“Good schools”

This is the first in a series of posts I’m going to do on “good schools”. The phrase “good school” is one that floats around a lot in conversations between parents, educators, and policy makers. I’m nearly positive that every person who uses the term “good school” is actually referring to, in some cases, wildly different things.

It’s time to, as academics say, interrogate this phrase. I begin with a discussion of my own son’s public school. He is in kindergarten and I refer to him as “SP” which is short for “serious play-er”. He LOVES to play and takes it very seriously at all times. He is an expert at play.

“Throughout our daily math activities, SP is counting, comparing and combining numbers, breaking numbers into smaller ones, creating simple and complex patterns, writing numbers and measuring using non-standard form. SP is able to explain his mathematical thinking as we try to figure out a problem. For example, while counting how many days left until his peer’s birthday, SP shared that “you can’t start at one because those days have passed.” He then shared with us that we need to count down the days starting with the day we were on.”

This is an excerpt from the narrative report we received during our 30 minute parent-teacher conference yesterday. The report is single spaced, 6 paragraphs long and talks about SP’s social-emotional, language, writing, cognitive and math development over this year. Attached is also a more standard checklist which rates him as “INDEPENDENT” in most areas, and “DEVELOPING” in some.

We left from our conference with a clear sense of who SP is as a member of his classroom community and who he is as a learner. We know what his strengths and weaknesses are, which in most, but not all ways, is consistent with who he is at home. We left feeling that his teachers adore him and care about him- as they expressed this repeatedly- and gave examples about why they enjoy his presence in the classroom. They also talked about SP’s grandma as an important part of the class, as she’s attended many of the class trips with them and all the kids call her “Grandma T” (So cute!)

SP has 2 head teachers because he’s in a CTT (Collaborative Team Teaching) class, which is basically an inclusion class. 40% of the children have IEP’s (diagnosed special needs) and he is one of the 60% who are “typically developing”. He has benefited so much from this model of teaching and learning. He is a methodical, routine oriented person, and he has responded really well to having things laid out in clear steps for him. He also gets very connected to adults and having 2 teachers, plus a full time (male) paraprofessional and multiple student teachers has made him feel that his needs are being met- he’s told me so.

I’m not sure what grade the school receives (which is based on test scores) but I think it’s a B or B-. I actually don’t care. They do not believe in teaching to the test. When he gets to 3rd grade, he’ll become familiar with the test, but it will not be the focus in any way shape or form of his experiences at school. In 3rd grade I believe they study Ancient China. They take many trips, create art, and learn through hands on activities.

By 3rd grade, he’ll have homework. He doesn’t get homework in K and he won’t get it in first grade. Did you know that every study of the impact of homework on children’s educational performance has shown NO significant positive impact and in some cases, a negative impact? SP’s school actually follows what is known by educational researchers.

SP attends a good school. It’s an extremely high quality school, actually. I wish that all parents and children could get a glimpse into this type of approach to education. As it stands, it seems to be an option only for a) those with the money to select progressive private schools or b) the knowledge of how wonderful this approach is and to actively seek it out in public schools who will get this experience.

It makes me scared for what we will see in the next generation of children- parents need to do lots of research about what has been traditionally considered a “good school”. It may not be what you think.

On their first school trip, they were studying birds at a pier (K)
On their first school trip, they were studying birds at a pier (K)
For their dinosaur study, they went to the Natural History Museum twice
For their dinosaur study, they went to the Natural History Museum twice
Checking out the green corner in their class during the family potluck
Checking out the green corner in their class during the family potluck
During their pigeon study, they created pigeons out of clay and drew them
During their pigeon study, they created pigeons out of clay and drew them

I encourage you to share your thoughts about “good schools” either in response to this post, or from your own personal experience.

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2 thoughts on ““Good schools”

  1. My daughter goes to what I consider mostly a good school. By the end of the year they will have gone on five trips. They do things like neighborhood walks and are going to a Mexican restaurant together. They have an art teacher, and a music teacher that works with them periodically. They have done many really innovative and artistic student centered arts projects. Recess is daily and a true gym period is cycled in periodically. It is a clean, bright and safe environment. The food is made on site and has healthy choices. She is in a class with one teacher to 15 kids, this ensures me that she gets the type of individual attention that she may need. Parent teacher conferences are just a report card with assessments of “levels” for this and that; plus one typed paragraph. They are not so helpful but because I go to her class so often, I have a sense of where she is and how she is developing. I love the written report idea that Takiema imparts above. Dd’s teacher offers much of that verbally. Her peers are diverse culturally and linguistically, although she is one of three black girls in the class and in the school overall, blacks are an underrepresented minority.

    She gets a homework pack on Tuesdays that are due on Mondays. In the spring term, she has had spelling words and spelling tests. I have mixed feelings about this. As a working parent, homework time takes away from our family time for sure. It can feel burdensome. On the other hand, it allows me clear insight into what is being done in the classroom so I can support that at home. When I found out she was learning time, I got her a new watch and we practice. When I found out that she is learning to count money, I started making her responsible for her own vending machine calculations. The homework has changed our freewheeling evenings for sure but that hasn’t been so bad. We structure our week as “Monday = educational tv/computer day. Tuesday = dd choose day. I get her right after school and she can come home and do whatever she wants. Weds – Friday, after school we tackle the homework. HW for last week = write and illustrate four poems; make a three dimmensional model of a butterfly and write a page about the parts; write spelling words 5x each/put them in sentences where you underline the verb and circle the noun/ put them in alphabetical order. HW for this week: more poems and a rare pack of worksheets.

    I believe that there are pros and cons of the school’s educational model. On the one hand, in an assessment driven world I think there is some benefit in the early exposure of kids, especially kids of color, to those building blocks of future competency. The school chooses to do that in a more structured way rather than through play and other types of exposure. I’m ok with that. More importantly, I find that dd likes knowing things like spelling words, and insect parts and all that kind of stuff. I can see her confidence in her awareness of the world growing. I can no longer spell something out if I want to “hide” something from her. She has a diary and she writes her thoughts in there and likes when she has more word tools to use. She is constantly coming up with poems or identifying verbs. As a college teacher who sometimes encounters students at college level who can’t make a coherent sentence, I appreciate the early introduction and reinforcement of these concepts.

    The things I don’t like: few inroads for parent participation. I have made my own inroads but it is not evident. I’d like to see more social media, different schedules for the PTA meeting to accomodate more people, a more hands on principal who communicates with parents directly, more oppportunities for parents to support teachers in the classroom. DD’s teacher is open to all sorts of things personally, but structurally, it seems like if you don’t get the right teacher or go out of your way–which as a middle class/flex schedule/educator parent I am primed to do–you just get the basics.

    I make up for a lot of things via dd’s afterschool program. It provides a rotating series of classes on cooking, swimming, karate, unstructured sandbox time, art and expression, playground outings etc. It makes up for the freeplay that the school does not provide.

    We also do two art things on weekends: ballet and piano. I make it a point to find science outings/experiences for us as well. I grew up with lots of exposure to science because my dad was a chemist and I want the same for her.

    I find that it’s the 8-2:40 school + out of school enrichments 3:30-5:30 + weekend outings + parental and family interactions that have made us feel good about the quality of public education we are recieving. I really wish that some of what we are doing out of school could be incorporated into the school–like the unstructured time and the science focus and the music lessons–but that seems like an impossible dream.

  2. Good piece, especially from the parent’s perspective. I have mixed emotions regarding my kids’ schools: the high school has turned into a negative experience for my oldest; the elementary school is ‘o.k.’ I love their teachers but I believe the school could do better at providing a more welcoming environment (I tweeted about my conversation with the PTA nominating committee on this very topic).

    As a former teacher, I do not mind the amount of homework my kids get because it is not what I would consider ‘busy work’ but instead reinforcing what they learned that day. The kindergarten students at their school do receive homework and are required to read each night, which is always a good thing.

    I do agree with your observation of the overuse of the word ‘good’ to describe schools. I would say our school is good if we were referring to test performance; it would be great if we were solely referring to teacher quality and committment.

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