by Julia Munemo
“Everyone deserves the opportunity to discover the transformative power of a good education,” says Samuel Levin, who, with his mother, Williams senior lecturer in psychology Susan Engel, has written a book about his experience starting a student-run high school.
A School of Our Own: The Story of the First Student-Run High School and a New Vision for American Education, published in September by The New Press, tells the story of the Independent Project (IP), which Levin started within Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, Mass.
Levin started planning for the IP—a school in which the students are in charge of their own curriculum, programming, and teaching—during his junior year at Monument Mountain, and it opened the fall of 2010. Engel, Williams’ Class of 1959 Director of the Program inTeaching, whose courses include the psychology of education and an advanced seminar on teaching and learning, had started an elementary school years ago and enjoyed talking with her son about the project as it developed.
“Sam was committed to the idea that students could do great things if they cared about what they were doing—and if they were in charge,” says Engel. “The eight students in the IP that year included some of the highest functioning kids in the school, some kids who were on the edge of dropping out, and everything in between.”
During its inaugural year, Engel and Levin were featured on a YouTube video about the IP. He was later contacted by people from all over the world interested in starting similar schools. It was around that time that Engel and Levin started talking about writing a book together.
“While I had nothing to do with the school, we did talk about it at the dinner table,” Engel says. “I gave him advice on reading lists or suggested things for him to read about education, and in turn, his ideas about education fascinated me.”
But before they were ready to collaborate, Levin moved to England where he earned a BA in biology from Oxford, and where he still lives. By the time they sat down—across the ocean from one another—to write the book, Engel and Levin knew they wanted to do two things: Tell the story of the IP, and help other people who want to start their own school. “It’s part how-to and part personal narrative,” Engel says.
Engel and Levin write alternating sections of the book. Levin starts each chapter with a segment of the story of the IP, and Engel follows up with a discussion of pedagogy and a personal anecdote. “Schools are built by students and teachers, kids and parents,” Levin says. “We felt that a new vision for high school education deserved the voice of a student and a teacher, a kid and a mom.”
Engel adds, “My sections talk about what it was like to be the mom and watch Sam do this. But they also discuss what I think, as a developmental psychologist and an educator, about why things worked the way they did, why the IP was so successful, and why traditional schools don’t work for so many teenagers.”
Levin and Engel both hope the book adds to the larger conversation around education reform in the U.S. “There’s no question that high school education falls appallingly short, and there’s no question that needs to change,” Levin says.
“I hope our book contributes to the discussion about what needs to be improved in American education, and how we can set about doing that work,” Engel adds.
Read more about A School of Our Own in Kirkus Reviews.