“Every generation wants to start a different legacy for themselves. In general we want to leave our own marks so that people can follow us and so that the world can keep developing.”
Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Interview and Photographs by Theo Constantinou
Middle school is when kids realize they have a voice. Regardless of the restrictions in the public and private school systems, this is the time when students are exposed to more choices with increased knowledge. As an important period of growth it is a shame that so much time is invested from this point forward in preparing for standardized tests and content restricted to the context of particular classrooms. Dr. Finn and his classes at Haverford Middle School are not alone in using real world application and individualized approaches to teach a state’s general curriculum and standards, but they are part of a minority.
Class began with a small media project, commercials for patent medicines inspired by Tom Sawyer, but their main project over time is to publish an eZine, an online literary magazine eventually called Breaking Barriers. The eZine is student run, and has content inspired by various themes assigned to different groups, one being “The Mysterious.” Each group has writers, editors, and those in charge of music, photography, artwork, and web design. The only criteria for the eZine: everything is student created. What these students do in a semester is what Theo, and the contributors of Paradigm have to do on a daily basis. In this way, Theo’s speech was a relevant, and hopeful example of lifestyle choices outside of typical careers. Theo spoke of his transition from a potential job on Wall Street to the unstable process of working full time on a webzine while financing efforts with paychecks from a coffee shop. His message was to do what makes life interesting, and bearable, and to know that there is no easy way out. His thoughts were mostly reciprocated by students calling for hands-on experience to concepts that exist outside of the classroom. Here are students who have chosen an individual, or event that they feel should be memorialized as a public statue by writing formal letters to organizations that could make these suggestions a reality.
I was privileged to experience the routine these students handle with minimal supervision and examine their personal views of the current school system.
Theo: This is something that my dad had always told me, this is a quote that I kind of like to live by … Solon said, “I grow old learning something new every day.” What learning do you think Solon was referring to, and moreso what’s your definition of learning in the context of life, and then in the context of what school teaches you? Do you think that they’re the same? How has your learning experience with Dr. Finn differed from your learning experience in other classrooms?
LJ: Usually in other classes I’m kind of bored, it’s not really fun. Like my last year Language Arts wasn’t that great, all we did was basically read from a little storybook and answer boring questions, memorize definitions, and I was so bored. And this year I come in and I’m making videos, we’re doing the E-Zine which is really cool, and it’s really, really hard work but you’re really satisfied at the end and it’s just really different, and it’s really good.
Theo: Do you know why though? Do you think that the other classes are just kind of preaching stuff that you don’t really care to learn about?
LJ: Well, in other classes I find you do what the teacher thinks, and you memorize, and you don’t get to explore your own talents. Here, you definitely do. We can explore and improvise and do a lot of cool stuff.
Megan H: I feel that different ways of teaching brings different ways of learning and what Dr. Finn does, he uses different things in the world like politics, and art, and music to help us learn.
LJ: I have another thing to piggyback off of what Megan just said. Other teachers, they do not care what they’re teaching us. Oh great, we are learning about finches and that they fly to South America. Honestly, who gives a crap about that, but Dr. Finn would not make us learn something that he does not think is worth learning, he would never teach us something that he does not care about, or that he does not think will be useful some day, or is worth learning.
Julie C: What Dr. Finn teaches us, or taught me, is real life. Its stuff like when I go home, I’ll listen to the music, I’ll look at art, I care about the politics. This is the abnormal, this is what we want to know, we want to know the weird stuff because that’s what we care about and this is truly learning when you care about it. Those other classes teach us ‘skills’ that you need, but who cares about that, do what you want to do and not what you’re being taught in school.
Nellie O: For the learning and the context of life, though it is kind of following in the people before us, we kind of follow their footsteps but I feel that we want to start something new. Every generation wants to start a different legacy for themselves. In general we want to leave our own marks so that people can follow us and so that the world can keep developing.
Dr. Finn: I hope that you feel that I’m not pushing you where ‘you’re going to do this,’ it’s more opportunities and that you discover things about yourself through where you go, and where you are, where you feel passion and where you have urges to go. I’m only giving you the opportunity for that and there’s a trust factor involved.
Theo: To kind of go with what he’s saying, it’s the same thing I do with my magazine. I don’t tell anyone to do anything; I just want people to start to think, all we’re doing is laying the seed. I’m not saying you have to be a photographer, or a writer, or an artist or a skateboarder or a musician, just tap in.
Theo: I’m really fascinated with Herman Hesse right now in my life along with Jung, and Freud, just studying the mind, there was this quote that really caught me, and actually a Herman Hesse book came into my life last year called Demian … In the current book I’m reading, A Record of Two Friendships, Miguel Serrano says, “As with men it has always seemed to me that books have their own peculiar destinies. They go towards the people who are waiting for them, and reach them at the right moment. They are made of living material and they continue to cast light into the darkness long after the death of their authors.” I know you may only read what is presented to you in class, and maybe those books have not found you yet, but what do you think are the impacts that books have on your lives not only from a learning standpoint but shaping the way you think of yourself in the world?
Annabelle L: I read a lot and I think books have definitely changed the way I think. Even if they’re fiction and I read about a mugging or something I think ‘wow this could actually happen to somebody and I’m here complaining about homework,’ or something. I think it changes the way I think of myself and other people and I also think books can bring people together. I’ve had so many conversations with people about different series. I think books can form friendships.
Will: Honestly, I don’t read that much, not my favorite thing to do. Everybody is talking about the Hunger Games and how it’s such a great book, but I never read it, don’t want to read it, I don’t see why everybody thinks it’s the best book in the world, but the books that I’ve read this year for L.A. I’ve been able to connect to them. Through elementary school and last year I really wasn’t able to do that with the books that we read. I’m starting to read more, but it’s still not my favorite thing to do at all.
Theo: That’s cool man. Reading’s hard. I will say this, because I didn’t like to read as a kid either, now books kind of consume me but just know that books are important even if it’s the Hunger Games to one person or Plato to another person, just know that in books there’s something there. It’s like I get to hang out with Plato for a couple hours. That’s pretty cool. I was 25 when Demian found me, so who knows, you’ve got some time yet maybe.
Michael: I think that books are important to the world because if someone writes a good book it will become a classic, it will be timeless and then for years, and years to go on, throughout time, it’ll affect thousands of people’s lives. It could make their lives better.
Theo: In that video Dr. Finn showed you of Sir Ken Robinson’s lecture, Changing Education Paradigms, he said something like … “People are alienating millions of kids who don’t see the purpose in going to school,” so I’m asking you guys, don’t relate it to this class. Relate it to your thoughts on the school system. What are your thoughts about school? Is it important or are you learning a bunch of things that educators think are important, that you don’t care about, so you can pass standardized tests to get into college, which then will lead to debt, unless your parents pay for school, or the uncertainty of a job you may or may not get? Or do you think there is deeper meaning to your education not only in middle school, but high school, and college?
Ellie: I really enjoyed that video that Dr. Finn showed us, I agree with what he was saying in it because I do think that schooling should be more about learning. Standardized testing, teachers just spend months going ‘you need to know this, and this for the test,’ but they don’t spend time going over what we might want to know then and it’s just pointless.
Jacob C: What I really think about the school system is that it’s always about learning stuff so you can pass the tests and get a good degree, and get a good job but nowadays so many people are doing that because it’s what we’ve been doing forever so people know how to do it but your degree doesn’t really matter anymore. I read an article about this in Forbes, but so many people have doctorates and masters and stuff but their degree’s don’t really matter anymore.
Theo: Do you wish that your educators would ask you ‘what do you want to learn about,” and then teach you those things?
Jacob C: Yeah because like what Jack said about the Arab Spring and everything. I was watching some of that on the news and I was thinking, we’re sitting here learning about ancient Greeks who lived thousands of years ago when the world is changing right in front of us, but not everyone is noticing it. We need to also learn about what the world is going to be like when we’re in the world and working instead of always learning about what happened a long time ago.
Theo: So maybe a good mix of the foundation then adapting that foundation too. We are very far off from what the Greeks were talking about with Demos and democracy … so you’re saying you wish that it was less about all this stuff that happened a long time ago, and more about the now.
Cullen W: I don’t really like school all that much, but I do kind of agree that they’re not really teaching us what we want to know. They’re teaching us about all this boring stuff that we’ll never really need to know about like in science, like what LJ said about the finches. We don’t need to know about that but what we need to know about is what’s going on right now and how it’s impacting our lives and not the stuff that they already teach us.
Maggie G: I have to agree with Jacob. When you get out of school, what you’re going into is the world as we know it now and the future. Why do you have to learn about the past if you’re going into the future, your job is working in the present world…
Theo: There are important lessons in the past.
Theo: We’ll gear this to the second part of the question. It sounds like what you guys are saying to me is that you have a hard time with the school system and then what they teach you, you think is pretty irrelevant. No?
Jack M: I see value to almost everything we learn because it keeps open opportunities. Maybe you are going to be a finch scientist, who knows? You have to keep opportunities open and even if you think something isn’t the best, you find it boring, I think that you should learn it just to be part of the educated world.
Theo: Let me ask you this Jack, when I went to Ohio State my freshman year I sat in a biology class with 800 students, I wish I had that time back. I might have done something more productive like, at the time, finance or whatever I was doing. I kind of agree with what you’re saying, but to be the jack of all trades I don’t really agree with that, no pun intended, but it’s more of just … I almost wish that they taught me to focus on what I was good at, and what my teachers were seeing that I was good at because if I learn how to be a finch scientist, a doctor, a lawyer, and a finance guy then I’d just be mediocre at a bunch of things instead of really good at one.
Jack M: I think eventually you have to decide, like maybe in college, but I think that we have to keep our opportunities open and that one of the things, to another part of the question, one of the things that limits our opportunities is these standardized tests that take up so much time and they’re so worthless.
Natalie: I think that the schooling system is pretty good, I just think that we would like it better if we could actually experience everything instead of just hearing a teacher read it to us. For example, in math right now we’re learning about unit rates so maybe we would be more interested if we were actually having a lemonade stand and then we would find the actual unit rate for that instead of just figuring out the problems when it’s not a real experience.
Theo: More hands on learning versus textbook?
Will: Everything that we learn in school I feel like it all has a purpose. It might not have a purpose to you but somebody in the school it interests. It might not interest you but it could interest your neighbor and help them with what they want to do, help them decide what they want their career to be. I agree that the standardized tests pretty much hold us back because if we want to really do that, pursue that subject for our career, we’ll keep looking at it, we’ll keep learning and we don’t need the tests to let us remember and if you want to pursue it you’ll just keep looking at it on your own, or find somebody who knows more about it.
Theo: Is there one class a day that you just can’t stand going to?
Class: (Part of the class)Yes. Science. Math.
Theo: If everyone can’t stand this one class, imagine if you guys could go to a class that you kind of dictated what you learned. How awesome would that be?
Will: But you can’t get everybody to agree on something that they like.
Theo: In an ideal life right, shouldn’t you get to learn what you want to everyday. That sounds pretty awesome. I’m saying for you guys, if the school system were able to create a space where you guys learn what you want at class that would be pretty cool it sounds like. I don’t know how they would do it or implement it, but just the idea because based on that everybody seemed like they hated this one class whatever that was.
Malek B: I think that life is full of decisions. At some point you have to make decisions about what kind of career you’re going to have and school doesn’t give you that much of a choice. It’s just like ‘here’s the work, do it, get a good grade, go to college, get a job,” and I think that school should be more hands on, give you more choices so you can decide on what you want to do instead of having school put the work in front of you and have you do it.
Ryan R: At the end of every school year, after all the stuff that we’ve learned, a lot of us just take our books out of our book bags and then just store them someplace, or just throw them out, or burn them and it’s a waste of time that we learned all that. We just throw out a bunch of our stuff and, maybe, if we picked what we wanted to learn we would value it a little bit more and not think, ‘it’s something useless I’m not going to use it, I’ll throw it away,’ but something that I’ll use later and I’ll keep it.
Theo: I completely agree, the books I buy I’m not throwing them away or burning them.
Matt C: I kind of like going to school because I see all my friends and stuff because without school I wouldn’t have a social life or anything but there are some classes I don’t like, and I look at the clock every five minutes to see when it’s over because it’s so boring. But, I don’t really see the point of college because there’s like all advanced classes. In middle school and high school you know a lot of what you need to know like I don’t want to be a rocket scientist where you have to know a lot of stuff. I want to be a basketball player and you don’t need to know algebra or anything so I don’t see a point in taking really advanced classes.
Theo: But if you want to be a basketball player and you don’t know how to do math, people will take advantage of you right?
Matt C: For my contract, like money?
Theo: It’s important to at least know those things. In that respect you can’t just say, ‘if I’m going to know this, I can’t know that.” It’s good to keep it well rounded, but to have your focuses. To at least know …