The Unexpected Challenge and Reward of Owning My Learning
Learner Voices 25 May 2017
By Vanella Tadjuidje
I now understand how I learn best, and I think every student should have that knowledge.
I now understand how I learn best, and I think every student should have that knowledge.
Learner, Pike Road Schools
My life so far has consisted of living in two different countries, three different houses, and going to three different schools. I was five years old when my family and I moved from Cameroon, Central Africa to Cincinnati, Ohio during the summer of 2007. For a while, culture shock was all I experienced. I didn’t speak the language, and I didn’t know the customs. I didn’t even know how people greeted each other. I was a small fish lost in the depths of the blue sea.
Once the summer was over, I enrolled in a school focused on foreign languages. The first two years were the hardest two years of my educational life. I was learning English and trying to adjust to this new environment—this new country I would be living in for the next eight and a half years.
The second time I moved was during the summer before my second-grade year. Thankfully, by that time, I was already speaking fluent English. But, I still had an incomprehensible accent. From second through seventh grade, I lived in the same place and stayed in the same school system.
My seventh-grade year was my first year in a magnet high school, and, like many other schools, it was very “traditional.” When I use the word traditional, I mean a school that teaches students by the book—literally each grade level has a different textbook for each core subject, and the students are expected to take notes based on what is written in the book.
After learning English, I actually looked forward to going to school. I loved learning, and I was not at all bothered by learning from the book. That was the norm for me for the last seven years.
For me, the norm had been hallways with lockers and students racing to their classes, not students having class in hallways and racing balloon cars.
Then, during Thanksgiving Break of my eighth grade year, I was on the move again. I was moving across the country to Pike Road, Alabama. The break gave me a chance to adjust to living in the South, but it did not prepare me for school.
BAM! As soon I walked into the building, I was met with the bustling of students and teachers, a stampede of what looked like “organized chaos.” So much was going on all at once, but no one seemed to bat an eye—it was just the norm for them. For me, the norm had been hallways with lockers and students racing to their classes, not students having class in hallways and racing balloon cars. I’m not necessarily resistant to change, but the move to Pike Road School was one that took some time to adapt to.
Everything about the school was almost the complete opposite of my old high school. Rather than textbooks, they had laptops. Rather than note taking and regurgitating information, they had a project for each lesson. Even after a month of attending Pike Road, I still could not fully accept their way of learning. It just seemed too strange to me. I kept thinking, “What school doesn’t have textbooks? What school doesn’t have letter grades or standardized tests?”
Like I said, I’m used to adapting (I’ve moved all over the place), but school was just one of those things I did not want to alter. That was my mindset for the first four months I was at Pike Road. In those four months, I kept myself shut out from what the school was trying to promote and just stuck to what I was used to doing. It didn’t matter that the lead learners assigned us projects that involved group collaboration. It didn’t matter that we were assessed, rather than tested, to see how well we understood the information.
For those four months, I was a goldfish circling my fishbowl, uninterested in the world of creativity and innovation beyond the glass that concealed me. How was Pike Road School, a school that was against everything I was accustomed to, supposed to change me? How was Pike Road School going to change this 14-year-old girl who had come to like traditional schools so much? She was unwilling to adjust.
After my four-month resistance, I felt a drop of hope fall for the first time in a long time. It was April 2016 when the light drizzle of aspiration began. As they say, April showers bring May flowers, and in this example, the flowers were the end of my isolation and resistance.
During those two months, all of Community 8 was working on our end-of-the-year World’s Fair project. The intent of the project was to show the hidden diversity within the Pike Road community and to inform/entertain the rest of the school about various countries and cultures around the world.
At first, I was planning on working by myself, but seeing how the majority of my peers were working collaboratively, I knew I had to find a group that would accept me. But, lucky for me, it was the group that found me.
The group was made up of all girls, and they were planning on doing South Africa. While it was not Cameroon, it still made me excited to learn about another African culture. At first, the group had around nine girls, but as the process got harder and became a little less interesting to others, the number was downsized to five, which was okay because the smaller number of people was more efficient and easier to work with. The girls that left the group went to other countries like Canada and France, which our lead learner allowed because it brought more cultural diversity to the fair.
While the end product looked effortless and well blended, the process we had to go through to get there was not easy.
One aspect of our project that was different from others was that my group was going to perform a dance that fit the theme of the World’s Fair—bringing an awareness to the different cultures represented at school and, in general, around the world. We decided to dance to “Mama Africa” by a Nigerian duo called Bracket. The song is about the diversity of Africa and how music is one thing that binds the continent together.
Our dance was a mix of Just Dance choreography and some dance moves shown in Bracket’s music video. While the end product looked effortless and well blended, the process we had to go through to get there was not easy.
Failure was part of the process from the beginning. Originally, we attempted to memorize and match the choreography in one Just Dance song with the beat of “Mama Africa,” but we soon realized the moves were too hard to remember and often mismatched “Mama Africa’s” beat. We chose to include choreography from another song because the Bracket music video didn’t have enough choreography we could use.
After a while, we decided to use a bit of the dance steps we saw in “Mama Africa” to help with the beat change. Once we settled on mixing the moves together, we had to create our own choreography, which I thought was the best part of the process because it showed how we were able to overcome a huge obstacle by working and cooperating with each other.
[T]here was one common theme throughout the World’s Fair that teachers, attendees, and learners acknowledged together—the full embrace of celebrating the diversity at PRS and the learning everyone got to partake in.
Once the dance was complete, we began researching more on South Africa so we could complete a digital presentation. We wanted to have a visual representation of some of the South African culture that could not be explained through dance. We researched traditional foods, popular national sports, the meaning of the flag’s design, and special holidays that were celebrated throughout the country.
Our extensive research led us to create more products to show-off at the fair, like bracelets and children’s games. I wanted to make bracelets because I thought it would be fun, and one of my friends in the group wanted to actually bring in a game that was similar to one that was played in South Africa, called mancala, so that the younger learners could play it when they came to our group.
The bracelets were fun to make because each bracelet I made represented a different country, and each country had a different story to tell. In the spirit of the World’s Fair, I thought it would be cool to make bracelets showing the flag colors of multiple African countries. My hope was to show the interconnection among African countries, regardless of the continent’s size, and how their cultures have many parallels. The bracelets were a little hard to make, but the beauty—physically and metaphorically—of the end product made it worth the effort.
Once the dance, bracelets, games, and costumes were complete, we were ready to take on the World’s Fair. The World’s Fair was fun for everyone who participated because we all put in so much effort and we were proud of our work. The South African booth was a success on many levels, but there was one common theme throughout the World’s Fair that teachers, attendees, and learners acknowledged together—the full embrace of celebrating the diversity at PRS and the learning everyone got to partake in. Personally, I enjoyed being able to embrace my own culture and showcase it to other people.
The World’s Fair helped me fully understand what the “Pike Road Way” was all about. Pike Road encourages students to take initiative towards their own learning—to not have to wait for someone to tell them to do something. In this system, I learned when I’m able to teach myself, it’s easier to understand what goes on in my mind, rather than trying to figure out what’s going on in the mind of my teacher.
Discovering My Whole Self
Flash forward to the 2016-2017 school year, and you will discover a new Vanella, one who is involved in school and has grasped what the school is trying to accomplish.
I began the new school year with an open mind and an even more open personality. I decided I was going to fully break out of the box I made for myself during my four-month resistance. I joined the Student Government Association and did some community service around the school, which was something I never saw myself doing in previous years since I was such a private person. But, I figured if I was going to embrace this new school, I should also embrace a new me to go with it.
Beyond involving myself in extracurriculars, I was really getting the hang of doing my work in a way that showed who I was and how I learned, while also meeting the criteria set for the assignment. Most of the assessments I turned in were in the form of poems. When I write poetry, I find I learn more about what I’m studying. Today, if someone were to ask me what I learned six months ago, I would be able to tell them pages worth of what I learned. But, ask me the same question at my previous school, and I would have drawn a blank. It just goes to show that students who are taught to actually understand the material and apply it to what they love—like poetry—learn better than those who are taught to memorize information and take a test on it.
I have come to embrace the fact Pike Road is not, and will never be, a traditional school. And, I find that to be a very good thing.
I believe I have come a long way from who I was last year to who I am today. I now understand how I learn best, and I think every student should have that knowledge. But, I know not everyone is going to accept it. There are people who view Pike Road Schools as an ineffective school and blame it for not teaching their students “correctly.” But, from my experience, I think for anyone to actually learn at PRS, they have to accept and fully grasp what the Pike Road Way is all about. People who disagree with the method do not understand that the students at PRS are actually learning, just not in the way traditional schools practice it.
I have come to embrace the fact Pike Road is not, and will never be, a traditional school. And, I find that to be a very good thing. The me that came from a traditional high school was good at regurgitating information for a grade, but the me today is good at learning and understanding information for my own progression, not a grade. I believe I learned more in these past few months than I ever did in the two years I spent at a traditional high school. I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn in the upcoming years, and I’m excited to see how Pike Road Schools will continue to shape me in preparation for the real world!
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