Thursday, October 29, 2009

Making Teaching Less Stressful

An article on this week listed being a high school teacher as one of the highest-stress, lowest paying jobs.  This comes at absolutely no surprise to anyone who has stood up in front of a crowd of 20-30 teenagers every day at work.  This too may be believed by a section of the rest of the working world.  Teachers, when asked what they do, often are met with responses along the lines of "Oh, good for you.  I could never do that!"  (And here's a little secret: many teachers would never want to do what you do either.)  People don't say this sort of thing because of a teacher's salary; they say this sort of thing because of a teacher's job description. 

There is no doubt about it, a teacher's job is high on stress and low on salary.  So much so that about 50% of all teachers leave the professon after five years.  A popular belief held by many is that the best way to retain teachers is to pay them more.  Paying a teacher as one might pay an accountant or lawyer might be a good way to recruit high caliber potential teachers to the profession, but higher pay does nothing effective for the job stresses that come with teaching. 

Teachers know that we are in a profession that will not make us rich.  Money, by and large, is not as motivating as notions of seeing one's students grow up to be intelligent contributing members of society.  And as such, money can only motivate a teacher so far.  Even if a teacher were to be paid twice or three times more than they ever thought they were going to make, it still would not diminish their stress level.  The trick to retaining teachers, then, is to make the day-to-day of the job less stressful.   Here are some recommendations whose price is small when compared to its payoff:

1. Reduce the number of students a teacher has to teach at any one time.  Teachers in large comprehensive high schools can't effectively keep track of the number of students they currently have.  A high cost solution is to reduce class sizes.  This isn't always a feasible option, though, but there are still other ways of cutting down a teacher's caseload.  Using block or semesterized schedules can reduce a teacher's caseload.

2. Make a usable curriculum and requisite resources available to all teachers in all schools.  Teachers that work in schools that are just starting often are forced to create their curriculum on the fly, and it's only after they've taught a class all the way through do they have a curriculum to use.  In these cases, teachers often reinvent the wheel, designing a curriculum around content that already has a solid curriculum developed.  In the age of the Internet, there should be no reason why every teacher does not have access to a well-designed curriculum.  this does not mean that teachers should be forced to use a curriculum, but rather that they have access to lesson plans and pedagogical and content resources.  Teachers will often (almost always) adapt such curricula to their own classrooms, and I have never heard of a teacher complain about having too many resources.

3. Provide training in classroom management, and ensure that schools are consistent and firm when it comes to setting and enforcing limits on behavior.  No teacher likes to put time into behavior management, but no teacher can deny that behavior management is important and necessary.  Anything that can be done by administrators to alleviate the burden of behavior management can give teachers more time and energy for the things that they are there to do in the first place. 

Having quality teachers makes all the difference.  Offering money to teachers, while welcomed, will ultimately not make the job itself less stressful.  It's vitally important that we figure out what will, and work towards it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Using Every Resource

This week, like any other, was chock full of activity. My own educational experience at St. Isidore continued as I herded students out into their cars to get picked up in the pouring rain. It seemed like we almost needed a canoe to make sure that every child could get out safely. The end of the week saw the annual disaster drill, where I was in charge of watching over the entire eighth grade class as they waited out in the parking lot to get picked up by the parents after a simulated earthquake drill.

Needless to say I didn't have a whole lot of time with my students this week. However, somewhere in the middle of it all I managed to schedule and then write my first chapter test for the seventh grade class. Since the first trimester of the school year is coming to an end of November, I thought it pertinent to access the progress of my students by way of their first test. A few students did extremely well, most were in the middle, and it was apparent that some either hadn't prepared or weren't paying attention in class. After grading all of them over the past few days, I've begun to notice a few things that I could improve upon in the future with regards to my teaching style.

First, I need to learn how to present my plans better. I'm constantly reminded of how little time I especially spend with the seventh grade class so I think it would be more appropriate if I write up an entire schedule of the upcoming chapter. This would me as much as it would help them, because on this first test, many missed points due to lack of preparedness. Part of my job is to prepare them better.

Next, I believe many would score higher if they used every resource available. I am privileged to work in a classroom that has an ACTIVboard in it but I think that my students would benefit from other activities as well. The supplemental videos I show to go along with Vocabulary and Grammar lessons I give in class are a big help. The online resources provided by the textbook might help even more. The more resources at my disposal, the better.

By this point in my teaching career at the school, I know that I'm faced with many constraints. With very limited time to accomplish what I need to accomplish, it's time to go back to the drawing board. I will use the next few weeks to make better lesson plans and tell my students about the online resources that will help them improve their grades. I've said before that a computer is no substitute for an actual teacher that can explain the material but it can't hurt in aiding the learning process. It would certainly help if any of them decide to continue learning the language in the future.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Accessing Experts

It seems to me that we've shied away from the apprenticeship model of education in schools as of late.   Instead of learning the thing itself, students often settle for learning about that thing - reading books, watching videos, discussing, perhaps even doing simulations.

Thanks to budget and time constraints, schools are often unable to provide in vivo experiences in the way teachers and students would like.  When I was teaching biology, I taught in classrooms that didn't even have sinks, so many of the lab experiences that typify a high school biology class had to be improvised or simulated.  I did my best, but at the end of the day, most of what my students learned was referential.  It wasn't the experience itself, but an activity/reading/discussion about the experience.  In short, there was not the opportunity for access.

But thinking creatively about how to obtain access might yield solutions that are easier than most would believe.  There are experts everywhere - especially in large urban areas (such as the Bay Area).  There are parents and neighbors who go to work and are able to speak with a great deal of authority about their respective professions; how hard would it be to have them donate an hour or two of time and come in to speak to students?  Or better yet, how feasible would it be to bring students to their workplace?  In my experience, sometimes it only takes a request.

There are incredible examples of professionals at the highest level of their fields donating their time.  Today there was an article in the Washington Post about one of the preeminent classical conductors in the world rehearsing a youth orchestra.  Citizen Schools is a great innovator in the after school sector - they build their program around apprenticeships taught by "Citizen Teachers,"experts from the community who volunteer their time to teach their craft and passion to middle school youth.  And Tutorpedia is starting a similar initiative: enriching project-based workshops

Apprenticeship-modeled education is thriving in some schools, such as The Met in Providence, RI.  It's also thriving in vocational education; apprenticeships are the way that electricians, carpenters, mechanics, and plumbers enter their respective professions.  Vestiges of apprenticeships are even seen in medical school, and less commonly in Law school.  But learning directly from practicing experts is something sorely lacking in the majority of our nation's classrooms today.  Perhaps it's because teachers don't want to feel as though they are not expert, or perhaps due to the fact that teachers don't know how to access these experts, but either way, putting students into contact with practicing experts is something that benefits everyone: student, expert, teacher, school, and community.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Business of Education

I hope this title raises some alarm. If we think at all of education as a business, we most surely think of it as a nonprofit one. Education is a right - not a privilege - and public schools and districts are public institutions, paid for by public funds. The Boston Globe says, "Education is a public trust. For a century and a half, Americans have taken on the job of providing knowledge and skills to all the nation's children through a system of taxpayer-supported public schools."

But what if that isn't enough? As my recent post suggests, at least in California, this is certainly not enough to maintain the high standards of school infrastructure, teacher salaries, and technology resources, not to mention paying for professional development, collaboration with other teachers and schools, and innovative curriculum and assessments. So where does business find a place - if any place - in schooling our kids?

There's a great article in the Spring 2009 issue of Rethinking Schools, Goodbye to Schools as Businesses. The editors argue that "education is education - a humane and human process." They go on:
The purposes of schooling should not be degraded into privatized preparation toward the fattest paycheck. Clearly, schools should prepare students to earn decent livelihoods... And schools should go far beyond preparing students for work. There are many non-market (perhaps even anti-market) purposes for learning: to end wars, to effect racial equality, to curb greenhouse gases, to halt domestic violence, to appreciate the arts, to play sports and exercise,... to learn to live together.
I agree. I (we) don't go into teaching to make money. Go trade on Wall Street or work for an investment bank - that will make you some money (or used to at least). Funny that so many who argue that schools should be run by CEOs because "they know how to run organizations" forget that the past two years have been destroyed, economically speaking, by those who run the top banks and insurance companies. Maybe they shouldn't be running our schools. Just because you know how to run (even) a successful business does not mean you know how to run a school. These are two completely different beasts.

Or are they?

Take out the bottom line for a minute, and think about all the parts that constitute a school - you have the principal (and other administration), you have teachers (and other faculty), and you have students. I'm not big on hierarchy either, but let's face it, most schools - and most businesses - have vertical systems in place for checks and balances on one another. Some businesses are flatter than others, and some schools are flatter than others. My point is this: to run a good school - whether you're the principal, teacher, or student - you need collaboration, you need organization, and you need roles, rules, and responsibilities.

As a former teacher, tutor, and now business owner, these qualities are still as salient as ever. I love the fact that I can run a business model based upon how I'd like to run a school - my tutors have ownership (and creative power) over their curriculum, my employees have ownership (and alignment) over their unique roles and responsibilities (what we call our Superpowers), and my students get to choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn. We plan meetings as we would plan a class, by planning backwards and asking ourselves: What should students (or tutors) know and be able to do at the end of the day? What if all businesses were run like this? What if all schools were run like this?

Lastly, a good friend of mine recently shared with me a very interesting article about why to start a nonprofit - or more accurately, about why NOT to start a nonprofit. In just a few short days, we (Tutorpedia) will officially incorporate the Tutorpedia Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide free tutoring and other educational services to low-income students. The article's main points are as follows: there are too many nonprofits out there, we are all vying for the same money, we have limited time and resources so we should be working together instead of competing. We're a bunch of do-gooders who are too caught up in doing it our way; we neglect to see the true costs of starting our own 501(c)3, instead of partnering, collaborating, volunteering, and fundraising with already established nonprofits. I wrote a response at the end of the article, saying that while all this is true (Tutorpedia already partners with other nonprofits and schools, we volunteer and provide free resources, training, and tutoring), I do see value in doing things the Tutorpedia Way.

Bottom line, I want to provide more free tutoring to students who cannot afford it, and no one's going to donate to a for-profit company, so we must incorporate a nonprofit to raise money. I have no illusions that this will be simple (okay maybe a few illusions), but with a devoted Board of Directors, and a dedicated Board of Advisors, I am not alone in my fundraising pursuit.

Tax money won't pay for all of what needs to be learned. It won't pay for those who are struggling with algebra in East Oakland, it won't pay for SAT help in East Palo Alto, and it certainly won't pay for a gardening workshop in Hunter's Point, San Francisco. With the help of those with deep pockets and a deeper concern for the health and well-being of our future, we can support those who need the extra help, the extra tutoring, and the extra education that our budget-strapped state and country sorely needs.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Education From One Community to Another

I was going to post this week about the challenges of trying to teach my students the words to the song "Cielito Lindo" but my most interesting educational experience of the week came at a place outside Danville. One of our Tutorpedia's tutors invited many of us to join her at the EastLake YMCA in Oakland to tutor some of the students in an after school program. Since I live in Oakland and am always up for a tutoring opportunity, I planned to go.

I arrived at the facility on 45th Ave a little after 6 pm. Still feeling a little fresh after a full day of teaching, I entered the building to find the students watching a documentary about what I think was the perception of the Latino Community in different parts of the country. I listened as one of the adults lead a discussion about what the students had just seen. Many were upset about what they'd seen and heard in the video. As the discussion came to an end, the leader introduced our founder and the other tutors who had shown up to help out. I became a little nervous about what the students would think when I told them that I taught Spanish at a private school out in the suburbs but as it turned out, none seemed to care much either way.

The other tutors and I got to work. I met a high school aged girl and began to help her with her algebra homework. She was behind in class so we spent the entire hour and a half doing the problems she hadn't yet completed. As I looked around I saw students engaged in their work. One boy was studying for what sounded like a history midterm while other students were working on poetry. Everyone seemed to be getting along and focused on the task at hand.

It was a complete eye-opener for me. While nearly all of my students are white, none of the students at this facility were. While many of my students probably take their education for granted, these students seemed to appreciate the fact that we were there. That is not to say that my junior high students aren't appreciative or that the students at the YMCA couldn't have done just fine without the tutors. It's just that the dynamic was different.

There is a great disparity among educational opportunities when you compare two communities like Oakland and Danville. My students have significantly more resources and attention but as I found out while I was working with the students at the Y, all of them were just as eager to learn. Many of my students in Danville are missing assignments just like the girl I was helping at the Y. The difference now is that she is all caught up.

I hope to go to many more of these sessions in the future. Aside from the tutoring, I hope the students at the program know how much I'm willing to form relationships with them and give them that guidance they need. If nothing else, it will give me an opportunity to see how education is practiced across communities.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Education As an Act of Social Justice

I worry a lot about the direction our society is headed: the ideals that are instilled and passed down, the morals and values that are being shaped, twisted, and corroded, the actions that will eventually bring ultimate harm to humanity, the very assumptions we all make out of our own perceived infallibility as individuals and as a species. I believe that humanity is currently headed in a very dangerous direction on many levels (social, economic, ecological),  but I also believe that all of this is reversible.

Education, in effect, is ‘future insurance.’ Education is the cornerstone to the transmission of cultural ideas, values, and technologies that define who we are. At the heart of our desire to invest in the education of our young people is the hope that our future will be better than our present.

Education – at its best – empowers people with the tools they will need in order to be the best citizens of Planet Earth that they can be. This sometimes means having the necessary tools to promote the secure future of our society’s structures, and at other times it means having the critical consciousness, wisdom, and power to change those structures as to be more equitable and sustainable.

We, as a society, have done quite well on the former point. Our schools have turned out exceptional individuals whose contributions to society are enjoyed by all. But on the latter point, we have faltered. Schools, in the eyes of many, perpetuate a system of inequality. As evidenced by authors such as Jonathan Kozol, there are incredible disparities between schools in affluent communities and schools in poor communities.  It should not come as a shock that the well-to-do continue to enjoy certain comforts and privileges, the poor stay that way, and there is very little movement from one pole to the other.  Schools, as institutions that socialize us from a very young age, are primary agents in such a phenomenon.

Last week at the Teachers For Social Justice conference in San Francisco, keynote speaker Pedro Noguera pointed to quality education in our toughest schools as being a potent weapon against social inequality.  Education - which should not be equated with schooling - is a liberating agent, especially to those who have not enjoyed access to the best teachers and resources.  Everyone deserves an education, but as Dr. Noguera (and many others) argues, the equitable distribution of educational resources in our schools (teachers, equipment, money) is simply not a reality.    When one thinks hard about how to redistribute those resources equitably such that everyone has access to equivalent educational opportunities, one starts to conceptualize education as an act of social justice.

The question then becomes: how?  Dr. Noguera argues that it's not just a matter of throwing money into poor school systems.  Supplying adequate funding to school is part of the solution, but there needs to be more.  There needs to be a certain type of education in schools - one that is not biased towards those in power, and one that is culturally inclusive and accepting of differences.  For the affluent, education needs to include an awareness of social power dynamics and of the inequalities that do exist here and now.  For the poor, there needs to be a concentration of efforts to level the playing field.  At this point in the game, that most likely means that equitable distribution will most likely not be equal distribution.

Tutorpedia believes very strongly in giving all students access to educational resources.  We have worked with public school districts for two years, supplying tutoring to underprivileged students at no cost to them.  We are offering scholarships for one free year of tutoring to deserving students.  And this month, we are incorporating the Tutorpedia Foundation, a nonprofit entity whose mission is to provide tutoring and other educational services to low-income students.    In these ways, our work becomes more than supporting individual learners as they grow towards college and adulthood, it becomes nothing short of an act of social justice.   And that makes me worry a little bit less about all of our futures.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Conferences, Conduct, and Effort

It seems like there is never enough time to teach. Between planning lessons and worrying about issuing progress reports to over one hundred combined seventh and eighth graders, I had little time to do anything else last week. On top of the traditional letter grades, I was also expected to grade the eighth graders on their conduct and effort in my class. The students are graded on a scale from 1 to 4 with 1 being the best based on how they behave in a specific class. Most of the students at my school have never received anything less than a 1 on these grades. That was about to change.

Although I was under a strict deadline to issue conduct and effort grades, I was able to quickly go down my list of students and enter in a score based on what I had seen and perhaps more importantly, heard during my short time as a teacher. Out of two classes full of eighth graders, none of my students would get higher than a 2 in conduct. Very few received a 1 in effort. Most hovered somewhere in the 3 range.

When I returned to the eighth grade classes on Wednesday, I took time out of my lesson to talk with my students about the conduct and effort scores. As soon as they'd gotten wind of what their scores would be, some had started to panic. I even received a few e-mails from parents asking if their kids were acting up in class and assuming the worst. Instead of explaining why each student got the score they did, I decided to ask the class as a whole why they thought they got their respective scores, starting with conduct.

"Why do you think I gave you the score I did?" I asked. "Because we don't pay attention in class," said one student. "Because we're always talking," said another. We came up with a few more reasons, such as not turning in homework on time and not participating. I clearly told them that I expect everyone to participate in my class. When learning a language, participating is not a choice. It's an obligation. I then explained that the student who receives a 1 in my class will always come in on time, have their book out and be ready to work, and always make an effort. More than three weeks in and some were still struggling to take our their books.

This past week was also cut short by two days due to parent-teacher conferences at which the students were also expected to attend. A few parents wanted to meet with me so I showed up to talk about their students' performance. Most parents were worried about the conduct and effort scores. I assured them that no one got great scores this time and that since this was only a progress report, their kids had a lot of time to improve.

In many ways, the conferences benefited me as well as the students and parents. For example, I made allies with parents by finally meeting them and setting goals with them and their kids. I also made it clear to my students that they need to step it up if they want me to notice them. I told one of my students, Peter, that he needs to find a way to stand out among the other 100 students if he wants to ensure future 1s in both conduct and effort.

I'm glad that I could teach my students that nothing is certain. You can never assume that your conduct and effort will be perfect. You may think you're perfect until the teacher says otherwise. The more important lesson I hope they take away is that life is unpredictable. It will only get more difficult as they go on to high school, college and especially the real world. I don't foresee any problems for these students as far as staying in school, but it always helps to know the worst case scenario.

At least now I know how to get their attention!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Funding Our Schools

California schools comprise a large and diverse system. According to Ed Source, CA currently has more than 6.2 million students learning in about 9,800 schools across 977 districts. Our school districts range from the tiny (less than 10 students) to the unwieldy (LAUSD has 700,000 students), and charter schools are increasing rapidly (there are more than 700 CA charter schools, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Race to the Top initiative hopes to continue that growth). We have a million more students than Florida and New York combined (1/8 of all US students are in CA), yet the highest proportion of children with a parent without a high school diploma. Almost half of our students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and 1/4 of our students are English Language Learners.

In California, 1/3 of our education budget comes from local revenues, while 2/3 comes from the state (in most states this is reversed). Education makes up 40% of our state budget, so when our budget is squeezed, our schools are one of the first to feel its effects. State leaders decide annually how much money should be allocated to education. Districts then decide how to spend the funds. Proposition 98 (1988) set a minimum guarantee for K-14 funding (at least 39% of state budget, which adjust for inflation and growth in normal years, and suffer along with the rest of the budget in bad years).

So how does California compare to other states in terms of resources?
  • CA spent $614 less per pupil than the national average in 2005-06
  • CA teacher salaries are high, even after adjusting for cost of living
  • CA has 48 teachers (national average is 64) and 2.2 principals/assistants (national average is 3.5) in a school of 1,000 students
  • CA has put more than $70 billion into facilities since 1988 from passing local bonds
California's education budget was about $70 billion in 2008-09. How is that carved up?
  • the state controls more than 80% of these funds (mostly from state General Fund and local property taxes)
  • the federal government contributes about 10% (primarily to low-income and special education)
  • the lottery provides less than 2%
  • the remaining 8% comes from "local miscellaneous" sources (a combination of bonds, private donations, and parcel taxes)
How did we get here? Prior to 1970, school district funds came primarily from local property taxes. In a landmark court decision, Serrano v. Priest (1971-1976) used "equal protection" to challenge the inequities caused by differences in property wealth and set revenue limits for districts. Then came Proposition 13 (1978), which set a statewide property tax rate of 1% and capped increases at 2%. This cut local property taxes in half, took control of property tax distribution and school funding, and essentially took revenue-raising ability away from local schools.

So how do we increase funding and support to our public schools? I believe through a stronger local option. This would provide:
  • More direct connection between taxpayers and their schools (and therefore greater willingness to support schools)
  • More revenues for schools without affecting other state programs
  • Less dependence on volatile state revenues
  • Greater accountability between local districts and the communities they serve
Schools are the largest single item in the state budget, and with our current fiscal crisis there appears to be no capacity or political will for providing more funds statewide. Local communities have shown a willingness to commit more resources to their schools, and local revenue options should at least be a topic - if not the central topic - in the budget reform debate.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Different Cultures Coming Together

They came dressed in bright green shirts and long flowing dresses. The whole school watched as they sang and danced in the courtyard. Each dance told a story. During the last dance, one of the students got into a make-shift bull costume and ran around the others as they chased him with red cloths and yelled "ole!" At the end of the number, the ninos went around and shook hands with all of the students at my school and prepared for their respective classroom visits. Our guests had finally arrived.

On Friday a group of sixteen students from the Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos center in El Salvador came to St. Isidore School in Danville to share in each others' cultures. This particular group of students is part of the Father Frank's Kids Organization, which dedicates itself to providing housing and education for abandoned children in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Out of around 500 students in the center in El Salvador, only these sixteen had been chosen to come to the United Sates to showcase their culture and abilities. One of the kids, Mario, informed a class of 8th graders that their selection was based on grades, singing and dancing abilities and overall standing in the center.

I introduced myself to some of the visitors and then watched quietly as my two eighth grade classes asked them questions (through a translator) about their favorite sports, movies, television shows and other aspects of their lives. I was proud to see some of my students take out their notes and ask the questions in Spanish. Our hard work crafting the questions had paid off, I thought to myself.

Later, after the ninos had changed out of the dancing outfits, they met both of the eighth grade classes at the soccer field. At first, I noticed that my students were a little uncomfortable in approaching our visitors but as the games continued, they became more confident in playing together. My students passed the ball to the ninos and vice versa. Since soccer is probably the most universal of sports, it wasn't hard to see why it was easy for all of the kids to get along and play together.

Our last event of the day was Spanish Bingo. I was asked by my principal to facilitate. As soon as we had all of the students settled at the tables eating their lunches, I proceeded to call out the letters and numbers on the Bingo Balls in Spanish. Some of my students were having trouble knowing what I was saying so I urged them to pay better attention. Playing Spanish Bingo is a good example of using our Spanish letters and numbers in real life and my own students soon caught on. We were only able to play 3 games because of a hurried schedule.

After my students said their goodbyes and took one last picture with our friends, I went on an outing with the ninos. We went to a local grocery store that had donated a bunch of socks to the NPH center in El Salvador. The ninos got a tour of the store from a native Spanish-speaking employee and I could see them smiling as they ate the complimentary meat and fruit given to them by the store. Our last stop was the Yogurt Shack, where the ninos got free frozen yogurt.

I enjoyed the day immensely. My favorite part was being able to speak Spanish all day with our visitors and then seeing the joy on their faces as they interacted with all of my students. I was happy to have my students ask me when they didn't know how to say something in Spanish and then see them turn around and ask our visitors so that they could better understand them.

After researching the web for more information about NPH and Father Frank's Kids, I've come to understand how special these organizations are. I came across this letter written by Father Ron Frank, who was present on Friday, detailing how simple donations like chairs, books and toiletries will make all the difference in the world to these ninos. I am impressed with the way our two cultures interacted and am very happy for the ninos who can benefit from the NPH center in El Salvador.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

It's Academic

What have you ever wanted to learn?

There seems to be a very distinct line drawn in the sand: either a topic is academic, or it isn't. Either it is worthy of serious scholarship, or it isn't. Knowing a lot about the Civil War is academic; knowing a lot about professional football is not. Being able to recite Shakespeare is academic; being able to recite 2Pac is not. Schools, in maintaining the traditional content areas (and distribution requirements) of English/Language Arts, Social Studies/History, Math, and Science, perpetuate this division. Some things, schools say, are worth knowing, and some things just aren't worth knowing.

Any one of us could make the argument that there are some things that are objectively not worth knowing. Generally speaking, though, each of us would make a case for something different that is not worth knowing. Some sorts of topics may be devoid of all relevance and meaning to my life (the life cycle and history of termites in Madagascar, for example), but that does not mean that everyone finds these topics so dry (Malagasi home builders and foragers). And conversely, some things that I know a lot about (vintage Fender guitar amplifiers) may be completely useless knowledge to the next person (my deaf 90-year-old neighbor). What school does, in effect, is tell us what is worth knowing and what isn't.

This world needs experts in all subjects. We who have never taken apart our car engine or bathroom sink understand this when they break down. But even car engines and indoor plumbing would be hard-pressed to find a home within traditional academics. These are the topics for shop class, an anachronistic fringe elective that has traditionally been there for those who have not done so well with their "academics."

One interesting thing to note is that this dichotomy of "academic" and "non-academic" quickly falls apart when we move past high school. In college, one quickly realizes, you can study anything. One friend of mine wrote about people that trade Grateful Dead tapes for his Master's Thesis, and another friend studied the reproductive habits of teenagers (she is now a Ph.D., who consults with the WHO about HIV prevention). Studying the reproductive habits of teenagers is a bit more...informal when you are in high school, but can become one's life's work. We even see respected scholars like Cornel West and Tricia Rose researching hip hop, which may make us think twice about just how academic 2Pac really is.

The truth is that anything is worth knowing if it brings meaning and understanding into our lives. At Tutorpedia, we ask: what have you ever wanted to learn? We expect that the answers will vary wildly, and we're preparing accordingly. Our tutors are experts in helping students better understand math, English, history, and science, but they are also in the process of putting together project-based learning experiences that will extend what is possible to learn beyond the borders of traditional academics. Soon, Tutorpedia workshops will allow students to polish their fiction writing skills, grow edible plants in an organic garden, find focus through meditation, perform live in a rock band, gain extra confidence and practice for the SAT or SSAT, explore the latest innovations in biotechnology, compose a photo essay, choreograph their own hip-hop dance routines, and more.

It's important to pass on knowledge, and much of the knowledge that we pass on in school is important. But let's not limit ourselves to just the "academics." Topics that nobody would suggest be studied in school can be just as legitimite and meaningful.