The Happy Guinea Pig

Once upon a time, a girl turned into a guinea pig. The girl’s name was Natalie, and she loved school—until 6th grade. In 6th grade, homework piled up, kids were mean, and grades were privileged over learning. Natalie was so miserable, she stopped doing her favorite things: playing outside, reading, drawing, and practicing the piano. Desperate to recover their daughter’s love of learning, Natalie’s parents decided to conduct an experiment. For 7th and 8th grade, the family moved school into their Los Angeles backyard. They planted a garden. They published a newspaper. They read aloud from a 600-page atlas, visited museums, and sewed quilts. This is how Natalie became the guinea pig—the happy guinea pig—at the heart of a schoolhouse experiment.

Co-authored 10 years later by Natalie (now an alum of Pomona College) and her mother Pamela, and serialized as a blog, “The Happy Guinea Pig” is part memoir, part guidebook for anyone committed to nurturing a child’s love of learning. It includes 10 essays by an elementary school teacher on how elements of the schoolhouse experiment can be incorporated into a traditional classroom.

Natalie McDonald
Natalie McDonald—the “happy guinea pig” who was homeschooled for 7th and 8th grade—graduated with honors from Pomona College in 2019. She continues to love learning as much as she did when studying in her backyard schoolhouse ten years ago.

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