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.
If we peek into the most effective classrooms, we will probably see not just students thriving, but also teachers thriving. We all know that with so many kids with different needs and so many demands to juggle, every day won’t be perfect for each and every child. In the October 2017 issue of The Atlantic,
“Humor improves student performance by attracting and sustaining attention, reducing anxiety, enhancing participation, and increasing motivation.” Brandon M. Savage et al., Advances in Physiology Education 2017 (41:3) This is a photo of sixth-grade me. I’d been sitting at the kitchen table puzzling over my pre-algebra textbook, which had a penchant for asking ridiculous (but supposedly
“[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 Ten years ago, I began middle school in my family’s backyard, in an 8- by 10-foot garden shed that would be
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.
Judy Feuer Walden was in her late 40s, with a son and daughter in middle school, when she decided to return to school so that she could follow her 6th grade dream and become an elementary school teacher. During her decade of teaching, she taught kindergarten, 2nd grade and 3rd grade in a public elementary school. Judy’s essays will be published once a month as part of The Happy Guinea Pig.