Dreaming Big about School TransformationNovember 4, 2011 | Elena Aguilar
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."
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?