Marion Martin is the quintessential elementary school teacher. Her bright spirit, kind heart, and passion for teaching has served her well over the past 13 years she’s spent as an educator. Originally from Belgium, she moved to New Orleans 9 years ago. A life-long learner, Marion has traveled to many countries and visited alternative schools in different parts of the world.
She reflects, “During high school, I decided that I would become a teacher because I had always aspired to make the world a better place and because I loved vacation! I’ve always been convinced that this ambitious first goal could be partially worked on at school.”
When Marion was in college studying primary education, her mother gave her a book called “Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing” by the educator A.S. Neill.
Marion describes, “The book is about the school he started at the early 20th century, initially for kids with behavior issues. In this school, the kids are free to be themselves, make their own decisions about their learning and also have a word to say in the management and organization of the school. He also develops other aspects, such as freedom, religion, sexuality, good manners, etc. That book changed my life.”
Marion finally joined the conventional school system in Belgium, and afterwards in US. She kept up with learning about child centered education and attempted to implement some of the ideas in her classroom, but “at the end of the day, there were still curriculum, exams, and fixed schedules. There was only so much I could change in my class while making sure I was respecting the rules and not annoying my colleagues and principal.”
She recalls, “I’ve always disliked the school system, as a student and as a teacher, even though I could enjoy some aspects of it. After 7 years of teaching, I was fed up and decided to take a year off to travel, learn new stuff and visit alternative schools. I visited Sudbury schools, democratic schools, arts centered schools in Belgium, Brazil, Texas and NYC and finally got to do a three week internship at Summerhill in the UK.”
“All of these schools were quite small, had a very positive energy, rich interactions between the staff, the older and the younger students. Some kids would be very involved in more traditional learning classes while others were very busy playing or running their own projects.”
She goes on, “After that year of enlightening experiences, I decided to move back to New Orleans, teach in the conventional school system but with the goal of starting a school that would give the students the opportunity to be themselves.”
The Founding of Dat School
In the spring of 2017, Marion co-founded Dat School, an alternative homeschool learning center where students are free to choose what, when, how and with whom to learn. She describes Dat School as a place which “nourishes children’s hungry minds and heals their energetic spirits.”
The school challenges the way that the conventional school systems works, questioning,
“If your child is losing their love of learning or their spirit is being crushed by meaningless tests, the drudgery of homework, or abusive authority, how long can you pretend all is well? Schools are broken and falling further behind as the world changes more quickly than they can adapt.”
Dat School recognizes that most of the “learning disabilities” diagnosed today are “a direct product of a school system treating children like they are machines to passively absorb programming instead of active, living, creative beings with their own path to tread. A broken system saddles children with labels to mask its own failure and ineffectiveness, which they live with for the rest of their lives.”
Often, the problems even spill over from the classroom into home life. Parents are supposed to be enforcers on teacher’s behalf, frowning on poor grades and bribing kids for good performance. Marion challenges, “Why should you spend your precious time with them nagging about homework? Or doing it for them?”
She recalls the following story about the first time she really knew that Dat School would make a difference for kids:
“We had a child come to us who wasn’t doing well in his conventional public school. He resisted doing his work in class, and his teachers kept bringing up his ‘behavioral problems.’
This child came to visit Dat School in our pilot period of winter 2017. His mom decided that he would attend Dat School for the new school year. At Dat School, he was encouraged to engage in activities that inspired him to learn in his own way. For instance, he likes to play video games, but he is also spending a considerable amount of time building all sorts of things: with legos, origami, carpentry.
After the second time visiting us, he understood that he was in charge of a lot of things about his learning in a way that he hadn’t been before.
And the thing was, this somewhat shifted his behavior in his regular school. He knew he was leaving soon, that something better was coming up for him at Dat School, so his behavior improved.
This was a great learning experience for all of the adults involved in his life, because we saw firsthand that when you give children a choice and let them have a say over their lives, they might do things that you don’t expect.”
How It Works
Dat School uses the tools of the Agile Learning Center network, which is an educational approach that is self-directed, has a culture of intention, and uses practical, concrete tools to make these ideals real and reliable.
For instance, every morning at Dat School, the students and teachers have an “Spawn Point” meeting to center themselves through activities like yoga and mindfulness. These meetings also allow them to better get to know everyone early on in the year. Marion notes, “These types of practices solve a lot of conflicts upfront, before they get out of hand. When you take time to allow children to center themselves and give them the tools they need to succeed, a lot of those ‘behavioral issues’ they displayed in a more conventional classroom tend to work themselves out.”
Every Monday morning also starts off with a group meeting to “set the week”. This is a chance to schedule opportunities for the week, such as trips, projects, classes, or games. If interest is shown for an activity, they put it on a big Weekly Schedule whiteboard where it can be easily referenced throughout the week.
Dat School uses various tools to document progress and learnings. Once such tool is a Kanban, a framework to manage and improve work across systems by looking at workflow. The framework breaks up tasks into different columns: for example, “To Do”, “Doing”, and “Done”.
Marion explains, “All the children can list their ideas and interests, then place it into the “doing” column. For instance, you might have a child that says “I want to be a chef”. Okay, well this involves lots of parts. So, let’s divide it up. First you might want to be able to learn how to chop vegetables, then learn a recipe, etc. Once the child thinks a skill has been learned, they move it to the “done” column. Then, we suggest them to share the skill with others. It’s very important to be able to share what you’ve learned.”
At Dat School, there are no mandatory exams or testing unless the children want it. Instead, students are invited to build a portfolio of their work over the course of the year. Students document their learning on sharable platforms, such as blogs, Kanbans, and even personal websites. As a result, students of Dat School typically find it easy to construct a rich portfolio.
Marion elaborates on this methodology by saying,
“Our goal in this style of education is that we want to create a culture where we brainstorm together about our values and wishes. A culture where everyone feels safe. So our questions as educators are always, ‘What do we need to do in order to feel safe? What do we need to do to make sure that every child feels heard and valued? And how can we embrace children’s natural curiosity and drive to learn?’”
She goes on, “All of these things come from needs. At Dat School, everyone is free to give solutions and ideas. We work by consensus. Not everybody has to agree to an idea, but no one can be strongly opposed to it for the group to implement it. With the Agile model, we’ll come up with a proposed solution together, test it for a week, and then regroup to see if it needs to be modified or changed. We don’t want to get stuck with things that don’t work just because that’s the way they’ve traditionally been done.”
When asked about any particular memories that stood out to her about starting the school, Marion smiled in reflection and recalled,
“At Dat School, we’re big believers in the benefits of play. Playing helps you learn by trial and error, and you learn how to respect rules… so much is happening in our brains when we play! Unfortunately, in our society, we often have biased opinion about what “playing” means, and what role it plays in our development. We tell kids things like, “there’s no time to play!” and “stop playing around!” At Dat School, we try to encourage a culture of playfulness and creativity, because it is one of the primary ways in which children learn.
During the fall of our pilot program, the children started to build a fort. Later on, this fort evolved into a long term project. The kids learned so many things! Skills like team collaboration, how to use a saw and a hammer, basic trigonometry to build the roof… Some kids gave up. But they were responsible for that choice.
It was interesting to see kids give up, in a way. Because they learn that if you don’t do it, there are no bad consequences. No one is going to punish you. But the construction will not move forward either. And when the kids understood that, a lot of them came back and wanted to help build the fort again. Everything here is about intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic.”
She pauses for a moment, remembering, then proclaims, “You can’t learn to make good decisions if you’re never allowed to make your own decisions.”
No school exists without its own unique challenges. For Dat School, one of the biggest hurdles they faced starting out was fear from parents.
One of the major obstacles that parents faced was the simple barrier of trusting their children. Often, parents fall into the mindtrap of, “if I let my child do what they want, they’re not going to do anything.”
“It is a powerful thing we do, in asking parents to take this leap of faith in trusting themselves to step outside the box of a dysfunctional educational system and extend that faith further to actually trusting their children. Just making this choice… this leap… can be life-changing. It certainly alters the fabric of relationship within a family. And most importantly, the children immediately start learning they can trust themselves— a lesson many adults have been denied. Parents have to make an emotional shift towards trusting their child to be in the driver’s seat of their education.”
She goes on to describe that, “A Learning Center like Dat School may look chaotic to a visitor because s/he won’t see what is expected in a conventional school: silence in the classroom and hallways and children on task and listening to the teacher. In our learning center, there may be a lot of activities going on, children working or playing in groups, by themselves, with a staff member. You might also see children talking to adults in a relaxed, friendly way. That would demonstrate an absence of fear, and not a lack of respect.”
Marion explains, “We’re not saying our model is the best, but we need alternatives to the one-size-fits-all system that is available right now. After all, school shouldn’t be a punishment – childhood isn’t a crime. A school’s job should be to adapt to your child’s learning needs, not to bend your child into the mold of an obedient, unthinking drone.”
“Our goal is to create an environment in which children can grow and thrive by providing them with the resources that allow their curiosity, playfulness, and sociability to flourish.”
Dat School teaches us that the future of our children’s education is in our hands, if only we have the courage to step outside the box and see it.
Dat School officially opened on Monday, August 13th 2018. The school will initially have 7 students (5 of whom participated in Dat School’s pilot program in spring of 2018), ranging from 5-12 years old. To learn more or donate to the school, visit http://www.datschoolnola.org/how-can-you-help/