Beyond the Quads

In Deep Water

Splash program puts undergrads at the front of the classroom

The philosophy of the student teaching organization Splash—a rather radical one, in these test-driven times—is that high-school education should actually be fun. The free classes, taught by undergrads after school and on weekends, tackle intriguing, off-curriculum topics: “anything from pirate history and culture to tap dancing to religious cults,” according to the program's website.

Splash started as a weekend of classes organized by Chicago undergrads who are just a few years older than the high-school kids they're teaching. Cofounder Luke Joyner, AB'09, named it after a long-running program at MIT which he participated in as a high-school student.

About 150 students attended the first Splash in September 2007, and—entirely managed by College students and recent grads—it's grown every year since. This fall, the organizers hope to bring 500 high-schoolers to campus.

In 2009, Splash begat Cascade, a series of similar enrichment courses, but lasting five weeks so topics can be covered in more depth. Cascade classes are taught on weekday evenings. There are two sessions, fall and winter (in the spring, Joyner says, students are too busy with things like prom and AP exams).

Finally, this April came Ripple, a day-long conference on creativity in education. Speakers included William Ayers, the former Weatherman turned University of Illinois at Chicago education professor; Timothy Knowles of the University's Urban Education Institute; and activist Jacqueline Edelberg, AB'89, PhD'96, the author of How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance.

Joyner, a math and geography graduate who cofounded Splash Chicago with anthropology graduate Race Wright, AB'10, talks about how to make learning fun, and how not to make pizza.

Why can't regular school be like Splash?

There are definitely schools that do Splash-like things in the context of their curriculum. The idea of teachers teaching things they believe in, and teaching more exciting and fun classes—that's not ours. We don't have a brand on that.

A lot of people would like school to be less boring. But I'm not an expert enough to know, politically or legally, how that would ever become the case. It's really far from where we are now.

Are you trying to undo the damage of poor or failing schools—to get kids excited about learning again?

It's definitely not true that every one of our students comes in with no interest. We had students from 40 or 50 high schools at Splash this year, mostly from Chicago Public Schools, some suburban schools, some Catholic schools—a really diverse mix.

I don't think we're getting any students who are totally bought-out. If you're totally bought-out, why would you take classes on a Saturday? But we definitely get students who seem like they're bought-out.

What was your best moment in the classroom?

I cotaught a class on cryptography. We were very scared about this class. A lot of the students happened to come from a failing school in Lawndale—this atmosphere of negativity. But the kids were just so into it. They were enjoying math.

They were taking something fun—cracking codes—and finding out there was abstract math behind it. I don't care about your background, that's something that most people don't get to do with math, because of how math is taught in schools.

Your worst moment?

Pizza-making. It was a split class, so the dough could rise over the course of the day. But my coteacher mistakenly put the dough in the freezer instead of the fridge, and then tried to resuscitate it by putting it in the oven, but then left the oven on. It was a very sad moment. It was terrible to see it.

How did you get interested in education?

My family has a lot of teachers. My grandmother was a schoolteacher for 40 years, and now teaches teachers, because she didn't want to retire. She's 80-something.

My aunt is a teacher in Georgia. She has the unenviable task of teaching a class of students who didn't test into special education, but they're right over the line. She has a full class of them. She gets half a trailer. The other half is the gifted class.

She'll put up student work, because she wants to give it a classroom feel, but also because she's required to. Then the fire inspectors come in and say, you can't have anything on the walls of the trailer. So she has to know which day the school inspectors are going to come in, and which day the fire inspectors are going to come in.

Do you have a favorite teacher movie? Dangerous Minds? To Sir with Love?

I don't know. It seems like you've seen more of these than I have.

—Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93


Read more about Splash:

Spies, Hittites, Talk Like Barack
A short list of cool classes taught at the 2009 Splash.

What Was High School For, Anyway?
Splash teacher Alexander Elnabli, AB'10, tries to answer.