At Peak School in Breckenridge, students take ownership of learning
Ryan Summerlin September 5, 2012
It’s two weeks into the Peak School’s inaugural year, and the students and teachers are situated in a circle on the second floor of the Harris Street building in Breckenridge. Two children led the circle Wednesday, officially called forum, where individuals gave their opinions, and the group as a whole voted on a solution concerning an upcoming community activity.
“They make the decisions,” head of school Rebekah Jordan said of the all-school meeting, which takes place weekly. It’s a time to vote on various matters that affect Peak School life, including rule formation and discipline, and it gives the students a chance to practice democracy.
On Wednesday, the children raised their hands to give opinions, sometimes challenging others, but all in a peaceful manner. Their teachers were mostly silent, interjecting a few times when they felt a clarification was necessary. And, as in a true democracy, “we get out-voted as much as them,” Jordan said.
Next up: Language class. Some of the school’s 22 students filed into a classroom for Spanish, while others lined up outside for Chinese instruction. None of the children sat at a desk; Spanish class students stood in a circle, answering and mimicking the teacher as she pointed to her nose or feet, looking to them for the correct names, while Chinese class students played a game: read the word correctly and sprint through the grass.
It’s all a matter of active learning, Jordan said, something the students practice throughout all their classes. Like in science, where the kids are learning about geothermal energy, so they’ve built up turbines to test and report on.
The grades and grading system are different than what most students are used to – instead of grades six, seven and eight, and so on, there’s divisions one, two and three. The structure allows students to spend more or less time on specific concepts, since they don’t move forward until they’ve completed key objectives in each one. Children don’t get “A”s or “B”s, but rather constructive feedback that lets them know if they’re approaching, meeting or exceeding a goal.
Student Conor Craig, 13, likes the tight-knit community at Peak – he’s friends with an 11-year-old (something that might not have happened at a bigger school), and enjoys calling his teachers by their first names. “You can relate to them,” he said. “You get to know the teachers a lot better.”
He’s especially enjoying math (which Jordan teaches), and said he’s learning a lot – Craig feels like he understands everything. He likes the fact that “we can almost teach ourselves.”
Everything throughout the school is based upon an ownership of learning, “rather than just dictating,” Jordan said. It may seem seamless to the kids – who are learning how to control their own educational paths – but behind the scenes, it’s all very carefully orchestrated on the teachers’ ends, Jordan said.
So when the kids say they teach themselves, “That is a sign to me that they’re engaged in that knowledge,” Jordan said. “They’re asking the right questions.”
Student Kayla Fulkerson likes the smaller class sizes, “and that we’re able to be taught at the levels that are needed.” In her previous school, she sometimes felt like she was being taught things she already knew – at Peak, her experience is different.
“Here we kind of believe in not just looking at papers, but doing it,” she said.
The first week, Fulkerson was given the title of “birthday chair,” meaning she’s in charge of keeping track of everyone’s special day, and making plans around it. At the first birthday the school saw, Jordan said there’s already a new tradition – everyone sings the birthday song at their own pace (another nod to individualism).
“That ownership of your own path is a huge thing,” said parent Megan Morgan, who was volunteering as an administrative assistant Wednesday. For Morgan and her son, who’s attending Peak, there was never a question concerning whether or not he would go.
“He knew from the very beginning that this would be a perfect fit,” Morgan said.
In fact, all the children seem to be enjoying the difference and the change Peak offers, Jordan said.
“It’s going really, really well,” she said of the first week. “We’re excited to be moving toward their goals.”