In a recent post, a reader commented that we don’t provide alternatives to the approach that the privateers of our educational system are taking by way of developing a charter school industry.

Well, we do but the reader does have a point. We have gone into a mode of reaction in response to the continual attack on our educational system without getting into a stronger position of being more proactive.

So, on that note, I will start the conversation with something positive and will continue posts in that vein in the next several months.

We’ll start with what I do and what I am familiar with.

I am an architect and I teach a class that I have titled Architecture 101. The program is similar to a school that my student attends, The Nova Project, a high school in Seattle.

The comment that was made by the reader got me thinking about the parallels between what I do and the approach that Nova takes. Nova is an alternative high school and part of a larger group of alternative schools in Seattle that were established around 50 years ago. Their success over the years is a testament to programs that work in our school district.

Recently I began to teach a course at Nova that I am co-teaching with a history teacher that focuses on how architecture and design has evolved through the centuries and how that evolution reflects the social values and aspirations of those cultures. I am not being paid for this but wanted to see how it could work. One of the very positive aspects about Nova is that teachers have the opportunity to explore different opportunities to provide their students with an understanding and knowledge of different subjects.

If the course is successful, I will look for funding for this effort so that I can work on a paid basis. Another option that I have is to go through alternative certification, something that was cooked up by the privateers to bring Teach for America to Seattle. The first argument for this piece of legislation was that people like myself would have an opportunity to teach in the public school system without having to go back to school to obtain a teaching certificate. Of course that argument went by the wayside as soon as the legislation was approved and instead we got TFA, Inc. recruits. I am digressing but it is well worth mentioning, that if you have an accumulated amount of experience in a field that you think can be of value to students, you now can request an alternative route for certification to teach in our public schools. I would recommend giving it a try and if it doesn’t work, let me know. If TFA, Inc. can recruit students straight out of college, provide them with five weeks of training and then place them in our most “low performing” schools, than others with far more education and experience should be able to teach in those schools and others as well.

An Emergency Housing Project

So, back to the parallels between my class and Nova. First, both programs are project based. An example of that is the topic Egyptian Architecture and Design that I teach in my Architecture 101 class.

A monument to Nature.

We look at the architecture of that time, discover elements of the architecture and come up with reasons why, for instance, there was an opening between the ceiling of a temple and the top of the columns. After exploring the architecture and what was happening during that period, I have the students design a project using three of the elements or ideas that they saw in the images. We discuss it and after a lesson in scale, the students are off and running in developing their ideas. That’s project based learning in its’ most simple format.

At Nova in a film class, for instance, the class watched, among other films, Brokeback Mountain. The students were to devise a project that reflected what they learned from viewing one of the movies. My student chose Brokeback Mountain and wrote a “journal” using the voice of one of the main characters and describing a day (or days) in the life of that person. I thought that it was brilliant, how could I not? Listening to her read the journal, I could “see” the character and feel what they were feeling.

You could do the same with Physics. Have the students design a roller coaster ride. How DO those riders not fall out of the cars when they’re upside down?

That in its’ most simple terms is “project based learning”. A teacher can tell that the student understood the lesson based on what they do. Route memory and continual testing is not necessary with this model and a student can’t “fake it”. It is apparent by the results of a project whether the student understands the material or not.

STEM, which is a new program in Seattle, looked to Nova as a successful example of project based learning and worked with the Nova principal when developing their classes and approach.

“Student centered learning”. For my classes that part is built in. The students chose the topic that they want to explore but I do allow the freedom for the student to choose a different subject if that is what they want to do. The student then gains far more from the class and has a positive learning experience, something that you always want a student to have. That way they’ll keep wanting to go to school.

At Nova, because the students are in high school and preparing to take the next step into being responsible adults, they have a say on budgetary issues, they are part of the interview process when a new teacher is to be hired, they decide on their own social activities and raise money for those functions. They also understand the responsibility of being world citizens and are involved in issues of sustainability and social justice, two subjects that are at times intertwined. They also determine at the beginning of a course what they want to learn and how they will go about showing their understanding and mastery of the subject matter.

A Holiday Village

And finally, the third parallel is that there are no grades. In my classes, the student feels that they have achieved something by completing a project usually in the form of a model and have learned something that will stay with them when they are in school and can start to make the connections.

At Nova, the students receive credits for their work, not grades. What that means basically is that a student cannot move on with a “D” performance. A corresponding credit would be zero. Then the student would need to take another course that has the same requirement of competence in that subject and receive a quarter, half or full credit to move on. It’s not always easy but it works.

Senior Project

Other parallels, my classes are set up like a studio where students feel comfortable sharing their ideas and thoughts and begin to feel comfortable and confident in their ideas.

At Nova, most of the classes are more seminar style than a traditional classroom. The students and teacher sit in something of a circle and discuss the subject at hand. I have seen this approach provide Nova students with confidence that they didn’t have initially in sharing their thoughts and understanding that their ideas have value.

There is, as always, so much more to Nova as with any program.

Please feel free to share your positive educational experiences with us as well as programs that you think I should look into for future posts.


By the way, I am offering Spring Break and Summer classes this year.