Schools in Public Places

I just got back from taking our three grade eight students to Washington DC.  Visiting all the museums and memorials,  made me think that this is where schools should be, in the buildings themselves.  How much more “real”  can you get than by seeing the actual Declaration of Independence in the rotunda of the archives.  Staring up at  the imposing  Lincoln and reading his words etched in marble.  Walking along the ebony granite of the Viet Nam memorial and seeing solemn veterans and loved ones paying their respects.  Books, movies, virtual visits cannot substitute for being there.

Don’t you think it would be awesome if school programs  were built into these public institutions and students could go for six week  sessions and be immersed in the topic of their choice. I realize that  museums have education services but these programs are usually for an hour or so.  It would be wonderful to offer a student a six week session in fossils or civil war history or aviation etc.  to take the place of regular school.

Punishment is the Solution

This second last day of school looks like this, a few people working but most of them talking.  So, I suggested that they can choose to work or do anything as long as we all can work quietly.  Not five seconds later their was a cacophony of loud voices.  I called a meeting.  GROANNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!

I wrote on the board, It’s too noisy.  Immediately a hand was raised, ” I make a motion….”  I did a very undemocratic thing and cut that student off.  I said we learned  the last time that we made too many motions and came up with too many rules that we had a difficult time following, hence all the resets.

So, we discussed.  Immediately the students brought up punishments as a solution.  Once again, I intervened and said, ‘No,  no punishments!”   One student quipped,  we won’t do the right thing unless there is a serious enough consequence.  I said I disagree.    I think we can practice speaking in a quiet tone until it becomes a habit.  So, we decided to give that a try.  We defined “quiet” as a Dr. Whitehouse voice, who speaks in a very quiet tone all the time.   I need to work on this too.  My booming so-called teacher voice is distracting as well.

After two and half hours I had to remind students to use a quiet tone about six times.  Is that OK?  The thing is students don’t care about the noise level unless they want to work on something.  It’s not that they are being mean or yelling to bug me, they just don’t notice when they get so loud that they can be  heard  down the hall.  Am I   biased in my thinking because their loudness is not about educational things but about games or gossip?  If they were loud and enthusiastic about some science or social studies topic would I be as a stickler for quiet?

I have so much to learn about being a good unschool teacher.  I have may years of schooling to get out of my system.

Another day in regular school

At 1:30 I observed my students.  One student was diligently finishing her assessment.  Two others were working on theirs slowly, while looking around the room at nothing in particluar, five were looking at the Washington DC books that were loaned and given to us by Kathy Englehart, a colleague’s mom and the Mary Poppins of librarians, and they were also making their list of must-see destinations for our Washingto DC trip.  One student was fast asleep on her desk.  One student was playing with R0cky,  the class guinea pig, feeding it peanuts.  (Are guinea pigs even allowed to eat peanuts?)  And two others were just chatting even though they have work that they could be doing to “boost”   their grades on their report card.

I said to my students – this is like unschool- and I pointed out what everyone was doing.  They just shrugged their shoulders and went back to what they were doing.

I wonder if I allowed freedom and choice for the year what would they choose?  How long will they have to be “bored”  until something sparks their interest?  I had one student today beg me for little jobs because he did not know what to do with himself.  Nothing interested him (except video games).  I found that sad.

I am already thinking that I should plan sensory overload next year.  Schedule a week of field trips at he beginning of the year to museums, businesses, nature centers,…and perhaps  they will latch onto something.  Or is that me controlling again?

I am fearful because I am not quite sure how to balance  my responsibility for their education and my desire to free them from my teacher-centered disguised as student-centered ways.

Reflections from Students…

In a very undemocratic way I asked (no, I’ll be honest…I demanded) students to write a reflection about their Urban Democratic School experience.

Here are some of their musings…

I liked the whole unschool thing.  When I was in regular school we did not get to have choices.  When we were in unschool I got to work in all the things I knew I had to work on.  In school we have to do subjects that we don’t want to have anything to do with.  – Girl (11)

We started this thing called unschool.  We got to do whatever we pleased but we had to follow all these rules.   There were about 40 rules we created.  Every time someone was disturbing someone we had a problem.  It felt like we had a problem every two minutes.  I really hated it.  With a passion.  Everyday we had to make choices, either academic or non-academic.  Academic was to help with our grades on the report card.  Non-academic was where we could play games all day and do nothing.  I tried my best to do all academics but I wanted my free time also.  – Girl (12)

I liked the unschool because sometimes I don’t want to do school work all the time.  So, sometimes I did some non-school activities.  I liked that we had two rooms.  We had a academic room and a non-academic room.  One thing I didn’t like about this was that every five minutes we had a problem.  It felt like we spent two hours every day  solving problems.  And then we never got to do anything.  Also, I didn’t like the progress reports.  They were too much to explain to parents.  I didn’t want to explain my choices.  –   Boy (13)

It was kind of fun and sometimes not.  We can choose whatever we want to for the day.  We had ten blocks in a day.  The choices can either be academic or non-academic.  I made my choices in a pattern, academic, non-academic, academic, non-academic. The not so fun thing about unschool was the problems took a long time to solve.  The ones that took long were the problems the teachers put on the board.  When the students put a problem on the board, they usually didn’t make sense so those got solved or dismissed quickly.  – Boy (12)

UDS was pretty good.  I got a lot of work done in a short time. I got all Ms on my report card because of UDS.  The only thing I did not like was the long class meetings.  Also I did not like the when we combined the classes.  It was too chaotic sometimes and we had to have a lot of meetings.  Sometimes it took us two hours to solve the problems.  But I liked how we had a room for academics and a room for games and talking.  I got a lot of work done in the academic room.  There were no distractions and it was nice and quiet.  The fun room was fun because we didn’t have to worry about distracting the people who were trying to learn.  Overall, UDS was fun at times and boring at times.  I kind of hope we have it next year.  – Boy (13)

UDS is a community that allows you to do whatever you want without disturbing others. I was happy we could do anything we wanted.  I could do games instead of work. In the beginning it was rough.  We always were in a meeting trying to solve problems.   I did not like how long the meetings took.  Whenever we had to do a meeting we made up rules and a lot of times the rules did not make sense. Sometimes meetings were called because someone got a reset.  It’s not the end of the world to get a reset, but some kids think that it is. I like, however, the split rooms.  One room for academics and one room for games.  All in all if we follow the rules and make good decisions it would be fun.  – Boy (11)

I disliked unschool.  I hated the meetings.  I hated how I  had to leave what I was doing to try to solve problems that were none of my business.  I also did not like the fact that we had to plan our day in the morning and then start and stop the timer for each block. [Teacher Note:  The student who actually devised the timed “block” system to organize our day is the one who wrote this reflection!] I didn’t like being with the other class.  UDS was a failure.  – Girl (12)

I  think unschool was unique in a sort of good way.  It attempted to teach us about responsibility for what we did in school as far as our learning choices and behavior.  I thought at first that I wouldn’t get anything out of it because the students would be able to do what they pleased and we wouldn’t get suspended.  Instead of trouble though, we wrote a problem on the board and then sit there and discuss the problem.  Sometimes it would take two hours to create one rule.  In general, I am 50/50 on the unschool thing but I am also 50/50 on the regular school. One word that describes unschool is responsibility. – Boy (13)

The unschool system was different.  I felt weird planning my own school day, and making my own choices.  At some points, it was hard, but at others it was fun.  We got to do what we wanted, when we wanted.  But in my personal opinion, I wanted regular school.  The meetings were annoying.  It felt like every 30 minutes we had a meeting over something stupid.  I had no choice but to participate.   If we could do something besides a meeting, to come together, it would be less boring and then I would want the system.  I really liked the system, but we need something better to do than a meeting.  – Girl (11)

For me USD or unschool was great.  What I didn’t want to do, I didn’t have to do.  I could have just played games all day long or I could do academics all day long.   I could sleep til’ lunchtime if I wanted to, which I wouldn’t be able to do in regular school.  I liked the freedom of being able to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.  The other great thing about unschool was that I got to choose what specials I wanted to take.  If I wanted to take two computer classes I could.  If I wanted to take one art class and one computer class I could do that too.  I didn’t have to go to any specials that week if I didn’t want to. Some people wanted unschool at first, but then they didn’t want it anymore because we had problems that nobody wanted to solve. I admit the problems were aggravating but overall it was worth it.  – Girl (12) [ Teacher Note:  This young lady is a  well-behaved and hard working student during regular school]

In the Trenches of Regular School

For the past three days I have been stuck in my classroom with my students as they desperately try to complete the required assessments.  I am spending my time shushing,  lecturing,  and inwardly crying.

I hate this.  Regular school sucks.

The same kids who earlier in the month felt that they will not learn if they are allowed choices, now balk at the choice- less world of regular school.

“Do we have to go to special?”

“Yes, you have to go to special.”   I need a break!  – something I didn’t have during Urban Democratic School.  However, what was different, is that I felt I didn’t need a break.  It was enjoyable to learn with and be with the students all day.  I actually felt like a “teacher, ” and it felt good.

“I don’t feel like working on writing.”

“Well, we are all working on the same thing at the same time,   just like regular school. ”  I know how my students feel.  I don’t feel like doing something at a certain time.  Some things we don’t have a choice on (paying bills and taxes, taking out trash, grading assessments  etc.)  but some things we can choose to work on at our convenience.  Not in regular school, students are scheduled to death.

“This is so boring.”

“Oh, well.”  What can I say to that.  Tell them it’s not. Some things we have to teach according to the State Standards are boring and irrelevant as far as I am concerned.  Furthermore, I think it’s boring and frustrating managing behavior.  I am not teaching.  I  am a controller and manager.  I am trying to make students do what they don’t want to.  The only reason some are motivated is because of grades or I planned an extra fun lesson/activity.

Of course teachers can make learning fun.  Indeed fun and creative teachers are praised and lauded.  I am praised for that.  I have come up with many exciting lessons throughout the years ( we studied bread as a year long social studies theme, took a simulated trip to Brazil (complete with airplane snacks and mailed postcards home), built a scale model of the Great Lakes, produced and sold little toys,  created a forest, produced  wonderful class picture books, did author studies, used movies, plays and songs, went on field trips, read amazing books,  etc.  etc.)  Year after year I change what we do because I am not one to stick with the same old same old.  I get bored too!  Students may remember a fun activity or a particular mnemonic for memorizing – but what did they really learn?  Will knowing a certain body of knowledge help them in life  or just help them score well on a test?   Where is their passion to continue with something once the “entertainment” is over?    Is that what we want for our students, to equate learning with entertainment?  Or, do we want them to possess that inner drive, that fire in the belly passion for a subject – any subject.  If students have the inner desire to learn, do we need entertaining lessons?

More than ever I am committed to the idea of the Urban Democratic School philosophy.  I believe it is the cure-all for public education.  Last year someone asked me what is the answer for failing urban schools.  I think I flippantly said, bomb the system.  Start fresh.  I still think that way.

This is my answer:

Public schools should be the neighborhood community center (replacing churches and boys girls clubs as the traditional glue that hold neighborhoods together).

The school hours should be flexible:  6am – 9pm, to accommodate working caregivers.   Students do not have to attend the whole day but there should be a minimum required amount of hours.

Students and teachers and school community members will govern the school and establish rules that ensure the safety and well-being of people and the up-keep of the  property.

Official school should be publicly be funded beginning at the age of 4 and go on until the graduation requirements are met…whatever that age may be (let’s say until 21). The fact that some kids come in several years behind makes sense to extend the age of graduation.  (Though having a daycare/pre-school as part of the School makes a lot of sense too).

These community schools  should be small – no more than 250 kids.  We are trying to build a neighborhood-family feel.

The classrooms should be divided into learning centers:  reading room, writing room, math, biology, chemistry, physics,  gross motor areas,  a full kitchen,  cafe,   dining area, crafts, dance, arts, gym, technology,  safe outdoor areas, animal room, shop with woodworking, welding etc.

Students would pursue their passions and learn according to their pace.  Collaboration and sharing is encouraged.  If an adult has not learned how to read yet, what is wrong with an adult and a five or six year old reading and learning together?

Teachers would be in charge of rooms, but can also float around facilitating learning and guiding students in their pursuits.  They could offer course,  but more importantly they would let the students determine their learning.

There would be no grades and no grade levels.  This would eliminate the stigma of “failing”.  How can we expect a child who came two to three years behind learn twice and three times as fast as their peer who came in on track.  It would also eliminate the even more dangerous habit of schools who pass students for social reasons, which I think is the real reason for high dropout rates in grade nine and ten.  The students are frustrated, they clearly are not ready for the rigorous demands of high school and just drop out.  It does not surprise me that Cleveland has a 54% graduation rate.  Their test scores indicate that more students should be failing than get failed…eventually this has to catch up.  No more grade levels…no more stigma.  You are not the “dumbest” one in class…how can that even  be determined if you are in a math room with students ranging in age from 4-21?

Rather than report cards or progress reports or open houses, parents would be encouraged to drop in and see what their child is learning and perhaps even learn with them.

Community members (properly screened for safety purposes) would be encouraged to volunteer and also to pursue their interests, so the classrooms would become  multi-age centers of learning.  (Being a part of the Intergenerational School I have seen first-hand the many benefits of the generations working and collaborating together).

In order to graduate, an exit process will be devised that will show the student is ready to become a spirited citizen of the community.

No grade levels, no grades, no artificial construct of how long learning should take,  truly is a system where no child is left behind.

That is the answer.  It seems lofty but doable.  There are schools that exist like this around the world.  They are all private.  We need it to be public.

“Regular school” has returned, to everyone’s dismay

Yes, “regular school” has returned to UDS. The “why” is easy. Assessments. As the end of the school year approaches we are required, as a public charter school, to have students complete an array of assessments that show progress (or the lack thereof) as a part of our accountability to the state of Ohio.

So here we are, back again, spending most of our time as teachers trying to make students do what they don’t want to do. It is deadly. They don’t do it anyway. An assessment that should take minutes, or maybe an hour at the outside, takes days. Obviously this is because everyone is mostly fooling around, bothering other people, trying to do everything possible to NOT complete the test in front of them.

Students are stressed, teachers are stressed, as the principal I am stressed. Don’t these kids know this is important? Don’t they know this will affect their final grades? Frankly, they do know and they don’t care.

For the past two weeks, we saw what happens when we relinquish the need to try to force students to do what they don’t want to do and won’t do. Some students pursued academic topics–because they wanted to. The worked in a focussed, dedicated way and weren’t bothered by others. They got individualized teacher help when they needed and requested it. Other students chose not to spend much time on academics, but in general they worked on whatever they chose to do in a way that did not bother anyone else. Even if they chose “chatting,” they sat down and quietly chatted with their friends. It was all quite pleasant and stress-free.

So we wonder, which is better: a student who spends the day with an assessment in front of them, not working on it, making every excuse to do something else (which generally involves a bathroom trip or bothering someone else) OR that same student playing chess all day long (with a couple of PE breaks along the way), concentrating on that activity, disrupting no one. The answer would seem clear–but the educational bureaucracy forces us into the former situation. Is there any way that that can be good for kids and for instilling a passion for learning.

Why democracies need strong leadership

We are experiencing a leadership vacuum.  On Monday, when I knew I could not be in the classroom, the community descended into chaos because the “leader” was gone.  We have continued to feel that lack.

One student became the self-appointed meeting leader.  Today I had to write a problem:  the Person-in-Charge is not following the meeting rules.  This student tried to become a dictator.  He argued with each student who made a comment or suggestion that was not to his liking.  He commented on each and every suggestion.  He did not enforce any of the meeting rules, such as one person talks at a time or the person speaking waits until everyone is silent before speaking.  The students rather quickly “dethroned” him, but then chose as new leader someone who also rarely follows rules (or even really seemed to know the rules and procedures for class meetings).  There are students who could provide real leadership, but they don’t put themselves forward nor are they nominated by others.  It is really curious that the weakest leaders put themselves up to take on this important role.  Can the students not see how disorganized and unproductive meetings have become?  They are frustrated by the amount of time spent in meetings, but don’t seem to connect that to their own behavior and choices.  Should we take back the reins?  Will the system evolve?

The spectre of “regular school” reared its ugly head again today.  We really cannot get a clear definition from the students of what is meant by “regular school.” They tend to say that they want us to teach them, but when we point out that there are 3 teachers there all day long to teach and help whoever wants help, that doesn’t seem to “count.”  Then they mention a schedule.  However, each teacher lists the learning block classes that they are offering each day, and mostly no one signs up to take them.  What they really want, we belive, is to be relieved of the responsibility for their own learning.  If we are telling them what to do and they don’t do it (as in “regular school”), then it is somehow our fault, but if we don’t make them do anything and they choose not to work on academics (as in “democratic school”), they want that to also be our “fault.”  They are frustrated that we teachers are just refusing to take on that accountability for them.

Speaking for myself, I feel totally unfrustrated by this.  Even on days when we have many problems, like today, I am convinced that the lessons being learned go far beyond paper and pencil academics.  We are in the heart of what makes a democracy work or not work.  We are struggling with issues of “spirited citizenship” in about as real a manner as possible.  The students who are apathetic now, who don’t want to play an active role in preventing or solving problems, who act in their own self interest (and cause problems) regardless of the negative effect on the community as a whole–they are the students who will do that as adults.   Even more frightening is the willingness of others to not only tolerate that but to put those people in charge–it all shows me very clearly how important an informed and active electorate is for our own democracy.

We are besieged with questions:  Should we return to a teacher-in-charge model?  Will a real leader step up?  Do we have enough time for any of this to come to fruition before schools ends for the year?