From the Upper School Director
A Vision for Knight School
Seven years ago, the Upper School launched Knight School as part of our goal to increase engagement. This "mission" challenges us to do all we can to foster a culture of student inquiry and initiative, promote learning as an inherently rewarding activity, and develop in students a global consciousness and a commitment to purposes larger than themselves. During Knight School, we suspend the usual academic schedule to offer mini-courses that do not routinely exist in our curriculum. The program is both a continuing experiment in expanding the boundaries and possibilities of schooling and a cultivation of intrinsic motivation. It is an antidote to one aspect of our work with students that teachers find so frustrating: more students report a motivation to earn good grades than to learn. Knight School is a week that has no grades and no tests (let alone standardized tests); it is simply a week of learning.
In addition, the structure of Knight School offers opportunities for new kinds of learning experiences: mixed-aged classes, field trips, overnight travel to domestic and foreign locales, chances to undertake activities that don't conform to the regular 55-minute class schedule, and interdisciplinary teaching. It is an excellent vehicle for service learning, and it provides a different way for students to connect with teachers, which is a key aspect of engagement at Menlo. Many of the classes have been unqualified successes-the project-based, learn-by-doing, experiential and travel-based courses are high on that list. It is hard not to learn a great deal when you are building a computer or a house, or when you are studying fauna in the Panamanian rainforest. Some classes have been less universally impactful, but with 35 or so courses offered every year and a spirit of experimentation, mixed success is perhaps inevitable.
“My aspiration for Knight School is for the majority of classes to be student-initiated and student-led.”
One might assume that after seven years Knight School would be an established tradition in the Upper School, but it is still finding its footing. While our current students never knew Menlo without Knight School, many teachers do have such memories, and several believe Knight School is not worth the loss of instructional time in their regular courses. Knight School faces other challenges, as well: the monumental logistical tasks of running a school within a school for a week and the difficulty of teaching what is often a new course, compressed into a six-hour/five-day framework. There is concern that some students can go on trips while others, due to finances or athletic commitments, cannot. (Menlo does provide some assistance to financial aid students, and we alternate the Knight School week between February and April so as to not impact the same sports season every year). Students rank six course choices, and although 92% of them get placed in their first, second or third class preference, we sometimes field student complaints about the course selection and assignment process.
The greatest challenge Knight School faces, however, is from a sense that many of us on the faculty share: that too many students have not fully stepped up to the challenge and opportunity that Knight School affords.
I recently addressed an Upper School assembly to say I believe Knight School can and should be stronger, most especially in how students approach this week. When some students refer to this week as "a break" and fail to do the limited assigned work, it is demoralizing for those students and teachers who do fully commit to it and raises questions about Knight School 's sustainability, as well as the possibilities of learning for learning's sake in our setting.
I am in favor of continuing Knight School and a believer in its vision and promise. I think the week has allowed students to get out of their comfort zones, have real life experiences that are meaningful and lasting, create things they would not have otherwise, perform exciting community service projects, make great art-the list goes on. But more students need to understand that engagement doesn't simply mean taking the attitude of, "here I am, engage me." At assembly I said that we need more students not to simply embrace the assigned Knight School class work but to go beyond that and actually help shape the Knight School offerings themselves. My aspiration for Knight School is for the majority of classes to be student-initiated and student-led. Students should approach the week from the perspective of "What do I really want to learn?" and "What can I offer that my peers might want to learn?" And students should do the work of co-designing and co-teaching a course with faculty. Finally, I told the students how they might do so for Knight School '14.
It is a challenge to re-set students' expectations about the culture of Knight School, but I remain optimistic. The program was launched to stoke student initiative and curiosity, which is precisely what I am calling upon to strengthen it.