Three Lessons from My Unorthodox 10th-Grade Year

My name is Sophia Pink. I’m a high school junior at Washington International School in Washington, D.C., and recently had the privilege of speaking at the 9th Annual Private School Leadership Conference about my experience of creating a hybrid approach for 10th grade.

As a freshman in high school, about two months into 9th grade, I was frustrated. I liked my school, but I spent all my time marching to other people’s orders, and had little time to work on projects in technology, science, and moviemaking that I was really interested in. So I thought about it for a while, and came up with an unorthodox idea. Instead of filling my days with going from class to class, I would take the time to work on projects that really interested me. And, to keep up with my core academics, I would take advantage of the new world of online education.

Sophia Pink shares her sabbatical-year experiences with private school national leaders.

Sophia Pink shares her sabbatical-year experiences with private school national leaders.

Lucky for me, both my parents and my school were open to this educational experiment. And so, I spent the 2012-2013 school year learning on my own. Over the course of the year, I created a short documentary film, Honk If You Love Someone, about a man who is trying to change D.C. commuters’ opinions of Monday mornings. I completed a Google Science Fair project that used data and social science to study teen fatigue. I took a stab at designing a mobile app that promotes acts of kindness. And, I dove into the much-talked-about world of online education, learning pre-calculus, chemistry, persuasive writing, statistics, and computer programming from several different online education sources.

I learned many things during my year away from school. For example, I learned that standing in my kitchen dissolving crushed Alka-Seltzer tablets was a sorry substitute for a traditional classroom lab, and that designing a mobile app with no coding experience was a little harder than I expected. But more importantly, my experience yields three key lessons for students and educators:

1. If you give students a little more freedom, they might surprise you with the results. Most students won’t have the opportunity to take a sabbatical year like mine. But I think schools and teachers can find ways to encourage students to take mini-sabbaticals — a week, or maybe just a day — to pursue projects they are most passionate about.

2. The only way to succeed is to fail. In my year away from tests, quizzes, and grade-point averages, I failed all the time. For example, I spent months researching, designing, and poring over Excel spreadsheets for a science project only to get my results back and find they were inconclusive. Failing is hard to deal with. But it’s one of the reasons I learned so much even while not going to school.

3. Get real. Part of my frustration with traditional school was the feeling that what we were doing had little connection to the real world. Students learn more when what we’re doing has a visible impact. For example, a math class could calculate the best way to avoid long lunch lines in the cafeteria. Our effect doesn’t have to be huge — it just has to be real.

Sophia Pink is a junior at Washington International School in Washington, D.C.

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