Children love to play, dream, imagine, explore, wonder, and discover. At home, at a friend's house, at the park, in the city lot, or in their backyard, they become a baseball player, the new American Idol, a rock star, their favorite actor, a bridge builder, or an architect. In their hearts and minds, they are not involved in a simulation; they simply are. It's the fun of being a child.
But that's who they are outside of school. Once in the classroom, their sense of wonder, awe, and reality is very often left at the door. There isn't very much joy in a standardized test, a pop quiz, a fill-in-the-blank worksheet, or a lecture. Though these experiences have a place in schooling, they need not take the place of what children love to do. Imagine if children could show their out-of-school spirit to the classroom and actually find joy in learning in school.
At Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where I spent thirty-eight years as a teacher and principal, teachers work under the pressure of high-stakes assessment and accountability all teachers face. This is the reality of schools today. Still, we want our students to be eager, happy, engaged, and motivated. We don't want a classroom filled with children who stare into space, seem disinterested in their work, hold their head in their hands, or slump in their seat.
There need not be a dichotomy between imagination and academic success. Why not argue that they are, in fact, interconnected? Let's pause for a moment: I'm not suggesting a random, chaotic, unfocused, do-whatever-you-want-to-do environment. The challenge is to create a child-centered learning environment in which to design and implement meaningful, project-based, reality-based opportunities for children. As a result, they would develop intellectual skills and acquire content knowledge while seeing real meaning in what they do. Can we have standardized testing and wonder? Yes, we can!
The challenge to administrators and teachers is to create a school culture that promotes the natural instincts for children to explore, discover, and create their own meaning, and fundamental to creating such a culture is nurturing a supportive, sharing, and caring social/emotional learning environment in which children feel safe and loved. When they feel secure in that setting, they are happier and are more willing to take intellectual risks.
Creating that school community requires visionary leadership, a shared vision, and the support of all stakeholders. What guided us at Benjamin Franklin? We recognized several fundamental principles:
- There is synergistic power of a vision of infusing social/emotional and character-education concepts, principles, and strategies throughout the instructional program and helping everyone understand the relationship between social/emotional well-being and academic success.
- Education involves preparing students for the tests of life, and not a life of tests.
- Teachers, parents, administrators, and the community at large are partners in raising children.
- The challenge to teachers is to make their instructional programs reality based, project based, constructivist, and interconnected.
- School programs and activities must provide opportunities for students to develop their ability to see patterns, make connections, and create their own meaning.
- Mutual respect and shared responsibility are fundamental concepts in the culture of a school community.
Over the next couple months, I'll share some specific stories of our successes and bumps in the road at Benjamin Franklin (and other schools where administrators and teachers nurture children's eagerness to learn) and try to dissect what we did and why we did it. Perhaps you'll want to relate your attempts to establish a climate of wonder and academic success to what we and others have tried. If you have questions, send them in. I'll try to answer them as best as I can.