Posts Tagged ‘Education’

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!


I like it!

Yesterday at dismissal a student and I were sharing seating space on a rock waiting for her parents to pick her up. A teacher came by and asked me how are things going in the “unschool.” Before I could say anything, the student piped up, “I like it!”  Wow, I thought.   You do?  Why?   She said that she gets to choose what she wants to work on and then she can give herself little breaks throughout the day.  Her passion is writing,  so she chooses quite a few writing blocks throughout the day.  This student is not a problem student. She is well behaved and works well under any circumstances.  What urban democratic school  did for her was allow her the time to pursue her passion. As a result, instead of the  traditional  hour per day of writing workshop, she can have multiple times per day to visit and revisit her writing – just like a real writer would do.

Non-coercive Education–Is it possible?

Most successful urban public schools seem to be pretty good at getting students to do what teachers want them to do, and TIS is no exception. We have developed a clear all school behavior plan that is positive in approach, has clear expectations, and defined consequences. In general students behave well and comply. However, they truly have not taken the next step toward inner governance. In a democratic level of behavior, we don’t do the right thing because someone in authority is there making us do it; we do the right thing because it is good for both us and the greater community of which we are part.

We greatly fear for our students who are not able to achieve this final step, especially before high school. There, they will have many choices to make, both behaviorally and academically, that will either keep them on the path to academic and life success or derail them. We feel an urgency about instilling this capability in them.

We sometimes explain the term character to students by using the definition that character is what you do when no one else is looking. Our students are generally great when the teacher, visitor, mentor, or principal is looking, but things can quickly go awry when a responsible adult is not right there “looking.”

Academically, we have the same worries. Sure we can coerce most (or at least many) students to complete their classwork and homework, but to what end? It is coercion, pure and simple. You complete these things because you don’t want the bad grade, or your parents will put you on restriction, or some other bad consequence will result. But where is the joy and interest in learning?

At times it has seemed that our students don’t have any interest in learning anything–or at least anything that is part of the expected curriculum. Yet all children are born with a compelling drive and need to learn. Even newborns actively explore their environment. From the moment they can ambulate, toddlers seem to have a drive to get into everything. A kitchen cabinet filled with pots and pans can be an endless source of exploration and active learning. Toddlers crawl, climb, put everything into their mouth, bang, throw, sniff, examine, and , once they can talk, ask endless questions. All children have this innate impetus to learn.

School seems to wring this joyful exploration our of them. While most kindergartens still are places of exploration and wondering and constructing and experimenting, increasing standards and the accompanying tests are forcing schools to cut down on those kinds of activities in favor of experiences that will produce good test results.

The essence of “lifelong learning” is not in stuffing kids with a lot of content (as the test makers would have us do) but in teaching them the process of learning. No matter what their learning passion, a student should have effective tools for exploring that passion. And, most importantly, they should know how to recognize those passions and how to pursue them.

Before starting the Urban Democratic School, we asked students, “If you could come to school and learn anything you wanted, do anything you wanted, what would you want to do.” They were dumbfounded. Some said they would “do their work,” but when asked “what work would that be?” were unable to give any ideas. Most seemed unable to identify anything at all that they would like to learn about. This is frightening. Has education become so dysfunctional that is literally squeezes the inclination to learn out of children? Is this also a part of their toxic environment, in which electronic entertainment in all its various forms has replaced conversation, creating, pondering, and learning?

What we know from past years, is that our students work very hard to review and prepare for the state tests and THEN THEY ARE DONE. The remainder of the school year is a fruitless exercise in attempted coersion. So we decided to turn this into an opportunity rather than a daily battle and hence the birth of the Urban Democratic School, where students would direct their own learning (within a few broad parameters), teachers would facilitate that learning, and students would create a system of self-governance through the use of democratic principles and processes.

We, as teachers, will document this process and see if we have been successful in rekindling that innate curiousity and desire to learn that we know is lurking inside of each student.