In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The New School.”
In gathering ideas for my next blog post, I came across this WordPress writing prompt which is fitting given my recent departure from teaching. Why not build my dream school? Here’s the prompt:
THE NEW SCHOOL
YOU GET TO REDESIGN SCHOOL AS WE KNOW IT FROM THE GROUND UP. WILL YOU DO AWAY WITH READING, WRITING, OR ARITHMETIC? WHAT SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE WILL YOUR FOCUS ON IMPARTING YOUNG MINDS?
10. Adequate Space.
Firstly, we must have adequate space. Too many schools I’ve been are pressed for space. The school I just left, were shared with 6 other small schools in the same building. What used to be a huge unified school now scrambles to ensure 3,000+ students get Gym, Cafeteria, Auditorium and Class space. It is a logistical nightmare. So my new school will have access to everything: Cafeteria, Gymnasium, Yard, Auditorium and of course, adequate classroom and storage space. You know the saying a cluttered room makes for a cluttered mind? Let’s do the opposite.
9. Smaller Class Sizes.
It seems to be every politician’s platform to advocate for smaller class sizes but the reality is, it doesn’t always happen. I’ve heard of classes with up to 37 students – some forced to sit on other students’ desks or stand. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality. Many factors can play a role: not enough students to justify two sections but more than enough for one, one teacher certified to teach that section but has other preps so cannot teach more preps, students may need other classes that interfere with scheduling, not enough rooms, etc., etc.
Of course, ideally we would find a workaround in this area, since we have adequate space, why not use more teachers and split the classes? Find a schedule that works for both teachers and students. Bottomline is that we’re here for the students and that should be our utmost priority.
7. Parental Involvement.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. This is particularly fitting in a school setting. We need parents to help out. If a student is unmotivated to complete homework and the parent is not pushing them, they are more likely to fall behind. We need to get parents invested in our schools, our students and our future. I propose bi weekly parent meetings with the stipulation that parents must attend 1 meeting per month in order for their child to be enrolled at the school. I know parents work so we’ll have some meetings in the evenings, some in the mornings and some on the weekends. teachers have the option to set up these meeting with the parents. Of course parental outreach by way of phone calls, texts and email will suffice for the parents who truly cannot be there.
That’s not all however, as a school in the community, we can offer adult educational resources as well. ESL classes for parents, college resources for parents thinking about furthering their education, cooking classes, movie nights, carnival day, computer literacy classes, GED classes, career fairs, social services, mobile medical trucks, the possibilities are endless.
What I’ve noticed during my years of teaching, particularly with the adaptation of Common Core Standards, is that there is less room for teachers to create creative and meaningful lessons. Depending on the school, the curricula can be too rigid and unforgiving and most often, teaching to the test is what ends up happening, which does not help prepare our students for the future – just only for them to move up to the next grade.
Common core can be a great tool if used correctly. It should serve as a guide of what students should know and not what their expected to know. Every child learns at a different pace, in different ways. I would use Common Core Standards to help guide the lessons but would allow the teachers to create their own lessons – as long as it ensures students understand the content and can master it.
It can get tricky, but I believe that if a curriculum was also available, teachers can decide what they want to use as their lessons and be creative in designing how their lesson should flow. After all, they know the students well and they know how to engage the class. This gives them more creative control and more buy in. Too often teachers feel disillusioned by the rigidity of standards, testing and lesson plans forced upon them. Their role as a teacher becomes diminished.
5. Universal Design of Learning/ Performance Based Assessments.
Autonomy leads to Universal Design of Learning (UDL). It’s a much talked about approach to learning and lesson planning. In an ideal environment, UDL is a great way to ensure ALL students are afforded equal learning opportunities. Essentially, UDL is a way for teachers to be able to create lesson plans that provides access to all students in varying different levels. For example, a teacher may create a lesson that involves a small lecture for auditory learners, a quick hands on activity for tactile learners, have students create posters for visual learners and work in pairs for verbal learners – all on the same content/skill. This can be further elaborated by creating a more inquiry based approach where students ask questions and work together to find the answers.
The purpose of UDL is to engage and give voice to the students on why they are learning this content, how can they master the content and what the content means. it encourages students to have accountability for their learning and along the way gives them valuable skill they will need in the real world. For example, cooperative learning and project based learning can help them learn cooperation skills, patience, an attention to detail and provoke their curiosity and expand their mindset. I would like to see this in my school. A good rule of thumb for teachers would be 15 minutes of lecturing/giving instruction and the remainder of the period working on a task that is student driven. Let the students explore and teach themselves!
UDL can also be useful in assessments. Enough with the one size fits all assessments. Extended time for special needs students are not effective if they have trouble mastering the content. Instead, teachers can create their own assessments. It doesn’t have to always be formal, it doesn’t always have to be paper based. The purpose of the assessment is to determine whether the student understands the content and is able to apply it in multiple settings. This can be a project based assessment, a short quiz, an activity. The purpose of the assessment in my opinion is to provide feedback to the teachers on how to better serve their students. In order for it to determine whether or not a student gets promoted, I propose a school wide rubric to grade these assessments. Therefore, teachers know what the students need to achieve in order demonstrate learning, students know how they will be graded and it ensures fairness across the board.
4. Prep Time.
Being a teacher, we know time is precious. Seriously. On any given day, we must prepare our lessons, deliver our lessons, make phone calls home, participate in meetings, plan for new lessons, modify existing lessons, copy worksheets, create homework, organize folders, clean desks, grade papers, cover a class with an absent teacher, meet with administrators and that’s not taking into account that other things may pop up (fire drills, etc.). Somehow we’re supposed to have a union required, work free period for lunch. it rarely happens.
What worked in our school, was planning day. A day where we would all sit together by content area and work collaboratively to plan our lessons for the week. We taught only one class and the remainder of the time we worked on our lessons. I like the approach because it lessens the workload and anxiety immensely. Work can be left a work and there’s less of a chance of teacher burnout. I would incorporate that in the school climate. If not, then, mandating a policy of a period or two of no distractions, only prepping. If our lesson plans is to be unique and engaging, we must devote time to ensure we can make it happen.
3. Student Electives/Vocation classes.
So far, not much focus on this list has involved the students. Students are integral to the work we do. Everything stated on this list, revolves around students, why not involve them? I would create elective classes. Classes that are centered around skill and not necessarily content. In order to prepare the students for the demands of college of any job if they choose not to go to college, they must be equipped with cognitive skills that will help them succeed and adapt to the ever changing climate of the real world.
Students have interests. The recent trends have geared education away from vocational classes to a more academic based model. This limits our students’ chances to succeed if they choose not to go to college. I used to be a staunch advocate that college is key, but the reality is, many students do not feel that college is right for them. Particularly special needs students, who’s IEP diploma is not accepted in any colleges. how can they function in society if they’ve been told college is the right way to go, but no college will accept them?
Vocational classes and student choice electives can help remedy this. Create classes based on students’ interests. We need more art, more dance, cheer, karate, yoga, language classes in our schools but unfortunately with the testing climate our educational system in currently in, the classes offered instead are credit recovery and test prep. We need more classes like culinary arts, automotive, home economics, accounting, technicians, computer science, coding, video editing, etc. Jobs are looking for people experienced in those areas!!! This can further along their educational experience by applying what they learned in other classes to these classes, can spark interest in students who may decide to further their interest by way of college or a job. provide internship, mentorship opportunities. I am a HUGE believer in holistic learning and this can greatly reduce behavioral problems and build better collaborative relationships among students.
2. Holistic Supports.
This leads to my next point: holistic learning. many students are growing up at a disadvantage. Living in low socio-economic areas, with rampant gang and drug activities. Some are homeless, some are in foster care and some have serious family issues that create these obstacles they are expected to push aside in the interest of learning. Truth be told, a hungry child will not learn. A sleepy child will not learn. A child who’s parent may be on drugs and has become the primary care taker for their siblings will not learn. They can try and they want to, but it is not their utmost priority.
Providing supports for students in important. School counselors, therapists and deans have a responsibility to check on these students. Becomes a person they can trust, rely on and consistently care for them. Gather support from the community, food drives, fund raisers, etc. I’ve seen schools where students truly look out for one another and care for each other’s well being. I’ve seen them aim for the stars and band together to let other students know they matter. All this – in a urban inner school. It is possible. We as educators have to continue to support them. Not only will this reduce bullying and behavioral concerns, it builds a true community where everyone is looking out for one another and everyone matters. I’m not being delusional with this vision, of course not everything is perfect, but when you see a group of students surround a student being bullied and one student explaining to the bully how their actions caused the student to feel upset. Yeah, that happened and it reaffirms my belief that supportive school environments are possible.
The number one thing that must change is our approach to content. We have a rigid approach when it comes to what the students should know and how they should learn it. Students are being thrown a huge amount of information in every class with the expectation that they will retain it. It’s time we move away from outdated approaches and find new ways of delivering our content.
I would not force students to read every “classic” book ever written. While there are some I enjoyed, most of them are forgotten. Instead they are allowed to read whatever book they so please as long as it is appropriate for their grade level. They will also be provided with a list of “classics” but will have the option of reading a few instead of all of it.
Instead of book reports, they have an option of creating a new book cover with elements from the story; creating an alternate ending, create a short film, a slide show, the opportunities for them to prove they understood the book are endless.
In writing, it should be set up like speech class, they learn how to write an informative essay, a persuasive essay, comparison essay, memoir, etc. They learn to draft their essays, pick their topics, and present it in a form of a speech to building on their communication skills.
In math, their content should apply to real life: learning to budget, stock market mock ups, taxes, etc. Reading financial reports, bank statements, things they will need in the real world.
I’ve pretty much detailed everything I would put in my new school. It’s an exhaustive list but who said teaching was easy, let alone creating your own school? Leave in the comments below, what you would create in your new school and/or if you agree/disagree with the list.