10 Classrooms (Almost) Too Cool for School

When it comes to learning, engagement is everything. And while a standard chalkboard-and-lecture presentation will always be effective, students can often get more out of a classroom that breaks from the mold. To celebrate National Teacher Appreciation Day, take a look at 10 rooms with themes, decorations, or ideas worth studying.


It’s not often that you find a whirring bone saw in an eighth grade classroom. Thanks to the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Houston, Alaska, students at Houston Middle School had an opportunity to don scrubs and observe surgical procedures in a mock operating theater. One station was devoted to intubation; another examined how bone fractures are set; a third was for practice IV insertions. Students could saw bones, then insert screws to repair them. In order to see how delicate a tibia is, they practiced drilling into an egg shell. When the gory curriculum was over, kids got to keep the bones and gowns.   


We’ve seen planes turned into restaurants and homes. So why not a kindergarten class? Gari Chapidze, the headmaster of a school in the country of Georgia, purchased a dormant Yakolev 42 aircraft and converted it into a pre-grade school activity hub. Kids can push buttons, stare out of the cockpit, and generally have about a thousand times more fun than anyone in a boring old building. Originally a class of 20, the air-school quickly developed a waiting list of kids hoping to get on board.       


Fourth-grade teacher Adrian Perez was inspired to give his homeroom a makeover after watching Kanye West perform at a televised awards show over the summer. Perez took song titles from West’s discography and used them as themes for his Mendota, Calif. classroom walls. “New God Flow,” for example, became “New Job Flow,” where students can see different tasks they’ve been assigned. Perez even mounted the bear from Graduation on his class door. The only problem? The kids are really too young to know much about Yeezy. "The kids did not get it," he told ABC News. “They just thought I liked the color red and bears.”    



Students at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Ga. are used to people gawking at them: The school is set up for demonstrations, with teachers across the country visiting for tips on how to better engage young minds. In one of their many elaborately-decorated rooms, classes are conducted in a video game-inspired environment. The Mario blocks mounted on the wall can even be punched to retrieve the candy inside.       


Jamie Knudson’s kindergarten class in San Diego, Calif. gets to experience a little bit of time travel with her Western-themed room. Knudson bought the kid-sized covered wagon (above) for $300 at a yard sale several years ago; it’s now a reading nook. The nearby “bonfire,” made by a fellow teacher’s student, is the centerpiece of a daily campfire meeting. Knudson also has some burlap, hay, and other Western amenities in the room. Unless she’s taken it too far, the children are still allowed to use indoor plumbing.


If your art teacher isn’t going to get creative with her classroom, there’s no hope for anyone. Cassie Stevens converted the exterior of her Nashville, Tenn. elementary art room into a Van Gogh-inspired mural using bulletin board paper and charcoal. To give students a sense they were walking into a café, she added a business sign and awning to her door. (The only wrinkle: not all schools may be cool with a lot of tacked-up paper due to fire codes.)


The UK-based 4D Creative Group has been commissioned by several English primary schools to create immersive, “4D” learning environments for a variety of subjects. For one like Hebden Green in Winsford, 4D constructed a full-wall projection screen and motion-activated floor. Teachers can pre-load software curriculums; students can take the sensory cues to better absorb lessons involving world history, literature, and more.   


You may recall we’re fond of the Ron Clark Academy for its visually inventive classrooms. Co-founder Kim Bearden, who also teaches language arts in the school, welcomes students to her class with a massive Hulk fist breaking through the floor. No wonder she was once Cobb County, Ga.’s Teacher of the Year.


Students heading into the seventh grade in Dacula Middle School in Dacula, Ga. should abandon any thought of mocking William Shatner. Teachers Celisa Edwards and Jayne Dawson dress in Starfleet uniforms and use Star Trek-inspired lesson plans to entice students in their “Starfleet Institute of the Sciences" class. The teachers are often referred to as “Commanders” and the students by their last names; written tests sometimes involve Trek lore in their examples. The two have been at it since 1994 and have seen rising test scores as a result of their efforts.  


The METI school north of Bangladesh had sustainability in mind during the planning stages of an educational facility for impoverished residents. While the first floor is made out of bamboo, the ground floor features classrooms connected by cave-like portals where children can study alone or in groups.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

Paradise Found Around, YouTube
A Very Special History of The More You Know
Paradise Found Around, YouTube
Paradise Found Around, YouTube

For the past 29 years, NBC has devoted a portion of airtime that could otherwise be sold for substantial advertising dollars to provide brief reminders about basic human decency, teen issues, and social controversies. Efficiently packaged in 30-second increments and featuring recognizable faces, The More You Know campaign has become synonymous with lessons in ethics. Wrap up a serious conversation with your kid about drug use and they’re likely to respond by humming the campaign’s theme song. (“Da-da-da-dahhh.”)

But how did the network find itself the messenger for these widely celebrated (and widely parodied) spots? And did they really have any impact?


The idea of a public service announcement—a philanthropic use of airtime on television or radio to serve a greater good—started in the United States back in the 1940s, when stations allocated some of their commercial or program time to remind people about the war efforts under the guidance of the newly-formed War Advertising Council. The idea had been imported from the UK, which had long featured film reels on public safety tips, like how to cross a road. PSAs relied on truncated, catchy messages (“Loose lips sink ships”) to impart ideas with the limited time they had available.

After the Allied victory, the War Advertising Council became the Ad Council, and the scope of their mission changed from world-altering events to comparatively mundane topics. Aligned with mandates from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), public service announcements attempted to balance special interests with objective information. In the late 1960s, for example, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine took aim at tobacco advertising, with one PSA on the dangers of the habit airing for every three cigarette spots. The number of smokers in the U.S. actually declined before the FCC banned such advertising from airwaves altogether in 1971.

By the 1980s, the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) narrowed their PSA efforts by giving them a unique identity. ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock was among the most popular, using catchy songs to illustrate points about government or science. NBC aired One to Grow On, a series of cautionary messages about everything from chewing tobacco to finishing your homework, with Mr. T. and Michael J. Fox sharing their scripted wisdom.


In the late 1980s, Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's vice president of broadcast standards and practices, was approached by several nonprofit educational groups to see if the network might want to get involved in raising awareness for the teacher shortage affecting the country. Weinman reached out to former NBC creative director-turned-ad executive Steve Lance, gave him a slogan (“The More You Know”), and asked him to produce five test spots centered around the importance of teachers and education. While NBC wasn't crazy about the campaign, Weinman had support from her own team and from some marketable names working for the network.

“She said she had a few stars of NBC series willing to do PSAs. What I absolutely didn’t want to do was a talking-head campaign," Lance tells Mental Floss of not wanting to shoot videos where actors would stand or sit on a spare set and deliver their message. "Talking heads were absolute death.”

Instead, Lance wrote a series of spots focusing on bolstering the public perception of teachers by acknowledging famous educators throughout history like Aristotle and Albert Einstein and stretching Weinman’s slogan to “The more you know, the more you can teach.” Miami Vice co-star Saundra Santiago appeared in one of the spots, which began airing in 1989; so did news anchors Tom Brokaw and Deborah Norville, as well as L.A. Law co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.

To help give the campaign a visual identity, Lance was paired with Steve Bernstein, a graphic designer who came up with the shooting star illustration that signaled the end of the segment. Bernstein tells Mental Floss he wondered why NBC was reaching out to freelancers rather than in-house employees. "Nobody else [at NBC] would do it," he says. "They were too busy, so Rosalyn had to go outside the network." Bernstein came up with a star that fit neatly under the "W" in the slogan.

Originally, the logo was filmed so it looked like it was in motion, not animated. “We didn’t have the budget for that,” Lance says. The familiar melody was composed by two-time Emmy winner Michael Karp, who also created the theme for Dateline NBC.

The spots garnered praise: Lance wrote a total of 17 that first year, all of them centered around the importance of educators—but Lance left after finishing that first batch when Weinman decided to go in a different direction: NBC was apparently concerned viewers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between set-decorated spots and actual commercials, so Weinman reverted to the “talking head” premise.


Despite Lance's departure and the change of format, the series continued just as successfully as before. Its minimalist approach was attractive to actors who enjoyed delivering their lines in a loose and informal setting, and by 1996, director David Cornell herded in actors (including Courteney Cox, Jonathan Silverman, and Eriq La Salle) over a single weekend to tape spots for the entire year, often asking them to pare down their delivery so that it would fit into a 25-second block of time. (The last five seconds were reserved for the star graphic and Karp’s melody.)

The Ad Council, which had seen its role minimized over the years, would later take issue with the proprietary campaigns launched by networks, arguing that they were little more than stealth ads for their programs. To their point, NBC did appear to use at least half the casts of ER and Seinfeld. But the spots could sometimes net tangible results: In 1995, after a series of The More You Know spots on domestic violence, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline went from 228 calls daily to quadruple that amount. The network earned a Public and Community Service Emmy for its efforts, and the campaign—which still airs on NBC—grew to include spots by the cast of Friends and a comedic take courtesy of The Office, as well as appearances by sitting presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. You can watch some of the more well-known (and rather dated) spots below.

Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
A New Game Show Helps Contestants Pay Off Their Student Loans
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV

Most game shows offer flashy prizes—a trip to Maui, a million dollars, or a brand new car—but TruTV’s latest venture is giving away something much more practical: the opportunity to get out of student loan debt. Set to premiere July 10 on TruTV, Paid Off is designed to help contestants with college degrees win hard cash to put towards their loan payments, MarketWatch reports.

The show gives college graduates with student loan debt "the chance to test the depth of their degrees in a fun, fast-paced trivia game show,” according to TruTV’s description. In each episode, three contestants compete in rounds of trivia, with one contestant eliminated each round.

One Family Feud-style segment asks contestants to guess the most popular answer to college-related poll questions like “What’s the best job you can have while in college?” (Answer: Server.) Other segments test contestants' general trivia knowledge. In one, for example, a contestant is given 20 seconds to guess whether certain characters are from Goodfellas or the children’s show Thomas & Friends. Some segments also give them the chance to answer questions related to their college major.

Game show host Michael Torpey behind a podium

Based on the number of questions they answer correctly, the last contestant standing can win enough money to pay off the entirety of their student debt. (However, like most game shows, all prizes are taxable, so they won't take home the full amount they win.)

Paid Off was created by actor Michael Torpey, who is best known for his portrayal of the sadistic corrections officer Thomas Humphrey in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Torpey, who also hosts the show, says the cause is personal to him.

“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because—true story—I booked an underpants commercial,” Torpey says in the show’s pilot episode. “But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans? Sadly, there just aren’t that many underpants commercials. That is why I made this game show.”

The show is likely to draw some criticism for its seemingly flippant handling of a serious issue that affects roughly one in four Americans. But according to Torpey, that’s all part of the plan. The host told MarketWatch that the show is designed “to be so stupid that the people in power look at it and say, ‘That guy is making us look like a bunch of dum dums, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Paid Off will premiere on Tuesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern time (9 p.m. Central time).

[h/t MarketWatch]


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