Welcome to my blog, New World of School. It is an invitation for you to join me in changing the system of education in the United States and beyond. You may be wondering what this means or how I plan to go about such an enormous task, but I doubt you would argue with the need for better preparing students for the rapidly changing world in which we live. In conversations with people from all walks of life, most agree that school is something to “get through.” Some enjoy the social aspects while others abhor stigmas suffered at the hands of teachers or peers. Those most successful at playing the game of school tend to defend its value yet struggle to identify specific skills and academic advantages resulting from traditional educational experiences. Students for whom education may be the only hope of future success have been failed the most. I believe that policies, wayward priorities, and an antiquated system of education are to blame and must be changed. Despite caring teachers and administrators and well-intentioned legislators, students from lower socioeconomic families have not closed the gap. In addition, they are most likely to spend time on low-level, drill-and-practice activities at the expense of ones that require critical thinking or innovation. Many students who are “successful” in school have not developed a love for learning or for reading. They simply tolerate their current educational situation with hopes that the promise of a better future is kept. I find this unacceptable and have already begun making changes.
How did I get to this critical juncture?
As a student, I did what was necessary to get by. With little effort, I could skim texts to participate in discussions and cram to pass a test. I didn’t care about the content addressed and found little relevance to the real world. I liked many of my teachers and enjoyed socializing with friends, but most of my real learning took place outside of school. For example, the summer before 5th grade I discovered gymnastics and set a challenging goal of doing consecutive back handsprings across the yard before the summer’s end. I took lessons, but more importantly, I practiced for hours every day. I begged an older neighbor to spot me on tricks just beyond my reach and convinced siblings to provide feedback on bent legs and flexed feet. I analyzed routines of more advanced peers, watched every televised gymnastics event, and poured over books and magazines that fueled my dreams. My most memorable in-school experience was a non-academic project another student and I took on. As 7th graders, we planned our school’s Fun Day. Responsibilities included determining activities and events, mapping the activities on the playground, assigning workers, ordering prizes within a set budget, set-up, tear-down, and documenting decisions for future events.
Despite my indifference regarding school, I stumbled into the teaching profession. I started as a gymnastics instructor and then springboard diving instructor. I loved working with children and gleaned satisfaction from seeing my students progress. As a private elementary school teacher in the mid-80s, I vowed to make learning fun and devoted many hours to preparing for daily instruction. I planned open-ended activities that enabled students to participate at various levels of understanding and focused on allowing students an array of options. This phase of teaching lasted 8 years and remains one that I reflect fondly upon because I had the autonomy to teach what students were interested in and to adapt curriculum and lessons to suit the needs of my students.
After an 8-year hiatus to care for my 3 young children, I returned to a public elementary school as a Gifted and Talented facilitator. In this segment of my career, I learned to appreciate the practice of differentiation, something I had previously done without much thought by simply responding to my students’ learning needs. I also became aware of efforts to standardize everything from curriculum and assessments to the number of minutes spent on various subjects. Decisions that had previously been made by teachers were more and more in the hands of district, state, and even federal officials. Teachers were required to use district-chosen curriculum and pacing schedules regardless of their students’ readiness, interests, or abilities. I witnessed daily erosion of both teacher and student energy and engagement, much like behavior changes you might observe after caging a wild animal. Sadly, this became the new normal. Teachers became less passionate because their opportunities for creativity and innovation were banished to the periphery. Students found it harder to pay attention and sometimes refused to do work they found meaningless or boring.
Subsequently, I took a position in the education department of a local university and completed a doctorate degree. Helping prepare upcoming teachers allowed me to observe hundreds of classrooms in multiple districts and gain a more global perspective. Additionally, college students easily shared reflections on their K-12 educational experiences, which ranged from dismal to strong. Learning about education/school/learning became an obsession. I devoured every article, book, podcast, and TED Talk on any topic that might intersect with learning. The ideas forced me to think critically about policies and practices that, at best, deter learning and potentially even prevent it. I saw so many well-intentioned people stuck in a system that creates winners and losers, de-emphasizes individuality as it prizes standardization, and suffocates curiosity and creativity. I would literally awake in the middle of the night internalizing my responsibility to somehow rectify these glaring wrongs that had revealed themselves to me. To better understand the educational system from multiple perspectives, I met with anyone who would give me time. This included parents, teachers, students, administrators, school board members, leaders of organizations that support schools, and legislators. I wrestled with the challenges of putting ideas and theories into practice and how to best do so. After much deliberation, I sought and obtained a 4th grade teaching position in a local public elementary school. The position was perfect, and in my next blog post I will tell you why. After that I will keep you abreast of my successes well as my trials and tribulations. I hope that you will contribute reflections and ideas through comments. It is my hope that together we can reimagine school as a place where students learn how to learn, love the process of learning, and have freedom to explore passions.