Last December, Beth Alberts spent hours collecting driftwood to prepare for a lab class. In some ways, driftwood fits right in at Beth’s school, Independence High School, a public high school about 6 blocks from the glistening ocean in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood.
In this lab, Beth challenged her students to use their knowledge in gravity and balance to create a driftwood mobile that didn’t wobble dramatically or tilt drastically. They manually drilled steady holes through the driftwood, carefully tying together string, wood, and a few additional beads for balance. They went through multiple iterations and lots of knots before accomplishing a perfectly balanced mobile – and identified the center of gravity along the way.
In another lab, Beth’s students opened the heavy covers of their science textbooks without using their hands. There were string and pulleys everywhere, including a successful attempt at linking the opening of a window to the opening of the textbook. Beth notes that students are becoming more persistent, not getting so easily frustrated at small, initial setbacks, and just coming to school more often.
At Independence High School, Robert Maass, school principal and active maker, and Beth Alberts, science teacher and inspiring/aspiring maker, are tirelessly working to create an environment that allows safe, engaging exploration. They have revamped Beth’s classroom into an interdisciplinary welcoming space – for students and teachers alike – to build hands-on projects, try out new skills, or just hang out and sketch. Beth teaches both “project” and “lab” classes each week: project classes can be on any topic and on any project, from hacking toys and beading to designing stencils and created stained glass pieces. Robert teaches project classes too, when he can. Beth’s lab classes are more science-focused, with a key concept that she addresses, but also seamlessly integrate hands-on projects that require some exploration, some frustration, and lots of manual dexterity.
In last Friday’s project class, a small group of teachers and students learned how to work with stained glass. With the instruction and facilitation of Mei Lie Wong, a friend in the community, students learned how to use glass tools to carefully score and break pieces of colored glass into the shapes and sizes they desired. They fiddled with smoothing rough edges, arranged their pieces into an optimal design, and applied copper tape. At the end of the hour, all participants had their own unique – and beautiful – version of a window ornament. Next week, they’ll learn how to solder all the pieces together!
Unlike the vast majority of high schools, Independence High School does NOT require students to attend every class from 8am to 2pm, Monday through Friday. Rather, it’s an independent study school.
Students are required to meet with a teacher or advisor at least once per week, for a full class period, but are otherwise welcome to be at school for as much – or as little – time as they desire. Naturally, they’re encouraged to attend electives, connect with their fellow students, join in activities, study, etc and in fact, many do. Bianca comes to school every single day. Sometimes, students even bring friends (who attend other high schools) to Independence.
With an unusually supportive principal and a teacher who never runs low on new ideas, Independence is creating a fun, engaging space for the whole school community. More teachers are involved, bringing in new ideas and hobbies, interested in helping or leading a project class; more students are coming, and coming back. And everyone is just more excited to learn and do.