A couple of days ago, Harriet over at A.J.’s Clubhouse posed the question, “If you could design your own school, what would it be like?”
Every educator, even those of us who cut our teeth during the age of actual chalkboards and blue mimeograph ink-stained fingers, dreams of creating an education world of her own in this era of the charter school. On those days when I argue with the State Department of Education over some inane detail or deal with an unreasonable parent, I often find myself dreaming of what it would be like to create a place that is exactly as I’d want it to be.
It’s kind of like when the Texas lottery first came into existence. As we sat around the lunchroom one day discussing whether or not we’d keep teaching if we somehow hit it big, one of the best English teachers I’ve ever known said, “Oh, I love teaching, so I wouldn’t quit. I’d just buy my own copy machine and make as many copies as I wanted. And, if you were nice to me, I’d let you make copies too.” In education, sometimes it the little things.
Right now, the biggest battles I fight involve adequate discretionary funding, the ability to provide meaningful, rigorous, and accessible instruction to all students, and the unwillingness of some parents to see educators as partners rather than adversaries in the schooling process.
At All-American Public Schools, we do a lot with a little. We spend less than $7,000 per year per student. Granted we’re situated in a lower-cost region of the country, but the top private schools in town charge between $12,000 and $16,000 per year. Don’t tell me money doesn’t make a difference. And it’s not just actual dollar amounts, it’s the unrestricted use of those dollars. We’ve been blessed with more money than usual this year thanks to the stimulus funds flowing from the federal government. But that money came with plenty of paperwork and reporting requirements and lots of rules about exactly how it can be spent.
So, point number one. Show me the money. Ideally, in a charter situation or in a way where scholarship funding is plentiful. This is my ideal world, remember, so just because I want adequate funding shouldn’t mean I have to turn away deserving students who can’t afford to pay for a private school education.
Once the money starts falling off the trees, I’ll be able to use that cash flow to create a place students want to be, a place where they can’t wait to spend time learning. A big part of that dream would be providing real-world experiences and project-based learning. Instead of spending 50-minutes per day in separate subject area classes, students would learn and then apply their knowledge by working in teams to produce real products or solve actual problems. Teammates might come from within the school or from the virtual world of professionals, experts, and students from other schools via Web 2.0 tools. I envision teachers working as part of these teams, facilitating the process and helping students set realistic goals and determine how learning will be demonstrated once the project ends.
And, speaking of cooperation, while I wouldn’t want socio-economic status to limit participation in my school, I absolutely would want the ability to select students based on both their commitment to the vision of my school as well as their parents’ willingness to partner with the school to promote success. I love the idea of the preschool cooperative carried on to upper grades. In public schools, it’s not at all unusual to see the level of volunteerism among parents drop off significantly between elementary school and graduation. In my school, we’d encourage parent participation in the schooling process, but we’d also hold them accountable for truly supporting the school and in turn holding their students accountable to the commitments they made to that rigorous curriculum I talked about earlier. If there’s a problem, parents will talk to the teacher or principal and then work with the school to solve it. Even in my perfect school, there may be times when mistakes are made. And, yes, even a perfect child may sometimes make poor choices. But, we will not blame each other. We will talk. We will make a plan. We will be a united front.
And, if you’re nice to me, I might even let you make all the copies your want.