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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, School Stories

Disco Bomb, the Penokee Players, and Creativity

This is a repost from our Homeschooling Blog located at Homegrown on Siskiwit.  For a little background.  Bayfield County is located in Northern Wisconsin on the South Shore of Lake Superior.  What is really unique about this area is the amount of home schooled children as a proportion of all school aged children.  Between 15-25% of children in the various school districts are home schooled.  It provides a great support system for parents and children to set their own course to becoming “educated”.  On April 16th, a parent group that I belong to is starting a series of conversations about learning and school re-design. Here is our face book link to the event and the group.  For me, helping communities figure out how they want children to learn isn’t just a profession, it is a passion.

Last night I had the distinct pleasure of watching an original adaptation of the era I grew up in.  Steve Nicks, Jimmy Hendricks, Charlie’s Angels and the Love Boat all rolled into one.  What is truly amazing about the production was it was written, produced and performed by young people ages 5-19 that attend the Penokee Mountain Cooperative School.

The Penokee Mountain School is a little gem tuck away in the rolling farmlands of Northern Wisconsin.  Formed in the 80’s as a cooperative, parents and youth gather on Fridays in the fall and conduct classes for home school enrichment.  One of the classes is the Play Writing.  The older youth meet the first ten weeks and write an original work to be performed in the winter session.  During the winter, the written word transforms into weekly play practice, set design, costume creation and healthy doses of fun.

Sitting through the production I was amazed at how the youth leading this effort hit upon many higher order thinking skills, that many innovative educators would drool to see happen in their classrooms.  Yet I would cite with caution that trying to recreate this special night in a classroom may be its undoing.  The youth that produced this show had some things that are very hard to recreate in a classroom.  Daniel Pink talks about drive and motivation (See his RSA Video). In a nutshell, Pink talks about Autonomy, Purpose and Self-Mastery as the elements for motivation.  It only took five minutes into the play that revealed that these performers had all three.

Too often the factory model of schooling tries to artificially create the magic that happens when kids are given the freedom to explore, resources from adults, and access to spaces without an overabundance of conditions, control or the dreaded rules.  Often I have seen that this kind of learning is used as a reward for compliance, which at the start kills the magic.

In terms of assessment, the play was a prime example of authentic assessment.  The audience was filled with community members, and their responses i.e. laughter, clapping came at the appropriate moments of a relevant 70’s flashback.  It struck me with awe how kids born 20 years later were able to re-create the flavor of the 70’s sitcom era.  They must have done a tremendous amount of research to nail their parts.  Much better than a standardized test.

I was also struck by the cooperative nature of the performance.  This was a multi-generational production.  Every kid who wanted a part was written into the play.  I saw validation and pride in the faces of them before, during and after the production. This multi-age project capitalized on the strengths of the members of the community. Adults were seen as facilitators and supporters of the journey not the leaders.

I want to thank visionaries of Penokee for keeping this organization alive and thriving for my own children to participate as members.  This truly was a special night.

About Jamie Steckart

Currently the Head of Academic Affairs for the Qatar Leadership Academy. Passionate about experiential and project based learning.


4 thoughts on “Disco Bomb, the Penokee Players, and Creativity

  1. Jamie, As someone who thinks along very similar lines about the nature of learning and how to help (or not) make it happen, this sounds like quite a night. These evenings (many of us here at the COOP are all about nights like this) convince me of the POSSIBILITIES of human beings, if we support kids and adults in doing interesting and powerful things. Thank you so much for sharing this. Over at IDEA Dana Bennis and I talk a lot about how many wonderful things are going on in schooling in Minnesota and Wisconsin–things that folks on the coasts don’t know a lot about.

    You’re bringing that out.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 13, 2011, 12:10 pm
  2. Righteous. I would like my Fridays to be like Penokee’s, at least in giving over class to student collaborations on deep projects – parents welcome!


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 13, 2011, 1:27 pm
  3. Hi Jamie,
    Thanks for sharing this “slice of life” with us. Although I understand when you say that it would be almost impossible to replicate a night like this in a traditional setting, I can’t help but wonder how something like this can be adapted to a classroom setting? You can’t replicate the feelings but how can you reproduce some of the conditions and elements that led to such a night? Any ideas?

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | April 22, 2011, 9:58 am
    • I think the key to this wonderful performance is the level of autonomy that the kids are given at this cooperative learning environment. So if we were going to create this in a “school” environment adults would have to give the power to create to the children.

      So having said that. imagine a day or a week or a month when teachers loosen up and allow things to organically just happen in a classroom. Imagine that two days a week students are given the entire time to create what they want. Fast forward to the end of the year where the school has given each classroom 36 “freedom to create” days. There could be days in that time frame where children present and share with the community. They could work with who ever they want. Teachers would be in charge of getting resources for the kids. To make this happen there would be trade offs, we would have to stop teaching to tests and refine during the “structured” days what we really want to teach. I would imagine that over time we would find the non structured days to actually produce more quality work.

      To get your admin to go along, just suggest doing this with 3 or four classrooms as a pilot. Test it for a few years. Give parents the choice to participate in this action research project. Show them the evidence and in no time you may have started a movement.

      Posted by Jamie Steckart | April 22, 2011, 4:42 pm

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