Hey, Everyone! Let’s Change the World

I work in a district that is very, very large and I think it suffers a bit because of it. However, I really have enjoyed the direction it’s been headed with our new superintendent as well as the shift in culture that has taken place. We are large, urban, and have a lot of kids from low-income families and I don’t hear a lot of excuses thrown around about it. That’s nice. I also love my school which is a Montessori. Montessoris are the best. Many of the hip new ideas in education were put into place by Montessori 100 years ago, and it is nice to be able to be smug about it.

I’ve been thinking a LOT lately about education, probably because I’m involved with it, and I have about a thousand ideas to help improve schooling in general (not just in Montessori). Forgetfulness owns my life and I really wanted to type them out and see what people think about them. I’m going to try to list them in order from least crazy to most crazy.

1)  Remember that we are teaching children (The Recess Initiative). One of the greatest gifts Montessori education has given me is the reminder that I am teaching children. Children need to roll around, run, move, play. While a lot of teachers use things like Brain Gym it’s really not enough. Kids need real playtime, time that is unstructured and outdoors. All of the social and character skills schools now teach students are assimilated at play time. This is when students really practice kindness or cruelty, making friends and fighting drama. Also, according to Scholastic, recess makes kids smarter. Well, not just Scholastic but that’s a fun article.

Kids need play time – they NEED it. Doing yoga to move in the classroom, or leading dance, or doing group initiatives is not play time. They need unstructured, supervised playtime daily and it’s really, really hard to give it to them because we are interested in quantity over quality.

2) Quality over Quantity (Fix the School Schedules!).  This year, instead of going for an extra week of school we added minutes to our school day. This has been brutal. An extra twenty minutes may not seem like much, but it really, truly is. Students (especially when not getting play time) burn out. I have brilliant students who can finish a days worth of work in less than a full day of school. I am then expected to reward these children with more work.  There’s no correlation between more minutes in school and achievement anyway, so increasing required total instructional time serves no purpose at all.

I’d love a seven hour day: three AM hours, lunch/recess, three PM hours. A full hour to eat and play for the kids. Now, some folks are going to think I need that hour to play myself, but those people don’t really understand that teachers who find a few minutes tend to spend them grading, copying, or planning. Which is why I’d also prefer a four-day school schedule with a required fifth day for teacher planning. But that’s a crazy thought, and I promised I’d move those to the end. Of course, fixing the daily schedule would be nothing without fixing the yearly.

3)  This is a challenge for me to articulate, so I’m just going to say what I want: Year-round schooling.

Now, my district tried year-round schooling. However, I was at one of the schools that tried it and it resembled a two year old licking a piece of broccoli before declaring the vegetable inedible. There was no real buy in or attempt at fidelity with student enrollment. What there was was a lot of hard work peppered with nice breaks. But kids kind of started the year when they wanted to. So, this is a tough nut to crack, but I really wish Michigan would move to year-round.

Of course, there is a bustling tourism industry here, as well as beautiful summer camps. But that’s a problem creative businesses can solve. All that’s happened is that vacation time for kids becomes decentralized. They would still get a longer summer break, but they’d also have week’s of time off throughout the year, which would be known about in advance. It’d be an interesting changeover but would work. Really, the only argument I’ve heard against year-round schooling boils down to “But that would be really hard to do,” which is a terrible argument against anything.

Not to mention the awesome projects that open up when you have kids around during the summer – more opportunity for gardening and natural observations and activities like that, connecting students to Nature more effectively. Which is also pretty important.  Year round also makes it easier to care for classroom pets.

4) This is where my ideas start getting crazy, so you’ll have to bear with me: Rolling Enrollment. See, one of the strengths with Montessori is that our classrooms are mixed age. We have 3 grades. In the most traditional of programs, students move up to the next room only when they are ready. With our current educational system, this doesn’t work because we are obsessed with competition and comparing children to other children. And when we do this, we look at achievement and grade and ignore things like developmental appropriateness and age. It’s a very broken part of our educational system, but no one ever really acknowledges the fact you have kids almost a year apart in the same classroom.

When you are older, this isn’t as big a deal, but if you have kids you know the difference between even a six year old and a six and a half year old is HUGE. Why are they in the same class? My daughter turns three next week but that’s too young for preschool so she has to wait a full year despite her being developmentally ready for a Children’s House.

Ideally, kids should start school when they’re ready, but even I acknowledge the logistical nightmare that would be so I suggest elementary schools take something from colleges and create classes that start in September and February. Grade one starts in September, and the next Grade One starts in February. Those kids who started in September are now in a sort of 1.5.  What does this do? Well, it increases the likelihood that a child is developmentally ready for a particular grade. There’s still going to be differentiation, but on average kids hit milestones fairly close to the mark.

Another strength is that a student who started 1st Grade in September but is struggling a lot can be placed in the new 1st Grade class that starts in February. Instead of a full year of hold back, it’s only six months. I would think that parents resistant to hold-backs would be more easy to convince, and it would help keep the student on track.  This is a pretty crazy idea, and I am well-aware it would never happen, but I like it enough to keep it higher up the page.

5) Change the way we Evaluate Teachers.  I guess this is less crazy than splitting grades, but currently, teacher evaluations are broken. They rely on a test that isn’t really that bad of a test (it’s progressive for each student and largely shows growth of individuals) but has to be taken no matter how the student is feeling that day. A kid is mad about something? They’ll bomb it on purpose.  Didn’t get breakfast? Distracted by hunger. The testing isn’t as frustrating to me as classroom observations.

I’ve got a terrific, supportive principal who I trust wholly to give me positive feedback and help me through my observations. What she doesn’t have is time to do that. I also have amazing, supportive co-workers who pop in to see how things are going from time to time but have no say on my evaluation.  Which is kind of broken, I think. It puzzles me why peer review isn’t part of teacher evaluations. I’m not sure what sort of image has been built up, but at a building level we are all incredibly honest about each others professional expectations and ability to meet them. It’d be so helpful to have a dedicated model of peer evaluation and feedback built into the observation model.

Anyway, that’s also coupled with the final thing I talk about all the time:

6) Change the way we Teach Teaching.  We currently have teachers go to college for several years and then spend a little bit of time in the classroom. Candidates observe teachers, they student teach (I only had 12 weeks) and then they are thrown into the deep end, typically with a mentor who has a thousand other duties to accomplish.

Which is terrible.

Why do we teach teachers this way? I’ve got to be honest, I’m not researching the history here. It’s pretty easy to fix though. Universities need to pair with local schools to provide apprenticeship models for teaching. Candidates should be placed in a classroom with a lead teacher for at least two years, serving as a paraprofessional receiving massive support from college and school staff, as well as observations and some book work. The current way we teach teaching is like teaching people how to swim in a classroom instead of a pool. It doesn’t make any sense and obviously exists this way in order to churn out certified teachers. Which brings up a point I’m pretty uncomfortable bringing up, which is why it’s last.

7) Some people shouldn’t be in education.  Look, they just shouldn’t. And the broken evaluation system is a misguided attempt to fix that, but it’s going about it the wrong way. That’s really all I want to say on the matter.

Anyway. Who am I?  I’m really not anyone important, but I deeply value education and am very passionate and angry about the attempts to “fix” it that are ignoring the research and people involved. At the end of the day, we need to educate our kids so we have a country full of smart people, but we also need to let them be kids and learn on their own.

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