Twenty schools in the District of Columbia recently found their names on a list of schools to be closed by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Although many schools do work against reputations for failing scores and poor educational models, there are a few standouts within DCPS that are taking the approach to learning to another level.
One such school is the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest, where the Museum Studies Department, under the tutelage of teacher Marta Reid Stewart has taken a multidimensional hands-on approach to learning.
"Students often do best by doing, it's the John Dewey approach to learning," said Stewart, director of museum studies since 1992. "This offers problem-based learning, where I want to give them the experiences where they're solving problems in a real museum setting."
A progressive 20th century educational thinker, Dewey's concept of education puts a premium on meaningful activity in learning, and participation in classroom democracy. Problem-based learning is a student-centered approach that challenges learning through engagement in real problems by placing students in the role of problem solvers.
To Karen Williams, the recently elected member of the State Board of Education Ward 7, this approach is a good one.
"Critical thinking and problem solving are two critical pieces missing in many educational settings," Williams said. "Without the ability to think critically and solve problems, our students are doomed to failure, no matter how high their test scores."
Since Sept. 27, 2012, Ellington, a high school for students with interests in the arts, displayed the One Journey museum studies exhibit, which featured photography by Ellington 1978 alumna, Francesca Scott, 52.
One Journey comprises more than 45 images from four road trips by Scott throughout the country. She captured
"People don't realize they still exist," said Scott about the Navajo, "they're not different from us; it's only that they live on reservations." She described one subject, a young boy about 12 or 13 years old, who looked like any other kid in sneakers. The only difference was he wore Navajo colors of blue-turquoise, white-white shell, black-jet, and yellow-abalone, and his hair was combed in traditional style with a ponytail. She wanted to highlight to District youth that kids are the same everywhere.
"I'm a documentary photographer," said Scott who visited Arizona, Colorado, the Grand Canyon and other areas, describing how she captured their lives.
Ellington student curators, designers and educators produced the exhibit as part of the one-of-a kind curriculum in museum studies, which relied upon the problem-based learning.
"I think many students may go into museum studies further," Stewart said, adding they're prepared after passing through her rigorous curriculum. Not only did the students create and mount the exhibit in the school's gallery, they also had an interactive tour and workshop on the exhibit. Stewart, who has a degree in museum education from George Washington University, said she believed Ellington has the only public high school museum studies program in the country.
On a Friday evening in November, about 21 students participated in a workshop to create Navajo jewelry; and make rock formations out of play dough, duplicative of Navajo terrain. Part of the learning environment had juniors leading groups of four freshmen to create lesson plans, incorporate ideas and execute different ideas under the One Journey theme.
Asiyah Williams is a junior who led a group.
"Doing the exhibition tours and taking leadership, I can tie it into what I want to do with electronics and computers," said Williams, 16, who said the group made its presentation a day earlier. "Working together was tough at first, but in the end we got things together."
The students also made Navajo Nachos – a concoction of white corn chips doused in warm cheese and topped with guacamole. Students enjoyed the multidimensions of the One Journey lesson, which encompassed all their senses. But that was not all.
For the fall opening reception, students arranged for an evening of live music by student pianist 17-year-old Julian Spires in Ellington's Instrumental Music department. He played on a borrowed Warren M. Shadd piano, the only one manufactured by an African American.
"It was an opportunity to share this technology," said Shadd, a child prodigy who played drums in his first of jazz concerts at age four. Shadd's interactive hybrid piano, which has been at Ellington for more than a year, allows for distance learning, self-tutoring and archiving lessons.
"I'm really proud of all aspects of One Journey," said Stewart who added that the exhibit will be on display until Jan. 11, 2013. "I really felt like one school – with all eight departments helping to make the opening sensational."