I was in a fourth-grade class last week, providing support as part of a substitute assignment as an English Language Development teacher. The classroom teacher asked me to float around and provide support wherever it was needed.
The students were all involved in independent work at their desks and most seemed to be pretty “engaged” in the process. Some were reading, some were writing, and some were working on worksheets.
Jonathan, however, that was having none of that. He didn’t have anything out to read or write with and did not look in the least like he was considering getting to it anytime soon.
I squatted down next to Jonathan and asked if I could ask him some questions because I was interested in why kids were sometimes bored in school and I wanted to know more about what was going on with him.
He agreed to talk to me.
I asked him if he was ever bored in school and he said, “All the time!”
I tried to dig a little deeper and find out more about why he was bored and what in particular bored him, but he wasn’t eager to talk about this with me.
He just said he hated school and that it was all boring.
I did manage to get him to clarify that the one thing in school that he didn’t find boring was recess.
Ahh! My heart went out to young Jonathan. I know that he is not alone. Far too many of our children experience school in this way. And that is unfortunate because boredom and lack of engagement have significant costs to our students both academically and to their physical and mental health.
But, I am not blaming his teacher for his boredom that day.
And, I am not blaming him for his boredom that day.
But the system?
Yes. I want to change the system!
Jonathan had some trappings of “choice” and “voice” in that moment. He could have chosen any number of quiet, sit-in-your-seat and work-by-yourself activities.
But Jonathan was not a sit-in-your-seat and work-by-yourself kid. He wanted recess! He wanted movement! He wanted noise! He wanted play!
Now, I know that serious learning needs to happen in schools and we can’t have recess all day long.
But, what if we could?
What if we really could offer Jonathan some real choice and voice in his learning?
What would it take?
How would our structures need to change?
The Jefferson County Open School is providing a look at one such possibility. This is a school that has been practicing student-centered and student-directed learning since the 1970s.
Here is a list of their goals and values:
Students will be able to:
- Rediscover the joy of learning
- Seek meaning in life
- Adapt to the world as it is
- Prepare for the world that might be
- Create the world as it ought to be
OPEN SCHOOL VALUES:
CURIOSITY – Continuous engagement in learning, exploration, and questioning in the process of discovering personal passions and understanding.
RESPONSIBILITY – Ability to be trusted and depended on as part of a supportive community. Honest about owning your own actions.
COURAGE – Confidence to take healthy risks and ability to do the right thing in the face of pressure.
PERSONAL BEST – Striving for personal excellence in personal, social, and intellectual growth.
RESPECT – Appreciation for the value of each person in our community through words, attitude, and actions.
While I don’t think these goals and values are unique to the JCOS, I do think their practice of student co-created curriculum and learning trajectories is radically different than most of the schools and classrooms that I visit.
They are not operating in service to seat-time, Carnegie units, grades, standards, or publisher-provided curriculums.
I think it is far easier to help kids rediscover the joy in learning and seek meaning in life when our systems allow schools to move away from rigid schedules, mandated curriculums, and high-stakes testing.
Within such a system like that at the JCOS, I can imagine Jonathan crafting a path with his teachers for more movement and social interaction. I can also imagine his teachers coaching him to find the value in learning activities that require more stillness and quiet.