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.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. The school you describe should be one to which educators, students, families and whole communities flock. Just because they want to be there in a place where learning is an enjoyable, passionate endeavor.

    Reply

  2. I agree. It becomes the center of the community. Imagine a place where the school building is actually used productively but all the people of the neighborhood. As a result wouldn’t we also be more likely to pay taxes (pass levies) to keep our schools funded if they are used by everyone?

    Reply

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