Monday, October 3, 2016

Best Alternatives to Broken Schools

Those of you whose hopes are still even minimally buoyed by John Lennon's anthem, imagine this:

You walk into a school building and you hear the excited voices of happy children. (Brief interruption: If you can imagine this, you might well be on drugs.)

The preschool kids are all pumped up and energized, not by news of a party or day off school, but by the day's topic: Exploration in the 1600s! Why did those people explore? What do we call those who boldly go first? What did they discover? Etc.!
Imagine this is a preschooler explaining "Progress" to a grownup visitor.
The younger students scurry about the classroom with the camaraderie of puppies and the curiosity of kittens, swapping ideas, asking questions, consulting relevant images and information posted on the classroom wall.

Imagine that as you travel from one classroom to another, the students are not patiently or impatiently killing time as they wait for lunch or the final bell; they are not burdened with dread and boredom stoked by mandatory standardized testing; they are not busy trying to shift gears from their previous class to this one where everything is different.

Imagine that instead, the dread and resignation have been replaced by anticipation and participation (rhyme inspired by Charles Osgood).

Imagine that their involvement, their genuine questions, their carefully considered responses cause the teacher to go missing, as it were, making it difficult for you to locate her -- the very person who has allowed and encouraged genuine learning has faded into the background, allowing the little folks to experience the true joy of this process without threats and anxiety-provoking regurgitation. 

And everywhere in every room, the walls are festooned with the work and play of the kids. Oh, and everything is connected to, for example, the 1600s. No gear shifting necessary.

And one of the major philosophies of the school is "let children be children." (They only get one childhood, for God's sake!)

And every assignment faces scrutiny from teacher and student alike. For example, the teacher says, "Next week we'll start reading Kate Wiggin's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm."

And a student inquires, "Why should we read that? Why can't we read Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux?"

To which the teacher responds, "Why should we? Can you make a persuasive argument for that book?" The student gives it a try. The teacher says "That's not good enough. Do more research." The student does, and in so doing she learns more about research and persuasion than most high-school kids learn in Advanced Placement Language and Composition. If she is convincing enough to her teacher and classmates, she wins her argument. 

Then imagine a recess that is actually playtime, kids being kids, so you hear that wonderful sound of exuberant children. No structure. The rules are mostly the Laws of Nature ("No evaporating!"). No "Everyone get in a straight line, alphabetically by height!"

Then another recess, more structured, where the students learn a game new to them, one that allows them to run and to be challenged and rewarded. Sometimes, in the sweet tradition of Calvin and Hobbes, they make up their own game, then follow its rules.

I haven't fabricated this fantasy. It exists now, today, at Walden Community School, maybe eight miles from where I'm writing. But can it be transferred to public schools right here in the United States of America? Of course.

All we have to do is get our priorities straight and then elect people with some awareness of teaching and learning and who really do believe "It's all about the kids."

The only extra funding required to achieve this wonder would be however much it takes to restrict class size. Should've been done long, long ago.
Are these great objectives or what?

And even if we are too blind, selfish and stingy to limit enrollments, much of the above could still be accomplished with efficient, focused, teacher development. 

Teachers, parents and students all know that conventional education is worse than useless; it damages body, mind and spirit. 

It needs to go away and it will.

The revolution has begun at schools like Walden.  In future posts, we'll look at other schools we should support, learn from and emulate.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Professor Starling! What a great story. So glad to hear that Walden is progressing in the way it is. My son attended for 2 years during a period in which the school struggled a bit, though the intention of building such a learning environment was there. Its' very interesting that Carol has put together the board of advisers she has. Very smart move.

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