Monday, November 27, 2006

The magical question was posed to me:
If you could build your own school, what and how would you do it?

Wow... First I thought the building, the sparkles... the WOW... a pool, a gym, a cafeteria... just for my middle schoolers. Nice classrooms, with CARPETING so when students move it doesn't make that horrid skreeeeeeching noise. Lots of windows. Chairs that allow movement, like rockers - you see those in libraries sometimes that allow the seated person to rock slightly back and forth. Bookcases, lots of bookcases, full of books. Computers, maybe even tablets!!, on every desk in every classroom. Projectors in all classrooms. Storage areas for all that stuff we all collect because we know if we throw it away, tomorrow we will need it desperately. Bright colors, welcoming colors inside. Outside, gardens for students to work in, grow flowers and vegetables, playground equipment, age appropriate for middle schoolers. Basketball courts, soccer field, track, swings, obstacle course.

But then... after the intial excitement of all that outward, material stuff wore off, I realized those things would be great, yes. Not the most important part of MY school though.

The most important ingredient in my school, my perfect school... would be.. the STAFF! I would want staff members who share a common vision of what education looks like. Quality educators who are willing to think about their teaching critically, and make changes daily if needed. People who want to work together, talk together about curriculum and pedagogy and kids, who want to read about new ideas, learn new things, try cutting edge ideas, and most of all, are willing to fail.

I would want teachers who LOVE middle school kids more than anything else - who didn't just end up in middle school by default, but are at that level because they think these kids are challenging, exciting, and can learn, and even more importantly believe these guys WANT to learn. My school would be led by a principal who shared all the traits of his staff, who was willing and anxious to jump in and teach, learn and grow with the students and staff. All other people there, secretary, bus drivers, cafeteria folks... anyone who would come into contact with the students would be valued, trained, a true part of the education process.

The only physical part of the school not at all negotiable would be technology. Cutting edge technology with ongoing training for staff would be imperative. Students love it, it is engaging, it is challening and students MUST have these skills to be competive in college and in the workforce.

Ideally, the school would be small and house only middle schoolers. Perhaps 40 students per grade, grades 6, 7, 8 would be about perfect. Up to 100 students per grade would be acceptable given adequate resources and facilities. No class should have more than 20 students at a time. Teacher total load should not exceed 60 students, in order to allow them to know their students well, communicate effectively with parents, and adequately allow for individualization of instruction and assessment.

The curriculum should cover the basics of course, but be well supplemented with exploratory classes, cooking, music, shop, art, physical education, health, drama, journalism, and time for students to explore areas which excite them - clubs like robotics, sewing, babysitting, etc... should be offered as well.

The basics should be emphasized - students need to know how to read and write and do basic math, but they also need to explore how these skills apply to real world situations. My students would do many projects - writing letters to officials, working with local adults to solve community problems, developing ways to use their skills they are learning in science, math, etc... to really examine real-world situations. When kids have a real audience, they want to produce, they want to excel, they want to impress. THEY DELIVER!

My curriculum would be ungraded as such, instead giving students the skills they need to progress. If a student needed to work on fractions all year in order to grasp those concepts, then so be it. Just because he was struggling in math would not keep him back in language arts or science or history. Individualism would be the rule rather than the exception.

The halls of the school would be decorated with student work - permanent student work. Handprints of all students who pass through would be on the walls with their signatures. Revolving displays of other student work would be prevalent. Students would be expected to responsible for things like policing litter in the halls, keeping their lockers clean, taking responsibility for the cafeteria's reasonable neatness when they left.

Parents and community members would be active in my school - encouraging students, supplementing instruction, donating time, materials, experience and knowledge. If the school was near a university, I would encourage pre-service teachers to be strongly involved with our students.

How would I do it… the BIG question… I don’t know.. if I had that answer, I would have done it already! I think the most realistic method of funding such a program would be a corporate sponsor of some kind. I cannot imagine how wonderful it would be to have someone to fund my dreams!! I always tell my husband if we ever win the lottery, I am building my own school J He just laughs….

Friday, November 10, 2006

Parent teacher conferences were last night. I must confess at the begining of the blessed event, I was less than excited. This is a tough group of kids, and I was not sure what to expect from meeting with parents. Sure, I have talked with many on the phone, had a few face to face meetings, so I guess I did have some expectations.

Outside the fact it was an incredibly long day, I was pleased with the outcome. Many of my struggling students had parents that came. We had some wonderful, productive conversations!

The most amazing part of the day however, was an observation on my part though. As wiht most schools, I have a large number of students whose parents are divorced. The first set of these, the father visited with me first, never mentioning that his wife was sitting waiting to speak to me next. He did have a few negative comments about how he was never quite sure what type of structure was in place for homework or nightly reading when his son is with mom. His tone made is obvious he felt his wife was inadequate in his supervision of both their son's behavior and academic progress. When he moved on, the woman who followed him introduced herself as A's mom, and made a sharp tongued comment about me having met her husband, and proceeded to praise her son, acknowledging his successes. She made a few subtle jabs at dad, and moved on.

The next set of divorced parents I noticed, the dad again was the first to visit with me. He told me mom would be there soon but since he is also himself a teacher, he needed to get to his own conferences. He was polite, never giving any negative comments about mom, and even pointedly left the progress report for her to pick up. Meeting with mom shortly after, was pleasant as well. We discussed their son, and ho sending him to dad's classroom might be a productive option when the son comes unprepared for class. All in all, this conversation was positive as well.

The most amazing non-traditional family came in a herd to my table. There were 4 adults, and 2 small children. (the young man being discussed is out of school suspended) WOW! What a wonderful support network for this young man. Had I not known the mom previously, I would never have been able to determine which were the biological parents and which were the step parents. Each of the 4 adults had positive comments about the boy, concerns to ask about, suggestions on how we could help him experience more success. It was the MOST amazing conference I have ever been a part of!

As I reflect back on these particular three conferences, I wonder why parents have such a difficult time realizing how their interactions, or lack thereof, impac their children. Why can't they be more like the last group, working towards a common goal for their child.

Conferences are conferences... leaving me with a to-do list for the next day, a stack of "I found it in my backpack" papers to correct, and a new sense of appreciation of my students.