Nurturing a Culture of Equality: The Nova Project

Is there room for democratically run, inquiry-based schools in today’s climate of test-and-punish accountability? Is it possible to create spaces where students follow their own interest and pursue inquiries that matter to them? And, if so, what would an inquiry-based high school look like in practice?

Well, I can tell you a few things about The Nova Project, a public high school in Seattle, where I currently teach: at department meetings there isn’t much talk about how to implement the Common Core; and, we don’t spend much time talking about test scores—except when we’re discussing our opt-out numbers (we had 100% last year); what you will see though, are teachers discussing how to best support students, how to partner with community organizations to get services and provide opportunities for students in school and out in the larger Seattle community; you’ll also hear teachers planning courses on the films of Kurosawa and Wes Anderson; or, courses on Dante’s Inferno and graphic novels, as well as Shakespearean tragedies; you’ll also see classes focusing exclusively on Young Adult Literature (YAL); as well as classes on African American Studies; spoken word poetry; writing blogs; novel and short story writing; courses on the history of skateboarding; courses on the history of the neighborhood; courses on math and music; courses on the environment; animation, dance, and music courses; and, classes on philosophy. What’s more, we don’t have grades at Nova; students demonstrate competencies through things like projects, performances, artworks, and critical reflections.

But my point in writing about all of this is not simply to brag about how great Nova is, and it’s certainly not to suggest that we’ve solved all the problems of education, or that we have somehow created a template for schooling, but rather I want to remind folks of what’s possible, even today in the age of accountability and standardization. I want to make clear that it is possible to make positive changes in public schools, to get involved, to opt out, to go on strike, to occupy, to push back, to demonstrate, and to adapt what we do in schools as well as how we do it. Ideas about inquiry-based and project-based education and research about democratic education aren’t new. So, the question is this: Why aren’t more of us organizing our schools around these ideas?  Why aren’t more of our education leaders pushing for real creative and innovative public schools and then giving teachers and students the space to explore what’s worth knowing and doing?

In this post, NCTE writer Bill Bystricky continues his investigation into The Nova Project, a public high school in Seattle that embraces democracy, equality, and freedom.

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2 comments

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ciedie. Yeah, the 100% opt out was really incredible, though the district was not particularly happy about it. I’m not sure what our numbers will look like this year, but I’m hopeful that parents and students will look carefully at how these tests are being used to advance the privatization of public education. One would think that public school officials would see this, too, and reject this narrow view of assessment.

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