Today while walking, a retired teacher and I discussed the changes in education that have come to area schools in recent years. Like all things, there are positives and negatives surrounding these changes. We took out and examined both, the upsides and the downsides.
The school from which my walking buddy retired is an extremely high-performing school that embraced the workshop model and “best practice” instruction with rigorous and time-intensive language arts curriculum guides. The principal embraced change and led by edict, “We are going to implement this new curriculum this year. We will ensure fidelity by asking you to input your lesson plans, enduring understandings, essential questions, and learning targets every day on the shared drive. The literacy coach and I will read and comment on these as well as stop by your rooms with checklists to give you feedback.” And so it went. A two-hour reading block and an hour long writing/word study block, complete with carpet time, minilessons, anchor charts, and share outs, ruled the day. Students moved from one lesson to another like clockwork. Literacy performance increased. The school earned a 97% on the State School Report Card. The principal was selected as a Kohl’s fellow. The results are impressive and awe-inspiring. These were the pros, but as in all things, there were resulting cons.
As the new normal with its accompanying test scores and accolades came to stay, there were consequential changes, consequential losses, and consequential shifts. “What are these?” you may be asking. As literacy instruction became king, its preeminent curriculum began to squeeze out other activities during the day. Things such as teacher planning time. Meetings encroached on this sacred time so that teachers had only three 35 minute prep times per week. Not so bad, except that conscientious teachers began staying late and working after dinner until 10 or 11 o’clock. Teacher teams met in summers to work on lesson plans with the required understandings, questions, and targets. Most of the staff sought help in the form of anti-anxiety medication, retirement, or job changes. Science, so interesting to students, also was compacted into two 30 minute lessons a week, and Social Studies became a 20 minute lesson three times per week. Gone were the projects and plays and recesses. Choice, the hallmark of workshop models, became almost non-existent as “the curricular guides” asked students to read certain books that aligned with lessons. Sadly, to me, one of the greatest losses were the projects. To me, projects made a difference. In all my years of education, one of the things I remember the most was a third-grade Native American (Indians, in the old days) project. I remember it still-the Iroquois. I remember the designed and painted forests; handmade longhouses; and the little Indian figures. All were so impressive to my 8-year-old self. Sad to think what our 5- or 7- or 10-year- old children are missing, this joyous part of education! All these pressures were the “last straw” for my friend who decided to retire.
I want to be fair. I’m a literacy coach with training from a prominent university. I believe in the workshop model, constructivist and collaborative learning, rigor and high-standards. I believe students need choice and enjoyment in learning. I believe in student growth. (Our school received a 89.9%.) And, I believe in best practices! All this being said, and while believing best practices should be considered for instructional decisions and to help all children reach their full potential, it also is important to find balance. How can we find balance in the joys and curiosities of learning (with its routines and regiments and accurate planning) with the joy of being a child? How can needs of the child’s academic and social/emotional life find balance in a high-performing school that demands rigor and results? These are questions educators need to answer. These are questions that need pondering. These are questions that demand actions. We need to remember the child-the whole child-in the curriculum. We need to find balance!