Dan (Jennings Experiential High School) Originally published May 2005
I have been working at Jennings Experiential High School for 8 months, as a special education paraprofessional. In that time I have learned about the implications of experiential education and how it relates to our community. We as charter schools want to provide children and parents with choices. We tailor our visions to what we feel is important for children to value. In Jennings’ case, this vision has to do with community-based learning. Almost every afternoon we are out in the community, taking a tour, or volunteering.
Personally, this has been a difficult shift for me, having gone to public High School in the Northfield school district. There are times when something inside me wants these kids to have their acquisition of knowledge tested in very concrete ways (worksheets, standardized tests, etc.). But there are other times when, despite my frustration and confusion with “experiential learning,” I see what it can be. I see the potential. This is one of those times. An early spring trip to the Lower Town St. Paul studio of an impressionistic painter named CeCeile Hartleib. I had been in contact with CeCeile as a part of our careers curriculum. This particular week in early May, we were focusing on careers in the arts and humanities. I had called her out of the blue, and she agreed to show some kids around her cramped studio.
One of the other challenges for inner-city charter schools is transportation. For some time now, we have been taking the city bus to most of our field trips. We hopped on the east-bound sixteen bus and took it into downtown St. Paul, near where the farmers market is usually held. And in that moment, we were worlds away from the midway, where our school is located. The clean lines of old brick buildings towered to the sky. Construction workers kicked up dust with their jack hammers and skid loaders, making slow progress on newly developed condominiums. The location of the farmers market, a parking lot, was full of cars. I took a moment to get my bearings and began to walk.
This moment can be nerveracking, being uncertain of where you are, and where you are going.
A moment like this can only be made worse by twenty teen-agers on your heels. They can see the uncertainty in your every step. By the time I knew where I was, I had heard “we’re lost, this sucks,” at least ten times. But I found the markers that CeCeile had told me to look for. The word “JAX” painted in large white letters along the windowless side of a brick building. “We’re close,” I thought to myself. When I saw a marquee that read “books for Africa,” I knew I had found the right building.
This is where that final leap of faith takes place. I crossed my fingers that the kids would behave and that CeCeile wasn’t a witch. With one last warning for the kids, “no more whining,” we started up the staircase. The stairs wrapped around an elevator shaft, to the fourth floor. I was practically running, hoping to get there first. I reached the fourth floor, slightly winded, and began making my way through the hallway, to Suite 404.
When I walked inside, I no longer felt like I was in lower town St. Paul. I forgot about the brick and the construction workers. Those thoughts were replaced by walls full of portraits and landscapes, and a smiling silver-haired woman, with black-framed glasses.
“Hello, my name is Dan Frey.”
“Hi, CeCeile Hartleib.”
“There’s a rabid group of teenagers coming up the stairs, I hope you’re ready.”
“I think everything will be fine.”
As she assured me, I heard the rumble of approaching students. I looked around the corner and saw my smiling coworker Josh, with all of the kids in toe. This is where things got a little blurry. I tried to do my job as best I could, fighting the urge to be distracted by all of the amazing paintings littering the wall. It was easy to see that CeCeile was an old hand at entertaining, she had set out snacks, and even an easel. The kids went straight for the popcorn and crackers, mingling for a time, gasping at the nude portraits displayed prominently on the wall. She was an amazing host, buzzing around the room, providing students with the stories behind her many paintings. I recognized some of the landscapes as Minnehaha falls, and a statue from Como Conservatory. Some of the kids even thought that one of her portraits resembled Burt Reynolds. I thought it looked like Rafael Palmero. She even showed us how she starts her portraits.
She squared herself in front of the easel, and with a steady hand, began to sketch the oblong shape of a head. In her left hand she held the picture of a husky middleeastern man with thick black hair, brushed back from his face. She showed us how to divide up the head, with the eyes in the middle. She then let all of the students put their own personal touch on the portrait.
As you can imagine, the end result did not resemble the subject’s picture in the least. Some kids added peircings, six to be exact. Other students added tattoos and a landscape of fire. When finished, the portrait resembled some sort of demon with a trident and a butterfly tattoo on his forehead. CeCeile smiled and laughed when she saw these things. We agreed that it was a case of artistic interpretation.
CeCeile sat down all of the kids and told them what it was really like to be an artist: how you may not be able to pay the rent all of the time, how tireless work is often rewarded with very little. But she also talked to us about passion. She told us how painting was what she loved to do, and how she wouldn’t trade that freedom for the world. By this time the kids were ready to go, so we said our goodbyes. I thanked her profusely, knowing I wouldn’t soon forget this day. She smiled and thanked me right back, showing a few of the students where the bathroom was, a small closet with no sink. She accompanied us down the stairs so as to spray the portrait we had made, so that the charcoal didn’t smudge on our bus ride home. We said our final goodbyes and parted ways.
Sitting at the bus stop with my coworker, I felt good. We had put our students in a position to broaden their perspective on St. Paul, and the world. We showed them a layer of human existence they never would have seen, had CeCeile not been so gracious.
This is an example of experiential education that worked, but there are many more mistakes to be made. This type of education relies heavily on community acceptance, and sometimes this is in short supply. It will take the work and good will of many to make something like this function, but it can be done, because it must. The future of education is not rows of desks, it is not bells ringing on the hour, every hour. Not every student responds to classical teaching styles. This is where charter schools come into play, giving students and parents a say in what education really means.
Article by:Charter Vision