This year I agreed to teach social studies instead of language arts. In return, I asked to teach civics and economics in multiage classrooms rather than to split preps – or plan lessons – for multiple social studies courses.
As a result, I’m re-learning familiar lessons in an unfamiliar place – the “content” classroom. In public schools we tend to view social studies and science classes as “content” classes because students get tested on factual standards. We view language arts and math classes as skills classes because students in these classes get tested on – well, they get tested on vocabulary, but there’s a lot of alpha-numeric window-dressing around it. (And we view arts, languages, and vocational classes as “electives,” which is grounds for another hundred posts). These disciplines do have fantastic habits of mind, and most states do have standards that deal with thinking like a historian and/or scientist (and/or artist, author, mathematician, or other craftsperson or explorer). However, if you look at state testing blueprints – which dictate the nature and topics of the items on standardized tests – they typically drop skills-based standards from content-class tests. For example, in Virginia, the first social studies standard for most middle school courses goes like this:
Although you could run a school system in pursuit of this single standard, it is excluded from testing.
Teaching “content” is profoundly weird to me. Not only do we in education tend to view content classes as different from skills classes, but we put them on semester-long schedules so that we free up one period a day for intervention classes meant to get more students passing the language arts and math tests because language arts and math are always used to calculate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), whereas social studies and science courses can be excluded from AYP calculations. Schools are indeed required to use a third measure for AYP, but something like attendance can be used in place of history or science scores.
Of course, we still test social studies and science annually. We call them content classes, we schedule them to make more time for the “skills-based” subjects, and we judge the classes’ teachers by their test scores – even though the scores don’t necessarily play into AYP calculations. It should be noted, however, that states do use scores from content classes to accredit schools. Why? I don’t know. For the same reasons we consider portfolios of student work to be inadequate evidence of student work.
How does this play out in my room? I don’t know.
I am fortunate to work in a public school with small class sizes and enough flexibility to schedule year-long social studies and science courses. I have made the decisions that brought me to this place, but I recognize it as a fairly unique place, especially in Virginia.
I still fear my test scores. I fear consequence. I pine after my superiors’ approval. I feel the pull of educational instincts honed by years of achievement as a student and teacher.
I try to push off of my fear, hunger, and instincts towards a more joyful, democratic, and inquiry-driven classroom. My teaching stands on the foundation of my anxieties. My work to transform public education is my fight against the gravity of my long indoctrination to the culture of public education in the United States.
In my content classroom, it’s scarier for me to take the risks I take in promoting student-directed learning than it was for me to champion student-led work in a language arts classroom. I am less patient with students. I am less patient with myself. I am less accommodating of silence and resistance. I am less willing to wait them out, but I have to figure out ways to do so.
I often miss the sweet spot of engagement with the work I design; I often fail to communicate how much I believe in my kids; I often hurry myself for no good reason, which means I often hurry my kids.
And then all my instincts tell me: plan the lesson; coerce the attention; give the quiz that shows you were right.
But those are the wrong things to do.
When I coerce a student out of silence – when I squelch resistance – I rob that student of his or her self-determination. I rely on a traditional teacher-student relationship rather than on the one we’re building as people. I ignore the information the student is giving me about his or her comfort and happiness with learning and focus only on the information he or she is giving me about his or her compliance with my expectations.
There is a better way. I know it. It took me years to find it. I can’t let go of it, no matter how much I want to.
I have to wait. I have to say it’s okay to wait. I have to help students make sense of my classroom and then the world and then (maybe) the content.
So, I am thankful to be inadequate, to have a long weekend, to have another chance to get learning right despite all the divisions amongst this and that in the teaching I have been asked to do.
It wouldn’t be a bad thing, this year, despite all the pacing guides, to never get past the first standard.
I can go back to that first standard. I can identify the problems in what I do, weigh the expected costs and benefits and possible consequences of challenging the status quo of public education, and recommend solutions based on great learning instead of great teaching.
And so the problem I identify is this: while content isn’t obsolete, the way we teach it in school – as driven by our assessments and scheduling – is. Whereas learning opens the books of our lives to new chapters, schooling is increasingly about neatly ending those books and insisting that we review their contents ad nauseum. Those of us participating in narratives of privilege inscribe those stories on our hearts and forever look inward away from the world. Those of us participating in narratives of struggle inscribe those stories on our hearts and forever look for ways out. We are captivated by those who somehow go from one extreme to another, but we remain – as a whole – disinterested in the sacrifices necessary to share a sustainable narrative somewhere in between the American dream of ascension and prosperity and its complementary nightmare of downfall and loss.
Taking control of our lives and writing – or programming – the next chapter of our society requires of us the political and social will and compassion to end the beginning of our learning by beginning the end of our schools.
I think school will end. I think parents and students will leave for more authentic opportunities that may be called “schools,” but look more like apprenticeships, play, studios, and service. I think that the students left in schools will face increasingly crushing levels of adult expectation that the system transfers on to them. I think school will lose its claim on our imaginations as a rite of passage. Instead, it will become an institution from which we aggressively withhold meaning inhabited by generations who will keenly feel the sharp gift of our disregard. “You still go to school?” will be just another way we say all the things we’ve said to keep each other down.
We need to end school and to make its end humane for those of us who go down with it.
In the time that we have left in school – in the time that I have left as a teacher – in the time we have to figure out what comes next – I hope we can do these things:
- Share authority in the classroom with kids: This doesn’t look like chaos; it looks like inquiry, and it builds trust and enable students to become authorities on learning that matters to them. It looks like students posing questions, solving problems, and creating products we could never anticipate on our own.
- Share school governance with kids: Put kids in charge of tenure and renewal. Let them set the tone for school culture and decide what happens when classmates violate their norms. Provide adult guidance rather than sentencing. Involve kids in sourcing their own food and materials.
- Cede control of scheduling to kids: We should change how we manage staffing, scheduling, and technology so that students at school can “check out” their work and bring it to the kids and adults with whom they work best. Use the best relationships we can offer students throughout the entire day.
- Insist on performance assessment: Whether we evaluate students by a portfolio of work addressing discrete standards or one year-long project addressing a holistic rubric, we should help kids acculturate themselves to project- and problem-based learning. We’re leaving them our society, not a multiple-choice test.
- Be patient with one another: Even while we feel an urgency for change, we should cultivate a patience with one another. It takes time to shift from a traditional classroom to an inquiry-driven one. It takes time to trust kids’ decisions as much as we trust our own. It takes time to disentangle ourselves from tradition and from the pieces of our work that are about us, rather than about our kids. We face the future together; together we serve kids. We will all need the silence; we will all need to resist and be resisted; we will all need one another when the quiet is done and the conflict goes on.
I hope this post speaks to something in you. I hope it strikes a chord or hits a nerve. I hope you will say what you have to say and perhaps stop by our community here more often or join us at EduCon for a conversation about creating spaces of permission to speak about education. I hope you will think and talk about content classes, democracy, and the end of school.
Regardless, we must name the issues we face as a public school system to begin creating a better one. We have authority and permission to speak; we need to convince our kids that they have their own.