Dear Ken Robinson…

plant through rock

Dear Ken Robinson,

I want to acknowledge your tweet this past February about my Change from the Inside blog post having the same theme as your new book, Creative Schools. I was flattered and honoured by your kindness. Thank you!

It’s been quite the semester, and I’ve just now had time dive into your book. Someone once said that when we read we enter into a conversation with the author of the book. I hope you don’t mind that I’m taking my conversation with you out of my head and onto this page in the hope that others will contribute thoughts about how we can change schools from the inside. As you say in Creative Schools:

Opportunities for change exist within every school, even where the emphasis on high-stakes testing has become extreme. Schools often do things simply because they’ve always done them. The culture of any given school includes habits and systems that the people in it act out every day. Many of these habits are voluntary rather than mandated – teaching by age groups, for example, or making every period the same length, using bells to signal the beginning and end of periods, having all of the students facing the same direction with the teacher in the front of the room, teaching math only in math class and history in history class, and so on.

I couldn’t agree more!

One of the gifts of having taught in apartheid-era South Africa is that I learned to always be on the lookout for the cracks within a restrictive system. The space where transgressions could arise despite constraint and constriction. As a teacher there, I learned to be like a root hair, that fragile filament that can eventually lift pavement, taking advantage of microscopic spaces for growth. As a teacher in Canada, I discovered a space for change in our school timetable, a way to change the system from within.

Our timetable consists of four 77 minute blocks a day that rotate in sequence. If a student has English in Period 1, that period is sometimes the first block of the day, sometimes the second block, sometimes the third, and sometimes the last block of the day.

I know from neuroscience research that the time of day affects my teen students’ capacity to learn. For that reason, I do traditional, stand and deliver teaching from 10am to 11:15am. This is prime time for teens to be able to focus and to concentrate without too much effort. And I take full advantage of that small window to teach that part of the curriculum that must be “delivered”.

At 8:30am, while my teen students are still in the process of waking up, we have a soft start which sometimes includes students having something to eat if they didn’t get breakfast. Sometimes it’s a time to do housekeeping – catching up on progress, troubleshooting, problem-solving or just checking in with each other.

The checking-in takes different formats. Sometimes there’s a question of the day ( If silence was a colour, what colour would it be?)  or sometimes the invitation is to say how we are feeling about the day. Sometimes check-ins last the whole block, sometimes just a few minutes.

For the afternoon blocks, the classroom is decentred. I am not the centre of attention! During the third block, students are engaged in team-work activities that include project based learning and experiential learning. The last block of the day begins with a 15 minute nap or a meditation. This is a favourite time for most students who walk into my classroom exclaiming that they were looking forward to the nap all day!

They nap because by 1:30pm, they’re exhausted and overfilled with information being delivered to them. They don’t have room for anything I may present, no matter how many bells and whistles I decorate the content with. A short power nap or meditation gives their brains a break before they do some independent work until the end of the school day.  This block is also a good time for me to have one-on-one conversations with students and to take stock of everyone’s progress.

Structuring my time this way also means that even if I have three classes of the same course, say English 11, I’m doing something different with each group of students since they come to me at different times of the day. I don’t have to repeat the same lesson three or four times a day.

Even though this restructuring seems obvious now, figuring it out was not an overnight process. It’s taken me a long time to come up with this solution for the extreme discomfort I had felt for years when I faced my sleepy teens each morning and my frustration with trying to “teach” in the afternoon while my students struggled to stay focused. They had had to listen and pay attention all day, and simply didn’t have the capacity to do that any longer.

And this innovation is only possible because of what a teacher had created at our school in the 1970s when governments were still investing in public education. Back then our school district was given money by the federal government to create a “pre-employment program” which could have been created in any number of ways. On the advice of his wife, the teacher asked his students what they needed to learn about. Then he went about creating what students said they needed. Called Career Preparation, it involves students being in class for 6 weeks of morning classes and then going out on work experience for 6 weeks when the blocks rotate to the afternoons. We still have that program in our school more than 40 years later. It’s this rotation that makes what I do possible.

This evolution of our timetable reminds me of what Maria Popova calls combinatorial creativity, the idea that through collaboration, ideas are combined into something entirely new. Did you know that this was how we got the printing press around 1440?

Imagine what could happen in schools if teachers collaborated to combine their ideas of how to change schools from the inside!  We are not short of ideas; what we are short of is time.

Recently the Superintendent/CEO of our school district asked to be invited to classrooms to see first-hand the innovation he knew was happening in classrooms. Although this was in the midst of a bitter labour dispute with our government, he was inundated with invitations. Writing about what he discovered on his blog, he concluded that there is no shortage of innovation within the system but that innovation can only go so far without a transformation of the system itself. But this is a fight that has to be fought by many others in the public arena, outside of our classrooms even while we teachers work to change what happens inside our classrooms.

As you say in Creative Schools,  public education is a “complex, adaptable system” and not the rigid, inflexible structure that it may seem to be. There is lots of space for change, working from the inside out.

I’d love to say more about what I’m reading in your book, but I’ll save that for another letter!



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