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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sometimes when I'm feeling particularly bogged down by the state of our education system, my antidote is to dream big, to indulge myself in fantasy and wildly imagine the school I'd like to send my son to, the one I'd like to work at. So I've been dreaming.

The images arrive in kaleidoscope fashion -- fragments, bright colors, intriguing pieces. Many of these elements reflect things I've read, or seen, or experienced. In fact, the school I helped start ten years ago, ASCEND, manifested aspects of these dreams, particularly before the recession and budget cuts. I'm not engaging with my brain's desire to figure out how such a learning community could be realized. Right now, I'm just letting the images come. Here are some randomly presented elements of my dream:

  • This school is a Pre-K through twelfth grade community.
  • There is no homework until sixth grade. After that, homework is limited to one hour and not a second more.
  • Teachers teach for three hours per day. The other four hours of the day are devoted to lesson planning and preparation, collaboration, observing colleagues, professional reading and research, and personal learning. Teachers take yoga twice a week -- during the school day. They also get release time to go to the gym or exercise.
  • There's a healthy school cafeteria where everyone eats lunch together. A great deal of the produce comes from the school's garden.
  • All teachers leave school by 5:00pm every day. No one works on the weekend. No one needs to work on the weekend.
  • There are three principals and three assistant principals. They also have 8 hours a week to devote to their own professional learning. They leave work by 5:00pm, too. They don't work on the weekend either.
  • Adults talk to each other kindly, with compassion, listening first to understand.
  • The site is a bright, artistically-rich, student-centered, clean, calm place to be. People smile and are grateful to be a part of it. It smells like lavender. Or mint.

To continue with my dream, this conversation between a ninth grade boy and his eighth grade sister as they walk to school is typical between students:

"Hey, what class do you have this morning?"

"I have Perseverance. How about you?"

"Oh, man, Perseverance was my favorite class last year! I never thought I'd be able to run 20 miles, but I did. And it paid off when we did our spring fieldwork. When we started, I couldn't believe we were going to hike 400 miles of the old Underground Railroad route. It was hard, but we learned so much about history and geography. Plus, we got to read really good books at night and we learned all these cool songs from around the world about people who had persevered. I loved that class."

"It's really good. I can't wait to go to school today. I love school. What've you got in the morning?"

"Imagination. It's haaaaard. We're using all these complicated algebra formulas to try to come up with solutions to the hunger problems in rural Mexico. Juan's family lives in this little village that's so poor and our project is to create a development model that will lead to their self-sufficiency. Our investigation team just got back from the village last week. They were interviewing the farmers to find out what they need. Some of the stuff we have to read is difficult, but we've got all these seniors who come in and help us. I never knew I could be such a good reader, and I never thought I'd be able to help other people with real problems."

"We help the third-graders during Collaboration every day. They're trying to make good decisions and not get mad at each other so they can finish their Expression project. Sometimes it's hard for me to just be a facilitator -- I want to tell them what to do."

"That was a hard leadership skill for me to master. But it was harder for me to collaborate well -- I always wanted to do things alone. Now I can't imagine doing things in isolation. I learned that last year in Reflection class. I guess it was all that philosophy we read and the art we created. I'm doing really good in that class this year."

"My Reflection class is fun but challenging. During meditation, I can't quiet down. I know I'm only supposed to focus on my breathing, but it's hard."

"I know, I know. See you at the end of the day at the whole-school sing."

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You may say I'm a dreamer...It wouldn't be that hard, however. Dreaming is the first step. What comes to your mind when you dream big about school transformation?

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tray Thompson's picture
Tray Thompson
Instructional Coach, Michigan

What resonates for me on this cold fall morning is the invitation to dream. Our schools have become places where we no longer imagine, dream, create; we just prepare students for tests. As I read this I felt energized and alive again. Thank you Ms. Aguilar for waking me up today. We are starving for inspiration in our schools, for vision. We have moved so far from the core of learning - the curiosity and exploration of phenomenon. How can we go about realizing a school like this? A system? I'm in. Let's figure this out.
And amen to the homework policy. That's something I'm passionate about. Let's burn our sacred cows.

Education Alley's picture
Education Alley
Teacher/Counselor/Consultant

This is actually a great question to ask students. This was one of the questions I asked of students attending an alternative school as part of my research for my Master's degree. I also asked questions like, "What do teachers/schools do that help and get in the way of your learning?" You would not believe the wealth of information I got!! All teachers should be required to ask their students these types of questions at the beginning of the school year because there is a huge disconnect between how each side responds to these questions. Sadly, as I did my lit. review, I found many, similar research studies dating as far back as 1909, and all the students gave the same answers. We have had the answers to many of our educational woes for 100 years, and it's not rocket science either. Why does this information not trickle down into the schools? What is this invisible barrier?

Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

...and in your school there is a big room where there are all sorts of computers, old t.v.'s, car engines, clocks, cell phones etc., that students have taken apart to look inside, rebuild or redesign; and an area where students are building robotics, and solar generated engines, batteries, bikes... who knows what innovative students can come up with??

Evelyn Krieger's picture
Evelyn Krieger
Author of YA novel, special educator

I love your vision. When I was teaching 7th/8th grade, I asked the students to imagine a completely different type of junior high school and to write/draw about it. What surprised me was how difficult it was for them to think outside the traditional model they had always known. Most kids just wrote about not getting homework, having a pool, getting to go outside.

G Jordan's picture
G Jordan
Math Professional Development, former Math and Science Teacher.

Great idea, it is important to think about the "ideal" as often as possible. I might skip the yoga but I love your imagination.

G Jordan's picture
G Jordan
Math Professional Development, former Math and Science Teacher.

What was the comments they all had in common since 1909? Sounds interesting.

Pamela Lopez's picture

I really needed this today. I work with low performing high schools and we spend so much time on compliance issues. It is so draining, and I find I need to dream big to keep myself motivated and I try to redirect teachers to think about how much they are impacting their students and not to sweat the adults. LOL thanks again

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Chief Operating Officer, Francis Parker School, San Diego

Thanks for this call for imagination. Recently as I think about how to articulate how and what we want to teach, I have been using an argument about respecting our students more than we have in the past. 30 years ago I was told by a College Ed School dean that we could not (and should not try to) teach skills like questioning and creativity and synthesis and creational thinking to elementary and secondary school students. Now we call those 21C skills. I still think we do not include overt instruction into these skill packages enough; we believe that they have to be sugar-coated inside of traditional curriculum. But over the last decade I have taught these skill package skills at levels ranging from 3rd grade to college level, and the kids "get it" right away. They understand why the skills are important and they immediately put them to work. And parents think this is what we should be teaching. This is not dreaming; it is quite real. We just need to respect our student more.

Alfred Todd's picture
Alfred Todd
My company is focused on helping schools with funding issues

Elena, what would it take to make that school a reality?

Sandra's picture

My vision involves a restructuring of schools."Our current system, with its attention to a narrow collection of 'traditional' academic subjects, still embodies the worst consequences of the work of this group (a report by the committee of 10 in 1892)" (Wiggins, 2011). The new structure would be a backward design that prepared students for work. A curriculum that would look something like this:
Philosophy, including critical thinking and ethics.
Psychology, with special emphasis on mental health, child development, and family relations.
Economics and business, with an emphasis on market forces, entrepreneurship, saving,borrowing and investing, and business start-ups.
Woodworking or its equivalent; you should have to make something to graduate.
Mathematics, focusing primarily on probability and statistics and math modeling.
Language arts, with a major focus on oral proficiency (as well as the reading and writing of nonfiction).
Multimedia, including game and web design.
Science: human biology', anatomy, physiology (health-related content), and earth science(ecology').
Civics, with an emphasis on civic action and how a bill really becomes law; lobbying.
Modern U.S. and world history, taught backward chronologically from the most pressing current issues" (Wiggins, 2011)
This type of education would prepare students so that at the end of the tenth grade students would make a decision that would involve three choices: 1. attend a career vocational school, 2. earn college credits at a community college or university, or 3. attend an online school. Music and athletics would still be available as extra -curricular activities at the home school. Removing the last two years of high school would create a Pre-K to 10th grade system that would include the Model Preschool concept presented by Zigler (2011). Three benefits would be to reduce duplication, improve the use of scarce financial resources and most importantly challenge our students to succeed and meet high standards of excellence.

Wiggins, Grant (2011) "A Diploma worth having" in Educational Leadership, 68 no6 Mar.2011 p. 28-33, Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Ziglar, Edward, (2011) "The Model Preschool", in The Pre-K Debates, NAEYC, Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

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