Virtual Conference on Core Values: An open letter to my colleagues

What follows is my submission to the Virtual Conference on Core Values. I write this in the hope that it will lead to thoughtful discussions with my colleagues, wherever they may be.

How do I help transform our school from a collection of glassy-eyed, bored teenagers to a community of learners?

This is the question I’ve asked myself lately, and it shouts out my core values pretty well. I want our school to be a place where students support each other rather than engaging in the petty social posturing so common in the rest of their lives. I want them to be so engaged in learning that they forget to be students. I need them to show the world that there are brilliant, creative minds at work in our school.

If you poke around the archives of my blog you will see that I have experimented with technology, assessment, and blogging in my high school science classroom. I’m at a point where I have revamped my instructional strategies (mostly web-based via laptops), my grading system (now standards-based), and my assessments (now using blog-based portfolios). All these changes have been made with the goal of having students take charge of their learning. I want kids to know how to find the information they want to learn about, collaborate with people everywhere, and share what they’ve learned with their family, community, and each other. I want them to have the freedom to explore what they are interested in, but to also simultaneously encounter core concepts so that they are grounded in a shared body of knowledge with learners around the world.

What I need now is to extend my experimentation to the rest of the school day, and for that I’m going to need the help of my school community, particularly that of my fellow teachers and administrators. I’m increasingly convinced that a community of learners will never develop and thrive within our current 7 period, 50 minutes per class, regimented and controlled school day. A traditional schedule such as ours works if our focus is on the need to control and corral students through a prescribed set of learning activities. It works well for babysitting and making sure students are exactly where we want them to be.  If, on the other hand, we become convinced that student ownership of their educational experience is necessary for creating a community of learners, then we need to re-imagine the structure of our school day to allow for student independence and choice.

I know that there are many of you who will push back against altering the schedule of the school day as we know it. I get that. One of the things I love about teaching is the routine. Summer screws me up sometimes, since my routine is thrown off-kilter until I return to school in August. But we can’t let our favorite routines stand in the way of what may be best for our students.

Why would a different schedule be best for our students? Let me first describe an option that I’ve been thinking about, an alternative to the traditional 7-period day: Open Door Core Courses.

Imagine for a moment that we block out a chunk of time, say from 8 to noon in which students would be “attending” their core classes. On paper (or the electronic equivalent) each students’ schedule might not look too different from what it does now, maybe 1st period language arts, 2nd period science, 3rd period math, and 4th period social studies. The specific subject-area content would change by grade level, of course (Am. History for Juniors or Government for Seniors, Biology or Physical Science, etc.). What would be different, however, is WHERE students would be at any given moment. Rather than force “seat time” in each classroom, we could allow students to float between the four core disciplines based on their needs for that particular day. If they know they need help with a project in math, they go see the math teacher for a block of time. If they need to catch a lecture in science, they go to their science classroom. If they need help with a web tool or publishing to their blog, they go to someone that they know can help them. If they need to just sit down and read an article or write a paper, they can do it wherever they feel most comfortable.  Such a schedule would allow students access to the experts that they need WHEN they need them and give them choices about which learning spaces they want to be in for particular tasks.

What would this look like in practice? Chaos? Maybe, but it might look like students hanging out in our library couches and common spaces but still getting their coursework done. It might look like classrooms empty at one moment and full of activity the next. It might look like teachers reexamining their need to lecture students in order to “teach” content. It could lead to content-area teachers  functioning as a team to decide together when to meet face to face with students in certain classrooms for whole-group discussions and collaboration. It could lead to more creative uses of “class time”, particularly during those afternoon hours of the school day that could be left less structured for independent projects and electives.

Why would changing the school schedule to an open door format be best for students? Simply put, students do not learn efficiently when plugged into a desk for an entire day. Don’t believe me? Just think about your last class period of the day. Is it your most well-behaved class? Are those the students who perform the best on your tests and/or are the most creative? If you give students a choice of where to work in your classroom, do they choose the desk, the couch, or the floor? Mine prefer the floor, but I bet if I bought some beanbags and game chairs they would be fighting over them. The point is, the more choices we can give to students about where, when, how, and from whom they learn, the more individualized and engaging their educational experience will be.

I’ll leave you with a challenge. Check out some of the resources that led me to this point in my thinking about classroom schedules and learning spaces and post a comment or two about what you find there in relation to what I’ve discussed. First, read about some of the necessary characteristics of The Third Teacher, the space in which students study and interact with each other. Next, check out some of the talks that Shawn Cornally has been giving lately. In particular, I recommend his TEDx talk and his podcast with Dr. Tae on American Reason. Lastly, I’ll point you to this article (.pdf) that analyzes why Apple Stores may have the design elements needed to create the best learning spaces in our schools. EDIT: One more excellent bit of reading is “When we stop teaching, they start learning” by Robert Pepper.

Building a true community of learners will not be successful with just one teacher holed up in their classroom doing neat things. All staff, administration, and, most importantly, students need to be involved in the planning and implementation of the deliberate steps that we need to take together to change how our school operates. Let’s get to work!



13 thoughts on “Virtual Conference on Core Values: An open letter to my colleagues

  1. Michal

    Have you ever read A.S. Neil’s (I think that’s his name) Summerhill? It’s all about his experience creating and developing the idea of the free school where students don’t have any particular schedule but they arrange times to meet with teachers and other students as needed. Because students didn’t have to be anywhere and in fact didn’t have to participate in any classes, some students, especially when they first arrived, spent whole days, weeks, months doing nothing at all. He says something about how the length of time it took students to realize they wanted to learn and be a part of the classes correlated to how long they had been in a traditional school setting.

    I think about this a lot as we talk of different reforms like this. I know some students don’t take to SBAR because they find it confusing – but of course it will take time for them to get into it and use it effectively when they have been passively receiving grades for most their lives. So I wonder how we could move to this kind of system without it being complete and total chaos and without people deciding it was a failure before it even gets a chance. Maybe we would need to build it up – start with incoming k-2nd graders or something and slowly expand the program upwards with the students who have been acclimated since the beginning of their schooling. Of course there would be kids who transfer in later but the culture would be strong by that point.

  2. gasstationwithoutpum

    Your model assumes that students will structure their time efficiently and do what they *need* to do, rather than what is easiest or “coolest”. Seems unlikely to me, as even bright and involved learners often have executive function deficits at middle-school and high-school ages. Structuring their day reduces the load on executive functioning, allowing them to get something done.

    You’re also assuming that teaching is a purely optional part of school, and that most students can get all they need just by occasionally checking in with a teacher. This also seems unrealistic to me (unless the teachers at your school are just phoning it in).

    I think that having a once-a-week open periods as you describe is a good idea, but having them everyday would result in a substantial decrease in learning.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      I totally agree with you that students will probably not structure their time efficiently. At first. But one of the challenges of raising up our high school students is to gradually release responsibility to them for their own learning. I saw this in full effect last year with my student blogging initiative. There were few strict deadlines for blog posts and at first many students struggled to get them done on their own in a timely manner. But towards the end of the year, most students had come to grips with what they had to do to get their posts done. I’d like to see what progress could be made by turning even more responsibility for learning over to the students.

      As for assuming that teaching is optional, I don’t believe that. I do think that teaching and learning are two different things and that we should be careful that the learning takes priority. Learning will involve the teacher in most cases, but not necessarily all the time. I envision that a fair amount of direct instruction would still be required under this open door model. However, the schedule for such meetings with teachers should be more flexible than it is now.

  3. MonyaJ.

    I read your blog with interest and an open mind. I can see this potentially working with our upper-level classes, perhaps not as well with the Intro-level students and courses. I appreciate the system for its centering of ownership of learning with students! For the most motivated among our groups, this might serve to increase their interest and creativity.

    On the down side, I tend to agree with some of the comments that express concern that students would resort to going where they want to for social versus educational reasons. Also, the part about the teaching aspect being “optional” sounds like a concern. On the other hand, is there room in our schedule for a block of time such as what you suggest, at the very least for our upper-level courses that could benefit from some flexible scheduling?

  4. Fernanda Silva

    Thank you so much for sharing Shawn’s TED talk. He can, in 17 min, be more effective than months of tweeting. Definitely copying your blog idea. Hope it works!

  5. Dina

    I am delighted that we’re enough on the same page that towards the middle of your post I thought to myself, “Oh, heck– this guy HAS to see Shawn Cornally’s TEDxEastsidePrep talk,” and went looking for it.

    Rick Hess, in his most recent book, has some pertinent things to say about messing with schedules– no prognostications and short on concrete policy suggestions, but his background/history is succinct, surprising, and very instructive.

  6. rod

    Your model does seem ideal in an ideal setting, however; our school is not an ideal setting. Many of the students that we teach have trouble making a regular schedule. Many of the parents in our community have trouble with their student’s attendance in a regular schedule. Many of the parents in our community are unable to help their students with their homework because they themselves do not have any education past high school. In an honors or advanced setting your model would work great.

    As a parent I can let you know that your model would have worked for two of my children, but, the third child is not motivated by academics. He would do whatever he needs to do to get a D so that he could participate in sports. His level of interest is athletics and auto mechanics. What would you propose for those vocationally minded students? Many of our graduates go to work after high school graduation. Only 30% of our graduates go on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree. What do we have to offer the other 60% of our secondary population?

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      I would argue that one of the reasons that we have students who have a hard time getting to school is that they see no value in coming to school. What if we could remake the school to provide that value? I doubt most students would say that better lectures would bring them to school. I do think, as you say, that there are many students who have interests such as mechanics that they are currently unable to pursue under our current daily schedule. Why don’t we try to find a way to work student interests into their coursework somehow, maybe during the afternoon exploratory block?

  7. Michal

    Part of allowing students more freedom schedule-wise is accepting that not every student is made for college. Of course we don’t want to track students too soon, but I think it’s ok to let students choose vocational work. As Chris is saying, students might be more responsible with their time if they were doing things that seemed relevant to them.

  8. rod

    I agree with Chris and Michal on placing vocational in the afternoon exploratory block, if it can be done. Many of the students that I teach do learn from interactive lecture, and I have read studies on that topic, but sometimes there are subjects that many student can’t find important untill after they graduate. We still have some adults in education that see no reason for teaching social studies.
    My point is that for that length of time there are a lot of students that would not “fit” into the exploratory mold. They would choose to leave campus. Their parents would choose for them to leave campus. What would staff be doing if the had no students on Monday, but 50 students come in on Tuesday? WOuld that be an extra plan? I agree that your idea is good in a world where most of the students are wanting to learn. If we have to instill that in our students, then we must start with this years kindergarteners and let the process follow them into high school. This could take 10 years to get to the high school.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      I think that we do live in a world where kids want to learn. The question is, how do we find a balance between their own interests and what we feel is important for them to know? I think our system breaks down if we go too far on either side: learning without structure or structure without learning. Our building leans towards too much structure, in my opinion.

    2. MonyaJ.

      I think Rod is pointing out some important aspects of changes that have taken place in our area. Not every model will fit every school and we do need to adjust and adapt according to the needs of our community. We have lost a strong connection to vocational programs that benefit our population. These students fall into a hole when it comes to academics. I’m not saying that we should neglect core requirements but we can provide vocational training through our system at the same time. If we don’t do it, somebody else will move to fill in the gap. Our local junior college is already addressing this need and we can be proactive as well.
      I still like the notion of “flex-time” but could it also be a time for vocational activities? Michal mentions relevance and I believe this is key.

  9. rod

    By the way…I did like the article, “When We Stop Teaching, They Start Learning.” I think there are very good points in the article.


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