The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins

It started with this question: Why aren’t our students making more progress?

One day late last week a third of the staff stayed more than two hours after school to discuss the possibility of our becoming a magnet school of sorts. The sort isn’t important, but the conversations about it are. horseshoe magnet

No one had asked that question before. We’d been told that we had to have our students make progress and we’ve been given a host of different programs to cause that to happen, but none of it was working.

In small groups we had serious conversations to answer that question. Among other ideas, each group mentioned a lack of student motivation as a major part of the problem. In response my principal said words that I never expected to come from his mouth, words I’d been saying and writing for a number of years. “The reason our students are not motivated is because school is not working for them.”

It’s not the students’ fault, he said, and not the teachers’ either.

“Students are not motivated because the way we do school, the structure of the day, the changing of classes at 42 minute intervals, isolation of subject areas from each other, none of it is working.”

For a moment it was silent. Then the conversations started. We talked about our own positive and negative experiences in school and why they occurred. We talked about how we’d change the structure of the day, the physical plant of the school, the curriculum.

Some were defensive, feeling that what they do and how they do it was under attack. We agreed that some kids thrive in the current mode of operation. Others were for change. There were even a couple who, like me, were ready to trash the system and start over.

We won’t get the opportunity to do that. And we may not win the $3,000,000 grant that would allow us to make a lot of changes and train ourselves on how to make them work. It’s not that the grant doesn’t matter, but one of the most important parts of the change has already occurred.

It happened when our principal asked that question and created an anything-goes safe zone in which we could explore answers.

Now that the conversation has started, it is up to us to keep it going.

We are the change that needs to happen.

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9 Responses to The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins

  1. re: “School is not working for them.” Absolutely true statement. I remember not too long ago somebody framing that as many kids don’t (or maybe can’t) “play the game of school.” Looking at school as a set of rules, like a game has rules, and success means following them. To me that was a very interesting way to look at it. Change the rules (like standardized testing), it’s a new game, and more kids can succeed.

  2. […] A teacher says good conversation followed when his principal created a safe space. (Ed on the Plate) […]

  3. coollit says:

    These are exciting conversations…but I’m not sure I understand how making the school a magnet school would help?

    • Deven Black says:

      It would give us $3,000,000 over three years to train teachers to do PBL, buy technology (including labs for science & engineering), and stuff like that. We’d still have to follow NYCDOE rules, etc.

      • Deven Black says:

        I should have made this update earlier, but we did not get the grant so PBL was not introduced. I am no longer in that school so I do not know what other changes have or have not been implemented.

  4. Julia says:

    Your principal is correct. WE are the problem. The way we ‘do’ school is the problem. I have long believed that our kids are making progress, we are just assessing that progress in really invalid ways. PBI will not fix a single thing. It really will not. Newer research and longer studies are showing us that. It is simply another way to ‘control’ kids with extrinsic rewards. There is no real learning how to do the right thing because it feels good intrinsically. We are turning our kids into compliant robots and not encouraging free and independent thinking. The standardized testing we are doing is netting us absolutely nothing. We cannot forget that each of our students is a whole human being and all the recipes and canned programs seem to forget to consider that reality. People are complex. Learning is complex. It is time to step out of ‘old school’ and step into an approach that honors kids as whole beings and engages them in all the empowering that comes with learning.

  5. Gita says:

    I am from Chennai , India and involved with some training of teachers in mainstream schools. Most well established schools want to have a diverse and enriching program but the program’s are not developmentally sound , or address the needs of growing child. Surely it is pretty ‘head’ oriented and the heart and limbs are addressed upto a limit. We are using some tenets of Steiner education even with children with special needs and the program is bringing many slow but assured changes in the children. They are engaged, self driven , happy and very expressive. It’s a work in progress but looking at the child holistically , has certainly brought about many changes in our school. We use the Waldorf curriculum in our special school and children are responding to the movement, the changing subject matter in every class which is developmentally sound and the practical work with ease.

  6. Brian Smith says:

    Just curious, (and it may not even matter) but I was wondering if anybody offered up a reason as to why more students and schools are failing now than ever before? I am a Special Education Teacher in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago. My colleagues and I have talked about our students reading and writing abilities are drastically behind what they were ten years ago. Has technology such as texting, facebook and twitter completely ruined our students ability to grasp formal writing skills? And if so, is this a problem or is formal writing something that has become obsolete in most professions and shouldn’t be emphasized anymore? It still amazes me how many students are unable to do long division now that they all use a calculator.

    As an educator, I want my students to do well and continue to improve, but are so many of things that we are teaching today a complete “dinosaur” and we need to change?

  7. Diane says:

    I am a special education teacher in northern Canada and I wanted to comment on the strength of your administration and of the staff in promoting discussion and deciding to take action. You are right, the most important aspect of your meeting was not the outcome of those particular discussions on magnet schools, but that a process was created in which staff could identify needs and challenges within your school and be able to hold honest conversations about problems within the school without risk. Change is difficult for many people, but as the field of education is constantly evolving, change is necessary to keep current with new developments and to improve education for the students. The creation of an “anything-goes safe zone” to identify key issues and explore possible solutions and barriers, is a wonderful step towards promoting positive change and having a more progressive outlook in keeping up with the needs of students. I would dearly love to be a part of this type of ongoing exchange within my school and hope that our staff will be open to the process. I agree with your closing statements that the change that needs to happen is us and it is up to us to keep it going. It will take active and ongoing commitment, but the results are sure to be worth the effort. I commend both your attitude and efforts.

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