Kyle Steele is the head of school at VanDamme Academy (VDA), where he also teaches art appreciation and math to second- through eighth-graders. I had a delightful conversation with him about VDA’s unique (and uniquely effective) approach to education, the challenges posed by statist responses to COVID-19, and the future of educational freedom in America.

Tim White: What is it about the way VDA does things that gets students to enjoy learning?

Kyle Steele: At VDA, one of the biggest factors influencing student motivation is the fact that the teachers we hire genuinely value the subjects they teach. Our teachers understand why math, grammar, and history are valuable to any human being, regardless of what the future holds. Their enthusiasm is really infectious, and our students—even the young ones—pick up on it.

White: Do you have any examples of students having that kind of epiphany—of realizing, “History isn’t just something I’ll need to know if I want to work in academia” or “Math isn’t relevant only to physicists”?

Steele: I don’t know if it’s natural for kids younger than about eighth grade to integrate that big an abstraction. You can try to explain it to children, and they’ll have some understanding of what you mean, but it’s very distant from their experience until they are in late junior high. For example, I’m finishing up my eighth-grade curriculum in art appreciation, and they’re now at a level of sophistication where I can state explicitly what art appreciation is all about. It’s teaching children how to find meaning in art as a way of teaching them how to find meaning in their own lives and in the world more broadly.

There’s also a perceptual, emotional component that goes hand in hand with the things that they can’t yet understand abstractly. As Lisa VanDamme says, it’s important for the teacher to identify things at a level of abstraction appropriate for their students. For instance, I tell elementary-level kids that studying art makes you really good at observing small details, and that can be a useful thing no matter what you do. . . .

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