A few days ago I was challenged by a fellow Tweacher (@mrsvannasdall) to share my thoughts on how to #MakeSchoolDifferent. If you check out my previous posts, you’ll learn very quickly that I am a high school teacher in Texas. And for the past four years in Texas, public school teachers, students, and administrators have been punched in the face with STAAR testing. During this turbulent time I have been teaching at a Title 1 school, and have ended each year vowing to quit the profession unless major changes are made to our system. Each year small but positive changes have been made so I’ve been holding on. When I first started speaking out against the testing system we use, some people would ask me, “Okay. So get rid of testing. Then what? How do we make sure students are learning?” And I used to cop out and say, “I don’t know. But I know what we’re doing isn’t working.” Well, after being asked the question enough times I started to look for the answer. And I think there are at least 5 ways to #MakeSchoolDifferent and get away from the emphasis on standardized testing.
1. Let’s stop pretending that a typical school day makes sense in comparison to “the real world”. There’s a big push for “college and career readiness”. Colleges allow students to choose their schedules and decide what days to attend class, so why can’t public schools do the same? Research study after research study shows brain function in young people hits its peak between the late morning and early afternoon hours. So why do we force kids to get to school ready to “learn” between 7AM-9AM (much less teachers)? I guarantee there would be enough teachers willing to work a “swing shift”(think 10-6/11-7) if given the option, while others would still prefer the traditional early hours. Why not have both? I know of private schools that have morning schedules and afternoon schedules. I would bet there are at least 50 qualified applicants for every teaching position that becomes available. Maybe if public education was funded properly, districts would have more money to pay more teachers and have the ability to adopt a more flexible schedule.
2. Let’s stop pretending that athletics needs to happen before, during, and after school. Considering I live in Texas, this will definitely rub some people the wrong way. In a recent meeting, I heard someone say, “If it wasn’t for football and no pass/no play, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have gone to school.” While some people agreed and said, “Oh yes, many of our students are the same way,” it made me cringe. Where did that “football mindset” come from? Perhaps from growing up watching older siblings or father play, but more than likely from watching Saturday college games and Sunday NFL games as a kid, and wanting to be the successful player. In no way am I saying that it’s not okay to have goals, but what goals should we be emphasizing? Why can’t athletics be an after school or weekend activity to allow students more time to work on academics and fine arts during the school day (going back to our school schedule)? Coaches could be allowed to be just that: coaches. And we all know THAT coach that should not be teaching (notice I said THAT and not ALL). So many people want to compare our students’ national scores or our education system to Finland. What professional football (not soccer!) teams do they have in Finland?
Talking about THAT coach makes for an easy transition to my next point:
3. Let’s stop pretending that when students say someone is a bad teacher that they just don’t like them. In our end-of-the-year survey distributed by administrators last year, we were asked for suggestions on how to improve the current evaluation process. I suggested adding student input to teacher evaluations. I truly believe students are being honest when they say a teacher is bad because I have seen bad teachers in action. On the flip-side, I would also say it’s worth investigating if kids are saying a teacher is “so cool” because “they don’t care about anything”. I’ve peeked in classrooms of the names I repeatedly hear in both situations, and have seen the disorganization, heard the yelling, watched the cellphone being pulled out, and stacks of redundant worksheets being used. Now is that to say that a bad teacher is hopeless? Absolutely not. It means they need help. And they need help because ultimately it will help the students. Students want strong teachers. The students will be the ones in the classroom day in and day out, and we should listen when they speak up. It’s important to show that we value their opinion.
4. Let’s stop pretending like we all haven’t made up grades because we had to have a certain number in by a certain time. (I watched a teacher last year give students a grade for having a BINDER, and he didn’t teach AVID). There is a large conversation starting about the purpose of grades, and I’m with the growing group that believe it’s time to rethink grades. I recently read Salman Khan’s One World School House and agree that how we measure student growth and achievement needs to change. However, it’s extremely difficult to have the “growth mindset” Khan mentions when our kids are so heavily driven by competition. I would write more about this but instead I’ll just use links to show I’m not completely crazy.
5. Let’s stop pretending that the teacher has all the answers and should have complete control at all times. Thanks to SXSWEdu, one of the hashtags I like to follow on Twitter is #dtk12chat. It focuses on design thinking and new ways to approach teaching and learning. There are even some suggestions for “disruptive education”, some of which I’ve tried in my classroom, and my students LOVED the ideas. I’m at the point now where I want a completely flexible classroom space, and want to do away with the desks that are permanently attached to chairs. I want my students to have options from everything to how they use the space to create, to which assignments they work on, to what topics they study. I’ve started with the latter and in just 4 weeks saw an improvement in attitude, inquiry, and product from some of my most challenging students. One of my kids could not believe I was letting him write about any current event, even if it was about the NBA playoffs. I set some guidelines but just giving him the option to choose his topic was huge. It was some of the best writing he has done all year. I’ve asked my students if we could get rid of the desks, what they would want in my classroom instead. Overwhelmingly each class said that I still needed chairs or something soft to sit on, and moveable desks or clipboards to write on. They said having freedom to stand up or sit/lay down would be helpful, too. Just having this discussion, even though it was hypothetical, was so insightful and a lot of students kept the conversation going by talking about how they would “do school”.
Ultimately, students want to learn, and I think we should #MakeSchoolDifferent. (Sorry for the lackluster ending this took way longer than I thought it would).