After reading countless articles, studies, and whitepapers on why homework is counterproductive, creativity is being squashed by the soldier-like regimen of public school, and why people forget more than half of what they learned in school, I’m prepared to offer a new kind of public school.
I recently attended the Brooklyn School Alternatives Conference and heard from a panel of micro-school directors about what learning is like in their (private) schools. Here is what some of them had to say:
“Experience ourselves as capable of changing culture” – Tomis Parker, Agile Learning Center
“Structure with flexibility” – Noleca Radway, Brooklyn Free School
“City as classroom” – Noah Mayers, Brooklyn Apple Academy
"Student-led open school and opt-in adult-led classes" - Monique Scott, Freebrook Academy
“Our curriculum is to everyday challenge the insular nature of the classroom” – Sara Casey Taleff, ALC Cottonwood
These micro-schools in Brooklyn are doing it right. The schools are structured around community and communication, not content. In many of these schools the teachers are called facilitators and are trained in helping students develop strong communication skills, independence, and self-regulation skills. Instead of corporations and non-educators deciding what students should learn and when they should learn, and master it, students choose topics of interest to dive into.
Students are taught to set intentions, reflect on their actions, and hold themselves accountable, while also learning to be flexible.
The current public school system could be transformed into this by using the same infrastructure and materials, changing the curriculum from an absolute to a supplemental tool, and making professional development for teachers center around communication skills, problem solving, and nurturing students instead of mastering benchmarks. A new kind of public education can be fostered, without much additional costs.
The focus is on students discovering their own learning style and then running with it.
The public school I envision has only 4 parts:
- Creative play- passion projects, maker-spaces
- Outdoor exploration- neighborhoods, parks, fresh air, sun, rain, and snow!
- Self-guided learning- solo and group, built in facilitator support, opt-in classes
- Reflection- what and how you are learning, your actions and choices
There would be opportunities for internship, apprenticeship, field trips and travel, and guest speakers, experts, presentations, and workshops- decided by the students and always optional to attend.
What kind of adult would you be if this was your school experience?
What is tracking?
Tracking is the practice, traditionally in high schools, of grouping students with similar ability and then teaching to that ability. This often looks like the "higher ability" students being given more complex work and asked to think more critically than the "lower ability" students who are treated with lower expectations.
What are the perceived benefits of tracking students?
Some people say that students in all tracked groups (high, middle, and low-ability class groupings) will learn more and be pushed out of their comfort zone into a more challenging zone of learning if they are with like-peers.
Some people also say that it is easier for a teacher to teach one thing to a group of students rather then have to differentiate instruction for students with differing abilities.
Some parents say that their Gifted child was used as a teacher for lower-performing peers and didn't get the chance to shine with like-minded peers.
What are the proven-through-research detriments of tracking students?
There are just so many so I will highlight what I think are the most important:
- Students learn from each other!
- Students develop communication and life skills by learning to explain, listen, and ask questions of their peers.
- Students develop relationships with more of their peers.
- Students begin to see themselves and each other as teachers!
- Teacher expectation changes student performance. This means that when students are grouped by ability teachers teach them differently and students who are perceived as "lower ability" will not be as stimulated or engaged by the teacher, or be treated as capable learners.
- Tracking only highlights tested academic skills. Many students have other skills that lend themselves to a school setting where they might have a deeper understanding of a concept that doesn't show in tests. For example, a student who understands music may be very good at math, and be not so great at taking math tests.
- Listening to students teach each other adds more strategies and ways of thinking to a teacher's toolbox. This makes them better teachers.
Something to note when you hear from parents and students who disagree (based on experience) is that they probably didn't have teachers who were excited about the differences among their students. GREAT TEACHERS will capitalize on all of the skills and abilities of their students and seamlessly create a feeling of community in the classroom. It is extremely unfortunate that there are teachers who are not willing to embrace all of their students and who complain that mixed-ability classes create more work for them. We have to always remember the goal: to teach students to want to learn, create, and make a better world, which includes all kinds of equity (and not complaining because something seems difficult).
What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?
For more info read: Why Ability Grouping Doesn't Work, What Tracking Is and How to Start Dismantling It, Tracking (in Wikipedia), Can Tracking Improve Learning? (study done in Kenya)
What if every “comment” box on the Internet was changed to “reflect?”
I think a lot about setting intentions. The language we use should reflect our intentions. Often language is chosen for it’s simplicity, or ability to be broad, but isn’t it more important to use words that elicit the kinds of interactions we seek to have?
Along these lines I’m interested in the changes, if any, that would occur if every “comment” box was changed to “reflect.” Would you be more willing or less willing to share your ideas? Would you frame your opinions more gently, as a reflection is personal and makes one vulnerable? Would there be less arguing because the venue doesn’t allow for it, and more discussion and validation of ideas? Would people share more or less subjectively? More or less objectively? Would we see more productive conservations and less ranting? Would we, over time, engage with the Internet differently? Would we see these dialogue boxes as a place for constructive conversation? Would we use these forums to help us understand ourselves better in the context of humanity, of the world?
Parents often ask me for advice around their kids not wanting to do something the parents deem necessary. Examples include: getting dressed in the morning, eating healthy food, all routines. Parents often end up frustrated and come to me for ways to smooth out their communication.
My advice is this: In these situations, don’t think of your child as a child. Imagine you are having this same conversation with an adult.
With an adult you would talk to them at a calm time (not in a moment of conflict) and:
1. Gently state the problem. (“I noticed that whenever we talk about Bobby we fight.”)
2. Validate their feelings (“I can see you’re having a really hard time.”)
3. Ask, “Why do you think that is?”
4. Ask, “What can I do to help?”
Example Scenario- Morning Routines
Every morning is a hassle. Your child doesn’t want to get out bed, brush her teeth, get dressed, etc. You find yourself yelling and rushing and doing things for your child in order to get the whole family out of the house to school and work.
Parent: "I noticed that the mornings are hard for us. Why do you think that is?" (Then listen! Then validate your child’s emotions. “That feels tough.”)
Parent: What can I do to help with your morning routine? (Then listen! Maybe try a suggestion the next day! Some ideas include: choosing clothes the night before, child having their own alarm clock, a list/pictures of the morning tasks that the child can refer to/check off to feel independent).
The benefits of this kind of communication are endless, but here are a few of the most important ones:
- You are teaching your child how to effectively solve problems
- You are showing your child how to communicate in a way where both parties share and value each other’s thoughts
- You are validating your child’s emotions
- You are setting the stage for your child to gain independence and not feel dependent on you
- You are building your child’s self-regulation skills so they can monitor themselves and reflect on their decisions
Communication is something that we as a society have forgotten how to do. We spend so much time writing emails, thinking of how to say something in as few characters as possible, that the art of listening and valuing another’s ideas has become almost irrelevant to our day-to-day lives.
We need to compartmentalize different kinds of communication for different arenas of our lives. With people we are close to and any kind of face-to-face communication we need to remind ourselves to listen and value what others say and practice this until it becomes automatic again.
The most effective teachers and parents I know are effective because the children feel valued, which causes them to trust the adult and know that when they are not given a choice or asked for their opinion/suggestion, that it’s OK, and they will trust and do what the adult says. Isn’t that how successful adult relationships work too?
Chance to Choose is a project aimed at doing just this. Dave McGrail, parent of a middle-school girl, noticed that there are all kinds of bullying his daughter was engaging in, unaware of and often adamant that it was not bullying. So he wrote a book: a “choose your own adventure” book for middle-school girls where they would be confronted with situations involving bullying, cyber-bulling, gender, body image, and peer pressure and have to make choices and face the consequences.
The book inspired a teacher to read it in an after-school setting to her female students to address these topical issues. This, in turn, inspired Dave to create Chance to Choose, a formal after-school program that plays through these scenarios with small groups of girls and works out solutions, outcomes, consequences, and all along the way throws in variables that adjust situations, making one rethink her actions. It’s interactive, it’s role play, it’s social learning, it’s building emotional intelligence, and it’s filling a significantly under-attended to need. It’s great to be talking about why bullying is bad but it’s a whole different thing to do something about it.
On this day, when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., I celebrate Dave and Chance to Choose for working to help young girls stand up for themselves and to treat each other with respect. What if youth had toolboxes full of strategies to combat bullying and build respect among peers?
Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, author of Raising Global Children, says:
"According to the National Research Council, one of the numerous research reports on this growing topic of discussion, Americans' 'pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.' As Americans, we must see to it that our children develop the flexible qualities of character and mind necessary to handle the challenges that globalization poses. To become global citizens, they must learn how to communicate and interact with people around the world. We must raise global children.
Traits such as curiosity, empathy, compassion and flexibility cannot be bought, they must be taught. To be sure, travel, ethnic restaurants and cross-cultural museum exhibits can enhance a child's global mindedness. But so, too, can the treasure trove of books, music, movies, magazines and maps available at the local public library."
Her book suggests:
- Encouraging curiosity, empathy, flexibility and independence
- Supporting learning a second language as early as possible
- Exploring culture through books, food, music and friends
- Expanding a child’s world through travel at home and abroad
- Helping teens to spread their own global wings
- Advocating for teaching global education in schools
My dream on this journey was to trust in humanity. I imagined pedaling into villages and being offered places to stay, meals to share, stories to discover.
On my last cycle-touring afternoon as I cycled in Montelimar, home of nougat, I spotted a creperie and wondered if they used my gluten-free-friendly sarassin (buckwheat) or regular old ble (wheat). I parked and strolled in to find an older gentleman behind the bar and a not-so-old gentleman drinking at the bar. I asked in my broken French about the gluten. I was shown the menu with the best deal yet: $12 for a salad, savory crepe, and sweet crepe. And he would make them both with just sarassin. Woohoo!
I sat down and the man at the bar began to talk with me. Realizing that my English is far superior to my French he shared with me, in English, that earlier this morning he had seen me, a fellow traveler, and called out to me in French, asking where I was headed. I hadn’t responded. I didn’t even remember this encounter. But now, seeing as we were in the same place he could ask me again. Fascinated about my journey he asked many routine questions: How many kilometers do I ride per day? (60-80) How heavy is my bike? (Not sure, but it’s heavy) Where do I stay? (Friends, other cyclists, camping when it’s warm) Where and when did I start this journey? (Amsterdam, 20 Sept) When and where will it end? (Barcelona, late November).
We got to talking and I shared that I didn’t have a place to stay yet, as I was going to email some people and check hotel rates after this delicious lunch. He said he had a place down the block with a spare room and I could crash with him. I had a good vibe from this guy. I came to learn that he had been to India 7 times. Seven times!!!! And had stayed several months each time, with gurus, sadus, and babas. We chatted for a long time and then I agreed to stay with him.
I’m happy to report that after a homemade gluten-free, vegetarian dinner we became fast friends. I shared my mandala art and we traded travel stories. It was a lovely evening.
And my dream came true. I met a nice stranger, found trust, and a comfy bed.