Archive for the ‘Successful Urban Education’ Category

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?

Problem Solved!

When we solve problems,  students  immediately think of the solution in punitive terms.  “Suspend for a day!”  “Give a reset!”  Problem solved!

Learning the hard way,  students are beginning to realize that these punitive measures don’t actually solve the problems.  Giving a student a reset does not magically cause the papers on the floor to be picked up.  Giving a student a reset cannot take back a hurtful comment.  Giving a student a reset does not prevent the “we’re just playin’ ”  jostling that is taken too far.

Case in point – we had a rule (with a reset consequence) that the classroom should not be left in a messy state after each learning block.  However, the classroom was still left messy.  Game pieces were out of the box, legos were strewn on the floor, papers littered  the floor, chairs were  all over the classroom.  Even though we had a “rule” that covers messiness ,  there were too many students to give resets to and when asked who made the mess, we heard a chorus of,  “Wasn’t me! ”

I wrote  a problem that the room was left messy and no one cleaned it up, and then  described the mess.  Reflecting  with Cathy later that evening, we spoke about the importance of encouraging the students to solve the problem rather than “punish” the problem.  We emphasized that it would be important to mention that a rule was already established so we don’t need another rule to solve it.  Then, Cathy made a brilliant suggestion:  phrase the problem to encourage the students to create a solution rather than a punishment.  So, I rephrased my original problem to, how can we encourage members of our community to clean up after themselves,  and in the morning we would wait and see what happened.

The next morning, admid loud groans (students are not loving this community meeting of solving problmes) we proceeded with our meeting.

At first,  students suggested the exact same rule we already had, even though Cathy read them the rule that already existed!   Then they blamed the teachers because “we” were not giving enough resets.  We told them it was impossible because people were leaving the area.  Then they decided that teachers should just check everyone’s folders.   We reflected that right back at them – do you really want to take that much time to check everyone’s folders?   It took much discussion and “guiding”  to come up with  a solution that might  solve the messy classroom situation.

Students decided that they will line up in each room and wait until the classroom is clean. No one can start the next learning block until all the areas are clean.  No resets, no punitive consequences.  We just wait until the rooms are cleaned before the next learning block can occur.  Problem (hopefully) solved.  I must say I voted against the motion because being in charge of the game room with about a billion little pieces, I have seen what “putting away” materials looks like.  So I am a little nervous that the shoving away materials will still occur.  I will save that for a another day.

I feel that we made baby steps in rethinking how a community can work together in positive way for the enjoyment of everyone rather than for the punishment of everyone.  Democracy is doing good for the society just because it is the right thing to do.  That’s the difference between democracy and coercion.

The next big step on the horizon, letting students run the community meeting.  I can’t wait!

9 Learning Blocks!

On the very first day that  our democratic community was born, we decided to divide the day into 1/2 hour learning blocks.  Anyone, we thought could stick with something (even if it was boring) for a half an hour.   We thought wrong.    On that very first day there were so many problems and  we took seemingly forever to solve the problems, that I believe we managed only  two completed blocks.  On the third day, I think we managed three.   Our reading mentor would walk in and think this is all nonsense because we were always having problems.  Growing pains, I countered.  It’s bound to get better.  Just wait and see.

Sure enough,  ay when he walked in to see the smooth running class he was pleasantly surprised.  He watched as students were engaged in a variety of activites, engrossed in what they were doing.  A far cry from the seeming mayhem that was happening barely a week before.

And today.  This glorious day.  Just our eighth day into our democratic school,  we managed to complete 9 learning blocks!  By the time the eighth rolled around I was so excited I high-fived all the students that were in the rooms (some were in specials).  They thought I was crazy.  What’s she so happy about ?

We did it!  You did it!  You wrote a plan and stuck with it without too much todoo (we had some minor problems, which we cleared up rather quickly)  and we completed our day!

We still have a long way to go but every milestone on the journey is worth a little celebration.

Student revolt!

Wow, what could be better than a school where you can choose whatever you want to do?  No one “makes” you do anything that you don’t want to do.  You can learn about anything you wish to learn about.  And the teachers are there at your beck and call to help, guide, find resources, tutor, mentor, encourage.  No homework unless you choose to do extra work at home.  Sounds like utopia, or edutopia as others have coined the term.

Today, day 3 of the Urban Democratic School, we had student revolt!

Amazingly, we had 4 solid learning periods.  Yesterday the class had decided that we would plan our entire day at the beginning so that we could proceed from learning block to learning block without the need to meet and plan between each block.  The first 4 blocks were amazing.  I was in the quiet academic room.  We had students reading (and one dad who had dropped in for the day), partners working on social studies and writing projects, individual writing, conferencing about reading comprehension.  We even had a teacher meeting during block 2 that went  on while the students were working independently.  No problems, no interruptions, no need to be every alert for misbehavior.  It was heaven!

Then chaos descended.  When one group returned noisily from lunch, the entire process crumbled.  Time to solve a problem.  Silvia’s blog describes the gory detail, but disappointingly one problem led to another and before we knew it the remainder of the day was taken up with class meeting to solve problems.

Perhaps the most interesting “problem” was the plea to be able to go back to “regular school.”  Comments like this is stupid, this doesn’t make sense abounded.  The student who actually wrote this problem on the board was one who was highly unengaged in “regular school,” rarely put forth effort into schoolwork or homework, and was very often a behavior problem.  The problem was written as “can we go back to regular school?”

The first question (from the teachers) was a request to clarify what exactly the problem was.  We patiently answered (for about the 20th time) why we were doing this.  The students complained that they wanted to just come in and look at the schedule on the board to find out what they were supposed to do (even though in the past they would have then spent much of the day in “regular school” complaining about what they were assigned to do).  “We should come in and have math for 1 1/2 hours, then social studies, then a break, then lunch, then reading…”  Well, why not plan your day like that, the teachers replied.  You can schedule math for the first 3 learning blocks if you like.  Then social studies, etc.  “But we need the teachers to tell us what to do.”

The students seemed to have forgotten that as we planned the day, the teachers offered a variety of “courses” for which students could sign up.  I offered reading comprehension for block 1, read aloud of Barack Obama’s book for block 3, review of patterns and algebra for block 4.  Each teacher offered a variety of options.  These possibilities were announced during the planning time (after having been requested by individual students) and were open to everyone.  I ended up having ONE student in each of those blocks.

Another interesting argument from the students was that we are choosing games (actually critical thinking activities) because they are there and you are letting us choose them.  It is so curious that the students don’t hear how ridiculous that sounds.  It is YOUR (i.e. the teachers) fault that we are making unwise choices, because you are letting us choose.  We really wonder how long it will take them to begin to develop a sense of inner responsibility and accountability.  In our society, many seem to think that any bad outcome just has to be someone else’s fault.  (I am reminded of the “twinkie defense.”)  Clearly the beginnings of this attitude are present at 10 years of age.

We have begun to see the subtle shift from the non-academic choices to more academic ones.  I suspect that this shift will continue.  By the beginning of June, when school ends, will we have evolved to a mostly academic environment?  Will the students settle in to work on accomplishing self-chosen learning goals? Will the number who are growing impatient about the problem-causers begin to take an active role in standing up for their own rights? Will the students finally figure out that there is nothing to rebel against except the rules and expectations of their own peers?  If this happens, will “regular school” have a whole new and more effective look next year?  Will the Urban Democratic School continue?

Silvia and I were both reminded of the analogy to Iraq.  Suddenly the dictator is gone.  There is no one to tell you what to do, when to do it, and to chop off your head (or worse yet, call your parents) if you don’t.  The student revolt is on–we want the dictator back.  We don’t want to have all the work and trouble of making decisions for ourselves.  We want someone to complain to and about, someone to solve the very problems we create, someone to blame our failures on–because that way our failures are someone else’s responsibility.

If this experiment works, we may have just taught the most powerful lessons of the entire year–to them and to ourselves.

By the way, the revolt failed.  Our fledgingly democracy is still alive and well.

Another day…another “problem.”

By the time the fifth learning block rolled around today at about 11:30 pm, Cathy (Dr. Whitehouse) and  I looked at each other in delightful shock.  We just completed two solid hours of learning blocks, without a “problem” that required a class meeting.

To clarify, our set of guidelines or rules that we created in the past few days stipulate that if someone has an issue or a “problem” then the protocol is that they write it on the board and convene a class meeting with all the students.  The meeting is  held immediately so that the problem can be resolved.  The first few days were filled with problems, thereby the plethora of rules to help us adhere to the simple principle of making choices that do not interfere with the rights of others.  These meetings are usually greeted with loud groans…”not another problem!”  The lack of enthusiasm for these meetings also leads to quick-fix  motions being raised and voted upon without adequate discussions.  These motions often do not solve the problems and before you know it…we are back at solving the same problem!

So, when the the fourth learning block bell sounded indicating the block was over,  we were so excited.  This was working!  This was working!  Some kids were choosing academics.  They were working quietly and productively in the academic room. Other students were earnestly playing games. I was working with a small group doing Numbers and Operations in math.  Life was good. For learning block five,  I and about eight students  just settled in on our comfy couches to do a read aloud book when the other class returned form lunch in a loud and noisy manner complete with arguing and banging.  Uh Oh!  I thought in my head, this will be a problem.  I looked around at my group of students and they all rolled their eyes….they knew what was coming  …a problem! Sure enough, we had to stop the block and go into the room and have a class meeting.

During this meeting, my  class’ lunch period would probably occur. So, before the meeting began  I promised that I would take the students who wanted to go, to lunch, but that we would be giving up our right to vote on an issue that may affect us.   Right at the same time we were to go to lunch, the vote came up.  I lined up my students.  Only two out of 15 elected to stay and vote.    I popped into the room and voted.  The motion was that if the whole class comes down noisily and we cannot discern who the noise makers were then the whole class gets a reset.  I thought that was fair.  Unfortunately, the motion was voted down because my class (who during the discussion supported the motion) was not there to vote and the noise makers class was!  It was interesting how my students were so willing to give up their right to decide a rule that would affect them!  They think,  you decide for me,  whatever.  I think that leads to the problem with school as we have it.  The powers that be are making the decisions. They are deciding what is best for the students.   Students are comfortable with that.  Someone else makes the rules and  then they decide whether they will abide with the rules.  It’s different now.   It is the students’  rules and their consequences that they have to adhere to.

This one problem generated a plethora of other problems.  There was almost a mutiny of sorts.   First, there was the issue of not allowing teachers  (first they said teachers who are older than 33 …darn just 9 years too old, then they changed it to older than 18) to present problems, thereby denying us the ability to be active participants in our democratic community.  Most of the students loved this idea.  If the teachers did not write problems then there would be nothing to discuss because the teachers were  the ones writing most of the problems.  What was fascinating was that many students still did not grasp the concept that the teachers were not creating the problems.  It was the students’ actions creating the problems.   Yesterday, one student pointed that fact out.  Today, two more meek  but courageous voices also spoke to that fact.  One suggested that the teachers keep us in check,  and without them there would be anarchy because we would just do whatever we want.  How wise of her to figure out that we do need a system of law and order.  Isn’t that true of our adult society as well and also the structure of our  government, which was designed to have checks and balances.   This problem was also  interesting because we likened it to disenfranchising a minority.  Dr. Whitehouse pointed out that this was like denying African-Americans and women the right to vote.  Dr.  Davis (another teacher) concurred and said minorities have been discriminated against throughout American history and that we as a society have grown to overcome that and accept people as equal.  I questioned that if I am not an active member of this community, why should I participate at all.  Why should I be an active member if my rights are not protected.  How fascinating that the students did not care that others were excluded as long as it was not them.  (After much discussion, the motion was voted against.  Whew! )

There was also a problem to stop this school and go back to the way things were.  The students who were having the most problems with this democratic approach to learning were the same students who did not choose to learn the traditional way!  Their arguments almost made me laugh because they said all we do is play games and we don’t get homework.  It was reflected back to them, is anyone forcing you to play games – no.  Is anyone stopping you from getting homework – no.  Is anyone stopping you from choosing all academics in learning blocks – no. Is anyone preventing you from planning your day or week anyway you would like – no.  Did you consult with a teacher to help you plan your day/week – no.  So, what’s the problem?

I think the problem is that these students who thrived on receiving negative attention for refusing to do work, acting out in class, disrupting lessons have lost that power.  They are not choosing academics.  Fine.  No problem.  There is a room where you can play or chat or sleep or one of our “favorite” choices, eat chips and drink pop. How can you be rebellious if there is nothing to rebel against?  Their power to “run” the room with their antics is gone.  Students who want to concentrate on academics can truly concentrate with a teacher who does not have to worry about looking over his or her shoulder about what so and so is doing.  Homework, was done consistently in the past about 30% of the time throughout the year.  Now, if you do homework at home, I will check that you did it at home, you will check the answers, if you have questions I am here to help you.  No more punishments.  You did it.  You get a check for doing it at home.  If you don’t understand something come to me and I will help you.

The responsibility for the learning belongs to the student.  It is his or hers to own.  It’s not the teachers’ job to make the student  do anything.  We are here to help them,  facilitate their learning but not force them. That is the fundamental difference and that  is a scary prospect for some kids.