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.

Flash Forward 10 years: Natalie (now a history alum of Pomona College) and her mother Pamela, are amazed at how those two years continue to influence the way they see and think about everything. “The Happy Guinea Pig” is a way to share the ways in which we can nurture a love of learning, which gives us the tools to nurture ourselves and the world. Once in a while, we will include notes from a recently retired elementary school teacher, who believes it would be much better for everyone if elements of the schoolhouse experiment could be incorporated into traditional classrooms.

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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