“I’ve finally decided what I’m going to do when I grow up. I’m going to have a school, and it will have gardening and sculpture and writing. I’ve thought about this for a long time.”
February 3, 1997
When I was in fourth grade, I began writing the plans for what would eventually become The Joule School. I had decided to become a teacher when I was four, but I realized by late elementary school that I wanted to make a bigger change in the world.
For me, school was hell. I was bored out of my mind. Sitting in a desk while a teacher talked… and talked… and kept talking. It felt like prison, and I felt like screaming.
As a gifted child, I tended to finish my work early, so they supplemented all the talking with piles of worksheets to keep me busy. By eight years old, I had stomach ulcers from the stress and frustration of killing time with brainless activities. My teachers would poke fun at the “perfect child” with perfect grades, and snap at me if I complained. In their view, I was a smart kid with an easy academic life - what was my problem?
I started skipping school in 6th grade, and by high school I was only attending half-time. That was pretty much all I could handle. I dealt with my classes by reading books under my desk and writing stories. I was ready to get my education over with, so I took an accelerated courseload in college and graduated when I was 19.
All this does not mean that I hated learning - far from it. I read voraciously and would design assignments at school that I thought were more engaging than what we were given. After graduating, I went into the teaching field first and shared my passion for books, history, writing, and science. I’d go back into my childhood notebooks where I’d written “Do and Do Not” lists for my future teacher self, so that I would never become one of the teachers I’d abhorred as a child. I was privileged to be honored by my students at their graduations (and once, at a wedding!), and tried my best to make school as relevant as possible for every kid who crossed my path. I planned to stay in education for a few more years before moving into administration, and eventually opening the school I had designed in elementary school.
However, one year I was hired to teach at a local charter school, which proved to be the last straw for me - someone who had hated bad teaching since childhood. Classes were required to be taught in a lecture/worksheet format, and structured down to the minute - 3 minutes for silent written work, 15 minutes of lecturing, no time to waste because The Test was coming. The students spent a week at a time, four times a year, in complete silence - including hallways and lunch - to “practice” for the silent STAAR test. They walked in straight, silent lines from class to class, accompanied by a teacher. Good kids. Normal, creative, 12 year olds. We teachers spent more time on classroom management, trying to get these kids to follow the mandate stand silently in line and to SLANT - sit with their hands folded on the desk, staring at a teacher while a lecture was delivered - then we did on anything else. It was everything I’d hated about school as a child, and now I was part of the system, teaching in a way that made us all unhappy. I quit, and opened Joule.
The purpose of Joule is simple: to give kids an opportunity to learn at their own pace, in a way that makes sense for their developmental level. Learning is supposed to be exciting - and for most very young children, it is! The curiosity, the constant “Why?,” the dismantling of a toaster to see what happens. Movement and exploration is a normal part of discovery; building things, acting things out, and debating ideas is what children do naturally. There’s no reason to take that away when they start school, like tearing out a wild forest to install a garden with straight rows of corn and a white picket fence. Giving a child what they need is everything, is the whole point of being in education, and it allows kids to make it to adulthood without burning out, giving up, or shutting down.
The school was named after James Prescott Joule, who really embodied the student we exist to serve: a creative, curious kid, a child who wanted to know things but didn’t want someone else explaining it to him. He grew up and did all sorts of fancy things as an adult like discover laws of thermophysics - but it was who he was as a child that interested me more. James blew off his own eyebrows with a pistol conducting an experiment on echo at the age of eight. He gave his father’s servants electric shocks as part of an experiment on electricity and flew kites in thunderstorms. I can only imagine how frustrated he would have been in contemporary public schools, how frustrated his teachers would have been trying to corral him in a chair for test-prep. The freedom to experiment the way he did in his adult laboratory came out of a love of learning, a love that could easily have been quashed by piles of worksheets. I believe that much of his success later in life could be attributed to the freedom he had to learn in a way that made sense for him.
Joule exists to deliver a responsive education: to recognize what a child needs and give it to them. It’s not easy, of course. There are things we must do, such as keep our class sizes very small and buy buckets and buckets of clay, yarn, and cheese graters. However, it’s worth it! Learning is supposed to be fun, supposed to be engaging and exciting. There are so many parents who’ve told me that their kids don’t want to go on summer break - they’d rather be in school. That’s what education is all about, the joy of discovery, and it’s joy that we try to capture here at Joule.