How I Became the Happy Guinea Pig

“[Learning] is the only thing that never fails… the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

—T.H. White
Building the Applewood Schoolhouse, February 2010
The completed Schoolhouse

Ten years ago, I began middle school in my family’s backyard, in an 8- by 10-foot garden shed that would be my very own schoolhouse for the next two years. Family, friends, and strangers reacted to our decision to “skip” seventh and eighth grade with a long list of questions. Most expressed genuine curiosity: Would we follow a set curriculum? How would we structure our days? Could Natalie still spend time with children her age? Other queries betrayed skepticism: How would we know we were meeting curricular standards? Would Natalie be able to get into a good high school? What about college? The fact was, despite my excitement, I shared some of these same concerns. After a sixth-grade year that had emphasized rules, structure, and achievement, the thought of learning at my own pace in my own home with my parents for teachers and my beloved cat as my only classmate conflicted with my developing sense of what education was. Homeschooling sounded fun, yes, but would I learn enough? Little did I know that I would learn not only all the things I worried I wouldn’t—pre-algebra, essay-writing, science and history—but also lessons even more important that continue to resonate today. These lessons, which will be featured in future “Happy Guinea Pig” posts, include: the importance of unstructured play, time outdoors, getting enough sleep, and eating well, as well as the toxicity of stress and peer pressure. During my two years in Applewood Schoolhouse, I also came to a healthier definition of education premised not on homework, testing, and grades, but on curiosity, creativity, and a love of learning.

How can schools and families teach children to be healthier and happier learners? This is the question at the heart of “The Happy Guinea Pig,” because we firmly believe that a love of learning is an essential tool for living hopefully and courageously in a complicated world.

Next time on HGP: “Laugh about Math: Having Fun in the Classroom”

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.