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!