Learning about the world can be more fun than summer camp

I just read a fun review of a summer camp in the most recent issue of Durham Magazine, and I saw several other exciting ads for summer learning as well…

summer camp

It struck me that there’s a contrast between “summer learning,” which is free and open and exciting, and wonderful, and “regular school,” which presumably is not. That saddens me, particularly since camp lasts a few weeks, while “school” lasts most of the year.

People often ask why I am opening a brand new middle school in less than six months. One of the big reasons is that I love authentic learning. I’m so excited to learn about the world with young people who are curious. I also think the real-world projects we will do will be fascinating. [Here’s a link to a blog post that describes a typical schedule at TLC.]

Right now — today — there’s fascinating stuff going on in the world. Here are three examples of topics that most middle and high school classes are not talking about, because they’re following their “curriculum”:

The Pope: On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will resign at the end of the month. No pope has resigned since 1415. What a great authentic opportunity to learn about the Catholic Church and its history! Who is the pope? How is he or she selected? Who was the first pope?

The President: Tuesday night, President Obama delivered his State of the Union Speech. What a great opportunity to review (or learn about for the first time) the three branches of government — especially since all three branches were gathered in one place. How is the president elected? What do Senators and Representatives do? Who are the nine men and women wearing the funky black robes?


Students also love to hear about the one member of the cabinet who sits out the State of the Union in case of an explosion — last night that honor went to Energy Secretary Steven Chu — he was the designated survivor.

Syria’s Civil War: I heard a disturbing piece on NPR on Monday about how many people have been killed and displaced from the ongoing violence  in Syria.  Here’s how it began:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan, in Washington. The numbers from Syria can leave you numb: nearly 700,000 refugees now in neighboring countries, and the U.N. says their numbers grow by 5,000 every day, maybe two million internally displaced, 60,000 dead again according to the U.N., and that estimate came before the most recent intensification of combat in and around Damascus.

For each of these topics, students at TLC middle school would first read a reliable article about the topic from a variety of sources. Each student would then make a place mark on Google Earth, and write a few sentences about each story. One place mark would go in Vatican City, where the Pope lives; one would go on the Capitol in Washington, DC, where the State of the Union was delivered; and one place mark (at least) would go in Damascus and some surrounding areas in Syria.


We would then vote about which topic we’d discuss in our morning news session. Will we unpack the war in Syria (or any of these stories) in one sitting? No. But the beauty of TLC middle school and its flexibility is that if students are interested in learning more, we can make that part of the homework for the evening — learn more about an aspect of the crisis in Syria and share what you learned in a Google Doc by 9 p.m. Then, everyone would start in the morning by reading what other folks wrote, and we would continue the conversation: Who is Bashar al-Assad? Why did this conflict start? Who are the rebels?

I blogged some about Syria back in 2012, and students could read those blog posts as background, as well as conduct their own research and pose their own questions. We might even be able to Skype with people on the ground in Damascus or other areas of Syria. And there are plenty of middle east experts at local universities (Duke, UNC, NCCU, NC State, to name a few). And if we get into the topic of Syria, there are experts around the world we could contact via Skype (or at least email).

The key is to find out what topics interest a particular group of students and to dive deep into those topics. And here’s a newsflash: not all students have to do the same thing at the same time. What a concept!

If some students are not grabbed by the State of the Union, for example, they can get to balance of powers and other aspects of the US government some other time during our three years together. If some students do decide to explore the State of the Union and put it in context, they can make that a project they would pursue in a few weeks. While they do that, other students might propose their own project, or decide to read and write about books of their choice.

We also don’t have to unpack the history of the Pope and Christianity all at once.  But at some point, we’ll surely want to explore Christianity, a religion that has more than two billion adherents in today’s world. The same is true for Islam, with at least 1.6 billion adherents. (And of course, both of those estimates depend on who’s doing the counting).

When we do get into the topic Christianity in some depth, we can have students pull up their Google Earth place mark from February 2013, when Benedict XVI made his big announcement. They will start to tie things together, which is how the world is — interconnected.

vatican city

My enthusiasm for learning about the world tends to be infectious, and I’m excited for students at TLC to engage with the world in authentic and meaningful ways. If we do this right, students will find their experience at TLC even more exciting than summer camp.

If that sounds like an absurd notion — that learning about the world couldn’t possibly be as much fun as summer camp — then we have a narrow vision of the ways that young people can learn about, and empathize with, what’s going on in our world today.

At TLC middle school, we will show the world that learning can be fun, vigorous, and exciting.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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