Building with Rammed Earth” written by Tony Monfilleto and published by Chris Sturgis was as originally published at Connected by 25 the blog of the Youth Transition Funders Group (YTFG) hosted by Chris Sturgis.

There has been tremendous interest in the posting about ACE Leadership High School. So I asked Tony Monfilleto, co-founder of ACE, if I could post one of his essays about ACE.  Tony is in the inaugural class of the Theodore and Nancy Sizer Fellows program which is sponsored by the Forum for Education and Democracy with funding from the Ford Foundation. — chris

Building with Rammed Earth
by Tony Monfilleto, ACE Leadership High School

This year I had the great fortune of getting to know some thoughtful charter school leaders from across the country.  They were convened by the Partners forDeveloping Futures, a group that makes grants to promising charter schools who are led by people of color.  I just returned from a trip to New York City where our group visited three schools that were in their early stages of development and exemplars of school design.  The school leaders were using the most thoughtful approaches to working with children who are overwhelmingly poor and from minority backgrounds.  Like a good professional, I leaned in and helped them with a critique of their practices.  Based on my observations of classrooms the students were getting a great education.

I was struck by the strategies that I saw.  The schools were nurturing in every sense and the artistry was in the teacher’s implementation of curriculum.  They were experts in the nuances of instruction—careful use of grouping students, orderly transitions between activities, and mixing phonics and whole language.  You name it, it was there.  I liked what I saw because at ACE Leadership we also pay attention to nuance, group kids thoughtfully, and teach reading carefully.

However, our school just seems so much messier than theirs.  It’s a purposeful environment (and maybe a little disorderly) because our students learn through projects.  They understand “rammed earth” by building adobe ovens which is an ancient building technique that has come into vogue for its sustainability benefits for residential and commercial buildings.  The project is Science (radiant heat), New Mexico History (Pueblo Indian Culture), and Math (Geometry) all rolled into one.  But, to an outsider it just might not look like it fits in a school that professes to prepare kids to go to college and/or work.

There is a risk to all this authentic learning of course.  Can we prove that kids are learning more than they would if they were in a traditional school with a traditional approach?  Every Wednesday we meet for professional development to ensure that our teachers are prepared to care for the social and emotional needs of our students AND ready to help our students “master” the outcomes that are embedded in our projects.  Our students desperately need a mastery based approach toward learning because they need for us to strip away the normal conventions of school that determine grades and credits earned (homework completion, class participation, etc.).  Very few of them know how to play that game.  We ask simple yet fundamental questions when it comes to grading their projects, “can you prove that you understand the scientific method.”  Or, “show me that you can write for audience.”  Our students have plenty of experience with failure and helping them become “finishers,” where the evidence speaks for itself, is the best thing that we can do for them.  After all, it fits them better and it aligns much better with the real world.

The learning environment at ACE Leadership is intense for adults and young people.  Teachers must work to escape the trappings of a traditional high school where a student’s ability to play the game of school has as much to do with their success as actually learning, “how can I give this student many ways to prove that they have learned?”  More fundamentally, “what experiences can I create that unleash my student’s potential?”  I am proud of our faculty.  It is courageous to take on the responsibility for learning and to reject a more familiar sentiment that a teacher’s job is to teach and it’s the student’s problem if they did not learn.  As for the students, they must take control of their learning.  They can no longer claim that the deck is impossibly stacked against them.  They have to change their frame of mind that the door they thought was closed is now open and that they have the power to change their path by embracing the mentors who deeply care about them.

We are planning more schools built on our model that appeal to different industries.  Health Care and Information Technology are naturals.  They will provide practical, applied learning experiences where seldom do you ever hear the question, “when will I ever use this in the real world?”

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