Superman got it wrong – public schools matter!
With all due respect to Davis Guggenheim I think he got it wrong in Waiting For Superman! Public schools have something to offer no other educational institution, be that charter schools, private schools, boarding schools, even the various forms of homeschooling can.
If you read my previous posts where I question the value of formalized education as we know it, you must be thinking I went crazy or got change of heart. Please be patient and let me walk you trough this post by telling you few stories first. We’ll talk again at the end of the post if you have any questions! ;-)
The first story is personal, involving my family and few friends with school age kids.
Ever since my older daughter reached school age (currently in grade 1) the question which school to choose loomed large on our lives. At the time my perspective on formalized education hasn’t shifted too much from the traditional view that you need to get educated and get good grades to be successful, even though I already had a chance to listen to Sir Ken Robinson by then.
My wife and I were presented with quite a few choices: English public school, French Immersion public school, Montessori public school, few Private schools, Homeschooling — haven’t heard of Unschooling at the time and I wonder if it would have made a difference on our choice back then?!
As many of our friends have kids similar age, we had lengthy discussions learning about the experiences from other parents with kids already in school, comparing our own experiences with pre-school programs, etc. We all agreed we were concerned with the quality of the education and all wanted something that would focus both on our kids’ academic abilities as well as their creativity in arts and similar. But none of us agreed which choice will provide that!
Aside from the fact that they cost well over our budget, we personally had difficulty with private schools because we considered them unhealthy due to the conflict of interest that arises when the school charges significant sums of money, while at the same time tries to provide objective learning experience to all kids in the classroom.
Homeschooling seemed attractive for a moment, but we both agreed with my wife that matching the value coming from the socializing factor in a school environment and the professional teaching by a (presumably good) trained educator would be nearly impossible for us. Not to mention that financially — as a friend recently pointed out — this option might turn out more costly than the private school fees if one parent has to give up the opportunity to add to the family revenue for many years.
Our daughter could read fluently in English several levels above her age average, so we feared choosing a regular English public school will not be challenging enough, thus we wrote off another option from the list.
At the end, we ended up shortlisting two public schools — French Immersion and Montessori — and let a draw decide for us — both schools were receiving more applications than they had room. The coin flipped on the French Immersion side and we felt happy enough she will be challenged to learn a new language — third in her case along with her mother tongue, Macedonian.
In the meantime, the discussions with our friends continued with the same intensity. Even though the initial decision has been made, it almost feels like we need make a new one every time someone brings new information on the table. It is as if choosing which school to send your kid to is a daily choice, next to the choice what snack or lunch to pack and how to dress them up — even though we’re sticking with the original choice for now, it is becoming quite a stressful experience!;-)
The second story is about our daughter’s school and the community around it.
The playground in the school backyard has been rotting for many years and it has been selected for demolition as it is considered unsafe for children to play on it. Since the school board provides no funding for playgrounds, the school and the parents are left on their own devices to try and raise money, so they chose to apply for the Aviva Community Fund competition. The competition consists of several rounds of online voting, after which the top proposals are judged by Aviva before the winners are selected and given the money they applied for.
As I was diligently signing in, voting, signing out with over a dozen different emails every day to try and help the school with as many votes as possible, I started reading the long stream of comments that parents and other supporters have been putting in to convince Aviva and other voters that the school and the community deserves the playground:
We can’t afford before & after school care so the playground keeps our kids safe, active and out of trouble while other parents help watch. Also, many cannot afford expensive lessons & actives. The playground can be an entertaining, & socializing place where kids develop a healthy body & creative mind. Otherwise, they’ll be couch potatoes.
Each day some parents & caregivers use the playground for socializing and actually playing with the kids too! I myself love to play ‘grounders’ and rock tag. I get a pretty good workout! No time & money for gym membership.
As the mom of a Kindergarten student at Selkirk I’m so impressed by support for this campaign. The standing-room-only gym at ‘Cocoa and Caroling’ last night was also a great showing of support for our community school. Our schools are the heart of our communities and it is great to see all of the evidence.
My kids consider the playgrounds at Tyee and Selkirk schools to be our local parks, as much as the official parks like Clark Park and Trout Lake. Our family appreciates that the schools provide the whole community with safe and fun open areas for children to play.
We are one of those families that lives in a rental apartment and the Selkirk playground has become our beloved backyard. Even though our children attend Selkirk, they never tire going to the playground and they do so on weekends and school breaks. During the hot summer months, you will find many families at the playground even in the late evening so their children can have some playtime out of the hot sun. We have also attended block parties held at the playground where we have met many wonderful families from different backgrounds. This playground stands for many different things to many different people.
The comments are heartwarming and provoking memories of my own childhood, but they also brought clarity in my view over the value of schools. The clarity didn’t come immediately, though, so I’d like to ask you to keep patient for one more story before weaving everything together.
The third story is about a teacher I never met in person, but used Twitter and blogging to communicate few times.
It was not until recently that I discovered a post David made here about the struggle he and his wife face at the moment in choosing a school for their son, who is supposed to enter the school system next September. What is striking about the post is not the fact that he’s a teacher and can’t decide which school and educational approach to choose, but the fact that he feels there is something wrong with the education system to which he belongs:
We looked at the public school options in our area, but are worried about rolling the dice for our son’s education. We know how important it is that he has a good teacher and we want to make sure we have someone with whom we can communicate our concerns about how school works. Unfortunately, although there are many excellent teachers in the public system in British Columbia, very few of them will admit how damaging grades, homework, etc… are to student learning.
The problem is, I don’t want education to be done to my son like it’s some kind of disease with which we need to infect him. He is already plenty curious about the world and desperate to understand how it works.
Despite the fact that he teaches at a private school, he feels the need to rebel (in a good way of course ;-)) and make a change for the sake of his students:
We’ve had discussions about grades and recognize that they demotivate children from learning. For children who are doing poorly (in grades), they stop the learning process completely. For children who are getting good grades, they impose arbitrary limits on what the students are expected to be able to do.
We’ve talked about homework. My wife is worried that if I work in a system which requires students to do homework, will I be jeopardizing my job if I argue against it for my own son? I don’t give homework to my own students and this worries her not because she sees the homework as having any value, but because I work in a system which requires it and I’m rebelling against that system.
We both recognize that age groupings are a bit silly. My son has a friend who is 8, another who is 3, and so on. He doesn’t place boundaries on who he plays with (except that they have to be willing to play) and who his friends are. Why should we place boundaries on who he learns with, and what he learns?
We want our son to have tonnes of choice about what he learns. We recognize that when he is youngest he will have a bit less choice as he is less aware of the possibilities that exist, but we still want to instill in him a sense of self-managing his learning.
Somehow I felt connected with David! He was writing the same thoughts I’ve been having lately and discussed at length with my wife and friends. And unlike me, he lives inside the system he is rebelling against – which makes the questions he’s raising even more important.
Rebelling against the system you live in – what a thought! When parents rebel against the teacher or the school their child is attending, the result affects few people. But when a teacher does it, many kids, parents, other teachers and even the community could be changed – forever!
Finally the pieces fell into place for me. The ingredients for rebuilding the learning experience for our kids are not in the government’s hands. They’re not in the school boards, legislative bodies, educational institutions. They’re in the hands of the teachers, the principals, the students, the parents, the community!
We parents are motivated to find and work hard to provide the best possible education opportunities for our kids. Many teachers are motivated to engage with their students in a meaningful way beyond age and marks and help them discover their passion and instill sense of control over their learning. The community is motivated to keep hubs where they’ll gather and enjoy the company of others in the neighborhood while playing, gossiping, arguing, creating, having fun, and most of all learning from each other!
This is when a new picture for the public schools emerged in my head. Instead of seeing them as rigid, cold and isolated institutions where education is treated as a disease with which kids are supposed to be infected, I saw them as warm and open spaces offering lifelong learning opportunities to the entire community, as hubs full of activities for everyone in the neighborhood, as places where connections are made, partnerships are initiated, families rejoice!
Just imagine the playground quotes from my second story as if referring to schools:
The school can be an entertaining, & socializing place where kids develop a healthy body & creative mind.
Each day some parents & caregivers use the school for socializing and actually playing with the kids too!
Our schools are the heart of our communities and it is great to see all of the evidence.
Our family appreciates that the schools provide the whole community with safe and fun open areas for children to play.
This school stands for many different things to many different people.
Only public schools have the potential to inspire these kinds of emotions in the community. Private schools are driven by revenue and though not impossible, it is highly unlikely any of them would open the doors to outsiders. Homeschooling is limited to one or few families and their potential to inspire community action is limited, though they could operate as extensions of a school hub and participate in some of the learning activities offered through the school.
Public schools on the other hand have a great opportunity to open up their facilities and resources and let the community and non-profit organizations make use of it beyond the regular classroom hours.
The community could use the sport facilities to promote active life in the neighborhood or a non-profit organisation could offer lessons to both kids and adults. Meeting facilities and similar large rooms could be accessible for local meetings, cinema nights, and similar gatherings. Art supplies, music instruments, drama costumes, they could all be shared with budding young artists from the neighborhood to practice or local studios to provide learning opportunities to students. Classrooms could be opened up for unlimited learning opportunities, from ESL lessons, to “night classes” for people looking for additional education, to prep time for students learning together for a test.
I admit I cheated a bit with the title and I should’ve said “public schools have a potential to matter”, but my point is that public schools can be turned into a fertile ground for redefining education. The community behind the playground case teaches us that they care about the schools in the neighborhood. David teaches us that inspired teachers could start with small changes from inside — by rebelling (in a good way ;-)) against the bad and embracing the good practices in the system. Parents teach us that when it comes to school, they care a lot about quality and are concerned about the limitations that may be imposed on their kids.
I know, I know, sharing resources with non-school staff is anathema and the question of responsibility and ownership sounds too hard to answer, but I don’t think there is anything that motivated and passionate people cannot do if they take the time to discuss and seek common ground to collaborate. What can I say, hard problems motivate me ;-) The playground case says I am not alone, so I hope the community efforts there will be inspiring enough for you to engage in turning the public school in your neighborhood into a place buzzing with life and learning!
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I am curious about everything and this blog is my way to ponder the meaning of the hard questions of life, mind, culture, future...
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