Posts Tagged ‘middle school’

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]


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.

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.

Rules, rules and more rules!

In three days we have created many rules in addition to the four school- wide rules that already existed, which were simply:

  1. Be respectful of people and property.
  2. Be where you are supposed to be.
  3. Raise your hand and wait to be called on.
  4. Keep your hands, feet, and objects to yourself.

Common sense tells us that those four rules should cover just about anything.   Unfortunately, they do not and as a result  we are busy creating a plethora of minute rules to cover various situations.  We  currently have 28.

Problems.   We have problems.  Many, many problems.  We choose not to adhere to the fundamental principle that we can choose anything as long as it does not disturb the learning and quiet enjoyment of others.  We, through our choices, do disturb others.  As a result, a problem occurs, which we then have to solve as a group,  much to their chagrin.

We need rules to just show us where to sit because students chose to sit in places where they could not see or hear what was going on.  We need rules to tell us that we should not get up and wander around while we were having a meeting.  We need a rule to state that one person talks at a time, even though that was already a  school rule!

Students abhor the class meeting time.  They would rather have a flip – flop dynamic of anarchy and  be controlled,  anarchy and be controlled. They enjoy rebelling against the teacher-created rules.  However, now, they are rebelling against  their own choices and the rules they create.   How uncomfortable! They are reluctant to to be responsible for their choices and actions.  This state of disequilibrium  is exactly where we want them to be.  They can have the freedom to make choices.  They  will be responsible for their choices.  We are hoping that taking ownership of their actions  will eventually make them learn to make wiser more reasoned choices.

Interestingly, some people think that these students are too young to be held accountable or responsible for their choices.  I beg to differ on that note.  If a child is old enough to make a choice then they can be taught also to be responsible for their choice and accept the consequence, no matter what the age.  At what age do we hold them accountable?  I say begin as soon as they make choices.  Of course it looks different at every age.

Many middle school children do amazing things.  They raise money for charity, volunteer in the community, advocate for others. They posses incredible athletic, academic and social skills.  These adolescences who are capable of great things are able to stand up for all the choices they make. I believe if we set the bar high they will rise to soar over it.

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.