ and see that it comes from the root ‘combust’.) We took a detour to discuss how dates are recorded, and looked up what the terms ‘A.D. and B.C.’ mean. We compared sources with contradicting accounts and discussed why those contradictions might exist. A few weeks later, when we shifted our content focus to the History of Japanese Gardens, the skill of note-taking stayed central as the academic skill being developed.
These kinds of discussions and organic studies are happening in every classroom at the Academy. It has made for a lively learning environment! While the approach demands greater flexibility and discernment from our teachers, the reward has been seeing students excited and focused throughout each class.
Jr. High teacher Ben Reese, shared candidly that the new schedule sets before him a high bar of becoming a more sensitive, responsive teacher, whose focus is on the students and what they need to learn in the moment, rather than what curriculum he could (more easily) prepare ahead of time. “This method of scheduling really focuses on teaching the students how to learn, which is undoubtedly the point of education. Otherwise we teachers would just be replaced by Google.”
As a teacher I have enjoyed equipping my students with valuable life skills that are not limited to a specific subject, but rather give them tools for approaching a variety of situations. They get to see how multiplication applies both in designing a Japanese pagoda, as well as doubling and tripling a baking recipe. When the end result of your recipe depends on if you correctly doubled 3 teaspoons of baking soda, multiplication matters a lot! Enthusiasm. It drives the learning process, and it can be found in spades in our bustling Academy classrooms!