“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
I was recently in a meeting with Bjorn Paige, principal of ACMA (Arts and Communications Magnet Academy) and Moon Knight aficionado. Over the next two years AMCA students and staff will move to another location while the old building is torn down and rebuilt. This has created an opportunity to reflect on the history of this school, originally called C.E. Mason, which Bjorn has done eloquently here . I actually have a connection to this building, and our conversation sparked a number of vivid memories from my childhood.
When I was 9 years old I would ride the bus to Cedar Mill School each morning. On Thursdays I would not walk into school with the other kids. I would join a small group of other students and board a different bus and leave. We were driven to another building not too far away called C.E. Mason, which housed our district-wide T.A.G. (an acronym that stood for Talented And Gifted) program. This all seemed very normal.
For three years I went to this school with other students from around our district. I guess we were all talented. We chose from a variety of classes based on our interest, and I remember many of them. I took a class on stop motion animation, where we used clay and 8mm cameras to make movies. One of the movies I made was called Claybreakin’ and it was about these round characters with sweet cardboard sneakers who were learning to breakdance. It was loosely based on the plot of the 1984 movie – Breakin’.
According to IMDB the plot of this movie was “A struggling young jazz dancer meets up with two break-dancers. Together they become the sensation of the street crowds.” Now that I think about it, I am not sure we ever explored the deeper themes of that movie with our own, but we did simulate a decent backslide with a blob of clay and 2 cardboard shoes. (We called it a back slide because that’s what the real breakdancers called it. The streets of Beaverton in the 80’s had a code. It was the time of Earthquake Ethyl’s and The Electric Palace, and nobody who was cool called it a moonwalk.)
We learned some computer programming using LOGO and BASIC. We explored anatomy and dissected cow eyeballs in a makeshift lab. We watched old grainy 16mm movies about crystal growth, and then grew our own crystals in jars. (And then we watched the movies backwards, because you could. Normally if the films had people in them, it was funny because people would be walking backwards and things would magically fall up into their hands. When you watched this movie backwards, you could see giant elaborate crystals shrink very slowly and disappear.) We created and simulated an entire medieval village, including a bartering economy with dried beans, and handmade 3d models of castles, towers, and villages. We were also assigned roles within the social classes of the time. I was lucky to be a knight, which gave me a lot of time to practice drawing my armor and weapons while reciting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I was not the only kid who knew all the lines. I guess in that way we were pretty gifted.
Many of these activities were gateways to deep conversations, thoughtful debates, and critical thinking. But it never felt like “school”. It was some other feeling, like being in a wacky museum where everything is interesting, or being backstage at a play, getting to pull levers and ropes and run the lights.
For three years, every Thursday meant a field trip to awesome town. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention as to why it was that I got to do this, while most of my peers did not.
I remember that we were chosen for this trip because of a test that measured a particular type of skill. In hindsight, I feel that it was a very narrow skill that valued my abilities, but did not necessarily value the incredible array of talents of my peers who were not on the bus. Had the criteria for the designation of T.A.G. been some other measure, I may well have been one of the students who watched the busses drive away each Thursday morning with a different group of kids inside. How would I have thought of myself knowing that I was not the one who got to go on the bus to the magic school where they made movies and castles? That I was not, at least in the eyes of someone, talented and gifted? Would I have even cared?
I don’t know that I thought of myself as “T.A.G.”, but I certainly felt encouraged, and thought of myself as a successful student. Affirmations such as these, and the support of my family helped to build my confidence, which helped me persevere through some difficult times later on in school.
Fast forward thirty five years.
Now I drive my car to work and instead of going inside, I get on a very special bus that will take me to work with teachers and kids all around our district. But now I’m the driver. This all seems very normal.
I travel to classrooms and teach a variety of classes based on the interest of our teachers.
I run a class on stop motion animation, where we use clay and Ipads to make movies. One of the movies I someday hope to make with kids will be called, Claybreakin’ 2 which would be loosely based on the plot of the 1984 movie – Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. According to IMDB the plot of this movie was “A developer tries to bulldoze a community recreation center. The local breakdancers try to stop it.” Now that I think about it, how did both Breakin’ movies come out in the same year?
We learn some computer programming using SCRATCH and PYTHON. We explore anatomy using Virtual Reality goggles, navigating our way through the chambers of a human heart. We use CAD software and 3d printers to design and create cities that could sustain a human population on another planet.
When I drive the bus back to the barn, the smells of coffee and diesel exhaust are often accompanied by deep reflection on the day. Even though it’s called the FutureBus, the experiences we try to create are not that different from what I did as a kid at the T.A.G. school years ago. I guess one difference is that now we try to work with every kid regardless of whether they have an acronym after their name.
In a few years, a new school will rise on the grounds of the old C.E. Mason campus. A bus will pull up, but this time, it will carry a 48 year old kid inside, and everyone will get to go on the trip.
I better buy some more clay.