The First Day of a New School

Teaching Online


Seven kids gathered for the inaugural class of SHINE Middle Grades Collaborative last Friday. SHINE is a Middle School program for home-schooled students. It will be a year-long course that blends traditional and distance learning models.

First, the students played some games. Neither students nor adults can learn until they feel comfortable in a space and with each other. It is always important to spend time helping people know one another.

Then, we talked about what we were hoping for the year. We read several passages from a book called You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, by Vivian Gustav Paley. Gustav Paley was a kindergarten teacher who recorded her student’s conversations in order to learn about the developmental thinking of children. Paley suggested to her little students that there should be a rule that states, “You can’t say: you can’t play.” The students who Paley works with said that they would want a rule like this in their school, but that it wouldn’t work. All children, including the students in Shine, seem to think that kids have to be taught to be inclusive when they are really young, other wise they will not be inclusive. Nonetheless, they would like that to be the rule, ever as older kids.

The students in my class, though, did not seem like they were going to have any trouble being inclusive. Two students got into a playful squabble about who was going to speak first.  The students looked out for each other and made sure that everyone was included in both the structured academic activities and free time. Nonetheless, whenever a group of people is brought together, it is important to make the expectations clear. I want the students to know that we will work to make sure that everyone feels welcome and safe.

We also began to explore the main project of the year, which is to create a model utopia. I describe the project here.  I love this project, especially at the beginning of the school year. The lessons are two fold, because the kids are creating their own learning utopia with each other, while designing their own model society. The two worlds will ideally foster and nurture each other, creating both a beautiful microcosm and a plan for a more just and joyful world.

Ideas That Were Explored

The kids had a lot of interesting ideas!

Beatrice’s ideas were echoed by many of the students.

Beatrice: you get what you need

There was a general consensus that people should be provided for and that excessive consumption should be limited. Roxy suggested that “When people 9from the United States) get something, they don’t understand it. If someone from the third world gets something, they enjoy it more.” The ideas that Beatrice and Roxy suggested might lead us to an investigation of what people really “need,” and how that varies by culture.

Joe discusses meat production in the following clip:

Joe’s annual meat harvest

In this clip, Joe explores the concept of an “Annual Meat Harvest.” While it is somewhat disconcerting to hear a person discuss an annual meat slaughter, the idea he suggests leads to numerous possibilities to consider. What sorts of traditions and rituals develop around meat and meat consumption. How is most of the meat consumed in the United States  raised and killed? How does per capita meat consumption vary by country and culture?

Edwards had some interesting ideas about transportation.

Getting around

His questions will lead to an inquiry about public transportation as well as solar energy.

Sarah had some ideas about community planning.

Sarah describes her island

This clip will easily lead us to conversations about how to organize the physical space.

Zeek has a plan to take over an underground military bunker: In this clip, he responds to Alexa’s thoughtful questions:

The underground bunker

Zeek’s idea reminds me of a delightful book by Jules Feiffer, By The Side of the Road. In the book, A smart-alex kid tells his family that they can leave him by the side of the road. They do, and he moves underground. Zeek’s suggestion has helped me to decide which book to launch our literature studies with.

Questions that were generated

Many other questions came up during class: (Note that these are the kid’s words. from a casual brainstorming session.)

-Are all religions equally happy? Are some religions happier than others?

-Do some places have more or less available resources? Maybe we should live someplace with a longer growing season?

-Does poverty effect the enjoyment that people have? How and in what ways?

-Do some countries enjoy life more than others? Why?

-Why do people enjoy music?

-What sort of house would you live in if you had no money? What if you had unlimited money?

-What would you think if someone told you that your house had to be the same as everybody else’s?


There was also a rather hilarious conversation around bacon. While silly (and tasty) bacon is certainly a worthwhile topic of discussion. The students generated these questions related to that delicious piece of crispy meat:

-What cultures prohibit bacon?

-Why do some cultures prohibit bacon?

-Is bacon good for you? How does the way it is preserved change its nutritional value.

The educational possibilities with this topic are truly delightful.

Next Steps

The students are here and ready to learn. They have generated a list of questions, from which I will design the course. We had an online class last week in which we investigated happiness. While I am eager to get into the meat and potatoes of the course, I think that the students need a couple more weeks to get comfortable with the technology and with each other before we begin a more serious exploration of ideas. This week, will we spend some more time brainstorming and imagining what our utopian world could look like.

WizIQ, Home Schooling


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at

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