What a long strange field trip it’s been!

A Grant Proposal/Short Story Hybrid (2012ish?)

Once upon a time, there was an idea.  You see, in looking backward you can often see the future, see how the scattered points of light came together in one glowing screen.  You can follow the fiber optic thread connecting a head in the clouds – the collective consciousness.  Or was it that all roads led to “roam”?

School, as we knew it, was a product of the agricultural revolution with its summer vacations; and the model fit well with an industrial revolution – warehousing kids while their parents paid taxes, training them to be good factory workers, mall zombies, widgets, fiddling with gadgets, cogs in the wheel of progress.  Political polarity froze that model for a long time…

When, one day in the Agriculture Area at North Hollywood High, Jonah Lehrer, the now fallen neuroscience writer, said to me, “high school is obsolete,” I somehow knew he was right.  That was sort of a bummer since it was my career, but if it were the truth, it was time to be set free.  ‘Course that wouldn’t happen for another decade and a half, when experience, circumstance, and opportunity finally created the perfect storm…

Do more hiking, you can walk into insight.  It takes a few hours though, strolling through whatever epiphany garden you’re in before they go off.  For me, it was the Purissima Redwoods one weekend when the idea came to me: the school bus, the schooling bus, the bus as the school.  Field trips everyday!  No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.  School starts when you get on the bus.   And, are you on the bus or not?  Choice is key!

If so, you sit down, plug in, boot up, log on, and on the way to the museum, park, business, open space, theater, exhibit hall, etc. myriad lessons are being taught. There’d be a website, a portal, a dashboard.  The students logs in and go to the lesson, custom designed for individual learning style and ability level – every kid has an IEP.  Even though there’d be particular presentations each day, the student would control the input by clicking when ready.  The system would monitor the students’ attention with periodic checks, questions, and interactive decision points that would keep them engaged.  

Most of the hardware and much software already exist.  Tip of the iceberg: Wikipedia, Blackboard, iTunesU, Khan Academy, Rosetta Stone, Discovery Education, Freerice, Smithsonian Institute, Amgen, NY Times, BBC, TED, Dreambox, Mind Lab, 10 Marks, Edmodo, Equatia, Accerated Reader, Geocube, Compass Learning, Yolink, Exploritorium, NASA, PBS, Power School, CoolMathGames, etc., etc., etc. The portal would allow the teacher to monitor all this from afar and asynchronously.

Years ago, BF Skinner had envisioned programmed instruction, and many tried to realize that notion with TV and other educational technology.  It was not until the internet and online instructional tools became so pervasive that the education system, like travel agencies, the music industry, and going to the store, could be replaced with a gizmo.  Every textbook is on your phone!  But rather than replace the reality of the classroom with a virtual experience, I wanted to replace the classroom with the real world…

Imagine a hybrid biodiesel school bus with nicer seats, cupholders, tablet/laptop holders, ceiling screens, and jacks/plugins for all kinds of gadgets.  In the cargo hold there would an array of equipment: camping gear, field biology instruments, water/soil testing kits, first aid kits & rescue equipment, hand, power, & garden tools, paint, and a complete package of all sports essentials.  We even created “bibliocaching.”

Imagine a kid’s backpack, no longer stuffed with huge textbooks and notebooks, but one laptop or tablet, maybe just a smart phone.  The other stuff would be a “leatherman,” survival gear, food & water, binoculars, supplemental cameras, GPS devices, surveying equipment, camping equipment, and perhaps a folding chair.

There would need to be a base camp, which could be a school, church, or camp, but every week would bring field trips to various museums or theaters, college campuses or other schools, state & county parks, big corporations & small businesses, old folks homes & homeless shelters, and so on.  

For a long time I grappled with what form the program would take.  Is it a school or an add-on, the whole deal or a supplement?  After awhile, I decided that it’s not about the what, but about the how and why.  Guiding principles would guide us to the what.  

The guiding principles start with a discussion about the meaning of life, humanity, and the goals of education. The program would emphasize intellectual curiosity, community service, disaster preparedness, soft v. hard skills (manners), a classical education for a renaissance person, a healthy and active lifestyle, business fundamentals, and of course a deep understanding of the state-of-the-art technology.  Purpose, kindness, respect, responsibility, intrinsic motivation, ethics, effort, and love are included in the guiding principles.

In fact, those hows and whys were easy and obvious.  What was more difficult was the who.  Who would be on the bus?  The answer involved choice.  Students and their families would have choose to do the work to buy the ticket to get on the bus.  There’d be an application and an agreement, and at first the program would look something like a Charter School.  In fact, that’s how it almost started the first year.

Rather than approve the charter proposal however, the Board of Education opted to create alternative school that required a choice – a rigorous application, and a contractual agreement about participation.  That public education has adopted this process is the only thing that has saved it.  Ya gotta want it or you’re not gonna get it.  And we created something that the kids wanted so they paid the price of the ticket.

Starting with LHPUSD students, we eventually offered seats to other students in neighboring districts, but all students were required to complete the application process.  There was a prep course in etiquette and morality, study skills, and physical training, but students could start at any academic level, they just had to have the desire and commitment to succeed in the program.

But it was small, that first year – one bus, 30 kids, and a lot of fits and starts and stops.  The logistical problems were many, and there were some perilous moments: kids left in bathrooms, event cancellations, parental consternation, one trip to the hospital for a twisted ankle, even a traffic violation for the bus driver, and not everyone was as courteous and academically dutiful as I might have hoped.  However, no one died, a lot of great moments were shared, and the documented learning was exemplary – in fact we eventually gained some notoriety.  Our educational experiment had a butterfly effect…

In the second year, there was the reality TV show.  We did our own with hat cams and phones on YouTube, but then we leased the concept to a Hollywood production company and they replicated our experiences with slightly better looking, but no more curious “students.”   Instead of the Bay Area, they went to sites in Southern California, not more fun and more arguments, and didn’t seem to have much homework.  However, to the producers’ credit, they did emphasize our curricular content, and even encouraged their viewing audience to interact with the shows academic content on a show-related website.  Reversing a trend, they even swayed the public agenda toward public education.

After that, the concept went viral.  Biofuels, hybrid systems, burly batteries, hydrogen, and other green transportation technology allowed for the retrofitting of school buses across the country.  The fact that school buses were ubiquitous and more or less cheap, not only made the notion palatable to school districts, but salvaged struggling school transportation programs.  In turn, there were renewed efforts to repair the infrastructure of roads and highways across the country.  Because the idea of field trips emphasized adventure and excitement and getting out of school, kids flocked to upstart programs, and American education was transformed.  

The nature of school changed from being a kid warehouse, often resented by its clientele, to a fun opportunity to evolve – for everyone.  Teachers and administrators abandoned some of their antiquated pedagogy and arcane methodologies and became entrepreneurs.  Some schools turned into businesses generating their own incomes, some schools turned into community centers providing social services to entire towns, some schools were repurposed as apartments or group homes, many schools expanded their scope to educate various age groups, parents, and subjects they had not dabbled in before, and most schools learned to entice kids with fun and relevance to encourage their curiosity.  

Then the concept went international, but instead of school buses, people in other countries used public transportation.  They used the internet to share their experiences, recognizing however, that virtual learning was incomplete and that students required interaction with the real world.  From this emphasis on real world, the environmental movement, which had languished in the back wash of the profit motive, became substantive.  Nature was no longer secondary to business, and constant economic growth was finally accepted as unsustainable.  

By leaving school, people returned to learning, realizing that a large part of their human nature was exercising their brains, consuming ideas rather than things, and a new renaissance, golden, aquarian age reigned on earth.  And students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members lived happily ever after.

The Beginning…

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