How a Kansas farm town saved its school

With only 70 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Walton School faced closure.  People in the small Kansas town saw the school as “the only thing standing between their community and a future as a ghost town, writes Susan Headden.  The district turned it into a K-4 charter school, the Walton Rural Life Center, with a hands-on curriculum linked to farming.

  One of only two such elementary schools in the country, Walton, which now has 170 students (it pulls from outside the district), is considered an unqualified success. It scores in the top 5 percent on the state’s standardized achievement tests; it has been celebrated by the U.S. Department of Education; and educators come from across the country to learn its secrets. The school is so popular that its waiting list, now at 40, extends as far out as 2015. Some parents try to register their children while they are still in the womb.

Natise Vogt, the principal, says her school “is not out to produce the next generation of American farmers.”

 Walton picked agriculture for three simple reasons: kids love it, Kansas is a farm state, and as it turns out, there is almost nothing in elementary education that can’t be explained by relating it to cows and plows.

Take eggs. If second-grade teacher Staci Schill were running a standard classroom, she would be drilling her students on double-digit addition with the help of a prescribed textbook. There is still some of this kind of instruction, but building lessons around the agricultural theme lets kids see how they use their math facts in daily life. In this case, the students sell eggs produced by a small coop of hens. Every morning they rush out to collect and wash the eggs, inspect them for cracks, and box them for sale for $2 a dozen.  (They recently bought a sheep with the proceeds.) The students learn not just how to tell the difference between a Delaware Blue and a Rhode Island Red, but also about profit and loss and, when the chickens don’t lay enough to meet projections, supply and demand.

Walton kids take their rulers and protractors to everything from tractor tires to goat horns. They learn their ounces, cups, and pints by measuring grain for animal feed and oats for granola. Math and science come alive with trips to the grain elevator and a cruise inside a modern tractor, complete with GPS. The fourth-graders recently made a mockup of a wind turbine, learning about things like torque and the behavior of different blades.

Walton is attracting students with disabilities such as Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder: 25 percent of students have special needs, nearly double the rate for the district.


Khan tries hands-on ‘Discovery Lab’

Known for online videos, Salman Khan is experimenting with face-to-face, hands-on learning this summer, reports the New York Times. At Khan Academy‘s two-week summer camp in Palo Alto, middle schoolers “take apart household electronics, build robots and learn about probability by making bets in a make-believe casino.”

“It helps us learn what education can be and where our virtual stuff fits,” Mr. Khan said of the camp. “It gets us closer to how to run our own school.”

The Khan Academy’s online lectures are sometimes criticized for duplicating old-fashioned rote learning on a computer screen, and some critics question the way he teaches certain concepts. Mr. Khan says that view misunderstands what he is trying to do. He wants students to absorb basic skills online and be able to put them to use offline. And yes, he wants to build a school. It has been a glint in his eye for years. The summer camp, which he calls Discovery Lab, is an incubator of sorts. There is little to no time spent in front of the screen.

“We try out interactive projects, labs, explorations,” he said. “The ideal academic environment has a very physical component to it. For my own children, I want them to go to a physical school. I want them to have an immersive experience like these summer camps.”

Unlike Khan Academy videos, the camp is not free. Parents pay $1,000 for the two-week experience.

Khan isn’t a good teacher, argue a middle-school math teacher and two math professors on Answer Sheet. Khan responds here.

Building blocks are hot in NYC schools

Wooden building blocks are the hot new fad in New York City’s elite schools, reports the New York Times. The story starts  with “block consultant” Jean Schreiber leading a workshop for parents who want to know how to help their children play with blocks.  Schools advertise their “block labs” and “centers.”

Eva Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman who runs a fast-growing network of charter schools, said her schools had created a “religion around blocks,” and she proudly advertises their fully outfitted block labs alongside the chess program and daily science classes. The International School of Brooklyn is developing a program using blocks to reinforce foreign-language acquisition. And Avenues, the for-profit school scheduled to open next year in Greenwich Village, is devoting a large section of its kindergarten floor to a block center.

It costs about $1,000 to outfit a classroom with a set of blocks, which typically include 5.5-inch-long rectangles as well as pillars, columns, triangles, curves and longer rectangles.

Playing with blocks is supposed to help children learn math concepts, develop language skills and “build the 21st-century skills essential to success in corporate America,” such as not hitting your colleague when he takes the last pillar.

While teachers say children need time for unstructured play, building with blocks is often linked to the curriculum.

At the 92nd Street Y preschool, teachers videotape students doing block work so they can review their process. And at the Packer Collegiate Institute, the Brooklyn Heights private school where educators have recently recommitted themselves to blocks by hosting workshops for teachers and moving block corners to more centralized locations, students often use classroom computers to search for images or watch videos that help them visualize something to build.

They can’t just let the kids play?

My sister and I used to play with blocks, even though our mother had no formal training in encouraging block play. (She was taking care of our baby brother in another room.) My sister figured out how to build a dome ceiling with rectangular blocks. When we got bored, we’d knock it all down and play something else.

More than just a car

Missouri students and volunteer mentors are building a lightweight all-electric vehicle, but it’s more than just a car, Wired reports.

The car is the creation of Minddrive, an after-school program in Kansas City, Missouri that mentors students performing below their grade levels in traditional school environments. The kids meet every other Wednesday and on Saturday mornings and learn about automotive design and contemporary communications with mentors who work in the students’ fields of study. The auto-design students learn computer-aided design, welding and electrical engineering, while the communications students learn to promote the car as if the design studio was a client.

The team plans to drive the car  2,400 miles from Jacksonville, Florida to San Diego during spring break.

“We’re trying to take kids who haven’t been engaged in school and hook them to an expanded vision of what their future might be,” said Steve Rees, the program director.

Last year, students worked on a wrecked Lola Champ Car, even testing it out at Bridgestone’s Texas proving grounds. Those students are now learning advanced 3D modeling and Solidworks, while a new crop of kids — equal numbers of boys and girls — are working on the Reynard. So far, four kids have graduated from the program and each one is employed or in school.

“Our kids do this because they’re inspired to be there every week, to work with adults and do hands on things,” said Rees.



Quiet desperation

Using “white pine from the shores of Walden Pond and lumber salvaged from an old shack” Henry David Thoreau built a 10- by 15-foot cabin by the shores of Walden Pond. But Thoreau didn’t have to deal with the building codes, writes Michael Smith, a history and environmental studies professor at Ithaca College, on Inside Higher Ed.

Ithaca’s first-year students are reading Walden. The environmental studies department decided to build a model of Thoreau’s cabin, letting students, as the writer put it, “not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.”

Students, faculty, alumni, and community members who learned about the project all expressed a desire, even a craving, to become involved, to be able to build with their own hands. Their answer to Thoreau’s question, “Shall we ever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?” was loud and clear.

And so sketches were made. A crew of students and faculty spent a day and a half pulling hemlock boards and timbers from a collapsed 120-year-old barn. The campus site for the build was selected. We sent the hand-drawn sketches to an architect friend to be rendered as computer-designed drawings.

Then the town bureaucrats demanded that the cabin conform to the building codes, which require a sprinkler system. The project stopped, waiting for a permit that may be issued in the spring. Or never.  I suppose it’s educational.