Walking into the school building during arrival, students are happily rushing down the halls in groups of friends and classmates, eagerly awaiting another school day. Parent volunteers stand guard in the middle of the halls, each with a hand outstretched, palm facing outward, yelling “No running in the halls!”
For 10 years I taught in schools like this where while creativity and independent thinking were fostered (despite a scripted, overly structured curriculum), a culture of “no” always loomed.
In the 2013-2014 school year I was graded on how well I could predict, in October, each student’s reading level, in May. I had just met these 4 and 5 year-olds and my perceived teacher-effectiveness depended on my educated guesses of children for whom I had not discovered their learning styles and abilities and who came to me with no “prior history”, as is the case in older grades where teachers are given evidence of student learning from their students’ previous teachers.
That was my last year of teaching.
I took a yearlong sabbatical in India in an environmentally-sustainable community that practices unschooling. I chose this community, as it was a place where children mattered; their interests were encouraged and they were trusted to be active members of the community. It was assumed that they implicitly wanted to learn.
Over the course of the year I spent much time with these international children of hippie-minded parents who had an inkling of their privilege in that they had previously attended school or had cousins in traditional schools in other countries. They took full advantage of having freedom to learn anything from anyone. They were used to asking adults to explain what they were doing, to offer feedback, or ask for feedback.
The village children also became a central part of my life in India. They came from poor families and attended government schools, which continue to use corporal punishment despite its illegality. These children were also witnessing Indians they personally knew, in their 20s, going away to school, leaving the village, and exploring jobs and opportunities away from home not having to feel guilty for abandoning their village. The middle class is growing and the children are preparing for their upcoming freedoms.
My experience of these young Indian children was their innocence and eagerness to soak in whatever they could. Like their international counterparts living in my community, these children recognized the value of meeting people from other countries, learning other languages, sharing their ideas, teaching each other their skills, working on projects that matter to their lives in collaboration for a better foreseeable world.
The more time I spent away from the American public school system, the more I could envision what I think school could be like. Gone are the necessities for creating factory workers. We are in a new position with different needs. Unfortunately the first need is a place for children to spend their day now that all of their parent/s are working and no one is at home to pass on skills and traditions and experiences. Children just need a safe place to be while their parent/s are at work. Some see it as glorified babysitting.
Second to logistics is the revelation that the world’s factories are automated, and the workers we are currently training will increasingly have creative and service jobs - jobs that depend on a human component. This means our children should be in a school that leads them to do this best, just as current schools and those of our past prepared them for factory work. The children need to practice what it means to be human- to think, make choices, reflect, speak, share, listen, and work together.
What does this look like, you ask? When we think about how adults perform these creative and service-type roles we hear more and more talk of uninterrupted hours of time to create, make, ponder, test, and, in essence, play. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can study what they choose and make what interests them. This is how we develop learners, creators, and inventors. This is how we allow them to be human.
We are also in a time and place where we can remember our ancestors working physically all day - in the fields, at home, and as artisans. Before massive industrialization we were outside for most of the day and had closer relationships to nature. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can explore nature including parks, neighborhoods, and playgrounds, in all kinds of weather. This too, is how we allow them to be human.
Even the so-called best public schools are instilling anxiety and fear in their students - to perform, complete work by deadlines, reach certain benchmarks within short time periods, and compare themselves to their peers. Why are we doing this? What kind of children do we want to develop into the adults of tomorrow? What kind of world do we envision 10 years from now? 20 years from now?
Now back in the US I am consulting with educational organizations who I believe are pushing these boundaries and asking the right questions. In order to stay connected to the public education sector I am substitute teaching in one of these “best” public schools. My experience there, after being out of this type of environment for so long is startling.
The classrooms and hallways are seriously over-stimulating. There is too much on the walls. Too much that did not develop from the children but rather was asked of them. The children’s work all looks the same. What purpose does this achieve?
The schedule and structure of the day includes changing activities every 15-20 minutes ensuring that there is no deep engagement.
The children are “taught” the same things, expecting the same output. There is no acceptable diversion from tasks, no bursts of creativity.
There were a few times when the class seemed at peace- playing outside and playing in the classroom – self-chosen activities. The children were absorbed, focused, quiet, talking to each other with purpose, listening with interest, and figuring things out. They were learning. They were being human.
At the end of the school day, knowing I had accomplished the plans the teacher had left for me, I took 15 minutes to tell the class about my experience in India, answer their questions, and show them a short photo-presentation of where I lived, the insects and animals I encountered, and what daily life was like. I showed short videos from the early activities of a fishing village, and a local musical performance. They were enthralled. Their interest was sparked. For a moment, they were the kind of kids I hope will be the adults of tomorrow.