Monument Mountain’s ‘Independent Project’: Risk and opportunity

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By Monday, Jul 14 Learning, Viewpoints  5 Comments
The cohort of Monument Mountain Regional High School students who participated last year in the Independent Project.

The Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School is a learning program designed and sustained by students. It has engendered both praise and criticism, and because of that it has lived a precarious existence.

Initiated by Sam Levin in 2009, then a senior who had become disenchanted with the monotony and seeming pointlessness of his studies, the Independent Project was designed to give students a say in what they studied in four core academic areas: math, science, English and social studies.

In effect, responding to the problems he was seeing in public education every day, Levin proposed a school within a school, at least for the group of students who chose to be in the program.

“There was a breaking point for me,” said Levin in a 2011 YouTube documentary made by the first year’s group. “It seemed like everyone around me was unhappy. I realized that my friends were spending six hours a day, a hundred and eighty days a year just being unhappy. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Illustration by Alison Lee.

Illustration by Alison Lee.

In Levin’s new plan — he called it “The Independent Project” — participating students would pick his or her own line of inquiry each Monday and present a report the following Friday. The program also included an “Individual Endeavor,” one project that the student would work on for the entirety of the semester.

I participated in this project from my sophomore year to my senior year, each year for one semester, and I heard both endless praise and endless criticism. It wasn’t whether those of us in the program doubted whether the project would work, or whether we would succeed. We knew we would have to for the project to continue, and for the most part, we did. Students produced amazing work. But we also knew some people – and some students — would be upset by the very existence of the project. In hindsight, I don’t think we knew why we knew that people were going to be upset. We were given certain freedoms, certain privileges and certain opportunities.

Monument may very well be one of the best, most creative public schools for miles in every direction, and its principal, Marianne Young, may be one of the bravest principal for miles as well. However, the adults of today’s world generally have a hard time understanding themselves, much less understanding young people and what is needed for future generations and the betterment of humanity: the encouragement of unbridled curiosity.

Public education tends to assume that all students learn in the same way. While students within The Project who were typically good students in regular schooling were often praised, I observed that the students who best represented the program and perhaps achieved the most were the ones who did not do well in regular schooling but became the strongest students in the program’s history.

For example, in my junior year, I was lucky enough to study alongside a student whom I’ll call Sal, a student who, like me, was returning for his second year of The Project. Sal was a senior at the time, and after becoming a solid piano player in his first year, he changed his Individual Endeavor slightly, not only to improve on the piano but also to get to a point where he could play in a band. He had done excellent work. He had given a 20-plus page presentation on Lewis and Clark, learned card counting, studied fractals at the same time becoming increasingly talented at the piano.

As the semester drew on, Sal began to leave school early each day without signing himself out at the main office. He pleaded that he left school early because of stress, the pressure of not knowing what was next in his future, and the constant feeling of confinement in the building. Staying in school seemed to be an emotional conflict for him, but being in the Independent Project was what made him keep showing up in the first place. At first, I was among those who were frustrated with him. Why should he get to leave early? Now, I wish I left with him. Sometimes, I wish I dropped out of high school. Without the Independent Project, I almost certainly would have. Sal came to school every day, took what he valued most from his time there so he could go home and practice his piano in solitude and intellectual peace. I regret not breaking the rules more. Sal made a statement about the value of learning.

But teachers and students alike were continuously frustrated with him, and no matter how hard he worked and how many pages long his presentations were, we continued to expound upon the fact that he was breaking a rule, and, in turn, we devalued the vast intellectual growth that he achieved. I regret this very much about that year.

I think he was seen as an easy target. Not only was he changing his life, his abilities and his mind more than anyone in the building at that time, he was also not academically inclined before The Project, and was uninterested in class and sometimes absent. Most kids who struggle in school are not stupid. It is usually the school acting stupidly in some way.

In my view, it is far easier to have a teaching disability than a learning disability. Kids like Sal who are both intelligent and a bit rebellious are usually the kids who end up struggling in school. They understand that they are the victim of something unjust but cannot quite explain what it is. The student will usually either give up or blame himself, or some combination of the two. Public education continuously bumps against the problem of individuality.

Sal was a great example of this and, considering both the quality and quantity of his work, should have been able to come to the building and leave at his leisure. We should have respected him as a growing intellectual and a passionate person but because of that unwilling part of our core, we were more compelled to call him a rule breaker.

The Independent Project has become a mess in some ways. No one can ever seem to tell if it is “succeeding” or not, and no one can seem to even define “success” anymore — a product of larger confusion in public education. This seems to be because of a disconnect between students and teachers. Teachers cannot be there for all of the presentations and are therefore left to guess, more or less, at who is doing genuine work and who is blowing it off. Luckily, those who truly see the project’s value can become passionate enough to give it the support it needs.

In this past year, Logan Malik, recent high school graduate and prospective student at George Washington University, spearheaded the continuation of the Independent Project after learning last year that the staffing and funding were not going to be there. He pushed hard for meetings with principal Marianne Young, guidance councilor Mike Powell, potential students for the project, and even went around to every academic wing in the building, asking every teacher he could if they would be Independent Project advisors. Because of certain scheduling issues, past years’ teachers have been unable to return to the project, but Malik found the faculty and the students, and pushed until it was important enough to the community to run again.

The Independent Project represents a model for and of my generation. Students will be more powerful, more passionate, more intelligent and more creative human beings if they have control over their world, rather than being forced to be uniform creatures who they may not want to become. If The Independent Project continues, it will continue to be one of the strongest statements in the community and, furthermore, one of the strongest statements in the country for the trust and opportunity adults can give to young people.

Right now, the future of the project is a bit up in the air. If the project dies, however, with it dies a huge opportunity to shift the attitude and process of putting young people in charge of themselves and in charge of their world.

“Young people can be leaders of their own education,” says guidance councilor Mike Powell, past advisor and continuous supporter of The Project, “and sometimes, maybe often times, we as educators need to get out of the way and let them be leaders.”

It is hopeful to see a place like Monument running a program like the Independent Project, which is different from many of the other “alternative” programs, such as the WISE Project, a slightly different, less open-ended independent learning program, or Project Sprout, the student run school garden, or Spartan Launch, a series of extra curricular activities, usually after school.

Unlike these programs, the Independent Project is all day, every day for a whole semester. It shows a great deal of faith on the part of the administration in the students. It is a considerable commitment on the part of the school to offer the Independent Project. It requires more than a hundred books a semester, give or take, paid time for the teachers advising the Project, and time out of those teachers’ schedules all for a group of eight to twelve students.

The Independent Project is an expensive educational risk, and therefore an even bigger statement about the kind of hope people like Mike Powell, Marianne Young, and all of the project’s students have for future generations, to take control over their lives and keep the world more interesting, organized and passionate.


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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Karen W. Smith says:

    THIS IS WHY WE NEED TO FOCUS ON WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO PROVIDE FOR OUR HIGH SCHOOL. THIS IS THE TYPE OF CREATIVE EDUCATIONAL THINKING THAT IS OFFERED AT MONUMENT. PLEASE HELP GO FORWARD NOT BE STAGNANT AND GO BACKWARD

  2. Judy says:

    Great article. Thanks for writing it! When we were deciding to move to the Berkshires, I interviewed a lot of the school principals in the area. Although many of them were fantastic people and leaders, I was most impressed with Rob Putnam and Marianne Young. Their love of the students and especially their respect for the students, was what decided us on the Berkshires Hills Reg’l School District. We haven’t regretted it. And the Independent Project is one example of why we are still thrilled that our son is a Monument student. And look at you! Writing for publication. That is an awesome achievement!

  3. Tom says:

    Education has become a luxury item. This is a great way for these kids to imagine post-high school alternative education scenarios. Education as needed for the task at hand is the future, while staying out of the debt sinkhole.

  4. Ellen says:

    Nice work, Matthew Whalan. The IP came along at the perfect time in the life of this writer, and I am proud to be part of a community willing to take such risks. Let’s hope it grows and flourishes into the future.

  5. John says:

    Bravo and thank you Matthew! Does my heart good to hear from you what great stuff is going on at Monument. My daughter graduated there, and combined with her Steiner pre-high school education, gave her a strong and sentient send-off into the world ahead. I don’t know Mike Powell, but have experienced the extraordinary Marianne Young, and have gotten a pretty good sense of what a different kind of possibility exists there. Anyone interested in more about connecting the dots with regard to public education should definitely check out John Taylor Gatto at Tragedyand hope.com. I tip my hat to you Matthew, and look forward to more from you.

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