photo of Joe Hempelmann by student Josie F.
What makes Angeles Workshop School "Revolutionary"?
Our student Joe Hempelmann (Class of 2018) offers this eloquent essay as insight into how our school
offers a truly "Revolutionary Education"
An Education Community
by Joe Hempelmann
The words ‘high school’ instantly conjure visions of sneakers squeaking on linoleum floors, wooden desk-chair amalgamations with messages and doodles etched into their surfaces, bored stares pleading for the period to wrap up just a little bit faster, droning voices repeating what will be on the test. It’s no wonder that most people would be loathe to relive their high school days, and that teenagers dream of the day that diploma sets them free. But education doesn’t have to be such a burden — in fact, it can be a wonderful, inspiring way to explore the world. Creating a different method of education is always radical, and with the ever-increasing pressure on students to get into a ‘good college’ so they can have a future, it can feel risky. It’s true that painting outside the lines has always been parlous, but mainstream acceptance has never been a reliable marker of quality. I believe that a good school must be only one part of a strong group, and learning must be based on respect between students and teachers alike. Education is at its best when all participants are a community.
So how does one build a community? How does a school embody the open-heartedness and friendliness required without coming off as overly broad or shallow? I believe that to be successful, a community must remain small and genuine. Scott and Ndindi are the co-founders of the school I will graduate from in June. They have created a community that perfectly exemplifies a healthy, good school culture. A large part of this comes from their roles not just as teachers and educators, but as peers and friends. At just nineteen students, a school like mine is too small for hierarchies between students and teachers. Through a very selective application process, they have created a community that reflects the values of the school. And yes, a school must have values, something more than the trite anti-bullying and respect-others campaigns of public high schools. My school is deeply involved in social justice programs: we make over two hundred sandwiches for the homeless every month, we patronize African-American art exhibits, and have taken field trips to protests. This care for others permeates the community of the school and those values get directed inwards as well. We care for our own, and support teachers and students alike who need it. This collective accountability is immeasurably valuable to forming a healthy community.
However, a baseline cohesion is useless without trust and respect between all participating members: students and teachers alike. To that end, we do everything as a cohesive unit. From mornings discussing intense issues both global and personal (topics have included the FBI’s opposition to civil rights and the school’s junk food policy) to classwork, to clean-up, to faculty issues and interpersonal relationships, everyone’s voice is heard and acknowledged as valuable. Everyday tasks require teamwork between all members of the school — we go on field trips into the city routinely, and making sure no one is lost during the metro rides, museum visits, and ubiquitous ten-minute-walks from destination to destination is a demanding task. Since the students and teachers are directly and emotionally invested in the school, that respect and rapport is instantly built. What affects one affects all, and that quickly forms the trust that is necessary in a healthy community.
Above all, however, this community is not just a school. We get to know our teachers as people, and I personally count Scott and Ndindi as lifelong friends and mentors. We experience adventures together, and the experiences of nonacademic togetherness are created by two people who genuinely love what they do. Scott’s eyes light up when creating a tabletop role-playing game based on what we learned in our Cold War unit, and Ndindi opens a LootCrate with the school frequently. On sunny days, we’ll walk to the park and have lunch. This connection and love — yes, love — supports the academics and the studies that we participate in during the school day, and imbues the classes with an energy rarely found in high schools. When we receive feedback on our essays or projects, it’s personalized and we trust it because we respect the source. Even reading from Goethe’s Faust results in spirited discussions of classical and modern-day Satanism as opposed to blank stares.
A place like this is not just a school. It’s a thriving, loving group where we hold similar values, respect each other, and know that our interactions outside of the classroom are just as important as the academics. Education truly works best when the participants form a community. Imagine a world in which not just nineteen but hundreds of thousands of high school graduates embark on the next phase of their lives energized and excited, with clear goals and a solid support system. The impact a close-knit community can have on the depth of learning simply cannot be understated. Education is multifaceted, and closely tied to place and relationships. If anything will change the world, it will be the “Scotts and Ndindis” and, I hope, many others like them.