Work within the system for slow systemic change, or from without for idealistic radical change? This is one of the most exhausting choices facing modern alternative educators. I want to take a crack at how we might approach educational transformation from within a typical public charter school with all its focus on core curriculum and the drive towards college prep.
First, a quick “why.” College should be within the grasp of any graduating student, though I think it’s pretty clear that success and happiness in one’s life does not depend on it. Regardless, education remains one of the best socioeconomic equalizers at our disposal. Most urban dwellers – especially those of the not-rich variety – tend to have limited access to quality education. For example, here in New Orleans, your child is almost certainly either in a public charter school or a private parochial school (or not in school at all).
So, how do do we satisfy DoE-defined Grade-Level Expectations, appease the managerial preconceptions of a typical administration, and still create space for students to determine the direction of their own education?
First tool: Project Based Learning. This is a popular concept by now and most principles will gladly recognize it. With PBL, students are often working together (social learning), have some freedom of mobility, and discover the purpose of learning beyond a written test. They are using real skills to research, design, build, and communicate.
Second tool: Understanding by Design. Backwards design unit plans are very common in public schools now and allow us to focus on the big picture. Essential questions and big ideas create a context of inquiry, while simultaneously “covering” GLEs to the satisfaction of the higher-ups. Assessment is multifaceted and somewhat individualized.
Third tool: Democratic education. This phrase means different things to different people, but I mean it in the context of an Alfie Kohn quote: “Give them as much freedom as you can stomach.” For example, what if the classroom had a library of project units designed by the teacher, but were chosen by students? Sure, How to Build a Rocket might be a linear interdisciplinary learning plan, but individuals or small groups are allowed to choose the next project as dictated by their own interest.
Of course, there will be some restrictions and expectations, but is that a bad thing? Hands-on learning, diverse assessment, freedom within limits: it may look messy in practice, but none of this should be opposed by an administration or (hopefully) by the students. For the millions of underprivileged urban students, an approach like this would probably be a welcome change.