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Our schools are constantly changing ... and that’s a good thing

Thirty-four years ago, I sat in Ron Newell’s classroom and soaked it all in.My peers, however, did not love history as much as I did; to be honest, I don’t know if many of them even tolerated Mr. Newell’s lectures.And that’s what they were.He wasn’t alone at little old Mapleton High School, or any other high school at the time for that matter.Save for science labs, teachers back in my day stood in front of us and talked and talked and talked.Most of us took notes because we knew a test was coming, but honestly, the goal was simply hang onto the knowledge teachers like Mr. Newell was imparting long enough to regurgitate it back to him on a test.My teachers, many of them who are now in their 70s and 80s, would not recognize schools today, and they would have been perfectly aghast to walk the halls of New Hampton Middle School during its Midmester Academy this past winter or the halls of New Hampton High School last week during its Chickasaw Challenge.It wasn’t that they were bad teachers at all; in fact, I thank God every day for teachers like Bill O’Brien, who gave me a love for writing; Dave Reinen, a math teacher who seriously taught me to think for myself; Jim Swanson, a football coach and social studies teacher who taught all of us the value of personal responsibility; and Ron Newell, who shared his passion of history with me.But, honestly, school, or at least class, was boring back in the early 1980s.Lecture, regurgitate, repeat pretty much summed it up.It certainly helped me prepare for college, but thinking out of the box wasn’t exactly the motto of American schools back in my day, when you could walk the halls of any building and not see a soul unless you peaked into a classroom.Today, no matter what school building you’re in, students in the hallways during classes is an everyday, if not an every-hour, sight.Hands-on learning is here folks, and here it’s to stay.Programs like the Midmester Academy and the Chickasaw Challenge that allow students to find and explore their passions are not going away.At church Sunday morning I was telling a friend about the Chickasaw Challenge, and honest to goodness, I think he wrinkled his nose at me.“I don’t know if school is supposed to be fun,” he said and I’m sure he meant it.But why not make learning fun? Or better yet, why not follow the research that says many of us are more productive and learn more with project-based learning than having a Mr. Newell standing in front of the classroom and lecturing for 55 minutes at a time?Maybe, I’m biased. Maybe, I’m just still savoring the wonderful meal one of the Chickasaw Challenge classes, “Pastries and Patriots,” made for us at the weekly meeting of the New Hampton Rotary Club.But I don’t think so.As I walked the halls of New Hampton High School and visited the Pub at the Pinicon kitchen on Thursday morning, I saw students who were engaged.They weren’t counting the minutes until the bell; instead, they wanted more.And I know one of my biggest backers would be my old teacher, Ron Newell.We stayed in touch for a long time after I graduated from high school and after he retired from teaching.But like many retirees, he didn’t graduate to a couch in front of the television; instead, he became heavily involved in the growth of public charter schools in Minnesota.I once asked him, “Why?”And he told me the story of how he and his colleagues at my old high school conducted a test to see how much their students had “retained?”“It was coming in at 20, 25 percent,” he said. “It was crushing. And we were asking them the so-called important stuff. There has to be a better way. There has to be a way we can really engage students.”There is.And it was on display last week at New Hampton High School.

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