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Dreaming Big about School Transformation

| 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."

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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?

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Comments (20)

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Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Don't Overemphasize the Planning!

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I particularly like the student-centered and open-ended nature do this dream! To me at least, however, I see some of the "teacher-control" creeping into the comments. There is a need of course for planning of the open-ended projects ( I love the 500 mile perseverance project - perseverance on so many levels) but only to make sure they map onto standards effectively. To me at leat, this then says find the core knowledge and insure it's facilitated; AND THEN GET OUT OF THE LEAD AND INTO MENTORING / LEARNING MODE!

Thank you! I'm a principal at

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Thank you! I'm a principal at a K-8 and I'm going to have my staff read this today in our faculty meeting. I want them to dream big and be inspired as well. I agree - this wouldn't be so hard to create. And I agree that we only need money. I know my teachers are brilliant, creative, and committed to our students. Give them some time to work and think and plan and they could realize any vision. I also love the meditation class. Our students need this kind of learning as much as all the other.

International Education Consultant

Wow-sounds amazing!

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Wow this is my dream school as well! I also work in school reform but internationally. It is funny how much is the same everywhere in the world when it comes to what we want a great school to be!The mediation class also struck a chord with me as I have been promoting ways to develop children's emotional intelligence for years including yoga and meditation time.Emotional Intelligence and Meditation for Kids

International Education Consultant

Wow-sounds amazing!

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Wow this is my dream school as well! I also work in school reform but internationally. It is funny how much is the same everywhere in the world when it comes to what we want a great school to be!The mediation class also struck a chord with me as I have been promoting ways to develop children's emotional intelligence for years including yoga and meditation time.Emotional Intelligence and Meditaiton for Kids

I just saw this on Twitter

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I just saw this on Twitter and had to jump in. I too appreciate this vision! Thank you for recognizing that principals can not do our jobs in the current conditions we have to work in. We too need time to learn and exercise and be with our families. I'd work in this school too!
I'd love to visit the school that you mention that embodies some of these ways of teaching. I need some inspiration. Thanks!

Me too!

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My colleague, Mr. Gaines, just sent this to me and I would also like to work at this school and send my daughters here. I agree with him; it seems like all it would take is the funding.
I was captivated by the imagined dialogue between students. It reflects a major shift in how we think about school and compartmentalize learning. There have been so many books written in recent years about how this must change. I'm wondering if you've read A Whole New Mind by D. Pink?
I am grateful for this article. I am about to start my lesson planning for the week and I feel inspired and energized. Perhaps I'll use some of these ideas.
And keep me in mind if you do open a school - I will apply too!

Ms. Campbell, Yes, I agree

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Ms. Campbell,
Yes, I agree that this sounds like a massive amount of planning. But Ms. Aguilar proposes that teachers only teach for three hours per day. A large amount for planning is what is would take, which is what she proposes.

Can I work at this school?

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Dear Ms. Aguilar,
This is an inspiring article. I love your vision and wish we had schools like this. It seems like all it would take is the funding to make this real. Teachers can learn these strategies, this could happen. Have you thought about pursuing grants and starting a school? I would apply as a teacher!
I also appreciate your invocation to "dream big." I think we don't do this enough in education. We have little dreams, but we're afraid to dream big. Thank you. This was an inspiring read.

The meditation class and gym

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The meditation class and gym time were the things that really grabbed my attention/self-interest but I also loved the idea of turning math into a way to solve real-world problems. It sounds like a massive amount of lesson planning though.

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