Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ideal Structure of School

It has long been an interest of mine to try to figure out what an ideal school structure would be. The basics of the problem are as follows:
1) Students (and I am talking about young students right now, ages 4 or 5 to 11 or 12) come to a school setting with different achievement levels and different learning rates.
2) Teachers typically can only do one thing at a time. They can arrange the classroom so that kids can be doing different things, but the teacher can only focus effectively on one thing at a time.
3) The ability span of the students who are one chronological age is at least as wide as the age, i.e., the ability span of 5 year olds typically ranges from that of a typical 3 year old to that of a typical 7 year old. There will also be some students who fall outside of that range.
4) Students learn best when the content is mildly challenging.
5) Most students learn best when there are peers learning similar material.

The questions: how can the students be arranged so that each child learns at a rate that is comfortable for him/her?

It is clear to me that the most prevalent structural arrangement in the United States - chronological age groupings, with yearly advancement based largely on age - is inadequate for those at the top and the bottom of the achievement/ability spans.

What are some better ideas?

I will be out of town for a week, so that is all for now.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Good Things I See When Subbing

Sometimes when I am subbing, I see techniques that I think are really useful - or I even come up with things myself that prove effective. One thing that is always of interest to me is how the teachers manage attendance and lunch count - mundane, yes, but good techniques can really make the start of the day easier. Of course, they do depend on the age of the students.

One 6th grade teacher I have subbed for had a bulletin board devoted to student locations. At the beginning of the day, there were three different colored tags (with names on them) in the student's pocket, one for attendance, one for hot lunch, and a third for specials. As the student passed the bulletin board coming in the room (or as part of the getting ready routine), the student would pull his or her attendance tag and put it in a basket. If s/he was planning on getting a hot lunch, the lunch tag was also pulled out of the pocket and put in another basket. If there were two choices for lunch, there would be two baskets. When a student left the room to go to a special class - reading, band, gifted, speech, etc., the specials tag would be pulled out and placed in the appropriate out of the room envelop (also on the board). The teacher also had job assignments on the next bulletin board, so a student would take the lunch count and attendance. At the end of the day, it was the job of one of the students to return all tags to the proper pocket. As much as possible, this teacher tried to train the students to do routine chores in the class.

Other teachers have used clothes pins, magnets attached to popsicle sticks, or labels with velcro. When the child leaves the room, s/he moves his/her token and places it on/in the appropriate "gone" location.

Other things that I saw today that worked well: student desks arranged in a double horseshoe. Most of the desks were in the outer "shoe", which actually was shaped like 3 sides of a square. A smaller number of desks were in the inner rectangle. There was walking room between the two shapes. This made passing out and collecting papers very quick. And all of the students could easily see the front of the room and the teacher. Most of them could also see each other - which is nice for discussion purposes. Negatives - sometime neighbors didn't get along; and two students couldn't sit next to anyone, so had to be situated away from the group. I am not sure how to avoid this.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Beginning

Talking to myself.
I have no idea if anyone will ever see this. I don't even know if I plan to tell anyone about it, but here it goes, anyway.

After substitute teaching in a new magnet school for a week, I am again wondering about educational structures. The way this school is set up, students can arrive at 8 am, 9 am or 10 am. The first two hours are exploratories, with the students getting some choice in the subjects they will be studying. Even the youngest children, Kindergarteners, get to choose from topics such as Spanish, pet care, jump rope, etc. Some students are enrolled in classes that they need, such as remedial reading or math. Then at 10 am, the "core" classes begin. This seems to consist largely of a 1 1/2 hour reading block for the younger ones. I am actually more interested in the older students, but I was subbing in a mixed 1/2 class.

This was followed by recess and lunch. Then there was another reading block - one hour and a math block. Then the kids went home. I may have the schedule slightly wrong, as this was a testing week and there were some changes, but that is basically it.

Now, my impressions. There was an awful lot of movement from here to there. It seemed fairly efficient, i.e., the kids knew where to go and how to behave in the halls, and there seemed to be little time wasted. But nevertheless, it seemed hard to settle the kids down each time a new activity started. The groups of kids taught in the core reading blocks were ability grouped, so all of the kids were at a similar level. This actually helps as far as teaching skills.

The math groups, though were not ability grouped. All of the first graders did first grade math; all of the second graders did second grade math. This was very difficult for me as a sub - trying to teach a 1st grade math lesson at the same time I was trying to get the second graders engaged in their math lesson. Kudos to the regular teacher for managing to figure it out.

Still, overall, my impression is that the kids actually had very few minutes of direct instruction in math or reading. There was a lot of time spent on management issues - sitting so that they could see the teacher, sharpening pencils, finding workbooks, etc.

And one has to wonder, what happened to social studies, art, music, science? I think they are covered by exploratories, but I was not clear about whether any of this is required. The school goes from Kindergarten through 8th grade - how well will this structure address all aspects of the curriculum? What happens to kids with special needs - learning disabilities, gifted, etc. Is there a consistent plan for addressing them in each of their classes?

An interesting thing to ponder.