I’m not a teacher, but I opened a school

As you can imagine, I am learning a lot

Kelly Smith
Feb 10, 2018 · 6 min read
School around my kitchen table. We spend up to 2 hours a day on independent learning goals on computers.

My education journey in a nutshell: I got good grades through high school and college, realized in grad school that I had no experience or skill with real learning, and thought for a hot minute about becoming a teacher. I’d always enjoyed tutoring, and I was convinced that education was the best gift I could give a person. Then I remembered the median salary for teachers, considered my wife and newborn son and our plans for a bigger family, and I took the easy/superficial way out, leaving education behind. I still carry some shame around with me.

I finished two physics degrees and dove headfirst into the tech industry, first in Boston, then in the Bay Area, and finally starting a software business at night while working for a Fortune 500 in Milwaukee.

When I moved back to my hometown of Mesa, Arizona, I wanted to do something meaningful and decided to volunteer at the public library to help kids learn to code. I put up posters in the tougher neighborhoods around the library, borrowed a computer lab on the second floor, and started out. It was never meant to be anything more than me and 15 kids meeting once a week to tinker in software.

But code club took off. Kids came back again and again, bringing their friends, and we quickly grew out of the small computer lab.

Mesa Code club featured on the news in early 2014.

We raised some donation money, bought chromebooks, and expanded until we had 50–60 kids coming each week. Pretty soon, we were talking to other libraries about replicating the program, and before long we were supporting code clubs in libraries and schools all over North America. We made a web app and training program so that people with no coding expertise could run successful code clubs.

I loved what I was seeing at code club. We were providing a “playlist” of tutorials and puzzles, and the kids worked their way through from beginning block languages into javascript and python. When they got stuck, they scoured the internet for help and asked another kid. As they mastered the content, we provided project prompts and encouraged them to work with peers to build cool games, websites, and apps. The kids loved it! It was so fun and engaging that they didn’t realize they were learning rigorous, technical subject matter.

So I started thinking…what if the real innovation is not teaching kids to code, but how we are teaching kids to code? What if all of school could be this engaging and empowering?

Making a Plan

In mid-2017, I decided to start my own microschool. With no formal training and no direct classroom experience, I knew I had a lot to learn. I scoured the internet, cold-called experts, and pestered my education friends relentlessly. I even started a podcast to document my conversations with innovative people.

How many balloons fit inside a minivan full of students? More than you think.

Over a few months, the format for Prenda School took shape. The goal was to empower the kids and make learning fun. We thought we could do this by handing over as much control as we can to the kids — when to work on english and math goals, what history topic to write about, who to work with on a group project, etc. We divided the learning day into three modes:

  • Conquer is all about achieving mastery in core subjects. Kids set a personal learning goal for math (we use Khan Academy) and english (NoRedInk). Everyone in the room is doing something different, but they are encouraged to help each other.
  • Collaborate is a structured group activity with the entire class. We alternate between science projects, debates, math puzzles, socratic discussions, and social studies exploration activities.
  • Create is open project time, where the students choose from a list of project prompts, find a partner/group if applicable, make a plan, and build their projects. They spend anywhere from an hour to a few weeks doing anything from writing their own eulogy to launching a business.
Bar chart out of sticky notes. There’s a lot more salt water than fresh water on the planet.

Starting a School

As you would expect from an entrepreneur in full-swing ideation mode, I have talked to a lot of people about this vision for school. I was surprised to find that a lot of parents have worried about their kids’ education — frequently I heard about wasted time, busywork, low interest in learning, and a lack of real-world skills.

But when it came down to it, would parents actually pull their kids out of school and send them to the pilot semester of a new concept? Would the kids feel weird about doing school in my house with a small group?

Fortunately, six awesome families decided to take a chance, and the inaugural class of Prenda School came together the first week of January, 2018. Take a look at those seven smiling faces.

An artist neighbor did a guest lesson on pastels.

We have had a blast so far! Besides the daily math and english goals, we have debated the merits of school box top fundraisers, discussed the relative intelligence of raccoons versus cats and dogs, estimated the number of balloons that would fit in my minivan (including all the students), explored present-day Yucatan peninsula, and approximated the amount of fresh water on the planet (thanks Mystery Science!). The kids have invented new words for the dictionary, created code languages and cracked each other’s codes, engineered protective casings for dropping eggs, made videos to teach a skill, rewritten the words to a children’s book, and conducted an “Ask Me Anything” in character as a personage of historical significance.

How much protection does peanut butter provide for a falling egg? Answer: 7 feet of freefall’s worth.

Rapid Learning

I have long believed the best way to learn something is by diving in and doing it. Here are some of the lessons sinking in during the first few weeks of the pilot school.

  • Kids need a coach, and coaching is hard. During conquer mode, the kids are working independently on computers, learning math and english. Sometimes they get frustrated. Sometimes they feel discouraged. Sometimes they are distracted or angry or unmotivated or just plain silly. It is a difficult and fundamentally human endeavor to connect with another human being, truly see and hear them, and support them as they navigate difficult emotions and challenging circumstances.
  • Handing over agency takes time. I thought I was adequately communicating the core value of agency — students are responsible for their own education. But it turns out this is a difficult shift, and I find myself beating this drum again and again. When a student sets a personal goal that they know is too easy, or tries to fly under the radar in a group discussion without researching or contributing, or turns in a project that falls short of their best work, they are looking at me as an enforcer to outmaneuver. Instead, I want them to realize they are only cheating themselves. That takes time and lots of consistent effort.
  • It’s very tempting to “teach to the test.” Through our partner charter school, our students will take the state test later in the semester. We have done a pre-assessment, and the results show that there is plenty of room for growth. With so much riding on the test (current and future charter approval), it is tempting to spend all our time going over test questions (if you have taken the SAT you get the picture). But we know that would sell these kids short, zap them of the love of learning, and squander a great opportunity to teach things that truly matter.
  • The future is bright. I have been truly humbled and amazed to work closely with seven incredible students. They come from very different backgrounds — charter school, homeschool, Montessori, public school — but they share a brightness and enthusiasm that energizes me every day. If these kids are representative of the millions of others out there, I feel optimistic about the future and dedicated to the mission of creating learners through an engaging and empowering education.

If you’d like to learn more about this project or follow along in the future, you can sign up for updates at school.prenda.co.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store