Letter: Daring to Dream

This is the third in a series of letters I will be exchanging with one of my colleagues on a variety of issues. The full text of her letter also appears on her blog.

Dear Matt,

It takes many fingers to make a hand. It takes a village to raise a child. It takes all kinds. Whatever cliche you prefer, the sentiment remains: certain kinds of success require teams of people—with diverse and even divergent strengths, weaknesses and talents. You asked me for my dream school, and my mind went first to the kind of society I envision.

It’s funny, I’ve mentioned before that I was once an activist, donating all my time and passion in the struggle to create a world I thought would benefit all people. I had no difficulty imagining that place while confronting the ugly reality. But lately, lofty visions have been much harder for me to reach out for—stuck, instead, in the ever-expanding and ever more urgent to-do list. The time clock. The due date. The “have-tos”. And this week has been particularly trying with the “community” in my classroom unraveling and coming under attack. So, when you asked me about my dream school, I kind of balked.

But then a colleague approached me yesterday, saying she was looking forward to my reply and she reminded me of something you often say: it all comes down to the kids. So, here is my dream:

When you walk into my school, the first thing you’ll notice is a very open layout; opaque walls give you a glimpse into the action in the non-graded classrooms, where children are divided by age groups which would resemble our K-1, 2-3, and 4-5. However, if a student’s own development shows they would perform better with older or younger peers, there would be opportunity for that.

Every child shares two teachers with 19 other children; each works on portfolios and projects that show signs of them learning in several key areas: critical thinking, exploration, and creation. Whether it be their daily art, gym, science, math, history, or literacy lessons, those three areas are what guide the lessons, the projects, etc. The assessments that happen are through collaborative discussions between the child’s teachers whose job it is to find ways that challenge their development in the three areas. The “deadlines” are cyclical and spiral in complexity, increasing to meet the child’s strengths and needs, eventually leading to greater independence and responsibility. “Computers” isn’t a class, but a skill woven in to the different areas, the same way writing or reading are needed in all areas.

What is in the curriculum? I wouldn’t change it too much from what we are familiar with except that the school is built with the understanding that each child develops unevenly and differently in each area, at their own pace, and this is respected. Being able to successfully work in teams and collaborate is a goal that isn’t suddenly take away from them at test time. Instead, being able to know they can grab pattern blocks, bilingual dictionary or translator, or a thesaurus is part of assessing their growing skills.

Every day, children are taught in two languages, but are taught how to interpret and communicate with others they don’t share a common language, through role playing, games, technology, drawing, etc., because the pursuit of communication, friendship, and sharing should not be based simply on commonalities. As part of this, the older children are buddied up with younger children to help them. Students with learning disabilities are not separated from the others because their teachers are supported to meet their needs right in the classroom, and within the curriculum.

The school day starts at 8 with a shared breakfast in class, which gives the teachers time to socialize and discuss the children’s lives with them. This has the added bonus of teaching the kids empathy and respect, while helping the teacher learn of any home issues that may impede learning. All children get art, music, gym and recess, which are each with a different teacher. This way, teachers have more than one period a day for planning and reflection. Because projects evolve and grow out of each other, they aren’t scrambling to jump into new, disconnected units.

Children go on monthly field trips that are paid for by corporations. Billionaire “reformers” like Bill Gates have realized they would do more good for education by silencing their misguided mouths and opening their wallets so all children get winter coats, food, laptops, field trips and the like. (A girl can dream, right?)

Children will learn in an environment that doesn’t just respect them as children, and does away with arbitrary deadlines for the mastery of isolated skills. It will teach them that they matter as individuals because they are integral to the success of the group, so they don’t just value themselves, they value the group. They are motivated by their intrinsic and supported curiosity, and the sense of community created; through problem solving, critical thinking, physical activity, play time, exploration and genuine creation. This, to me, is the kind of school that has as its aim the betterment of society through the investment in children.

This dream comes out of my own experiences as a student, teacher, and mother, as well as conversations I have had lately about schools in Finland, and other random things. What bothers me about this dream is that it’s possible.

This just barely touches at the dream school I envision, but I haven’t slept for more than two hours in four days (my daughter is apparently like me; when she has her sights set on something like crawling and standing, she sleeps restlessly at night), so what I’d like to do is close my eyes now and do some real dreaming.


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