Welcome to Impossible School. I’m Blue, an adult in the building who apparently has enough time to show visitors around without sacrificing something far more useful I should be doing. That’s just the beginning of the many impossible things going on here at Impossible School!
Let’s start with the foundation of our humble approach – the Possible Machine. I know, I know… the name sounds like a contradiction, but it’s this device which actually makes Impossible School, well… possible.
You’re familiar with pen and paper assessments, yes? (Sometimes they’re on computers, but that merely makes them more expensive – the substance is sadly the same.) Generally these ‘assessments’ make deeply flawed efforts to determine a student’s existing content knowledge. Sometimes they venture into the realm of hit’n’miss personality profiles or oversimplified learning styles. Rather ambitious for ‘Choose A, B, C, or D’, right?
The Possible Machine does this – properly – and much, much more. It allows faculty and staff critical insights into what each student needs in order to make a meaningful learning experience possible. We can, of course, never guarantee success no matter what we know or do, since student choice unfortunately remains a critical component of all education. But we CAN get SO MUCH closer to providing the best possible opportunities and pathways to each and every lil’ darling who crosses our threshold.
Here, let’s slide into this classroom for a moment. That’s Ms. Lipsky over there, half-guiding that small circle discussion. These are kids who do best with personal interaction. They need the security that comes with structure, and they’ll read assigned material, but the information takes root and becomes meaningful when they have time to discuss it in a safe, somewhat organized environment. They’re capable of great things if they’re able to do this more often than a traditional classroom allows.
See the young lady on the far right? She’s not saying much, is she? Normally that would be a red flag, but in her case –
Oh! We’ve been asked to join in! Over half of the kids in this group were also identified by the Possible Machine as quite capable of professionally appropriate social skills - even at this grade level - if given a little guidance and opportunity. Consequently, they’ve been encouraged to take this sort of initiative.
No, thank you! We must continue the tour – but you’re doing great, kids!
Ah, here – Room 211. Mr. Zeller is giving a rather advanced lecture on the role of Calculus in AP Physics. You see we’re able to seat nearly 200 kids in this class, and have chosen an ‘auditorium’ style seating arrangement. Most of these students are on a self-selected Engineering track or other very #STEM sounding combinations of courses, and were identified easily and early as focused and self-driven. We have several assistants, of course, to provide individual or small group help, but you know the real challenge with this group?
Literature. They don’t naturally love literature.
Oh, some dragon books and such, sure – but we had to use graphic novels just to build basic familiarity with the classics. We don’t bury them in it, of course, but everyone ought to know a little Jane Austen, don’t you think?
What’s that? The Purple Door? Of course we can. You’ll notice much smaller class size here, and a very relaxed dress code and casual seating arrangements. These students have a variety of needs and gifts, but what they have in common is a lack of intrinsic interest in academic subjects like math or history and varying levels of unsupportive or even chaotic home environments.
Thanks to the Possible Machine, we were able to realize this immediately and set them up with teachers who, while quite qualified in their subject matter, are more about heart than head. They spend as much time on life skills as they do traditional content, and students are assessed for progress and effort rather than cut scores on state exams written by people who couldn't on their best day so much as fathom their realities. Most of these kids need protein and access to mental health services more than they need a deeper understanding of the Progressive Era – ironic as that may seem.
We do, of course, work on math and reading skills. The instructors are some of our most knowledgeable, but their focus is on stimulating interest and applying what’s learned towards successful living rather than simply punishing kids – however wrapped in fluffy platitudes - for their upbringing.
Across the way here you see a classroom which at first glance looks similar – looser policies regarding dress and language, and a variety of seating options. These kids, however, are very motivated to do well, and consequently can be pushed much further in the cores and several extension topics which vary by semester.
Pushed? Oh yes, I choose that word quite specifically. I said they were motivated, not intrinsically driven to truly learn. They come from families who care deeply about good grades and college prep and staying in just the right amount of activities. We don’t have to worry about these kids failing – the Possible Machine knew that from the moment they walked in the door.
The challenge with this group is actual learning. Sure, we have ‘grades’ as motivators, but Miss Benovidas and Mr. Carson have shown quite a gift for transitioning them into actual interest in the various subjects being taught. Under the old system, these kids would have been completely written off based on the numbers and letters they were able to secure by successfully gaming the system. We’d throw a few awards at them, give them an extra ribbon or two at graduation, and think we’d accomplished something as they went forth cynical and jaded, unable to see the wonders of string theory or appreciate the beauty of fractals as mathematical art.
We’ve retained the outdated A-F labeling system, but only to smooth the transition. Miss B. and Mr. C. don’t measure their success or student progress by those silly letters; their challenge is to find ‘sparks’ in the eyes of these little darlings over something they didn’t think they could even care about – the Populist Movement, or the power of allegory in a great speech, for example.
Thanks to the Possible Machine, we don’t insult students who come from educated, involved homes by dragging them through ‘financial literacy’ or ‘Constitution Day’, and we don’t unnecessarily traumatize them with ‘Sex Ed’ or hours of ‘how to calculate your GPA’. They can skip that and move into what their parents would call ‘real school’.
On the other hand, we don’t neglect students who couldn’t otherwise ask essential questions about sex, or pregnancy, or health care. We’re able to identify those who couldn’t successfully watch an episode of The West Wing without more background knowledge, and those for whom the only pathway to success in science or math is through music and art.
The Possible Machine confirms our instincts as to how many of our young ladies need to be told regularly that they’re strong, and beautiful, and smart, or that what happened to them wasn’t their fault – it wasn’t ever, ever, ever, in any way or by any definition – their fault. It points out the young men who seem fine, but who need someone to look them in the eye and ask how they’re doing several days a week, and the quiet ones who really are fine watching and listening and mostly staying... quiet.
The Possible Machine tells us which kids need sports more than they need World History, and which kids will do better in World History if we use sports as leverage. It helps our teachers better intuit who to push, who to comfort, when to offer greater freedom and when to maintain the comfort and security of unyielding structure.
We hear repeatedly that “all children can learn,” yes? And they can. Of course they can.
But they can’t all learn equally well in the exact same ways or on the same schedules. They can’t all move forward on the same tracks at the same speeds to hit the same checkpoints at the same time. That’s ludicrous. Imagine a public education system grounded on such an inane fallacy! Why, it would be mired in mediocrity for decades!
At Impossible School, all children can learn, and do so more widely and deeply than they could have imagined. At Impossible School, we build on the unique combinations of interests, strengths, and possibilities each child carries within them – and can reevaluate this yearly, monthly, or weekly if need be.
We’re able to teach more than the ‘average’ student or the fictionalized ‘standard’ kid. Thanks to the Possible Machine, we’re able to figure out the intangibles of each student - each weird, wonderful, gifted, needy, broken, individualized student - and chart how they might best be stretched and realized intellectually, personally, and professionally.
At Impossible School, we refuse to treat diversity as a disease only curable by standardization.
Because it’s possible, somehow. It’s possible – for all of them.
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