I loved it. During the year, I made a film about a man who stands in downtown Washington holding signs urging Monday morning commuters to smile. I completed a Google Science Fair project that studied whether reminding high school students that they may be tired affects their problem-solving skills. I also tried and failed, at least so far, to develop a mobile app called UPliftr that prompts users to do good deeds, such as holding a door open for a stranger, letting another driver cut in or giving someone an unexpected high five.
But I knew that I’d probably go back to my regular school the following fall, and I had to cover academic subjects — math, science and English — that I’d need in 11th grade. So I plunged into online education.
I began my sabbatical by taking three online courses through a Johns Hopkins University distance-learning program for high school students: honors pre-calculus, honors chemistry and a writing class. It was amazing to learn on my laptop at my own pace. For example, in the math class, I would watch a seven-minute video on how to solve equations using logarithms, then tackle a few problems. After typing in each answer, I immediately found out whether it was correct. If it was wrong, I could try again or read how to solve the problem. If I was totally stumped, I could call or e-mail the instructor to get a more thorough explanation.
Instead of sitting in a specific seat at a specific time, listening to the same long lecture as everyone else, I could tailor the classes to my strengths and weaknesses. I could move through some material quickly but take as much time as I needed to absorb the difficult stuff. Not only did these courses free up time to shoot a movie, but their structure helped me learn the material as well as I would have in a classroom. In four months, I covered a year of math.
My writing course was also great. Every two weeks, my instructor gave me an assignment that I uploaded to a Web site by Monday’s midnight deadline. One week, I had to write an essay from the perspective of an inanimate object. (I chose the clock on our stove.) Another week, I attended a D.C. Council meeting and wrote a descriptive essay about the members who devoted time to checking their cellphones rather than following the proceedings.
Responding to each assignment, the instructor wrote several paragraphs of comments and criticism. He pushed me to use a more varied vocabulary and showed me the importance of setting a scene as a way to draw readers in. He was an excellent teacher who helped me improve my writing, even though I’ve never met him in person.