pro/con list

11/16/2018

The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

--James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” 1963

 

I’m inspired by how Antonia and Patrick work through their thoughts on teaching in real time on Common Sense Podcast and I’m going to try to do something similar in this space now. I just listened to their episode “Lacrosse and Horseback Riding” and they talked a lot about the prevalence of and millions of dollars spent on standardized testing across the country each year. (Here’s the data they cited.) They also reminded me about the James Baldwin speech excerpted above.

I also recently finished reading Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline S. Lillard, PhD, a book about Maria Montessori’s educational legacy.

 

In addition to these two recent influences, I am still finding my way in my new school, so my mind is full of points of comparison between all the school settings I’ve experienced so far. Sometimes I think of this as the Research Phase of my career--I am exploring what is happening in different schools and how it works and feels differently for students, families, teachers and other community members. I know it’s a bit unusual to have worked in three schools already in my short career, but I experienced five very different schools during my Master’s program student teaching and that was so informative that I think it set a tone for me. I also resisted teaching for many years because I felt like it was a profession in which it was preferred that people stay in one place maintaining the same status quo for many years, and that made me nervous, wasn’t enticing and seemed like a recipe for teachers not finding new ways to try to do things or creating new spaces to welcome more learners in to the process...

 

I’m also starting this post today because this time of year feels messy. A recent post was about the first weeks of the year being hard, but now I am remembering how mid-to-late-October feels. Antonia mentioned in the podcast episode above that she is finally feeling like her current group of students are “her” kids now--previously she was still more attached to last year’s kids and the established routines and rhythms they had...and this group was still too new. Her school started a week or two before we did, and I can see now how I’m in that murky space of the kids not being total strangers, but we still haven’t 100% hit our stride yet. And that, again, makes me think about how this time of year has felt in different spaces.

 

To follow that meandering introduction, I’m going to outline some educational pros and cons that I’ve noticed and need to let out of my brain. I don’t intend to condemn any particular places or people with this list--all schools show up as they do in response to so many forces--but to make note of what I’ve seen work for or against students and staff.

 

{At the same time, as I reflect on this post I've been drafting over a few weeks, so many of these choices come down to decision-making based on crowd control after putting too many young people into inadequate spaces...even if we try to wrap up our rationales in opaque test scores..if we don't call out what we are really prioritizing, how will we ever change?}

 

So here I go:

BAD/LESS GOOD IDEAS

 

Security guards policing all the hallways. I know there are real safety issues in our schools, but sending an 11-year-old with a uniformed guard with some sort of light weapon on his belt to walk to the office does not feel great or like we trust our students.

 

PBIS that is mostly glorified (and federally funded) snack distribution. (Read about PBIS here if this is an unfamiliar education acronym--basically it is a program for implementing (hopefully) positive behavior supports that is backed by federal funding and so is widely adopted, but can take different forms.) The Montessori book and also reading work by Alfie Kohn over the years make me skeptical of the time and energy (and money!) often spent on such rewards systems. I think they can be insulting to kids and I notice kids tiring of them quickly. Sometimes there are multiple staff members dedicated to managing these school stores and ticket systems. My current school is very pro-PBIS, but with a Restorative Practices program as well, and so in time I’ll have more idea if PBIS can be done differently from how I’ve previously seen it implemented. 

 

Choppy subject flow with awkward heavy binders. This relates to relationship-building environments on the pro list, but I wanted to note as a con that dumping ten-ish delineated subjects on a young adolescent brain and body and having them run all around a building every 45-55 minutes carrying binders that they can barely reach their arms around because you won’t let them carry a backpack is not awesome.

 

District initiatives rolled out from afar by people who haven’t been in a classroom in years and who certainly haven’t spent the time with your students that you spend time with every day.

 

District initiatives given to you in a box with very little training, just the advice to “read all those books” and figured it out on your unpaid time, even if they don’t make great sense to you or your style or inspire you. Even though you might have developed something similar or perhaps better and not charged them a large yearly fee to use your brain, just the salary they were gonna pay you anyhow.

 

District initiatives that claim to be “inherently equitable" except no one quite breaks down how or why or considers that no material can be inherently equitable because equity is Super Complicated and often starts with examining yourself and our schools are very inherently inequitable and we can’t buy our way of that with a box of curriculum books.

 

No recess. Creating space for recess (preferably the kind in which kids don’t have to put their face in the path of a dodgeball) is way better than no recess and impacts the rest of the day. (I even heard of a private school with MULTIPLE recesses in a day! Can you imagine.) 

 

Way early start times that go against adolescent (and my) brains.

 

Antiquated ceremonies largely based on gender stereotypes that validate some students while alienating many students who already feel alienated by school.

 

Also ones that have competitions to see which grade can scream the loudest in a contained area. Painful. I can imagine how much worse it would feel with sensory issues.

 

Rigid bathroom rules that ignore biology. Don’t teach kids that their bodies are machines that should be ruled on command. This is dangerous and also an unrealistic expectation. Digestion happens. Respect their humanity in allowing for this. Teach them how to move in and out of class purposefully and with grace for themselves and others. 

 

No bodily autonomy in general. It’s reasonable to move around sometimes when you are working, or to go work in a quiet space with less people around, or to meet with a group around a table or a nook that you don’t always sit at...or to have a mental break and take a short walk. Movement helps generate ideas. If a space can’t allow for movement then maybe the space or class size needs to change and not the children. And it certainly doesn’t help build relationships to put adults in the position of policing every move students make or coming up with systems where they move in unison or not at all. I feel like this stance is still controversial and that concerns me.

 

No snacks ever.  Especially with the early start time and crowded cafeterias, kids just might need a little food at other times. It can be eaten and cleaned up respectfully. Students are capable.

 

Tracking. My very first grad school class opened with the professor asking us to share our experiences with tracking in school, how it made us feel bad, or afraid to try new things we might not ace, or separated us from large segments of our community for the entirety of our schooling, or prevented us from learning something we were really interested in learning, or caused us to feel dumber/smarter or more or less capable, or put us into classes that felt bland and boring or rowdy or snooty.  Maybe the people who had an awesome experience didn’t speak up in this discussion, and I know I experienced some positive benefits of tracking at times in my schooling, but I don’t think those benefits were good for the community as a whole or, ultimately, the most good for me as an individual, either. That conversation has stayed with me and I continue to observe how tracking changes kids.

 

Did I mention early start times?  I’m so tired.

GOOD/BETTER IDEAS

 

Mixed-age classrooms. This is part of Montessori but I also experienced it in an independent Progressive school. This allows for  a community to come together, apart, and back together over time (3-year groupings) and it saves some of the beginning of the year getting-to-know-each-other-from-scratch and end of the year we’re-about-to-leave-anyhow wastes of time. It allows the teachers to witness a student's growth over a longer period of time. It allows kids to mentor each other in a variety of ways, and allows for students who do not develop exactly the same skills in exactly the same chronological year to be supported and validated. It mimics most real world work settings where you don’t only spend time with people your exact same age.  (It has also made me wonder if year-round schooling could have some similar positives, alleviating all the starting/stopping anxieties an emotional work, but I’ve never experienced that.

 

Relationship-building environments. Probably any teacher is going to agree that it is all about relationships, but some environments are more conducive to building these relationships than others. My professor at UW (now at UC- Davis), Maisha Winn, has a great book out about how Restorative Practices can transform communities or, when poorly introduced, can frustrate teachers and turn them against the idea of RP: Justice on Both Sides. Similarly you can encourage teachers to build relationships all you want, but past a certain number of students per minute of the day, it can be harder to achieve. This applies to building the relationships with kids, but also to enlisting parent support. As much as I love to bring parents into the process, if I have over 170 students (and some teachers have many more) this becomes less and less feasible. Email and online communications help, but can become an equity issue as not all parents have access, and typically more affluent parents have the most access, so you may just maintain gaps and inequities. You also just have only so much brain space to track all of this. I find it daunting that big districts that often have kids with intense needs (poverty, recent immigration adjustment, language access issues, wide disparities) have larger class sizes. All this need seems to be placed on the shoulders of teachers to somehow manage, especially when you consider that some of these school have little-to-no social work or counselor support for families with complex needs. I think teachers want to do the best for students, but as numbers increase and your prep time and paid time to make modifications and connections outside of classroom time doesn’t, it becomes less feasible. We need to have work and psychic and emotional boundaries as well if we are to continue the work over years, and even more simply, there are only so many minutes in a class period or work day.

 

Explicit conversations about race and identity and how they intersect with education as a whole staff. Talking abstractly about these things is not going to breakdown our centuries of inequity. Not talking about them is going to harm everyone involved. These conversations need to be part of school culture and need to happen regularly and directly.

 

Less-rushed & more flexible work time. One of my student teaching practicum sites was an independent Progressive school and they had the dreamiest schedule and spaces (physical and temporal) for students to work in. We gathered for a meeting in the morning to hear some of the overarching themes of the current work. There was a snack break. There was time for specific subjects but also some open chunks of time in which students could dive into bigger project in flexible spaces around the rooms. Then maybe we'd meet for lit group or gather to do some science experiments. It wasn’t just how the time was split up, but also how everything became naturally interdisciplinary.  Montessori has theories on long work periods as well. Compare that to shuffling between 7,8,9 short subjects a day or every couple days and the feeling is so different. Subjects feel less connected, individual conversations with your teacher are often truncated, with little hope of the meandering kind that might lead to new discoveries, and the adolescent brain is taxed with a lot of executive tasks. 

 

Goings Out. Goings Out (or is it Going Outs?) is one of those funny Montessori terms like “I’m doing a work!” that sounds awkward but then you get used to it. What I mean here is any sort of field trip or learning beyond the school space. I recently tagged along on a field trip to a historical fur trading post site, and the best part of the day was sewing small fire-starter pouches with the kids. Some had no idea how to sew and I helped them, and some had an idea how and told me sweet stories about how a grandmother or other close person taught them. We were in the sunlight and weren’t rushed and there were no Common Core standards to write on the wall. Kids left knowing how to sew a buttonhole, which is perhaps one of the more useful things they will learn this year. They explained directions to peers, problem-solved, and learned about each other. Field trips are a way to see even kids you know very well in a new way. My Montessori experience included extensive travel, and I have mixed feelings about that related to teacher work and compensation expectations, but it was very special and every kid I’ve told about those trips who's never heard of such at thing before lights up and says, “How can I do that, too?!”  But even a day-long field trip feels magical and wonderful (preferably without boring worksheets along to prove you “worked.”) And, in real life, don’t we learn a lot from new experiences (like, ahem, working in a new school...again?) And also from reading but not from just reading when required to in a stuffy room or when reading is attached to an assigned task... Which reminds me---

 

Drop Everything And Read.  (Also known as SSR, but I think DEAR is more fun.) When I was substitute teaching in China, the random job I took that ultimately led me here, the middle school had D.E.A.R. as part of the daily schedule for all students. I had never heard of such a thing and was shocked and delighted when, for twenty minutes each day, kids would enjoy a snack and read a book of their choice. There was little to no resistance and the vibe in the room was wonderful. There is research both for and against this type of non-task-attached reading time, or there are versions within a Reader’s Workshop in which teachers are conferring with students, but experientially this type of unstructured and unjudged reading time feels meaningful and powerful and, again, mimics how we often read in real life. Sometimes I read and annotate and take notes or write about what I read, but sometimes I just read and enjoy and that is valid and valuable, too, and leads to new discoveries. (Read more thoughts on this from Pernille Ripp here.) Something about it being it’s own time of day and not attached to a subject is special as well. Reading is not just a skill for English class, it’s a skill for all subjects and for life. 

 

No letter grades in middle school. An 11-year-old stressing over an A versus an A+ is not the best way to develop lifelong inquiry habits. A young-ish 6th grader still trying to figure out the schedule and how to carry his giant binder with arms that are too short doesn’t need to stare down a D to get more proficient at the many processes they are integrating (and if anything might be defeated by that D.) 

 

Work that feels real and meaningful and sometimes fun and not just-for-school.

Alright. Rant and celebration over. Thanks for listening.

 

 

 

 

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