Since my college degrees are in the field of education, watching what is happening in schools is one of my areas of concern. Thinking about what would make schooling more gripping is kind of a no-brainer. Almost any program that centered on learning and living would be an improvement over the nineteenth century model we are currently using in most of our schools. Many students can learn while sitting in rows of identical desks, in alphabetical order with texts, lessons, assignments and review. But, since I taught students who had not succeeded in school, who basically couldn’t wait to get done with school, who quit before they graduated, it was clear that many students don’t do well in traditional classrooms.
The pandemic taught us more lessons about what kinds of schooling work and which kinds of populations they work for. Children who grew up with computers, who used them naturally had an easier time with online learning. They already had broadband and they were familiar with taking in information from sites they visited on the web. Children who did not own their own computer, who had no broadband, who did not even do well in a traditional classroom were predestined to find computer learning difficult. There were reports of children having to do their lessons at a McDonalds to plug into WiFi. It’s creative but hardly optimal.
A set of zoom boxes is set up in a manner very similar to the way classrooms are organized, but it is easier for the teacher to see each student. Instructors commonly used a chalk board or white board presentation with teacher talking students through the lesson. If we will continue to use computers for teaching, the lessons will need to be more graphic and make use of video examples, in other words, lessons will need preplanning, skill with programming, and creativity. Teachers will need an entire industry of providers who create these lessons and make schooling materials varied, easy-to-follow, and even interactive. And every student will need access to a computer from early childhood and broadband that is far less expensive than providers now offer. Perhaps each state could set up such a laboratory for effective computer lessons to supply to teachers in that state.
It seems that there are two broad types of learners. Some young people do quite well with books, notes, explanations, and practice. Other young people are more comfortable when learning is far more active and interactive. They like to move around in the classroom, perhaps share reading aloud, perhaps discussing what they are learning. They may work well in teams if the team members are compatible. Not every student liked learning online during the pandemic. Many students found it boring, it made them sleepy, they stopped attending online sessions and missed portions of an entire school year or more. Even some students who were fine with traditional schooling did not like the online experience at all. Others have said that they would like to learn remotely all the time. Some preferred a mix. Often students who enjoyed school as an opportunity to socialize found themselves somewhat depressed by the lack of social interaction in online schooling.
It is time to revolutionize our schools and some schools are already incorporating programs that get kids out of rows of seats. One such program was described in my most recent union newspaper from NYSUT.
Matt Smith is the author of the article entitled “Thinking outside the box on alternative education”. He writes about a program called “Big Picture Program.”
“We’re really like a family here,” teacher Cheryl Hughes said of the students, educators, and administrators who gather each day on the building’s third floor – home of the Ken-Ton School District’s Big Picture Program, an alternative education high school.
Based on a nationally designed research-based education model, Big Picture was brought to Ken-Ton in 2012 out of concern over graduation rates, said Matt Chimera, a retired social studies teacher who spent 38 years in the classroom and helped launch the program in the district.
At the time, Chimera was one of only three full-time teachers in Big Picture serving 30 students in ninth and tenth grades. Now the Ken-Ton program has seven full-time teachers and a principal serving 90 students grades 8-12. The program’s graduation rate stands at 94 percent, higher than the overall districts’.
The program’s success, Chimera said, is that its project-based approach appeals to non-traditional students who would otherwise have difficulty in a typical classroom environment. Chimera recalled, for example, one project undertaken by a student that focused on skateboarding. The construction of a skate ramp involved math and technology; the physics of the sport provided lessons in sciences, while the biographical essays the student wrote on his favorite skaters helped develop knowledge in English and skills in writing.
Also appealing is the 15 to 1 student-teacher ratio…The program allows for the time that you need to develop those really meaningful relationships. What we hear from students over and over is how they feel valued and cared for by teachers…It’s developing a culture – a family environment.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, student report to internships in the community: at veterinarian offices, local gyms, auto repair businesses, law firms, locksmiths – you name it…Key to Big Pictures is the advisory component in which teachers stay with the same group of kids for all five years…It takes a special kind of teacher to teach in this program, said Chimera.”
Clearly such a program would be hard to deliver online. The article does not discuss how the teens did during the pandemic, but these are still the kinds of programs we need to be thinking about if we want to keep students in our schools who don’t do well sitting all day in rows of chairs. What if history class was held in a kitchen similar to the old home economics kitchens? Students could study an era in history, research the kinds of things people ate at that time and then plan and cook a meal to enjoy? Math classes could teach the math curriculum and then morph into a financial literacy class where students would see the relevance of math in real time and learn an important life skill. I can think of many such education ‘mash-ups’ that would make school more interactive, more relevant, and more interesting. But, for this kind of thing to happen, funding for schools would have to increase.
Would the lives of at-risk children improve if schools were more creative? It might be worth the effort and the money to find out. Too many young lives are being wasted in pursuit of quick money, an ersatz family, and a piece of ‘turf’. And the children losing their lives to a bullet or jail are getting younger. It was sad to see free post-secondary school removed from the Build Back Better Bill. If Democrats get to keep the ‘conn,’ education should be the next area to get our attention.
[Here’s another example I found online:
“In his new book with education writer Tina Kelley, “Breaking Barriers: How P-TECH Schools Create a Pathway From High School to College to Career,” Litow said it was too late to switch to another building. The new school had only two months to get ready for New York’s annual school-enrollment schedule. As with popular public charter schools, admission to P-TECH would be by lottery. The school would not be cherry-picking students based on an entrance exam, as New York’s top magnet schools did. Its great advantage was that it could choose a new team of the most talented and ambitious administrators and teachers in the city.
The New York City College of Technology would provide the community college courses. The P-TECH courses it developed for these children had to be unusually challenging, with strong ties to good jobs. Litow checked with IBM’s human resources department to find out how many of its new hires had just a two-year associate’s degree. The answer was none. P-TECH had to be better.”]