What would you choose if given the opportunity to spend a week on a project that involved independent planning, investigation, and deep diving? For Camden Maine’s Watershed School students there were no limits to what they could choose. This year’s selections included screen and short story writing, building an ergonomic keyboard, a jazz chord intensive, sculpture, contemporary and ballroom dancing, building laminated skis and a wooden boat, metal smithing, oil painting, cooking, glass blowing, and figuring out how to determine a planet’s existence. During the first week of the new year each Watershed student is on his or her own; well not quite. “Subject Matter Experts”, whom they select as mentors to support their independent studies, are on board. In one week’s time ninth through twelfth graders research, mess about, examine, stumble, and discover something about what they set out to find.
In the process they undoubtedly learn an enormous amount about themselves.
“I had never touched paint before, and I was terrified of color.”
At the end of this solo week, in the Pecha Kucha style, students share their work with the school community, showing 20 slides for 20 seconds each. Some give a bit of history on their topic. Others describe the sequence of their experience, connections they make, or joy they feel.
“One student remarked, “You’ve got to do it 1,000 times before you get good at it!” “I’m definitely going to do this for the rest of my life!” I noticed that kids had integrated relevant new vocabulary, like “properly tempered chocolate,” “market analysis,” “executive summary,” and “ocean acidification.” Having interviewed, observed, constructed, coded, created business plans, made original art, choreographed, composed, investigated scientific issues, and stretched themselves in ways they likely never imagined, they talked about ways in which they’d “looked for inspiration.” So involved, many stated, “I wish I had more time.”
Many of the Watershed students had been considering their topic for months before they’d made their final selection. I couldn’t help but think it must have been like picking a chocolate from a delectable box of sweets – eliminating some enticing possibilities before making one’s final choice. Each one’s rationale, e.g.,”I’d never made anything that looked professional,” “I don’t paint, but I wanted to,” “In a declining place (like Waterville) I wanted to increase the creative community,” seemed consistent with who each student was.
Near the end of the evening and without embarrassment one boy disclosed, “I plugged it in, and it didn’t work. I worked on it 2 more days trying to figure out what was going on. I honestly have no clue as to where the problem is.” Understanding that it is all part of the process, he assured the audience, “I’m still working on it!”
It hardly mattered in the week he had, that he hadn’t accomplished what he’d anticipated. The whole point was that he was, as were his peers, on a path to figure something out. The process, though at times frustrating, was pushing his thinking further. Much further.
One student’s comment, “I allowed my imagination to flow,” says it all. Giving kids the opportunity to delve into something that taps into their passions, use their hands, articulate what’s gone wrong, and ultimately create something entirely new – is what the best education is about. And it takes courage on the part of students and a school to make it happen.
My heartfelt congratulations to the Watershed School community, Nancy Harris Frohlich