Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

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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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.

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.

Birth of a democracy

Let’s face it.  Teachers are dictators.  We are the ultimate leaders in our little fiefdom and no matter how student centered we try to make our classrooms,  ultimately we are the ones calling the shots, creating the fun-filled lessons, doling out the privileges and meting out the punishments .  What if all that changed?  What if the teacher takes on an advisory sort of role and helps the students govern themselves.  Let the students decide what to learn, what to do, when to do it etc.

We did just that in my middle school classroom.

This time last year, it was the end of OAT testing and the students were mentally wiped.  As far as they were concerned, school was OVER!  However, they still had many things to improve on their report cards.  But, they didn’t care.  The last month of school was full of battles, bribes and brouhaha.  This year, we decided to do something different.

For the past couple of years we have observed our students not caring about their learning, rebelling every chance they got.  Sitting in class and drumming, fiddling, talking, whispering, passing notes, acting out etc. etc.  Even when lesson were “fun” there was always the few who thought it was lame and basically put a damper on everything.  I was not the type to take this personally but still I wanted to know get them hooked on learning. I created  a complicated classroom economy, which most of the students enjoyed to force some responsibility and accountability on them other than the their report cards.  I Sent home weekly progress reports.  I e-mailed parents.  Still, I felt most of my time was managing students behavior.  The most dreaded task of any teacher.  I have to admit, I was controlling.  I was a fair and benevolent but a dictator nonetheless.

As I was dreading yet another repeat of last May where the students groaned and griped as soon as I mentioned any sort of academic learning, we changed everything.

We decided to let the students take control of the classroom and decide what they will do and we would just be members of the community.  We put theses basic parameters on the table:

  1. First and foremost the teachers are here to facilitate learning and our priority will be given to academic subjects.
  2. You can choose to do anything you like as long as it does not interfere with the learning of others.
  3. You can choose anything to do as long as the physical, social and safety of each person is observed and also that the school property must be kept in tact.

Well, you can imagine the joyful shouts of glee when the students first heard about this!  Free at last!

Well, those shouts of joy quickly dissipated when our first “problem” occurred on a walking field trip to the local park,  less than an hour of the birth of our democracy.  I decided to take  all the students (we combined most of the students from two classes) on an all day excursion to some wonderful parks within a few miles of our school.  We packed our lunches and set out for a day of adventure. Some minor incidents happened but were quickly resolved.  Then the “ORANGE” incident occurred.  I was sort of in the front third of the group of kids when I turned around to check the back just in time to see a student about to hurl a orange at the kids further back.  Well, I stopped that from occurring.  I gathered all the students together and wanted an explanation.  I expected the truth, and was ready to say we shouldn’t throw food blah blah blah and then carry on.  Instead, I got these bizarre accounts of what happened,which my Spidey sense knew were lies.  It got to the point were the students were shouting, blaming, spewing lies etc.  So, in consultation with my prinicpal, I marched them all back for a meeting.  On the walk back I heard from three different students about what actually happened.

We wrote the problem on the board:  “Who threw the orange.”  Rather than fess up, no one admitted it, even though students told me what happened on the way back.  Instead, the same crazy stories I heard initially came forth, accusations flew once again.  More problems were written on the board  (issues of trust and safety).  The students were anxious to solve the problem to get going but none of the problems were solved.  It took 2 hours for the students to decide to let the teachers pick who should go on the walk.  After those students were chosen the rest spent another half hour complaining why they weren’t chosen.  No punishment was meted out.  The consequence was simply not going on the walk.  The students had just completed their first foray into the messiness of democracy.

Thursday and Friday were also event filled.  Rules were created to manage the problems that keep occuring (too loud to work, students wandering around and bothering others, consequences of behavior).  Rules changed because students suggested and voted on solutions before even discussing the problems, so the essence of the problems did not get solved.  As teachers, we tried to suggest discussing the problem before deciding on a solution but the stubborn students insist on quickly making a motion and voting; only to gather again in a few minutes to try to solve the same problem!  I distinclty remember the “messy classroom” problem, which was discussed and “solved” three different times before an adequate solution was found.

After only three days, many of the students have had enough.  They want to go back to the old way.  They are begging  for their dictator!  The one they loved to hate and blame before.  But, she is gone.  She is a member of the newly formed democratic classroom and like Washington who did not want to be King of the United States even though they wanted him to,  this teacher does not want to return to her role as dictator.