(This blog is a complement to Dear Students published in Huff Post)
What do we teachers do while we wait for politicians to agree with us that 19th century school structures are obsolete in the 21st century, and that creativity, not competition, is what we should be nurturing in students?
We change the system from within.
First, we do the work inside ourselves when we gather up our courage to release our role of content deliverer and accept that we need to be in constant role change in our classrooms: sometimes a facilitator, sometimes a mentor, sometimes a host creating a safe space for learning to happen.
Decentering our classrooms in this way is difficult work, and is never complete. It’s not a one-day Pro-D affair. It requires vulnerability to realize that we need not be the fount of wisdom in the front of the room.We need to be patient but persistent with this work.
We share our decentering ideas with our colleagues so that we put the magic of combinatorial creativity to work. We remix ideas from here and there to find what will fit with our students in our classrooms. There’s a lot of trial and error involved with this. Lots of reading too.
We know that this is a Sisyphean task; sometimes that rock will roll all the way down the hill. But we have to get up and do it again. And we will, with help from our friends and allies who know why we do what we do and why it’s worth the struggle.
I was “lucky” to have been both a student and a teacher in South Africa during Apartheid because there I developed my tendency to read between the lines of any curriculum and to constantly seek ways around stifling restrictions and impositions in schools.
You may think that there is a world of difference between the education system in South Africa and in Canada, until you remember that both Canada and South Africa are former British colonies and both countries imported the same industrial model of education. Much of what I do now in Canada is a further refinement of what I did in South Africa when I became a teacher by accident. But that’s another story.
There is nothing that a teacher can do about the way a school day is divided, but there is a lot that a teacher can do when shaping each day in her classroom. I teach the humanities to teens in a school that has “inner-city” characteristics. We have four teaching blocks a day: two in the morning and two after a 40 min lunch. Each block is 77 mins.
My classroom activities are dependent on which block of the day it is. Sometimes there is a lecture, sometimes an experiential activity, sometimes a check-in to see where everyone is at, sometimes a nap or meditation before any work is done. My decision of what to do when is guided by neuroscience research about how teen brains work. They do not work at full capacity first thing in the morning or during the last block of the day, so I save us all the struggle by not lecturing at those times.
I use my classroom space like a Star Trek holodeck. Sometimes it’s a laboratory, sometimes a country, sometimes a court, sometimes a parliament and sometimes a lounge where conversation happens. It is of course sometimes just a classroom!
I encourage students to ask me questions either directly, through email or anonymously through the very popular Question Box. Questions from students provide me with insights into their concerns and what I’m missing in my teaching. A colleague who teaches Math adopted and adapted this idea, but her box is called the Panic box – where students place “panic button” questions about course content.
I do very little lecturing and try as much as possible to convert the curriculum in a way that allows my students to engage in Problem-Based Learning and Experiential Learning. When I first started doing this, I didn’t know that that was what it was called! Often times I “make the road while walking”, trying to find ways to bring meaningful learning experiences to my students.
In my dreams, I see Problem-Based Learning and Experiential Learning as the foundation of what is done in public schools in the future.
And I do hope, despite the concerted campaign to defund public education, that we manage to hold on to public schools. They are still critically important, despite their many flaws.
Public schools are much more than places where accredited learning happens. They are a safe space for students whose home lives are difficult; they are the oasis in dangerous neighbourhoods; they are where many students eat their only meal each day and where they can speak to an adult about their fears and concerns.
Public schools are some of the few public spaces we have left that still function as a commons, a space for people, not for profit.
Where else but in a public school can a teen who gets a $30 000 car for his 16th birthday sit next to one who eats only three meals a week?
With so many of our common spaces being taken over by corporations, a public school is a vital social space for many students. It is still the great societal leveller where students from diverse backgrounds can meet on common ground.
The education system has to change, it’s true, but let’s work to repurpose it. Let’s not throw the cup out with the cold coffee.
Let’s change the system from the inside out.