Is utopia possible? Is a treacherous journey to a new society worth the risks? Those are big questions, but ones that 4th and 7th graders were ready to grapple with in their final weeks of the school year.
The 4th grade Oregon Trail and the 7th grade Utopia Project were both a culmination of the year’s learning in an experiential format. These projects tapped the joy of learning and illustrated some core beliefs of the School’s educational philosophy, which asserts the importance of nurturing curiosity and encouraging students to ask the right questions and not be daunted by the risk of failure. Our philosophy categorizes learning as individual, relational and for the greater good. These projects challenged students to apply their learning, individually and collaboratively and then more broadly.
The 7th graders can now look at issues in the news, such as immigration, and better appreciate how hard it can be to arrive at a solution that is just and in the best interest of all.
The 4th graders, after facing the imaginary perils of raging rivers and cholera and having carried their own oxen and wagons through learning stations around the Drake campus, have a better understanding of the sacrifices people were willing to make for a better life, the fragility of man in nature and the life or death importance of a community working together.
Through the Utopia Project, the 7th graders, armed with a year’s worth of solid knowledge of real countries and their studies of politics, culture and human geography along with their readings of dystopian novels Animal Farm and The Giver in English as well as The Hunger Games trilogy, which many read this year outside of class, found themselves in a new space where the parameters were suddenly wide open: Apply what you know, what you think, what you believe, what you imagine could be and create a perfect society. Present it. Defend it. Keep thinking about it. What if there is an epidemic, a war, a natural catastrophe? The crops fail. Now what? Keep thinking. What would you do?
“We’d find one resolution,” said Payton and Ana, who worked together to create Annejetay, an island nation governed by a council, “but then we’d be given another problem. It’s like a circle. It never ends.”
However despite the frustrations of governance, the problem-solving involved made this their favorite project. “It was creative,” Payton said, “and it gave us freedom. It taught us a lot of things I might never have learned and I learned from seeing other people’s ideas. It’s really hard to make a society. It took all of our ideas to make it work. ”
Social studies teacher Whitney Andrews said that the essential questions in the project were “How free is free?” and “What role should government play in people’s lives.” She said that most students chose to run their countries as democracies or republics, although a few designed dictatorships. In their presentations, they debated the merits and limitations of all of them, coming to the realization that you can’t completely control people and there will always be events beyond the control of government.
“People need government,” said Andrew J., whose country, Zambutopia, was one of the dictatorships.
Are human beings capable of achieving utopia?
“In a small country, maybe,” Andrew said.
“But eventually people would rebel,” said Franklin. “Nothing can be perfect.” Franklin’s country, The Ninja Republic of Fiji, was a covert island nation. People could vote but they couldn’t leave.
Andrew nodded. “And,” he added, “One person’s idea of utopia might not be another's. Perfect is not the same for everyone.”
These are experiences our students will remember for years to come. Responding on Facebook to a picture of the Oregon Trail wagons on the eve of their departure, alumna Mindy Rogers ’09 wrote, “One of the BEST experiences I had at Randolph! Why can't college teach us the same way?”