I recently completed an assignment in which I detailed my vision of an ideal school. If you ever had the opportunity to visit, this is what it would be like.
You will find our idyllic school situated among lush, green hills. Behind the gates of our campus, you will enter a unique space established with children, learning, and social and environmental consciousness at the core of everything we do.
At the gate, you will provide your information to the security guard and have your picture taken. After you park your car in the lot (located adjacent to the solar panels that power our school), you will follow a path that leads you to and through our garden. I hope you have time to meander because there are so many delightful sights to behold. On the path, your eyes will be drawn to the stepping stones vividly painted by our students under the tutelage of a local artist. Take time to enjoy them, but also revel in the natural beauty of our award-winning garden. Give our students the credit: when our school first opened, students in our gardening club designed the garden, selected plants and flowers and planted them themselves. They also learned about the engineering and landscaping required to build a garden. Today, students, staff, and parent volunteers continuously maintain the garden. If you time your arrival right, you will see our food services staff collecting ingredients from the garden in order to prepare lunch. Or, you might see students adding scraps to the compost pile. The garden is watered with waste water from our building.
Proceeding through the main entrance of our modern school, you will be inspired by the beauty of our lobby. Not only does it serve as a bright shining beacon in a physical sense, but it showcases to all visitors how amazing our students are. The endless natural light that floods the space through our floor to ceiling windows will awe you. You will be drawn to the mural that spans the entire length of the wall opposite the windows, a product of a partnership between various local artists, our art teachers, and our students. It depicts scenes that highlight our core STARFISH values (see A Focus on What is Learned). You will be fascinated by the student artwork that greets you: sculptures, paintings, and photographs are all there for everyone’s enjoyment and enrichment.
Passing through the halls of this vibrant, engaged community of elementary-aged learners and leaders, it will be obvious to you that there is a fervent love of student-driven learning cultivated in our school.
To understand how our students thrive, you must first understand the physical arrangement of our classrooms. What may look like a mishmash is actually designed with students’ personal preferences – and right to choose how they want to learn – in mind. There are single student desks, tables to accommodate multiple students, couches, beanbag chairs, floor space, office chairs, and exercise balls. Rather than seeing traditional completed student work on the walls, you will see work in progress on the walls. Whiteboards cover our wall space and students use them during discussions to collaborate and record ideas. Their to do lists, sketches, and thoughts are as inspirational and stimulating a classroom display as you will ever see.
Our first floor houses all classrooms, the main office, and the cafeteria. Our second floor features our science lab, art studio, auditorium, and gymnasium.
Students in every classroom collaborate extensively on micro and macro levels. Within their own classes, they work together on math problems, literary and art analysis, composing music, group presentations, and more. Students work in ways they find comfortable: at desks, standing, lying on the floor, sitting on a couch, using paper and pencil, or on iPads, laptops, and cell phones. As long as students are working productively and not interfering with their peers’ educations, we encourage their comfort in place of outdated ideas of how students “should” work. Our classes are inclusionary. Students with disabilities are students first and foremost. We believe every child has the right to work, play, and be with other children, and here, they are.
Classes on each grade collaborate on multidisciplinary projects such as designing gardens and playgrounds; addressing social issues in the school and communities (local/regional/national/global); highlighted by monthly charity drives; and advancing school-wide awareness of environmental issues. As students prepare to thrive in a global community that is increasingly more closely knit, students in the same grade use safely established, staff-monitored school social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.) to communicate and collaborate. Our one-to-one iPad-to-student ratio makes this possible, and the collaborative process extends outside of the school’s walls because students interact outside of school hours. In school, students sit on committees and report the ideas and concerns of their class to the representatives of other classes. These meetings form the basis of how students proceed in their collaborations.
Students take a great deal of responsibility for assessment of themselves and their peers. Our teachers expertly guide students to identify positives in procedure, thought process, and outcomes and to also critically consider weaknesses and how they can be improved. Student-generated rubrics and checklists, always designed collectively by each class and based on state standards, guide these processes.
A Focus on What is Learned, not What is Taught
Rather than through tests, we seek evidence of learning in the actual work students do on an ongoing basis: their projects, presentations, journal entries, conversations, etc. Teachers and students adapt accordingly based on that most critical feedback. However, at the end of every unit in math, reading, writing, science, social studies, and foreign language, students do take “traditional” tests. Importantly, though, their grades are not used in a strictly summative sense. Rather than use these tests as a conclusion to a unit and an opportunity to say a student either “got it” or did not, we use them to guide our next steps. So, students who demonstrate difficulty with concepts are invited to attend early morning programs that focus on their misunderstandings or troublesome concepts. All of our teachers work with groups of four to six students. For morning groups, students are assigned to a teacher based on the teacher’s personal specialty. Groups are flexible from unit to unit. Our goal is not to have students do well on tests. It is, instead, for them to master content. The timeframe in which this is accomplished is of secondary importance.
At this school, our closely vetted, highly qualified teachers act more as guides toward learning than just imparters of knowledge. Teachers are expected to help students learn, and so you will never hear the excuse, “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it.” Teachers respond to the needs of their students as they arise and adapt their approach to the curriculum appropriately. This structure reflects our greater overall commitment to safeguarding the emotions and esteem of our students because we aim to make sure every student has the fullest opportunities to do their best. We value cultivating strong relationships that lead to confidence and risk taking.
To that end, we promote an idea called, “Awards for All.” We don’t reward high grades because inevitably only some students will ever win! We like to catch students doing STARFISH things. Our recognition focuses on character rather than achievement, and we celebrate students for being supportive, trying when something seems too difficult, exhibiting a positive, can do attitude, showing respect toward all, providing friendship, displaying integrity, sharing, and being helpful. These are attributes to which all students can aspire, and they give us common language to talk about our students’ development as people.
We’re in this for the Kids
If it seems like there is a lot of talking as you walk through our school, there is. Constituents engage often in productive dialogue about learning and growing. Our students are excited about learning and so are our teachers. Grade level teams have common preparation periods multiple times weekly, allowing time for teachers to mine their collegial resources. A weekly book club meeting over lunch allows teachers to discuss a common text, be it school-wide (in which meetings are conducted simultaneously in smaller groups, with greater collaboration occurring through traditional methods like jigsaws, as well as web-based methods like wikis and blogs) or grade-wide (typically a complex student text read and discussed by grade-level colleagues as a way to consider methods of teaching it to their students). Meetings are structured in a way to promote productivity and limit non-task specific talk. Procedural protocols are established and used at every meeting.
It is the administration’s job to support the fine work of the teachers and the students. Just like students and teachers, the administrators engage in frequent dialogue about best practices and ways to continue improving and promoting the school’s culture. Like students and teachers, administrators are also expected to engage in multiple two-way conversations around meaningful feedback that makes others better. Administrators make every effort to spend as much time as possible everyday in classrooms. Interactions between administrators and teachers are often direct and honest. They are professional and nonthreatening. Everyone knows why they work here as a member of this team: to make our students better. With this always in our minds, conversations are productive. We waste as little time as possible.
When problems arise, stakeholders are asked to come to the table with potential solutions. Various options are considered before any decisions are made. Ultimatums do not exist here because everyone works with the same vision and goals of making sure every one of our children, regardless of perceived inability or difficulties, gets access to the best possible education they can while they are with us.
Students also have responsibilities toward each other. As an example, our experienced fifth graders love being paired with a kindergarten buddy for the year. Think of it as a big brother/big sister mentality. The “bigs” help the kindergarteners in many ways. They help them find important places like the medical office and bathrooms. They help them learn school procedures. Once a week, buddies eat together in the lunchroom, drawing together, playing games, or just talking. Bigs visit the kindergarten classrooms to read and be read to. They help with math. It is a rewarding experience for all children involved.
Family members play a significant role in our school community. They are visible throughout the building and perform a variety of roles supporting our students and school. Often, you will find parents and grandparents in classrooms, assisting in everything from paperwork and filing to facilitating conversation between students to working one-on-one in academic content. We encourage parents to bring their unique talents and hobbies to school so that we all can benefit. They collaborate with teachers in afterschool clubs that match their interests. Students who participate in afterschool have a menu of clubs from which they can choose, including: math, science, language, creative writing, drama, environmental, children’s rights, bookmaking, chess, computers, music, gardening, and photography. Family involvement in the building increases family engagement in our children’s educations, which helps promote and foster their accomplishments. We are all very much invested in our school as a conduit for the improvement of everyone in it.
Our families also play a large role in making sure our Fun Fridays happen as smoothly as they do. They assist with organizing and distributing a calendar in September that details the theme of every week’s celebration. They also coordinate reminder efforts to make sure everyone is included in the fun. On Fridays, everyone in the school community dresses based on the theme. Weekly, we have the opportunity to dress based on something students are learning about: fairy tale characters, Revolutionary era loyalists and patriots, presidents, ancient Egyptians, community helpers, scientists, and more. Once a month, we all dress in the color of the charity we are supporting. Everyone looks forward to Fridays because our bonds of community are strengthened.
When you visit our school, we think you will see for yourself what makes it so special. The investment and inquisitiveness of our students, the dedication and professionalism of our staff, the care and involvement of our parents, and the whole culture that permeates our entire organization, combine to make a truly unique school. We hope you will visit us soon and take the opportunity to explore, learn, create, and celebrate with us.