“You and your best friends are deep in a system of caves searching for a lost treasure. Suddenly, you hear footsteps behind you and voices shouting…”

This storytelling prompt that was the warm-up in the class I joined for Educator’s Day at Arkansas Governor’s School. I was invited by a student of mine, “E.” I gained many great ideas for the classroom, along with a renewed sense of excitement for the possibilities in education, especially in Arkansas.

According to the National Council of Governor’s Schools, “Summer residential governor’s schools offer gifted and high-achieving secondary (and sometimes middle-school) students an enrichment program that addresses three areas of student development—academic or artistic (often called Area 1), interdisciplinary (often called Area 2) and social and emotional (often called Area 3). The purpose of governor’s schools is to provide a constructive residential learning environment for gifted students to explore their considerable potential.

The interdependence of the three areas was evident at Arkansas Governor’s School, as we, the educators, went through the morning with our students. We learned about the extended learning that is the core of Governor’s School. Faculty takes part in extracurricular activities with the students every day, so as to build a sense of community and mutual respect. This year, students attended weekly Shakespeare plays. They watch a movie each week, and the curriculum in each class is such that it allows for scholarly discourse based on themes from the weekly movie. The students enjoy a new guest speaker that has experience in innovative ideas that change the world for the better. The power of the exposure to these outside sources of knowledge is not to be underestimated. These are the kinds of experiences that build empathy and broaden the perspectives of our young men and women.

Let me tell you just the kind of exposure to creativity and innovation I’m talking about. The students have heard from Phil Plait, a writer for Bill Nye’s new TV show. He uses astronomy as a framework for critical thinking about all areas of life including art and music. The students heard from Jenna Elser, who teaches social justice through theatre; Jason Wiles who talks about how science and faith really do go hand-in-hand; Haider Neumani, an Iraqi photojournalist who lost his wife and daughter in conflict in Iraq, yet he speaks about the power of forgiveness and reconciliation; and Joseph Sebarenzi, who narrowly escaped the Rwandan genocide, yet, also, still advocates for reconciliation.

Sounds amazing, right? And remember, those are just five of 10 guest speakers the students will hear by the end of the summer. If the purpose of education is to help people think critically about the world around them so that they can be successful contributors to society (and I, for one, believe that it is), then Governor’s School has provided us with an excellent model to do so.

In the course I attended with “E”, the students were studying branching narratives in a rather creative way. Each night, the students “read” branching narratives for homework, and then they discussed it in class the next day.

OF COURSE, it was more fun than that!! The “read” was actually interacting; and the text, well, it was a game on a computer! In other words, the students were participating in an ELA course through gamified, flipped learning.

At the beginning of the course, each student had imagined a character with a flaw, a desire, and a special ability. Every task required of the students necessitated the use of the character to complete the task. For example, the warm up that you read above asked the students to complete the story using their character and the characters of three other classmates. The culminating assessment to the class, of course, is to design a branching narrative employing the characters of four students in a special software designed specifically for this task. It’s this kind of personalized learning that pushes critical thinking skills to their limit and hooks the students so that they crave more and more learning experiences.

In my short visit to Arkansas Governor’s School, I witnessed a change my timid, vulnerable “E” that day. It was a change that took place far before I arrived on campus. She had blossomed into a confident young woman. She shared with me a poem that she wrote during her first weeks in the program. Poetry has always been E’s passion. She has suffered immense emotional pain throughout childhood, despite having a loving, caring family. Her poetry carried her through those painful emotions. Now, she writes of freedom and of a wisdom not often possessed by adolescents. I have no doubt that Governor’s School provided her with the skills to make that leap, to become comfortable in her own skin. Because of it, she will go on to be an agent of change.

Isn’t this what we want for EVERY student?