Teach What You Like, Like What You Learn: University students offer unconventional classes to local high schoolers

Luke Joyner and Race Wright as robot chefs; photo by Helenmary Sheridan

Luke Joyner and Race Wright as robot chefs; photo by Helenmary Sheridan

On a dark Thursday evening, hours after classes have ended, the main hallway of normally deserted Harper Memorial Library echoes with muffled laughter from behind more than one classroom door. It comes most strongly from Room 141, where an educational experiment is in progress.

Flashes of bright metal draw the eye to the ends of the room, where two young men stand facing each other across two long tables. They are wearing homemade aluminum foil helmets and arm bracers which glint in the light; opaque sunglasses cover their eyes. Peanut butter and jelly sit on each table, for the most part still in their jars, next to a loaf of bread. The robot-men are each watched by a contingent of young women who eye them with the speculative gaze of an engineer examining a misbehaving jet engine.

“Okay, let’s do this again,” a girl on the left says, tugging on her hair in frustration. “Robot, open the peanut butter.” Her three companions look on approvingly as the instructions are carried out. “Now spread the peanut butter on the bread,” she says.

Immediately the other girls on her team begin to shriek in horror. “With the knife, with the knife!” shouts a girl in the center of the group. “Not with your hands!” commands another. Though their machine has gone renegade, none of the teenaged masterminds can keep from laughing as they argue over the next step to salvage their peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. Their counterparts across the room have been even less successful: their robot stands empty-handed in a debris field of Wonderbread, the result of opening a package while paying no attention to the limits of human strength. Both robots try to hold back their smiles, but there’s little point. The tinfoil armor was never very convincing to begin with.

After some cleanup, the first robot pulls off his shades and calls the room to order. “All right,” he says. “What did you think?”

“That was hard,” one participant says immediately. “You wouldn’t listen to us.”

“Or we couldn’t tell you what to do right,” corrects another.

“We couldn’t make you do anything unless we could make you understand first,” says a third. She stands with eight other young women; though their faces are still open and happy, their attention is now focused entirely on analyzing the exercise.

“Right,” says the robot, a fourth-year University of Chicago student named Luke Joyner.

“And how is that like teaching?” asks the other robot, third-year Race Wright.

The Socratic dialogue spins on as the students together try to determine the essential principles and dynamics of teaching. The teachers Joyner and Wright are students themselves, and they are training their students to be teachers. There’s a slightly revolutionary tinge to the business: the teachers have no official qualifications to teach, but they’re taking education into their own hands anyway. This is the founding principle of Cascade, a new student-run program at the University of Chicago that has taken over Harper on Thursday nights, bringing in high school students from across the city to interact with university students in a two-way educational dialogue. It has joined a growing network of independent educational organizations that seek to engage talented high schoolers in nontraditional learning outside the classroom.

Tyler Ross's (left) computer music workshop; photo by Sam Bowman

Tyler Ross's (left) computer music workshop; photo by Sam Bowman

Cascade introduces college students who want to teach to high school students who want to learn, and these student teachers have total freedom to teach what they like. Though the fledgling program is sponsored by the University’s community service center and receives support from the humanities division’s Civic Knowledge Project, which coordinates educational workshops and art programs on the South Side, Joyner makes clear that Cascade is not a tutoring organization like the Neighborhood Schools Program. “We’re not tutoring students in topics they’re taking in high school,” he says. “We’re offering classes in different things, independent of their high school classes.” The difference is one of student intent. “Tutoring…has the connotation of preparing students for testing or homework,” says Joyner, “whereas Cascade is for students who want to take these classes because they’re interested in the topic, coming and learning about the topic without the burden of grades or testing.”

Students are showing their interest. Cascade opened this winter and will run for ten weeks before starting another session in the spring; for this initial quarter, about two hundred high school students signed up. Joyner saw twice that number registered for Splash, a weekend-long festival of short classes that celebrated its second anniversary in October. At Cascade, students may choose from a variety of five-week-long classes, including “How to Watch a Movie: The Aesthetics of Cinema” and a Chicago history class called “Chicago: Street by Street.” Several, such as a genetics class with a lab component and a computer music production course, are completely full.

Joyner founded Splash (which eventually produced Cascade) two years ago with Wright and several board members after attending a similar program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in high school. The MIT version began in 1957 and now includes over 3,000 students each year, offering several different programs of varying aim and duration to local high school students. The UofC spinoffs haven’t quite caught up yet, but Joyner shares the original’s ideals. “I’m running Cascade for the same reason I founded Splash,” he says. “I like the idea of bringing together high school and college students interested in similar ideas. I like giving college students experience in teaching classes they design and create and are passionate about. I like giving high school students an opportunity to take fun and pressure-free classes in subjects outside the traditional high school curriculum.” Since involvement in classes is usually as novel and challenging for the college student teachers as it is for the highschoolers, he says, Cascade can “encourage the flow of interesting and creative ideas and broaden the perspectives of everyone involved.”

Michael Huguelet, the community service coordinator at Gary Comer College Prep at 72nd and Ingleside, has put seven students in touch with Cascade. “They love it,” he says. “They really do. I got two or three text messages the first week saying, ‘Hey, this is great, this is so awesome.’”

In addition to working in community service, Huguelet teaches a course in technology and college awareness, and he believes that programs like Cascade offer an important complement to traditional education. “These are the types of programs that cement it in the kids’ minds that they belong [in college.]…They’re excited. They feel special. It’s at the University of Chicago, and they feel cool hanging out at college. They get excited about education.”

Joyner agrees that getting students onto campus can be a lesson in itself. “Many of the students we work with have not necessarily had access to similar programs in the past. Some have, and some haven’t…but we have students at 63rd and Kimbark who had never been to campus,” he says.

That’s not to say that Cascade is limited to nearby neighborhoods or even the South Side, nor is it confined to students from traditionally underserved areas. Several students in the program attend North Side magnet schools like Walter Payton College Prep and Northside College Prep. Either way, Joyner says, “We’re providing something that’s unique and different from other opportunities their students have.”

The students debating educational strategies in Joyner and Wright’s class are the next generation of Splash and Cascade instructors. They are already unafraid to question themselves, each other, and their teachers; soon, if they have the desire, they will be able to share their knowledge with other high school students and even college students. Joyner seems as surprised and happy by the results of this experiment as anyone: as he says, active education can “expand everyone’s sense of what’s possible.”