I admit that my ideal school is an open environment where students have significant freedom and choice. The Ms. Frizzle model of taking a busload of students on field trips every day appeals to me. I love to learn, and I love the excitement, creativity, and drive a group of invested learners display when they are working on meaningful projects and problems.
Yet that ideal does not work as well in close quarters with large numbers of students. More students, less space, and limited decision making power means a greater need for routines that support good transitions, safe behavior, and caring collaboration. Our classes have 20+ students, and almost every corner of the school is used for lessons, meetings, lunch, and support services. It's a busy school environment, and in a busy school environment, team is more important than ever.
So how does a teacher who desires more free, open, and independent learning reckon with the limitations that large numbers and relatively tight quarters present?
First, this morning students, colleagues, and I will meet with the students in an open circle to discuss classroom rules, protocols, and behaviors that create a strong, caring, and productive class culture. I'm sure students will have many good ideas, and we'll work together to implement those ideas to better our class community.
Next I'll slow down the teaching/learning. There's a temptation to rush with the tower of curriculum that equals more time than we're at school and more time and attention than many fifth graders have. Every teacher knows that today's curriculum and standardized test demands create pressure since there simply isn't the time available to meet all those expectations. For example if you're teaching writing, then you may have as many as 25 essays to review and coach forward a week with as little as 45-minutes of time set aside for that as well as all the other administrative duties a day. That's a lopsided equation that teachers meet with creativity. At our Middle School, they actually added new positions to remedy this reality somewhat. We might want to think about how we can remedy this at the intermediate levels of elementary school too. The same may be true for science projects for which set-up takes a large number of planning periods. Time is short in schools for prep, planning, and response, and that's an added pressure too. In the face of this, teachers have to continually remind themselves that they're not super-human, and the job is to do their best in the face of this pressure. Also, we have to enlist student support too when it comes to setting up for projects, editing each others' work, and teaching each other too. Further, it's great when systems allow good technology since one-to-one computers with worthy technology can relieve this issue, however in many schools the tech is so restricted that they may not have the computers, and if they do have the computers, they may not be able to access the terrific technology that exists for learning due to other factors. Overall though, good teaming benefits from slowing down the program so there's time for social-emotional learning and attention to each student's needs and interests--this is what students remember most, and this is what supports a stronger future more than anything else.
Also I'll listen carefully to colleagues. Every educator and staff member in the school sees the situation a bit differently due to his/her focus. The custodians expect respect when it comes to cleanliness, recycling, and organization. The lunch staff appreciates readiness, good manners, and responsibility. Recess staff expects students to play fairly, be safe, and respect the rules. Classroom teachers look for tenacity, focus, academic drive and interest, asking questions, and learning lots. Specialists appreciate attention to detail, good strategy, an interest in the subject matter, and the ability to flexibly switch from one educator's perspective and focus to another's discipline, priorities, and management. I heard schools once described as small cities due to the complexity that exists in those relatively small and sometimes cramped buildings. I agree with that metaphor as the day is filled with multiple, intersecting transitions, focus areas, goals, students, and staff.
The more we can meet the many challenges that school presents as a team, the better we'll do. On the upside, to work with many means you are also working with tremendous experience, interest, creativity, and ideas which also like a city creates a complex, but rich learning/teaching cultural fabric. If I were to teach in a Ms. Frizzle-like manner, I'd miss out on the terrific synergy and collaboration that enriches my practice and ability to teach daily.
I'm thinking a lot about the attributes, challenges, responsibility, and opportunity the school team presents today as I prepare to coach my small team of fifth graders ahead. I welcome your thoughts and ideas as I continue this thinking and resulting action.