By Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach


Dec. 24-26 was filled with the joy that little ones bring.  We are blessed. But still– compared to every other Christmas I remember– this one was off. However one interesting thing did occur… an educational epiphany.

My brother came from Georgia and he brought his new family. I decided to take the crew to the Children’s museum. And it was while there that I had my reflective, educational epiphany.

The museum was set up with various themed spaces. Kids learned about banking by going in the banking space and writing checks, making deposits, using the drive through. Kids learned about music by trying out various home made instruments. Everyone was encouraged to touch, push, prod, and explore.

pbl1I was taken back to the school I started in Georgia where projects, problems, and creative environments (rather than textbooks) drove everything we learned. We built things, we went places, we solved problems together and shared what we were reading.

I follow many of the kids who went to this school now on Facebook and all are successful and contributing in some way to society. Many of the kids that went to my school were also homeschooled. Parents reinforced math and reading at home and they did science, social studies, creative writing, language arts, and embedded math at school. All the kids tested well. If any child struggled someone just took them aside and worked with them 1-1 until they got the concept we were working on. That someone could have been an older student, a parent, or me.

I began to dream about starting a school that was a mix of the children’s museum in Virginia and my school in Georgia.

pbl2Imagine a school where you chose what you would learn by themes. If you decided to go in the “Farm to Foodmart” space you would learn all the state mandated curriculum embedded in the activities that had been created there. For example, you would first take on a role. Let’s say- grocer, check out clerks, farmers, etc. Activities (based on age and interest) could include designing a garden to grow food and making decisions about the purchase of everything needed to make that work. Farmers would learn about local farming techniques and issues as well as organic gardening methods. Or grocers would be interviewing employees for the grocery and deciding what inventory would be needed. Experiences would be authentic and you would learn the skills needed to do the job (including reading, math, science etc) but within the context of application rather than a textbook.

As the leaders and facilitators in our newly formed themed school we would be in charge of changing out themes, deciding what aspects of the tested curriculum could be taught where, and we would organize field trips and experts to come to the school. We would change out the themes as it made sense and decorate/equip rooms as the themes changed.

Last night, someone had the food channel on Bizzare Foods and Andrew was visiting Finland. Everyone in education knows Finland. We are all told that US Schools need to be more like Finland. Why? Because teachers in Finland personalize curriculum giving each student whatever they need to be successful. Kids in Finland test well. Why? Because Finish kids age seven until 8th grade spend time learning in creative ways determined by the local school teachers with a curriculum determined by the local school itself (no state or nationally mandated anything). No child is tested until the 8th grade. So lots of time to work through issues and correct deficits. Teachers spend 4 hours per day in the classroom and have 2 hours of professional learning for themselves each week.  Not to mention there are only 5.414 million people in the entire country so classroom sizes are small and intimate.  You can learn more here.

As I watched the Bizzare Food segment I came to understand that Finland was much like home schooling in the way they implement education. Parents are involved, there is a close knit culture and lots of collaboration, and all kids are working together in creative spaces with little stress or pressure in the early childhood years. Children are allowed to play and be children and are not taken away from their mothers (the primary teacher in a young child’s life) until seven years old. Teachers are respected. Parents are respected. What happens in schools is focused more on learning outcomes than scripted “one size fits all” teaching plans. No one is in the same place at the same time in terms of curriculum. Rather everyone is learning what they need to learn –when they need to learn it.

pbl4So what if we created a few schools that were more like home school collectives? This starting a school thing has been gnawing at me for some time now. Taking what I know works from the school I created in Georgia and combining it with 21st Century collaboration and creativity- using maker movement type activities to deepen understanding and tie into student passion.

Anyone want to join me and create a learning space like that for your children/grandchildren in the Tidewater area? I am serious. Let’s do this.


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10 Responses to “Live in Tidewater? Let’s Create a School”

  1. Ed Allen December 30, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

    Sheryl, sounds like a school I wish I could have attended as a kid. I am not in the Tidewater area, but I look forward to following your progress with the school. Happy New Year!

    Ed Allen

  2. Jennifer December 31, 2013 at 12:34 am #

    Your school sounds like a dream. It makes perfect sense. A place where authentic problems are solved and learning takes place at “just the right moment.”

  3. DR December 31, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    Why not do this in a public school? Nothing you describe cannot be done in every public school in America. All it takes it LEADERSHIP to make it happen!!

    • Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach December 31, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

      This is true and I have also experienced such classrooms in public schools. Implementation in a public school is at the heart of what we support and nurture at Powerful Learning Practice. But in the short term- the get it started now with my leadership — it is more efficient (I think) to start a school (I have done so before) or partner with a community to do so in a church space or other abandoned public building. Less strings attached I think. However, this sort of thing would be a fantastic charter school.

  4. Marsha Ratzel December 31, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    I’m totally in on this endeavor. It seems to me that everyone deserves the chance to internalize the love of learning….and applying the knowledge and procedures of each kind of content. That’s why it’s engaging for kids to go to the banking exhibit and use what they know to learn even more AND maybe learn differently!!!

    My dream is a school where students enjoy and dare I even say become passionate about the process of learning. So no matter if they are in the banking section or the food section, seeing something from history or science and so on….they will be curious and want to learn about the world.

    Count me in on this.

  5. Kari Weston January 4, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    An opportunity to change the future for young people? Count me in!

  6. Sharon Bulger July 29, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    I can’t quit my current job, but I want to jump in and help. Let me know what I can do outside of 8 AM – 4 PM. I’m a natural organizer of things (the librarian in me) and I also write well (English major). In addition, I excel at tracking down resources online and identifying appropriate support material. Keep my in the loop as your objective develops.

  7. Dominic Reigns August 4, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    I really appreciate and pray that this dream of school comes true quickly, Students can learn quickly through a practical demo instead of theory.

    Keep your aims high and the good work (y)

  8. Carol March 11, 2015 at 12:39 am #

    Sheryl, How I wish I lived near enough to join you! I’m with you 110%. As a former home school parent and now a college instructor and administrator of an experiential learning program (service-learning) I am passionate about this approach. I know how the engaged, experiential pedagogy, of which you speak, impacted my own 2 children (now both very engaged adults). I am interested in seeing youth involved civically and am a big advocate of the maker movement. I feel every child should have access to that kind of a learning environment. – Carol Soules

  9. Adrian Reid May 5, 2015 at 9:45 pm #

    This is such a marvelous idea, and I have often thought the same thing. Kids needs hands-on activities to develop their brains and keep them interested. I hope that when I become a teacher, I can incorporate these ideas into my classroom. This is an inspiration to hear other people talking of such a place. Best of luck to you!