Key to solid education: Ignite passion
Topic: Lab school

"The child's mind is a fire to be ignited, not a pot to be filled." -- John Locke

One of the most symbolic moments of my K-12 education came afterward, during my first year of college. I was sitting around a lunch table with other college freshmen talking about high school English class. Within seconds, one student started spouting off the "Prologue to the Canterbury Tales" in Middle English tongue. The rest of us joined in. The "Prologue" was stuck in our minds like some deranged version of the Brady Bunch theme song. We didn't know what it meant or why we learned it, but we had memorized it, regurgitated it and got our "A" in high school.

And so when I came to Fort Collins as a parent years later, I was delighted to discover the Lab School for Creative Learning, a K-6 public elementary school. The Lab School is everything my K-12 experience was not. A few days ago, this difference was drilled home to me.

After school one day, my two daughters and a friend of theirs had started digging in the compost pile in our back yard and found numerous earthworms. They held the wriggling worms, examined their reticulations, and noted all their differences in size and shape. Within minutes, they set up a makeshift "racetrack" and held worm races.

My older daughter soon started searching the Internet for more earthworm information. She found it and relayed it to the younger girls -- information on diet, the physics of their movements, breeding habits and tidbits about worms and soil health. This led to, among other things, a longer-term breeding experiment in hopes of getting more worms into the garden. Quietly, I watched, somewhat amazed. But I shouldn't have been surprised. The Lab School does this every day.

Perhaps you, like me, have one of those dreamy-eyed daughters who loves horses. When you enter the Lab School, the first question your child is asked is, "What do you most love to learn about?" Horses? How wonderful! Did you know the entire PSD third-grade curriculum can be taught in the context of horses? Horses are integral creatures in American history, horse biology is fascinating, the geometry and physics of horse movement staggers the imagination and horse stories overflow from the library. And of course, the school has field trips to horse farms.

Or perhaps you have one of those jittery boys who loves rockets. Recently, I saw Lab School Principal Stephen Bergen, who also loves rockets, teach much of the K-6 curriculum through a weeklong Enrichment Program in this context. Rockets soared over the playground, children's eyes widened and Bergen delicately interweaved lessons on science, geometric trajectories and space flight in American history.

Over much of the five years our family has been at the Lab School, it has remained a quiet secret around town.

But in the last two years, the secret has gotten out and the waiting list for this small 120-student school now approaches 100 students.

The Lab School is not for every student, family or teacher. Students are required to think about who they are and what they love to learn. It is hard work for all, especially teachers.

If you prefer grades, worksheets, homework, and CSAPs, then other choices abound. But what if, instead, you love worm races, horses and rockets? Or, monkeys, rain forests and robots?

You remember that Brady Bunch theme song? So do I, unfortunately.

"Here's the story, of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls ... "

It's stuck in my head, where other things should be.

We are not pots to be filled. We are fires to be ignited.

Gary Wockner, Ph.D., (www.garywockner.com), is a writer and ecologist in Fort Collins.

Originally published Tuesday, May 11, 2004