Thoughtful Revolution

Elements of a Classroom

From reading this site, you’d think that all I ever did was whine, whine, whine. And while cursing the world is a cherished pastime of mine, I do occasionally channel it into more positive, constructive thoughts. (Really!) So I may spend a good percentage of my time dwelling on the bait-and-switch betrayal of unschooling, or the failures of the public school system (which I have no doubt I’ll post about in the near future), or the rank flaws and inequities in the private-school sector — but, every so often, I’ll come up with a solution or two.

Now I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on educational strategy, or the problems therein. I have no doubt that most of the things I might suggest have been tried and failed miserably. Regardless, my ideal classroom (hopefully unhampered by such downers as money, cranky administration, etc.etc.) would look something like this:

One steps onto a smooth linoleum floor, softly carpeted in the center — not the omnipresent bristly brownish-greyish industrial carpet, lined in scuffed black rubber, but some brightly-hued shag or soft, dusty ornamental rug. There are no doors, only wooden frames, and five or six picture-sized windows line the outer wall. The first thing that stands out to the visitor is the vibrant wildness of the walls: on the first day of school, the students were given paintbrushes and pigments (or, depending on the grade level, other materials) and allowed to put their own stamp on the classroom. On the last day, they will paint over their designs, leaving the walls a blank slate for next year’s pupils in a miniature, free-form torch-passing ritual. This is the home room.

In any one of the building’s classrooms, a crueler eye might see more of a resemblance to an antique shop than a place of learning. The family-style table in the center of the room is strewn with paper, with pens, with crayons, with the childish handwriting of the first-graders who study there (or the neat printing of the seniors; I haven’t decided yet which grade to assign this hypothetical classroom, but I imagine that the others in the building would look somewhat like it). There are musical instruments in the corner, guitars and gently used trombones donated by parents or music stores, which can be taken to the practice rooms elsewhere in the building or outside. Bookshelves line two of the four walls; one of the remaining two sports printouts of famous faces and works of art and writing, while the other is speckled with the students’ own work. Independent, eclectic pieces of furniture — desks, beanbags, loveseats — hover at the room’s fringes, ready to be pulled out in case a student should require furniture outside of the central table. And in the very back of the room, next to the closet (not cubbies — God forbid!) where the children keep their coats and bags, there’s a large crate stuffed with extraneous items. These items, again brought in by teachers, stores or generous donors, are seemingly random and entirely unrelated to one another: a set of jacks, perhaps, and a bouquet of faux flowers, and a bucket of clay, and a large stuffed elephant. Should a student wish to use (play with, study, destroy) any of these items, that student must a) sign it out and return it at the end of the day and/or b) replace it with another item. Negotiations over items must be brought to the teacher, who will also provide for exceptions in case of financial need. This is the give-and-take, the wild card of the classroom. I’m not sure what didactical purpose it fills, but it sounds like fun.

Leave the classroom in one direction, and you will come upon the well-stocked and easily convertible science lab. Walk in another direction, and you will find an assortment of “studios” — tiny, maybe 10×10 pods, empty and available for a student to practice his/her instrument or write in private silence. Walk outside, and next to the field and gravel expanses, you will find a sizable, year-round garden, tended every morning by student volunteers; its produce makes up the bulk of students’ school lunches, though a number of last year’s seniors started a small offshoot that grows fruits and veggies for local shelters. The cafeteria itself looks out onto the garden, almost like a walled-in porch, and while students are given the option of eating outside or at local restaurants, most choose to spend their lunch hour socializing in this pleasant space. Lunches themselves are prepared by students, on a rotating basis; students can volunteer to take more than one lunch duty, and students who work in the garden are exempt unless they choose to participate. Students also have the option of “signing out” the cafeteria during school hours or after school, giving them the opportunity to work on the cafeteria’s equipment; once a student has signed up, s/he is allotted a designated amount of time in the kitchen with (depending on his/her age) varying degrees of adult supervision. With some exception, s/he must provide her own ingredients. The hallway is dotted with classrooms, some small and intimate, some (like the art room) more spacious. And right off the side of the foyer, well-marked and inviting, is a reasonably sized black box theater, easily convertible and ideal for the school’s frequent student events and performances. This space, like the cafeteria, can be signed out on a case-by-case basis.

Administration looks slightly different in this school of mine. Yes, many of the teachers are specialists and experts: folks who are qualified to inspire and facilitate student work in their area of expertise. But many of them serve not as professors but as mentors. Each of these mentors is given approximately six students to work with, varying between the ages of 5 and 18; these students are assigned based on personality and shared interests. Each mentor will meet with his/her mentee at least once a day (they are welcome, by mutual agreement, to meet for longer hours or after school) and talk, interact, discuss. The hope is that the mentor becomes a support system and an interesting “older friend,” both someone to wipe tears and to test new ideas. Students who choose to may switch mentors at the end of a school year, although the hope is that a partnership will stay together for most if not all of the child’s schooling.

Independent work is critical; more and more independence, coupled with a greater focus on mentor-mentee relationships, is granted to students as they get older. Below is a hypothetical first-grader’s schedule:

8:00 – Arrival. Go to home room. Foreign language.
9:00 – Reading period. Students who choose to can read on their own; others congregate as the teacher reads to them.
10:00 – Basic math. Some students do worksheets; others use blocks, jacks, etc.
11:00 – Mentor-mentee meeting.
11:30 – Lunch
12:00 – Recess (independent play or a structured activity)
1:00 – Special period. Specials (art, music, P.E.) rotate based on day of the week.
2:00 – Teacher’s choice: usually a science experiment or social studies activity.
3:00 – Independent playtime.
3:30 – Dismissal.
[extracurricular activities]

And a seventh-grader:
8:00 – Arrival. History and Philosophy of Thought*
9:00 – Go to math classroom (different classrooms based on level). Math class.
10:00 – Elective class — art, music, P.E., or another class, depending on what the teachers can offer. Students may take a certain elective class for more than one year of middle school but must try at least two.
11:00 – Science, social studies or foreign language; switches based on day.
12:00 – Lunch.
12:30 – Recess.
1:00 – Reading/literature.
2:00 – Mentor/mentee meeting.
3:00 – Independent period.
3:30 – Dismissal.
[extracurricular activities]

And an eleventh-grader:
8:00 – Arrival. Reading/literature.
9:00 – Science/social studies/foreign language.
10:00 – Math.
11:00 – Thought, Structure and Rhetoric.*
12:00 – 3:30 – Independent half-day. Students can, in conjunction with their mentor, plan whatever they want for this period; they have any of the school’s facilities at their disposal. The site and timing of their lunch period is at their discretion, as is that of their mentor-mentee meeting.
Students can apply for independent work during the rest of the day. These applications will be accepted for no longer than a three-week period, after which students must apply again to extend their full-day independent study. This option is for students immersed in specific projects, within or outside of the school.
[extracurricular activities — encouraged!]

*This class is intended to allow students to explore philosophy, rhetoric and critical thinking on an intense and discussion-based level. Middle school students begin by reading and discussing the history of thought, including basic philosophy; as students grow, they begin to form and work through their own philosophical ideas, while practicing oral argument and critical thinking in an increasingly Socratic format.

So I know there are lots of logistical issues with this school: money, size of student body, and staffing, to only mention a few. But if we’re talking in terms of ideals, and the nature of an ideal is that the nitty-gritty need not come into play. I’ll try to figure out a more concrete plan for this school and get back to you; in the meantime, feel free to pick and choose ideas, adopt them (or disagree with me)!, or just enjoy. Also, find me a way to add more hours into the day.


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  1. * Sue Marx says:

    Very very interesting. How about interactions among the students? Do they operate in totally separate universes? Is it worthwhile to engage the younger in questioning the older? And the older become responsible for formulating answers for the younger?

    Would tikkun olam be encouraged? I see that the seniors, on their own, set up a garden to feed others. Would there be a link to the school’s neighborhood? (maybe inviting neighborhood kids in for extracurriculars?)

    I love the mentor idea. Not quite so “hands off” as Fairview (wasn’t that the name of the Sudbury school in Maryland?), but still lots of choice.

    I also like that foreign language is so in the mix.

    Extracurriculars, I assume, would be student-generated. I can picture the outgrowth of a chess club (as they often pop up at lunch time in “regular” school), etc.

    And you’d need a very special set of teachers.

    | Reply Posted 8 years ago
  2. * mercadee says:

    Teach the student proper communication skills. A student might whine because that is the easiest way she knows to get others’ attention. If that is the case, meet with the student privately and teach her how to express a concern or ask for what she wants in a respectful, pleasant, non-whiny manner. You might role-play with the student; giving her common school situations and having her try different ways of responding to those situations.

    | Reply Posted 5 years, 8 months ago

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