In 1991, John Taylor Gatto was named New York State Teacher of the Year. That same year, Gatto wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal and publicly quit his job, claiming that America's public schools undermine the rights of students.
"Teaching means many different things," Gatto wrote in his now famous "The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher" essay. "But six lessons are common to school teaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they are."
He went on to list six ways public schooling reduces students' individuality, disempowers them and diminishes their ability to learn.
His article hit home with educators, parents, students and citizens. He has become one of the most sought-after public speakers in America, has published four books and numerous essays and has produced a documentary film -- all on education reform.
Gatto isn't the first person to advocate for the rights of students, even if he's one of the most outspoken. For years, educators and activists have worked to promote alternative forms of education that cater to different types of learners, promote a democratic process in the classroom and create power-sharing between teachers and students.
One of the most respected and popular forms of alternative learning is experiential education, which is based on the idea that there is no separation between one's life and one's learning, and that the best teacher is experience. Experiential education has made its way from theoretical abstraction in university departments to a useful teaching device used in community and literacy centers and travel programs. Now, despite inherent differences in methodology, it has made its way into public schools.
A Spokane-based nonprofit organization, Empowering Inc., has been working with both students and educators for the past four years to bring experiential learning techniques into classrooms and after-school programs.
April Cathcart, Empowering Inc.'s founder and executive director, emphasizes the need for schools to teach social skills. "The incredible sense of isolation in our youth today is epidemic," says Cathcart. "It's time for us to lead youth into experiences that include them in the community."
Playing with a Purpose -- Cathcart isn't nearly as radical as John Taylor Gatto. She says her program isn't supposed to replace traditional forms of education and doesn't focus on academics. Instead, Cathcart has chosen to use experiential education to address what schools often struggle to teach: social skills.
"Social skills are a goal of education, but it is way down on the list," Cathcart says. "There is no standard. They have standards for education levels and it's very much curriculum-based, so the [student's] input is not guiding the program."
Cathcart says a student-driven approach to teaching is the best way to get results, because unless people feel empowered, they cannot learn.
"For the most part, [experiential education] is not being used in schools," says Cathcart. "But teachers want more tools. In my experience, teachers are excited to see these methods and happy to use them. Social skills aren't being taught -- and really, emotional needs come before math skills."
Keith Orchard, assistant director for Empowering Inc., says people retain lessons when they can relate to what they are learning and enjoy the way they are being taught, no matter what the age group or education level. In experiential education, how we learn is as important as what we learn. Orchard says the use of play encourages communication.
"Our goal is to teach educators how they can work with their kids in a way that is fun -- through games that also teach social skills that are so important, like leadership, teamwork and communication," Orchard says.
Empowering Inc. will hold a workshop on Tuesday, July 8, for those interested in how experiential education can benefit the learning process. Cathcart says the workshop is designed to arm educators with tools to address conflict, encourage teamwork and get students to value their experiences.
"They'll leave with a set of things they can use -- transition activities that make learning run smoother," she says. The workshop, "Play With a Purpose," will be the largest the organization has put on and includes breakfast, lunch and materials for future use. Though the workshop is geared toward educators, Orchard says anyone who works with kids -- including parents, daycare providers and others -- is encouraged to attend.
Changing the System -- Empowering Inc. is a good example of a progressive education program that fits nicely into the public system without challenging it. Cathcart says Empowering Inc. has worked with students for three years as part of HUBS, an after-school program funded by federal grants.
"[Experiential Education] is kind of a focus of ours," says Fred Schrumpf, student services coordinator and director of HUBS. "We try to get kids to apply what they're learning in life. What [Empowering Inc. does] is run a four- to six-week program which puts students through play activities that teach teamwork and address conflict resolution."
Schrumpf says Empowering Inc. has worked with individual families as well, teaching parents how to use play to build trust, communication and decision-making skills.
Empowering Inc. also works with District 81's Behavioral Intervention (BI) program. The BI program is designed for students who struggle socially, making complete immersion with other students in the public school difficult.
"These students are exposed to a gamut of issues," Cathcart says.
Orchard agrees. "It's not at all an issue of intelligence or inability to learn. It's truly a social skills issue," he says.
"Kids are used to being disciplined and pulled away," Cathcart says, speaking of schools' methods of handling students with behavioral problems. "We try to throw [the problem] back into the group and talk about it. We let the kid say, 'This is what I don't like about what happened.' I'll take the kids that are the most disconnected and make them facilitators. You should see how much that makes a difference."
Cathcart explains that if social skills are taught through games, the students are willing to participate and seem to understand the meaning behind the lessons more.
"Those kids [in BI] make the most progress in the shortest amount of time," Cathcart says.
"Play With a Purpose," an all-day workshop hosted by Empowering Inc., will be held on Tuesday, July 8, from 9 am-4:20 pm at the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute, 4000 W. Randolph Rd. Registration begins at 8:15 am. Cost: $125 (including two meals and take-home materials). Teachers receive six clock hours for attending. To reserve space, please call 624-7104 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.