Changing the Public School “Collective”

I took a trip down memory lane today, all the way back to 1994.  As part of my studies to become an elementary teacher, I was required to observe classrooms and keep a journal of my findings.

I’m intrigued to examine how I felt about teaching then, in the thick of preparation to enter the public school system, to how I feel now, in the thick of preparation to encourage parents to consider homeschooling.

Many of my observations were about the underlying systems in place.  I drew diagrams

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like this one of the seating arrangements. I made note of busywork that students did as they arrived to class each morning.  I witnessed first grade class activities like reading groups, completing worksheets, cutting out vocabulary words, reading sentences, water breaks, recess, and discipline issues.

Everything that I observed appeared normal to me because it was similar to the way I had been educated.  I remember reading groups.  I remember sitting in little groupings in the classroom.  I remember being placed in the wrong reading group for an entire semester, completing work that I had already done the previous year, because of an administrative error.

Yet that which was “normal” to me is often completely wrong for some students. See the single student desk sitting off by itself in the diagram?  Nearly every teacher has one or more of these scattered around.  The kids all know what those desks are for — those who are unable to tow the line, raise their hands before speaking, sit quietly for hours on end, keep their hands to themselves, and keep all four legs of their chairs on the floor are destined for the lonely desks, set away from their classmates.  These are the kids who are often labeled — ADD, ADHD, OD, OCD, ED — their isolated status is the modern day equivalent to the dunce cap of olden times.

As a classroom teacher, I had a desk or two like that.  One year I had four of them!  We teachers don’t like to have to isolate students, but the current system mandates that either we take those kids who can’t keep their hands to themselves and put them in a place where their disruptions are minimized or else spend 95% of our time managing misbehavior.  It makes me wonder — are all those kids saddled with labels the ones with true issues, or is our way of doing school so rigid, so entrenched, that it has become the problem? With 22 six-year-olds in one classroom, it doesn’t take much to generate chaos!

But you know what?  It doesn’t have to be this way.

That kid who always finds himself stuck off by himself in the corner has a brilliant mind underneath all that energy.  He is a square peg in a round hole.  He views the world differently — and the world, starting in the classroom, tries to make him into someone he is not for the sake of  — dare I say it? — the collective.  He would thrive in a homeschool setting that allowed him to sprawl out on the floor to build Lego models while listening to a book read aloud by his teacher or that had him in a setting where movement was intentionally used as a teaching aid.

Homeschoolers everywhere are crushing their public school counterparts, not only academically, but also socially.  Contrary to conventional wisdom that homeschoolers lack socialization, they actually lack socialism.  They are not confined to thirteen years of a collective mentality.  They learn at their own pace in ways that fit their learning styles, pursue interests the Lord gave them, and adhere to a high standard of behavior.

Yet not every family can afford to homeschool.  Single parent families or families that require both parents to work find themselves using the public school because there are no viable alternatives to the collective way of life.

To break out of the collective mindset and consider the individual needs of thousands of students being educated with our tax dollars, the system MUST evolve.  The careers that these students will end up pursuing haven’t even been imagined yet.  So why spend so much time teaching to the test?  Why not spend time teaching kids how to learn independently?  In today’s world of YouTube videos, Khan Academy, TedTalks, electronic books, historically accurate movies, and the Discovery Channel, students in this generation have the potential to delve deeply and learn about anything, far more than we ever did with our dusty libraries and Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes lining the shelves.

I propose a radical shift in the makeup of our public school system.  Many of my ideas go so far against the grain that I can already hear the squeaks of protest from the entrenched system.  Yet when we get down to it, why did we go into education in the first place?  Because we want the best for our students.  Is the current system giving them the best? Nope.  So let’s take a page from homeschooling and see what principles could be applied to the public schools.  Here are five ideas:

1. Homeschooling parents who outsource (send their kids to co-op classes in different subject areas) pick and choose who they want to instruct their child.  Word quickly gets around that Mr. R is an outstanding science instructor, and his classes fill up quickly.  Why should public school parents not have that same option?  Post online interviews with teachers in a grade level (or subject area), and allow parents to choose their child’s teacher — in effect, hiring them.  Parents pay taxes and ultimately are the customers.  At the beginning of every school year, I hear from parents who say, “I hope my son/daughter doesn’t get Mrs. Humperdink.”  Or they may even directly ask the principal to place their daughter in Mrs. Twiddledee’s class only to be told that there are no guarantees.  Really? Who pays the principal?  It’s never made sense to me, even when I was a teacher, that parents have zero input into the classes in which their children are placed.  A child spends approximately 1,240 hours with a teacher in one school year…hours with a person whose words can fill her to the brim with life and a joy of learning or with words and practices that wound her heart and destruct her spirit.  Having teachers be re-hired — by the parents — each year would help inspire them to do their best, as if their jobs depended on it.  As they should.

2. Homeschooling parents get to pick the curriculum that best fits their children. A child who is a math whiz and already knows his multiplication tables up to the 15s in the first grade does NOT need to sit through lessons on counting by 2s.  Public schools could make this accommodation if they actually sent the first grade math whiz to third grade math, if that’s where he needed to be.

3. Speaking of grade levels…eliminate them.  Ask many homeschoolers what grade their children are in, and they usually end up telling you that nine year old Sally is in 4th grade in reading, 5th grade in math, and junior high level in debate.  Who cares about grade levels? The importance here is mastery of material.  Too many public school children are shuttled through the conveyor belt to the next grade without having mastered everything that they will need to succeed the following year.  Allowing classes to be multi-age would completely remove the stigma currently associated with having to repeat a grade.  It also would take care of those students who may need to repeat 4th grade math and science but are performing on a 6th grade level in reading and writing.  Allowing multi-age classes would enhance the mastery model because students would have more time to practice and master different skills. For example, a child who struggled with the concept of multiplication when it was first introduced in second grade would have more time to master it.  But if he learned the multiplication tables in a song through skip counting….well, see #4 below.

4. Many homeschoolers have discovered the joys of classical education, where kids at the grammar stage of learning memorize, memorize, memorize through movement, chanting, singing, and sometimes just plain silliness.  In Classical Conversations, children as young as 4 learn their multiplication tables up to 15×15 — through skip counting.  They also learn to recite the distributive property, the commutative property, and the identity property.  Of course they don’t know how to USE them yet (and won’t for many, many years), but when it is time for them to learn those properties, they will already be familiar with the language.  They learn the Latin noun declensions without understanding what a declension is…but no matter.  In seventh grade when they begin studying Latin, they are exhilarated to find that they already have a major piece of Latin memorized.  They memorize a history timeline from Creation to the present — a timeline that will come in handy for them years later when their writing prompt for the SAT asks, “How did the Age of Industry impact the lives of Native Americans?” They will remember from their history timeline that the cotton gin was invented prior to the Cherokee Trail of Tears, followed by a big burst of western expansion via railroads.  With railroads came mass killings of buffalo and an end to a way of life.

Public schools could implement a classical style of teaching, following certain cycles that get repeated every three or four years.  Each year they could take a page from CC and have students learn the same history timeline and math facts, but the history, science, English, and geography facts would rotate. Art and music classes could integrate with the historical time period being studied.

I’m so passionate about these changes that I created a general outline of what could be learned, beginning with what is traditionally known as preschool through sixth grade:

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A typical school day would contain a large chunk of time reviewing past memory work and learning songs, chants, movements, and visuals to learn that week’s new memory work.  The teacher’s read-aloud would be an exiting story set in the time period being studied. Students would still learn to read and practice reading. Handwriting would follow along with the memory work. Math would follow a usual curriculum.  Teachers could lead “math groups” just as they currently lead “reading groups” in order to help each child achieve mastery of content.  Older students would learn intensive grammar and use a writing curriculum, such as Institute for Excellence in Writing or the Lost Tools of Writing. The writing topics would be integrated with the time period being studied.  Art and music segments would also integrate with history and/or science. Science would consist of hands-on experiences with an emphasis on the elements of the scientific method.

There would be very few worksheets used in these classrooms.  Much assessment would be verbal, particularly with the memory work. The only grades given would be for tests or final copies of essays.  Children who memorize all the memory work for the entire year would earn huge recognition and status.  The only standardized testing would be a national test such as the Stanford Assessment Test or the Iowa Assessment of Basic Skills.  Allowing six year olds leeway to march around the room and sing at the top of their lungs might be a stretch in a normal sized classroom.  That leads me to my final reform idea, #5.

5. Class sizes in homeschools are generally pretty small.  In my house, the teacher to student ratio is actually 2 to 1, when my husband is home!  This is not realistic in public schools, but I do have a proposition: cut class sizes in half.  Cap elementary grades to 10 students per class.  We’d have to build bigger schools, you say?  No you wouldn’t. Put dividing walls into existing classrooms, and viola, you have the space requirements.  How could we afford doubling teacher salaries?  Put a moratorium on ordering new textbooks and utilize existing teachers AND administrators with teaching credentials to fill the teaching positions. Allow uncertified but highly effective people to teach. Many, if not most, homeschoolers are not certified teachers.  When I began teaching, I actually questioned the hours and hours in college learning about theories of learning that the state forced me to endure because I found very little of it was applicable to real life.  In fact, the journal I kept of my observations states,

“Mrs. K was great! She had me help her — I was on my feet, walking around the kids from the time I began until the time I left. I learned more in her classroom than I ever have learned through the textbooks.”

An intensive training program with extensive hands-on time in the classroom would help those without teacher certification learn on the job (not to mention help the teachers!).

Today I am just as passionate about education as I was nearly twenty years ago when I began my teaching career. God has given me a heart for children, for the joy of lightbulb moments and unlimited potentials.  Yet I have come a long way from admiring the concept of orderly desks in a “collective”

“One of the first things I noticed was Mrs. K’s orderly classroom.”

to admiring a learning environment that allows kids to be kids.  Being a parent has changed me. Being a homeschooling parent has given me greater insights into how kids learn and how teachers can aid that learning — or thwart it with a misplaced word, a shrug of the shoulder.  Homeschooling classically has utterly transformed my view of education.

My prayer is these concepts can find a way into YOUR child’s classroom so those 1, 240 hours are as precious and life-giving as they can be not for the sake of the collective, but for the sake of each child.

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