LESLIE MEDEMA - The Green School

A graduate from the University of South Dakota 2000 (BA in History and Political Science) and Princeton University 2004 (Master in Public Affairs), Lesli spent the previous twelve years working as a School Bus Driver (her most difficult job to date) in rural South Dakota. She then became a program assistant with the US Department of Agriculture and then as a Civics teacher in Washington DC, an ESL teacher in rural Vietnam, and as the Director of Programs and Asia Operations for Princeton in Asia.

After six years with PiA, Leslie took a vacation to Bali and joined GS in November 2011 to help develop the High School programs, advocate for students’ needs, and implement the foundational piece of its program: a system of Individualized Learning Plans (ILP) with the ultimate goal of teaching students how to set and achieve their own goals and aspirations and to grow into their role as a citizen of the world community.

Leslie is currently Head of Academics and Principal at the Green School.



Q: How does the Green School differ from any other school in the world?

You can just look around us and I believe you may spot a few differences (laugh).

There are three ways, I would define it:

The first is the learning environment. It is really unique. We are sitting in a three storey-high bamboo building that has nine kilometres of bamboo, no walls, no windows, wide open to the elements and no square rooms even. It means we can’t even give the IGCSE[1] examinations here, because you need to take it in a square room. Beauty is all around, animals are all around. Teaching stops if there is a storm and then, we need to do reflection or small group work. We have to work with the environment and use it as an opportunity to learn. That is the concept we want our children to learn: Learning is wall-less.

Learning doesn’t only take place in a school or classroom. We are here to teach you the skills of learning. You can take that from here and learn anywhere, anytime from anything. Life is learning.

The learning environment is also just there to be beautiful too. If you listen to the founders, their idea was that in a beautiful place you have a spiritual connection to nature and that is very important.

The second aspect is the learning program. It is different at every level and it is more complex to talk through to a degree but again, the main points are teaching skills to become a very conscious self-learner.

Oh look! That is a Bali Starling. One of the most endangered birds in the world. We have a breading centre here. It is quite special to see one because sadly, you will never see one in the wild.

Coming back to the learning program. The exponential growth of knowledge is very challenging for us as educators to capture. At this current stage, we are not trying to capture it. You usually can’t anyway and people are going to change careers so often that it is more important to have the skills to constantly be able to re-learn and to create your own job. This is especially important dealing with “screenagers” in our current media landscape, to teach them to look very critically at information. How do you use that information to make a decision? How does this information impact your decision making itself? Our English program is actually very heavy when it comes to media studies.

The last aspect is the learning community. We have a very involved community. We have +200 staff for 400 students, 75 of which are educators and the rest are… a bamboo wood carver, gardeners, cooks, ornithologists, etc. It takes all that to keep this environment together. It is also very participatory. We have Gotong Royong, which is when the whole community comes together to beautify, clean up or do something for the school.

The parents are very involved. A majority of our parents are on some kind of sabbatical, are digital nomads, or have businesses that have very busy seasonal work patterns with relatively free other parts of the year. The parents can be very active participants and usually you will see parents in the school all day long. We welcome them with parameters but that is already very different to most schools. Most have inspiring amazing backgrounds and students can learn from them. Two years ago, one of the fathers here was a professional treasure hunter. Another current parent is one of the leaders in a project to save the Amazonian rain forest. We are also very good friends with famous comedians with strong environmental concerns, like Bill Bailey who is visiting us tomorrow actually.

We use our people and vistors as learning opportunities. The time table we have is very flexible so that we can drop everything and bring in community members. Eve Ensler was here last week, Jane Goodall has been here, so has Ban Ki-Moon. The learning community is all about finding a way to make the time table flexible enough to take advantage of these learning opportunities.

The learning environment, learning program and learning community in equal parts represent how we define what we do here at the Green School.

On top of that, within the curriculum we do many special things. For example, we have Green Enterprises. We interweave our Green studies and Enterprise studies, so as to show that we embrace business and money – but that it should be done in a socially responsible way. We want to teach that to very young children and as soon as possible: They need to support themselves and their community, money is not bad, it’s a tool and it can be used for good.

We are also very heavy in the arts. Here again, community is strongly integrated. Last year, we tried for a whole semester not to buy anything for our high school art program. The students made their own paints, brushes, paper, etc. This year has turned into a big bamboo workshop building bamboo and electric bikes. It can change because the curriculum is flexible.

We have to ensure some Indonesian examinations for our Indonesian students, but other than that, we just research and adapt what we consider to be a fantastic education and make sure the students can integrate with the rest of the world.


Q: Going back to the curriculum, you mentioned yourself that it was very difficult to define which content needs to be taught. I would imagine that it could also be damaging not to give children any points of reference to anchor their thinking (historical dates for example). How do you find that balance?

A lot of our curriculum isn’t any different to many other schools. We have maths classes, history classes, English classes, etc. The difference comes from how we structure it.

For example, a Grade 10 student[2] will have a required history course that runs all year long. That history course will have both factual knowledge components as well as historical analysis skills. But after that, the students can choose all kinds of history courses and they change their classes every six weeks. They can choose to go in greater depth or explore other themes.

Students will also have a certain amount of math to learn. We may give it a “funky” name, we try to make it fun for them, but in reality, they are doing “Algebra 1” with a twist. We try to make it engaging, to bring in the environment, to bring in real world examples. We have a bio bus program, where we transform cooking oil into bio fuel to run our school buses on. At the moment, a lot of our chemistry and mathematics curriculum is taught through that program. Students in primary school learn exponents by taking out loans from the student bank we have, so they can buy chickens, so that they can have a chicken coop; eventually they will repay the loan with the eggs that are laid. We try to apply the teaching to real world examples as much as we can, but if we can’t, we will do problem sets, and that is also fine. We haven’t thrown out by any stretch, all the curriculum babies with all the bath waters, because brilliant people around the world have created that and with good reason. We really believe in multiplication tables, which throws people off sometimes (laugh), but if we can do that by building a garden for example, then we will do it that way.

Over the course of six years, we have studied seven of the world’s best curriculums and built our own, based on core principles and skills.  You then have some proficiency classes, which are just about that, but the majority of classes will be thematic and integrated. If you can include a project in the course, then that’s the key. A lot of curriculum uses inquiry-based skills as well. 


Q: One of the initial insights on which the Green School was founded on was that our current education system was training children to be very competent in the 20th century but not necessarily preparing them for the 21st century. You have already mentioned many things, but what do we need to teach children today?

Very simply, it is about acquiring a certain set of skills. I believe there is a set of classic knowledge, a way of thinking that needs to be acquired over time as well.

It is also about understanding the concept that you have a responsibility to make a positive difference within your community. It can be small. You do not have to be a leader like John and build this school, but you need to be productive, be healthy and you need to do something for others. Maybe, that’s once a month you go to the old folk’s home, or that you cook for your friends and have intellectual debates and discussions and you add to the kindness and joy of the world in these small ways. That is completely fine but you need to leave this school with that level of responsibility.

For me the 21st and 22nd centuries are about bringing back that concept, that you owe something to your community, to put back more than you take out. It can be very simple though. You do not want to put the huge responsibility of changing the world on the shoulders of kids. You don’t need to, but if everyone acted in this way, we wouldn’t need to in the first place. And I think it is possible. Kids are amazing, they love to help, they want to give back. It is just instilling this idea instead of telling them that they need to get the best grade on this test, to do this, to do that to become a successful person.

We also focus a lot on joyfulness. We work on finding joy is our daily lives. It is not about being happy all the time, but about finding joy in your privilege, in small and large things alike, in the connection you have with friends, in the time you had a really unique thought an wrote it down, in the time you ate something that just blew your mind,… but in larger things as well: in learning about a child who is really changing the world, there should be incredible joy in that and not jealousy.


Q: With all this beauty all around and only twice the number of children to adults, this must be a very privileged school to attend, is it not?

It is very privileged. But the privilege also allows us to have a 10% to 20% scholarship program, which is unique among schools in Bali. We plan on and hope to improve those percentages over time too.


Q: How do you manage not to be a bubble, to integrate with the larger global education system?

It has been very hard because we are in fact in the jungle, we are in a bubble.

Our concept has always been “local to global”. We are only 9 years-old and you have to think of us as a kid of that age in a way. A 9-year-old is obtaining a pretty intense and interesting awareness about the world and is starting to be able to connect with that.  A 9 year-old has a personality and has something to say about who they are, but they also have a long way to go to integrate and interact with the world as a whole. To date, we have built many connections with local schools and we have been growing our global awareness of late. You can see that in our managers and our teachers. We are getting invites all over the world and visits from all over the world, like yourself.


Q: How do you see the Green School moving forward in the next few years?

I have been looking for a statistician or sociologist, who wants to put in some time with us to study the impact of our model and find good indicators - that aren’t test scores - to see what works and doesn’t in education. I would like to have more data and proof on our methods.

We also plan to expand and build more Green Schools in other parts of the world, using different sustainable materials and different community organisations probably. But again, this will impact a limited number of children.

So, the second idea is to start teacher training programs and adult training programs, for adults in any field where people come to learn. It doesn’t have to be in education, it could be in organic and permaculture farms, in green sustainable hotels.

However, you have to keep in mind that we are still young and still have growing pains to work through. When we were trying to connect with universities for our students at the beginning before having the recognition we now have and without being accredited, I spent hours calling the States or Europe, in the middle of the night, flying to meet with Australian Universities, to convince them of our curriculum.

Financially, this place is very beautiful but very expensive to upkeep. We have 400 students here; our buildings need to be very safe in difficult climate conditions. It is expensive to pay working visas for our teaching staff.

Another growing pain was defining who we were, what we stood for, what our curriculum should be: we are not a camp, there are rules, we want children to self-learn, etc. Defining all that, while students were already here learning was difficult. We also have 33 different nationalities in our student body and 30% are second language English speakers, many of which do not speak a word of English when they arrive. We had to figure out what kind of different learning styles we could support and not. The campus floods, there has been an epidemic of dengue fever among teachers, finding and cooking healthy food in large quantities with as little waste as possible, … There are definite growing pains but it is fascinating and exciting.


Q: What is the one question I should have asked but didn’t?

You touched upon it. People are quite in awe of this place and they should be, and we are honoured that they are but it is hard. You disappoint as often as you awe. As beautiful as it is, it is very imperfect but in a beautiful way. The reason our imperfections are so special for me is that I can experiment with all manners of improving. I am not bound in any way but we need to be very honest with ourselves and honest.

There hasn’t been a single issue that has been a repeat. We are constantly problem solving which is exhausting, and I worry about overwhelming teachers and staff, but it is an amazing opportunity, for teachers as well. They can teach whichever way they see fit within our principles. For teachers, it is both overwhelming and the life force that keeps them in education.

I taught a class for a couple years on religions. I was just tasked with teaching students the very basics of several different faiths. We [the teaching team] also had this skill that we wanted them to learn which was business writing: synthesizing a lot of information and putting an argument to your boss about what needs to be done. I had these two things and we found the idea of studying the pig (because we have pigs at the school), as a way for all of us (the students and myself) to learn about something together. The pig is a fascinating animal to study in regards to faith. We would also look at the pig in literature and read anything from Charlotte’s Web to Animal Farm. We looked at pigs in language: you have capitalist pigs and communist pigs, pigs can mean cops, and we just went on and on and on.

We looked at the environmental impact of the animal and it all ended with the students researching slaughtering methods, to make sure the animals were well treated but also economically viable for the farmers. So, the students read about Temple Grandin and her work and wrote memos to slaughtering facilities that weren’t using best practices, best practice defined as a method that was best for the animal, the meant (and hence the sale of the meat), the environment, and the society (appease animal rights activists).

We also went to a slaughter house and the concept was that “you didn’t have to go but if you ate meat, you should”. And in Indonesia it’s fascinating because they pray for every animal before killing it but it is still a difficult scene to watch. At this point, the students know all about pigs, have been holding them, know that our eyes are the same, that we can have heart valve transplants from them, etc.

There was another class where students also helped to kill a chicken. Again, you weren’t forced to partake but encouraged to if you ate meat, because it is a life and should be honoured, and this is where spirituality comes in as well.

This is the example of how teaching is done here. This is what happens, we have these two skills to teach and as the principal, I do not care how they are taught. One of our classes has just created 15 sustainable communities on Mars. All had very different political systems: there was a communist one and an anarchist one, etc. For a teacher, it is a lot of hard work but so fun. It’s a riot.

If you want an example, there is an excellent TED talk from two of our current students who started Bye Bye Plastic Bags which is now an international movement to ban plastic bags. It is about the two girls’ perspective of going through this school and both the school and their community together inspiring them to take action. Local to global completely from middle school students. Again, not everyone needs to do something of that scale but they need to do something helpful. It is not about preparing students for the 21st century, it is about doing it now.


[1] The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) is an English language curriculum offered to students to prepare them for International Baccalaureate, A Level and BTEC Level 3 (which is recommended for higher-tier students). It is based on the GCE O-Level and is recognised as being equivalent to the GCSE. The IGCSE was developed by University of Cambridge International Examinations.

[2] Students are usually 15–16 years of age.