Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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.

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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]

“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?

A lovely place to be

The quiet “academic” room is a lovely place to be (sorry Silvia–who has the noiser but not loud non-academic room).  The students who come there have a clear task, and they pretty much get to their work.  While they are not always 100% on task, they actually don’t bother anyone else who is.  There are students reading, writing, on the computer, writing an assessment, etc.  They quietly ask for help when needed, and they have the peace and quiet needed to focus on their learning.  Those who would ordinarily be interrupting and disrupting, are in the other room playing chess, doing other critical thinking “games,”  listening to a read aloud, or something else they have chosen and pretty much actually do.  If no one needs my help, I can get my own work and planning done.  We are all working side by side effectively and comfortably.  Now that is the way school should feel!

Worst times are transitions, as groups come and go.  But even that is getting better.

Back to Square One !

Ever have one of those days?  Yesterday, we did.  The day did not begin well as the school was preparing for a site visit.    Cathy the fearless leader of our community would be busy with the visit so she would not be able to lead the meetings.  We discussed the night before how we would manage.  I could have taken over and things would probably turn out OK.  But no!  That would have been too easy.  So, we thought, why don’t we let the students run the meeting.  And to make it even more interesting, I thought instead of telling them Cathy won’t be there, I would  just sit and wait  to see what happens.

After the two classes merged for the morning meeting, they were waiting quietly for it to start.  Cathy’s chair was empty.  No one said anything.  We waited and waited and waited.  Finally,  someone raised their hand and asked,  “What are we doing?”    I replied,  “We are waiting for someone to lead the meeting.”   She said, “I’ll do it.”  That was the beginning of the fall of the republic.

The meeting resorted into a cacophony of screams, shouts,  disrespectful language, and even a quasi-coup as someone else took over leadership!  Wow!   I stood in the middle of  the mayhem and madness and thought I was in the midst of a revolution.  To further exascerbate the situation I kept being buzzed on my walkie-talkie and kids kept coming and going as part of the site visit.  YIKES!!!  Somebody save me, get me off this sinking ship.

However, what I did not do, was ursurp control.  I did not resort to my former dictator self and quiet everyone down.  That would have been easy.  I was a very good dictator in my time.   Instead, I did what everyone should have done the moment the meeting lost control.   I began to write problems on the board.  Problem after problem after problem.  By the time I was finished writing, there were five problems on the board.  All of a sudden, a hush fell across the room.  Then quiet murmurings of,   “this is bogus”,  “she’s trippin'”,  “why’d she write all those problems?”

The leader of the meeting just found a new surge of strength; he rang the bell and said, “We have a problem.”  For the next hour and half we discussed the problems that needed to be solved.  (I think you can guess what some of them were).   During the beginning of the meeting one of the students suggested we go back to our regular classrooms, keep our democracy but separate the classes.  Oh, I have to shamefully admit, I wanted to jump up at that suggestion and say yes, yes, yes!  I didn’t though and towed the party line.    By the time we had to do our site visit duties, we solved all but one of the problems, which the other class said they would handle.

Whew!  Exhausting!  Frustrating!  One step forward and two steps back!

When I told Cathy about it, she said that it tells her that we do need the students to take over.  I wholeheartedly agreed.  We have been wanting to have students take over for awhile; and, the site visit obligations of Cathy were a perfect segue. The situation today reminded of what the instructor says during my gym  workouts when we do a particular exercise – if it hurts, that means we should do it again soon!

Update: Another student  led the meeting today, and it all worked out pretty well.  Baby steps!

Losing Control

The hardest thing for a teacher is to let go of his or her class.  To trust the students to make the right choices for themselves.  To guide them, not enable them.  To let the students make and learn from their mistakes.  To set the expectations high for all  students.

It was hard for me.  In my eight year evolution from a newbie teacher to a veteran,  I have changed.   I began as a bright-eyed rookie teacher thinking that I – armed with my new degree and creativity oozing from my pores- could change the life of every child for the better.  Ha!  I felt flat on my face.  The kids ate me alive.  I had no control and  spent countless minutes in the hallway crying and asking myself, ” I became a teacher…Why?”   Who could have prepared me for a 450 square foot classroom with no walls (when visitors would come to see our little school they asked the kids what they would like to see in their school and they asked for a wall and a door!)  and no furniture (thank God for IKEA!).  Who could have prepared me for the overwhelming social and emotional needs of some of these children whose lives were so chaotic they didn’t understand how to act in a respectful way around others.

I floundered the first few years and then I went to a summer workshop about classroom management and decided to take control.  I got very organized.  I formulated clearly in my mind what I wanted my classroom to look like, sound like.  I taught the students procedures so that the classroom looked and sounded exactly the way  I wanted.  I developed a behavior system, which seemed harsh but worked like a charm with a balance of rewards and punishments.  (All of which I realize now controls behavior but does not change it).   My little six, seven and eight year olds were able to file, keep the colored pencils color coded and everything in the classroom  organized.  Queen Lily was born, complete with fairy wings and gold shoes.  A benevolent queen, but a ruler nonetheless.

Fast forward several years.  This is my second year of teaching the older students (11-15 year olds), a few of whom I already taught  when they were wee ones.  Although I rarely don my queenly costume anymore (but I occasionally do just to see the eyes of my older students roll)  I still rule the class.  Our classroom economy is based on me being the ruler.  The students have jobs and I am the one who hires and fires.  It’s still all about me.  My control.  My peace of mind.

I let go of that.  I let go of that eight days ago when our democracy was formed.  I think I could let go because I realized that I needed to let go and to trust in democracy to solve our problems.  I don’t know if I could have appreciated what this democracy all means  unless I fully realized how much I did run the show.  I think a lot of us teachers think we are democratic but we are not.  A lot of teachers are like the helicopter parents, hovering over their children, micromanaging their every move, not letting them fail and learn and have the satisfaction of picking themsleves up and trying again, feeling sorry for our students rather than giving them them the gift of independence and making choices (good and bad) so that they become responsible citizens.  I am glad that I knew.  I was concious of the fact that I ruled the roost.  It helped me  let go.  I realized that I had to let go.  I am not perfect by any means.  I think I participate too much in classroom meetings.  I sometimes don’t follow the rules explicity.  I hear my “teacher” voice creeping through more often than it should.  I am struggling and learning to let go of control as much as the students are struggling and learning to gain control of their learning and their lives.