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Before she began the lesson, Kerry Ferguson reminded her kindergarteners not to bother each other, not to interrupt — and not to raise their hands before speaking. Some timid, some eager, the tiny students offered up their ideas about a story in which the mouse saves a lion by chewing through a net.
“Why was the little mouse so scared, terrified and afraid of the lion when they first met?” Ferguson asked them.
“The little mouse was too little and the lion was big,” one girl said.
“Because mice are afraid of cats,” another girl added. “Like house cats will chase a mouse.”
It might seem strange to ask squirming kids to avoid raising their hands. But it is crucial to what Muir is trying to do. On the other end of campus, Chet Hancock actually nudged one raised hand aside. His class of middle and high schoolers was poring over a dense text by Ralph Waldo Emerson about manual labor laden with words like “antagonism” and sharing ideas.
Muir has changed the way it looks at learning. It pulled teachers out of the limelight. It let kids drive the discussions. And it focused on individualized projects that pull from different subjects, such as having students study their personal heroes and making websites about them.
Three years ago, the K-12 magnet school in Clairemont turned to an educational philosophy called Paideia, a relatively rare approach that emphasizes freewheeling seminars, personalized projects and critical thinking. Lectures are frowned on. Nobody has the one right answer. Muir’s immediate goal was to get students more engaged in class, but the method has a broader aim — to teach kids to think, read and write critically all their lives.
Small discussions break out all the time at Muir, a public school where middle schoolers ponder why to do math or high schoolers analyze Surrealist paintings. The whole school also sits down and talks over a text with the same theme — one for the younger kids, one for the older ones — at least once monthly. Vince Stevens had to bite his tongue as teens talked over the difficult Emerson text on the virtues of creating things: “The advantage of riches remains with him who procured them, not with the heir.”
“Maybe it’s not sincere,” one teen ventured, peering around a class ranging from seventh graders to seniors. “Maybe he’s just trying to improve worker morale.”
Another teen drew a parallel to how he cared more about things he built himself than things his parents bought for him. And a third linked it to inherited culture — how a Mexican or Jewish person might “inherit everything” from their parents, but not really appreciate their heritage.
“They can take the conversation in a direction that I never would have imagined,” Stevens said later. “I might not think that’s what Emerson meant. But it’s not important what I think.”
Paideia methods echo popular techniques used with gifted students, but Paideia schools for all kids are scarce, especially on the West Coast. Paideia fans complain that government emphasis on standardized tests has thwarted schools from developing deeper skills like critical thinking that Paideia promotes. The term is derived from the Greek for “upbringing a child.”
But as legislators try to rewrite No Child Left Behind, President Obama is pushing for better ways to measure schools, including advanced skills like critical thinking. In San Diego, honing skills like creativity and communication is one of the few things the fractured school board agrees on.
That means that in San Diego and nationwide, Paideia could be headed for a renaissance, said Terry Roberts, director of the National Paideia Center. “These skills are a lot harder to measure, and I think that’s why we’ve resisted the change as long as we have,” Roberts said. “But it’s coming.”
Muir is especially interesting because it took on Paideia and boosted test scores at the same time. The unusual small school had lackluster scores four years ago, leaving it in the lowest echelons among similar schools in California. Principal Nancy Johnson and her teachers were looking for something new to interest students and increase achievement, and Paideia was just one of many changes.
Scores grew dramatically. Muir now ranks as one of the highest performers in California among demographically similar schools. It has more students waiting to get in than it educates, its graduation rate bests the school district average, and California dubbed it a “distinguished school” last year.
“Is it all because of Paideia? No,” Johnson said. “But Paideia is part of the package.”
Second graders fidgeted during their discussion, but they were already making deeper connections than the kindergarteners. They tied the lion and the mouse to issues of trust in their lives. One girl complained that people were littering and bullying each other at Muir between classes.
Teachers still have a role in Paideia seminars: They steer students away from irrelevant talk like what they bought at the mall. They pry shy ones out of their shells. They nudge know-it-alls to wait. Kids are prepped for two days beforehand with background knowledge, such as who Emerson was, and vocabulary to decode the texts. Tony Burks, who oversees atypical schools like Muir for San Diego Unified, said Paideia lets students take ownership of their learning.
Paideia “required me — as a relatively new teacher — to relinquish my perceived classroom power,” Burks wrote in an e-mail.
Ferguson, the kindergarten teacher, is teaching the youngest students a kind of academic etiquette; Stevens compares it to the rituals of church. The seminar routines, such as breaking the ice with everyone answering the same question, help set the tone. But after that, the teachers stand back. When students stop looking at him to validate what they say, Hancock said, it works.
Kids notice the difference. “I’m getting used to speaking more,” said seventh grader Jonathon Swieder. “I use a different part of my brain that I never knew I had before.”
Muir was bolstered by extra funding that added roughly $500,000 to its $3.1 million budget annually. It paid for conferences and training for teachers to ease them out of lectures and into the Paideia model. Teachers even held Paideia seminars of their own, ruminating on the ancient historian Plutarch after school.
Johnson says Muir is still a work in progress. But Paideia is becoming a way of life. The day after teens discussed Emerson, Stevens started a lesson about evolution and found himself riffing on how bacteria evolved to defeat antibiotics — and how societies evolve too.
“They started asking — is there a cultural connection with evolution? How does this relate to what Emerson was talking about?” Stevens said. And the conversation kept going.