Opening Our Minds

Opening Our Minds


Meg McMonigal

Open School exposed us to so many new ideas and taught me to look at things from a variety of points of view. It really opened our minds to accept people and perspectives that were different from our own.

Three highlights for me:

First, we had so many current event speakers in the early years. Two notables that I remember were:

  • Clyde Bellecourt (and I believe Russell Means too), of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who were in the midst of an occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. They taught us a whole new way of looking at the world through their culture.
  • Jack Baker, who was the current U of M Student Body President and first man to legally marry another man in Minnesota. Yes in 1972. He was so open about his life and was so capable and respected at the U.

Second, one of the biggest impacts for me was a class Joe Nathan taught called, “Problems of St. Paul.” We took on a number of issues including urban renewal in the Midway area, and clearing of buildings at Selby and Dale, and one issue that captured most of us – Pig’s Eye coal landing vs. a Great Blue Heron nesting area.

We began this course with students on clearly divided sides. I was so for the herons going in, there was no question. After interviewing key people, visiting the site twice, learning more and more and studying all sides of the story, we had to vote as if we were on the City Council. With everything we learned about the issue, I recall that every single one of us could not decide; all the sides seemed so perfectly even.

I was fascinated. That process taught me so much about looking at the world with a bunch of initial assumptions – and then seeing that when you learn more, they may change and so goes your perspective. Would the nesting areas be harmed? Not necessarily. Could the barges land elsewhere? Possibly. Were there other compromises? Certainly.

Fast forward: likely because of this class, I became an urban planner in the Twin Cities (33 years now). And darn it, every issue is like this. The problems are complex and varied and ever changing. So many sides to consider, so many competing values. I must say that because of Open School, I am always inspired to ask more questions and look for new possibilities, and I learned to somehow create a solution or at least come to a conclusion, however imperfect.

I am so grateful, and so lucky that what fascinated me at age 15 at Open School that still sometimes confounds me and certainly challenges me in my profession all these years later.

Third, the school created new graduation requirements in 1975 (also noted by Shelly Siegel). As students we were able to be a part of developing them with Joe Nathan and others at the school.

They were “competency” based. We had to demonstrate our competency in several areas including:

  • Career Education: job seeking skills and post high school plans.
  • Community Involvement and Current Issues: actively participating in and learning from the community and demonstrating the ability to grapple with the complexities of current issues and events.
  • Consumer Awareness: comparison shopping, personal finance or consumer protection; and take the basic math competency test with a minimum score of 70%, or another nationally normed math achievement test and score in the 50th
  • Cultural Awareness: understand the difference in attitude, actions and experiences of one’s own culture and at least two others, one of which must be Spanish speaking American, Native American or Black American.
  • Information Finding; ability to identify, use, and evaluate a variety of resources to gain information.
  • Personal and Interpersonal Skills: understanding of maintaining a healthy body, through good habits, physical fitness and recreational skills; interpersonal skills such as group process and decision making; the ability to write coherently, comprehend written information and communicate via other media.

While we had a ton of freedom on showing our competencies, and we also had to have an adult concur and sign off on each one. The adults certainly held us accountable! I think these requirements were and are brilliant. They were way ahead of their time. I thought they would become the norm for all high schools in Minnesota within a few years of Open School creating them. I still think every high school in Minnesota should adopt them – and believe employers would love to have employees showing up with such competencies.

I enjoyed every minute of my time at Open School. I made lifelong friends and learned more in those few years than in any other time of my life. I feel so lucky to have been a part of it at that moment in time.