I walked into RenSchool (as Adam, the dean and our guide, referred to it) and was blown away. My first impression was that I was in a spacious, lovely home which was clearly owned by someone with an exuberant passion for Jim Henson, and who had no sense of restraint. From the entrance I could see into multiple rooms (there were very few actual doors in the building; most rooms simply had open entrances) furnished with durable-looking oriental rugs, comfortable couches, and nice wooden furniture. Overlaid on these were projects — literally hundreds of pieces even within view of my first stunned perspective — marionettes, illustrated poems, working (and beautiful) gears, and so much more. Pervading the entire scene was Irish fiddle music and the scent of the cookies Adam had baked that morning to greet us.
And the building went on. Accustomed to the size of Village Free School, I assumed that I was seeing most of the building right at the entrance, but that wasn’t at all true. It stretched off to my right, down a long hallway of semi-open rooms filled with children’s projects, finally ending in a large, open room with hardwood floors that Adam referred to as the ballroom. I saw two grand pianos, views of the river, a small outdoor courtyard, and none at all of the typical school-type desks. That, by the way, was only the lower floor; the upper floor was somewhat similar but the hallway sometimes turned into a bridge over the rooms below, so that there was a direct visual connection between the floors.
The Renaissance School is nearing 150 students, which is where they expect to cap their population, and can have, Adam estimated, anywhere between twelve and twenty staff in the building at any given time. They have both a longer school year and a longer school day than public education. In the morning, after a morning meeting, students are grouped by their level of ability to do Literacy and Numeracy; in the early afternoon they’re grouped by age to do content studies (which might encompass such things as social studies, art, or PE); and in the late afternoon they group by interest to take the equivalent of electives, classes that specifically interest them. This isn’t child-led education, but they try to encourage inquiry and self-awareness; they want the kids to know themselves as learners, and they give students a lot of flexibility about how and where they work.
There are no worksheets, no dumbing things down, and no grades. Kids will often be given a specification and asked to go from that to a finished product, and there’s an emphasis on producing quality work — all work should be of the quality that it can be put on display. Risk-taking and cooperation are encouraged, and competition is not. The staff draw from a “curriculum map” rather than holding to a set curriculum, and can pull together multiple concepts into a single project or lesson.
My overall impression from my short visit was that the Renaissance School offers a wonderfully rich environment, with really creative teaching and learning opportunities. While my personal bent is more toward self-directed learning, I think it would provide a great environment for someone looking for instructor-directed education.