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click to enlarge Principiates taking a breather in Amish country, 1999

megan james

Principiates taking a breather in Amish country, 1999

Yearning for Learning 

Published September 2, 2014 at 11:00 a.m.

I always loved school. I was the eager pupil who shook with excitement while raising my hand with the answer. I couldn't wait for summer to end so I could find out who I'd have for a teacher and who'd be in my class.

My most formative educational experience, however, was an untraditional one. In 10th and 11th grades, I enrolled in an alternative, interdisciplinary program called Principio at my New Jersey high school.

Two basement classrooms served as home base for the Principiates — 22 students and five teachers — but we spent many of our days out in the world. We drove up to a largely Hispanic community in Bergen County, N.J., to practice our Spanish, ordering meals in cafés and inquiring at travel agencies about imaginary trips. Science class often took place in the woods where we'd each sit alone for an hour, taking notes about the birdcalls we heard.

Our English teacher, Mr. Clements, led us all on a 10-day bike ride to Washington, D.C. I'll never forget floating in an inner tube near Harpers Ferry while he stood waist deep in the Potomac River, reading aloud to us from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I missed much of the conventional stuff you're supposed to learn in high school. I never read Lord of the Flies, nor did I take chemistry or calculus. But I learned to be at home in the world. Or, as we used to say in Principio, to be an "independent, self-sufficient, techno-whizzy, kick-ass woman of the 21st century."

It'll be several years before my daughter, Joni, starts school. But as I edited the stories in this month's back-to-school issue, I started to think about what kind of education I want for her.

I decided that I want it all.

I want her to sit on a world-map rug and learn words in other languages, as preschoolers do in Silvia Wakim's class at the Edge in Essex. I want the Principio-esque, experiential learning that 2014 Vermont Teacher of the Year Luke Foley is facilitating in Northfield High School's STAR program ["Class Acts"]. And what a thrill it would be to drop her off for a day in the woods — with knives! — at Crow's Path Field School ["Risking It"].

Despite my love of school, I'm also drawn to the free-range, "unschooling" approach Ben Hewitt and his wife have taken with their two sons on their Cabot farm ["Back to School —Or Not"] — though I'm not sure how it would work in urban Winooski. We've got time to figure it out.

However our plans evolve, I'll keep in mind the most important thing I learned at Principio: sometimes the best learning happens outside the classroom.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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About The Author

Megan James

Megan James

Megan James began writing for Seven Days in 2010, first as Associate Arts Editor. She later became an editor for Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT, and is currently a freelance contributor.


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