School is where fun goes to die: An interview with Jeff Robin | Nicola Conraths | 6 Min Read

Jeff Robin’s new book Teach Like an Artist shows us how to come alive again. 

A big, inconspicuous FedEx box tangled up in scotch tape greeted me on the doorstep as I returned from Europe. Its content,  Jeff Robin’s newest book, Teach like an Artist, promised a different kind of trip.  A CBD gummy comes closest to describing my hallucinatory reading experience: fast-paced, colorful, imaginative, literary, scientific, romantic, questioning, probing, and — maddening. Here is a book with the bones to make us come alive again, by making.

Why aren’t we all teaching like artists?

Storyteller of projects, Jeff Robin is widely considered a pioneer of Project-Based Learning (PBL). I’m morbidly thinking that many innovators are destined to become understood in the afterlife…Van Gogh, Galileo, …ugh, Robin? I sure hope not. He was a founding teacher at High Tech High School in San Diego and covered every square inch of the school in student-made art. 

Jeff believes that making stuff will forever change you. 

Now retired from High Tech High and a little grumpy about the resistance he faced at times, Jeff resolved to write this book to give us evidence of the rich learning that springs from a collaborative curriculum. Unapologetic about his role in stirring things up — “Yes I always got into trouble, that’s my job as an artist!”— Jeff’s students and colleagues took issue with his dreams. 

Sustainability, economics, religion, medicine, immigration, war. Art is how the ideas are represented; biology, physics, math, history, political science, and human narrative is how you get to make them into a thing.  This requires a deep dive into multiple disciplines that takes months to complete.  Your head might even spin in a calculicious sort of way when you try to follow the algebra required for each student to build a…chair! 

It seems to me that building a chair is a fine artifact to produce in high school. Teens sit for 8 hours a day, or 2912 hours…

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Nicola Conraths

Nicola Conraths has worked in independent schools for 15 years, serving as Director of Artistic Studies at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and as director of Comparative Arts and dance instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Nicola merges her many interests into projects that connect unlikely topics, people, and places. Recently she has worked with New England Conservatory Prep School, Boston Ballet, YOLA/LA Phil, and SMOC/Headstart schools. Her newest venture, Das Surrealistische Büro, is a consulting capsule for tangential thinking. She lives in Detroit.