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Blog Campaign, Education in the Media, Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Taking Time to Practice Democracy #yearatMH

originally posted at the IDEA Blog.

Are we ‘school-year’ wise, but lifetime foolish?

Immediately after finishing the first video chapter of “A Year at Mission Hill,” I went over to the school’s website and read their mission statement. I was first struck by just how beautiful it is; their care and dedication to “helping parents raise youngsters” for a democratic society is evident in every single line.

But in thinking about how to make schools like this the rule rather than the exception, this part in particular stood out to me:

Toward these ends, our community must be prepared to spend time even when it might seem wasteful hearing each other out. We must deal with each other in ways that lead us to feel stronger and more loved, not weaker and less loveable…

There is so much in the whole statement that I would love to parse and consider, but the piece about time really struck me.

When we think about what schools need to succeed, money is usually the first thing that comes to mind. That’s especially salient in our austere and inequitable circumstances, where virtually everything, down to the physical condition of some schools, reminds some students, families and educators that there are those who view them as “weaker and less loveable” than others. But time is perhaps just as important, though much more rarely considered.

To be clear, funding is important. Teachers and principals are people (imagine!), who need to earn a living in order to take care of themselves and their families, and contribute to the communities in which they live and teach. Funding is also needed for the tools and other “things” that facilitate learning experiences. It also “buys” time in a certain sense, insofar as it allows school communities to hire enough people to cover a full course schedule that includes planning and collaboration time, or to keep classes at a reasonable enough size that students and teachers can take the time they need to interact with and learn from each other.

Yet aside from conversations or negotiations about longer school days and years, which often focus on the idea of spending more time on “traditional” academics (or worse, test preparation), it’s pretty rare to hear thoughtful discussions of just how time in school should be spent.

As a person who is very susceptible to demands of the fast pace of present-day life, I definitely understand how powerful those demands can be. I also appreciate how time can become the casualty of a very well-intentioned sense of urgency around making the most of every instructional moment, making up for “lost” time for students who struggle, or simply the desire to avoid disappointing other people by “falling behind.”

But just like the decision to buy a cheap product over a more moderately-priced yet higher-quality one might be “a penny wise but a pound foolish,” I think some features of our dominant schooling culture are often a school-year wise, yet a lifetime foolish.

For instance, I remember having to fight to protect practices like holding a morning and afternoon meeting in my elementary classroom. Though they were essential to the classroom community my students and I built, we were also subject to strictly-enforced mandates on our time (exactly 75 scheduled minutes for math; exactly 90 scheduled minutes for literacy, additional whole-grade intervention time, etc.). That may have made sense to outside administrators who assume all learning time is created equal, but teachers know that it isn’t.

Investing time in thoughtful community-building actually preserves instructional time by reducing the amount of time students spend feeling upset over un- or poorly-resolved interpersonal issues, and reducing the amount of time teachers spend on negative discipline. Over a lifetime, it pays off by helping students grow up to be conscientious adults who are less likely prone to causing unnecessary conflict, and less likely to resort to violence or other destructive approaches when conflicts do arise. Having the time to learn and practice pro-social interpersonal skills serve students long after they forget the random bits of testable information they’re taught.

While keeping to a rigidly-defined, “academics-only” schedule may make sense in terms of preparing students for tests or finishing units “in time” by the end of the school year, it doesn’t make sense if that comes at the cost of developing all of the other habits of mind, hand and heart students will need to thrive in the rest of their lives.

So how can we secure and protect the time students, teachers and the rest of the community need to build schools by and for a compassionate, democratic future?

It starts with asserting our values, and letting those values drive our goals (as the Mission Hill staff clearly have done). This also requires recognizing and confronting why the dominant arrangement exists as it does. The industrial schooling model we’ve inherited isn’t designed to foster democracy, personal autonomy or collaborative decision-making. It’s designed to foster the exact opposite.

Making autonomous or democratic decisions about the use of time, in particular, runs directly counter to one of the key aims of that model: getting future workers accustomed to working according to an unnatural schedule, under unnatural conditions, according to someone else’s dictates. Most of us have internalized that approach to time, so we will have to be incredibly intentional about reorienting ourselves in order to overcome that.

We’ll also have to be very intentional about preserving and strengthening the collective innovations we’ve historically come up with to protect our rights to self-determine our time, among other resources: our unions, parent-teacher associations and other democratic structures that help us as individuals find the safety and support needed to negotiate these issues with people who could otherwise exert power over us.

Fortunately, that process itself can be part of the learning; revitalizing our participation in democracies small and large will not only help us marshal the resources needed to better raise children, they’ll also allow us to model those processes for them.

About Sabrina

At any given moment, I am some combination of the following: A teacher, thinker, advocate, writer, and student. A wife, sister, daughter, friend, and party-goer. A cook, knitter, reader, musician, and traveler. I have a sarcastic sense of humor, but I'm totally willing to give you the shirt off my back if it looks like you need it. (Kinda like lemon meringue...always seeking that balance between tart and sweet.)


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