Wednesday, June 27, 2012


I've been reading Whitney Johnson's book, Dare, Dream, Do in tidbits over the past several weeks. These days I don't read anything unless it is in tidbits. Whitney's book has proven very useful for this sort of disrupted reading. It is the kind of book better digested slowly if it is to have any impact on your life. Mostly it has made me ask myself the question, over and over: what do I want to achieve in my life?

Like you, the obvious answer to that is, "A lot."

I am not, however, talking about the things that most women want: a successful marriage, a safe place to raise her kids, children who become productive adults, the money to put good food on the table and and a roof over our heads, security, etc. etc.  I want all these things too, of course, but I think the purpose of Whitney's book goes beyond these things. Or, at least it does for me.

I want to know what unique thing I might accomplish that leaves a mark. An accomplishment that primarily belongs to me. Something I can point to with a mixture of humility and pride and say, "Because I did THAT, the world is a better place, and I am so grateful!"

I think I was always a teacher. There was never a time when I didn't want to improve and be in charge of everything around me, much to my little sister's chagrin, I'm sure. I've spent the last year thinking a lot about school. My kids' school, my own master's degree efforts, the structure and function of schools, the good and the bad in schools, and on and on and on. My dear, patient, Plantboy hasn't had such an earful about education since I was a first year teacher.

So I think I know what I want to do.

I want to start a school.

Oh, I have long toyed with the idea, but I always shirked for a lot of reasons. I couldn't see how a school could be built from the ground up and move from small to large. I couldn't see how to fund it. Public or private? Location. Logisitcs. And oh, my, the list of things necessary for creating a school are legion. But in a year's time, my oldest, very smart and unusual son will be in middle school and I have serious reservations about the school system in the city in which we find ourselves. I have sometimes spoken here about funding issues that have led to larger and larger classes and fewer and fewer days. for much that we love about living in our current city, we do have grave concerns about our sons laying a good foundation for reaching their potential.

So here is the school I want. I have no next step really. The "doing" part of Whitney's Dare, Dream, Do formula is still eluding me, but that school I want no longer seems like a such a pipe dream.

Here is a basic outline. I have more specifics in mind and may sometimes share them. If you have any ideas about what you'd like to see in a school for your child, please, by all means, share.

Grades: A 6-12 secondary school.

Enrollment: Each grade would max out at 60 students in three cohorts of 20. Cohorts would probably vary from year to year, at least for the first few years. 420 students would be the maximum enrollment. This doesn't mean classes would only be 20. Sometimes cohorts would combine--different types of instruction require different numbers of students.

Type of School: Charter. Public schools are nearly impossible to re-design from the top down; most decisions are taken out of administrative hands by those further up the hierarchy. Private schools are too expensive and exclusive.

Requirements: Because technology is utilized at the school to help individualize education, students from all academic backgrounds would be welcome. However, the rigors of the schedule and expectation of parental involvement will naturally weed out many from a  variety of demographics. That ever-hated lottery would probably have to come into play if the school model proved successful.

Yearly Schedule: The school would be organized around a trimester system, with students in school about 200 days each year. The format would be more of a year-round situation. 6-7 weeks on with a week off and then 6-7 more weeks with a larger break after that of 2-6 weeks. Students will get a major break at Christmas, in the spring, and a slightly longer one in the summer. There would be a fall semester (roughly Sept-Dec), winter semester (Jan-April) and spring semester (May-Aug).  Teachers at the school are paid more like full time employees with their vacations only occurring for 1-2 weeks between trimesters. When students are not in school, teachers are expected to spend intense hours in group and individual planning sessions, setting goals and writing and compiling curriculum.

Daily Schedule: Grades 6 and 12 begin at 8:15. Grades 7-11 at 7:15. The first hour in grades 7-11 is an exercise period, with each grade on a different schedule so that only 60 kids do each activity each day. (Research shows that brains are more active when exercise is undertaken prior to learning.) From 8:15 to 10:15 and from 10:30 to 12:30 students in grades 6-11 attend core classes in two, two-hour blocks. Half the school takes STEM first (Science, technology, engineering and math) and Humanities second (English, History and Art). The other half does the opposite. At 1:15 students go to the first of three elective hours that go 1:15 to 2:05; 2:10 to 3:00 and then 3:05 to 3:55. Parents pick up at 4. 6th (and possibly 7th) graders only do two elective hours in the afternoon and finish at 3:00.

Academic Schedule: Student education moves from being highly scripted in the 6th grade to being entirely student choice by the 12th grade. Each year's curriculum is integrated, meaning that in the core, morning subjects, students pursue a major course of study through the year, though this theme might vary between Humanities and STEM. For example, the 8th grade course of study would follow the theme, "Our Changing World." In science, students might study adaptation, genetic mutation, geology. In technology and engineering students would study a variety of transformative technologies throughout the ages, as well as how to make these technologies. Students would also learn how to read and make seismographs and study weather prediction. Math applications and projects would involve mutation rates, calculation of the age of the earth and other natural materials, and understanding seismological waves and data. In Humanities, English courses will focus on literature from 7th grade on. In the 8th grade year about change, the literary focus would be coming-of-age literature. History studies would revolve around major human migrations, diasporas and genocides. Art studies would revolve around transformative art movements.

Electives: Students would have a lot of choices in electives offered, and a concerted effort is made to offer EVERY class. This can be done through technology use as on-line courses become more varied and better. Students can choose up to 9 electives a year ("up to" because in younger grades their are more prescribed classes), though some of them are taught over two trimesters.  All but a few mainstream AP classes will be given as elective, on-line offerings, or through partnerships with local public high schools.

Teachers: As stated above, teacher wages are higher at my school because they are expected to work more hours. I would look for teachers with a varied background and multiple certifications and interests. They would spent most of their time in their speciality in their a.m. classes, but each teacher would be expected to teach two elective offerings a day as well. These electives would vary based on teacher attributes, interests and effective on-line courses.

Those brave few who have followed up to this point may want to check back over the next few weeks. I have a few more ideas to post, and some examples of what a day might look like for several different students at my dream school. I am finding the defining of my dream to be very satisfying and a little bit scary at the same time, probably because the satisfaction I take from the details now won't stay that way if I don't act.


heidikins said...

I love this post, it makes me get all Little Women/Little Men-y and heart a-fluttering, in a good way.

Ok, so I work in higher ed and my only real thoughts on public/K-12 ed is that middle school and high school should be a preparation for college. If you aren't preparing students to be SUCCESSFUL in college you are failing. The research I've read shows that to be the most successful in college you need 4 years of math, no taking off the senior year. You need 4 years of real English: not "Yearbook" or "Journalism" or something, but literature and, well, ENGLISH. The third thing is having biology, chemistry AND physics, with a hands-on lab component for each.

So, those are my two (or seven) cents about high school education, it has got to prepare a student for the rigors of college or there isn't really any point, and the above paragraph details, generally, what is proven to prepare kids for the rigors of a university education.

Stepping off soap box. Can't wait to hear more about how you will do this!

Jenny said...

You should look up Paralee Patten King on facebook and friend her... she will had much wisdom to impart in this area. She is a personal friend of mine, and might have some inspiration to offer.

Shari said...

I would like to put in an application now to work at your school. :)

Karin said...

Where do I sign up?! :-)

Scully said...

Just a note - some of the most successful curriculum for English/Language Arts is based around a readers/writers workshop model that leaves a lot more leeway for student choice in what they read and write, incorporates book circles in which students choose what book around a particular issue they want to read (also allows for students & teachers to find books that are neither too challenging nor too easy for students at different reading levels without resorting to ability grouping), and focuses more on the writing process than the standard 5-paragraph essay. In History, if you really want to prepare students for college-level history classes, you have to include the study of historiography, or how people tell history in different eras. For instance, how we tell the story of Reconstruction versus how it was told in the 1920s. With history now it isn't so much knowing exactly what happened, but knowing how people interpret it and how different interpretations can coexist.

My only other thought, having worked with middle schoolers, mostly 8th graders, you might want to switch which grades arrive early. 6th graders always seemed much more alert in the morning than any of my 8th graders. But let me know when you start it up. I'd be happy to send a resume. ;)

Christie said...

Your brain amazes me! So glad someone has ideas on how to improve education. Me, I'm taking the one-student-at-a-time approach. (Which makes me wish I taught every 7th grader that comes through my school.)

emandtrev said...

You are amazing. The world needs more people like you!