Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Starting from scratch

A cool conversation today with some folks who are pondering adding a high school to their PreK-8 school in California. What a great project, and what a great opportunity!

The whole idea certainly raises some fascinating questions.

What if you could start from scratch in your own secondary school? What might you want to keep from your own school, or what would you jettison first? Programs, policies, schedules? Advanced Placement courses? Who would you bring with you, or who would you recruit?

Of course it all really depends on your mission, and what you are trying to accomplish. (There's that backwards planning thing, writ large--it works for designing schools as well as units.) But it's hard to imagine anyone with the nerve undertaking a project like this without having some underlying New Progressivist ideals; this is all about taking risks and thinking outside the box, to use two apt cliches.

I think I'd want to go thematic and project-based, at least for the first year or two, and use that structure to focus on the development of some key skills and habits of mind. Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts used to have a comprehensive ninth-grade program that did just that, dividing the year into units built around real-world problems that students went at using all the basic academic skills from quantitative reasoning--explicit in some algebra and geometry--to the humanities--lots of research and writing--to the arts, with plenty of opportunities for creative expression.

The problem with programs that stray far from the known, experience tells me, is that quite often these things are highly teacher-specific. A single teacher or an enthusiastic cadre develop a great plan from scratch. They understand it from every perspective, they believe in it, and they are confident enough in the idea to be supple in the application: little problems don't bother them, and they can anticipate and think around big ones. In time, though, the originators drop away, and what is left is a cool shell that no one quite gets as the founders did. Soon enough, the great program winds up on the scrap heap.

If you've been in schools for a while, make a mental list of great courses or great projects at your school or schools that have been born, thrived, and died. It might be quite sad; I remember "Project Time" at one of my old schools, where we took the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break and devoted the whole middle school curriculum to a theme--agriculture one year, Life in the U.S. in the 1840s another. The whole middle school faculty threw itself into the project with heart and soul, creating some wonderful curriculum and great experiences, but after a few years the whole thing was "just too time consuming," and it was scrapped. In fact, the founders had moved on, and no one left could explain the whole thing compellingly any more.

Great curriculum, perhaps, should come and go. Few great ideas are sustainable forever; even the hoariest of capstone projects or flagship courses must have evolved, responding to changing times, changing kids, and changing faculties.

Which raises the question, as I ramble on, of teacher-created curriculum. I know an educator who hates elective classes, seeing them as self-indulgent opportunities for teachers; but I know many more students whose intellects have been ignited in elective courses whose subject matter was indeed beloved of the teacher. Great, engaging, challenging, mind-blowing curriculum is, I think, unlikely ever to be teacher-proof--it simply must have something about it that engages the teacher, or it will never engage students. Whether the teacher loves the content, the pedagogical challenges, the values embedded in the material, or the exercise of trying to create great curriculum makes little difference.

So if I were starting from scratch, I'd be looking for some great, creative teachers--teachers who love their subject matter but love ideas more, who know more than a thing or two about curriculum, and who love teaching kids even more than they love ideas; of course, they'd also have to understand and love the mission of the school. I'd gather up a few of them even before I started worrying about schedules and policies. And what's more, I'd figure out how to give those teachers enough time and space, and not just at the beginning, to keep their creative juices flowing.

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