Reclaiming “Choice” for Progressive Education

In the world of education, school “choice” is a destructive illusion. Disenfranchising, underfunding and shutting down community public schools to pave the way for highly authoritarian charters does not offer a real choice for families. Do you want to eat or do you want to go hungry?  Choice is yet another word used to veil the real beneficiaries of school reform: charter networks, corporations and politicians. The concept of choice and charter schools is not inherently wrong, but it is a concept that has been coopted by the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

In fact, it is often the charter schools who really make the choices by excluding children with disabilities and weeding out other high need students. These children typically have the fewest choices already, and education reform only exacerbates the challenges families of children with disabilities face. I taught in a charter school and one of my students who in retrospect was probably on the autism spectrum, was “counseled out” of our school and into his zoned public school. What kind of choice is that?

I say we reclaim the word choice for progressive education. Picture this kind of choice- a school community in which parents, students, teachers and administrators are all empowered to make real choices. Teachers choose how to teach and choose and design meaningful, child centered curriculum. Families, teachers, and school leaders choose to include the arts, physical education and sciences in the school day and families choose from a menu of enriching after school programs and workshops for caregivers.  Teachers and students alike choose what and how to learn, instead of blindly adhering to top down test oriented directives.  Students, families and teachers choose whether or not to have homework and whether or not to take tests. Families choose from a wealth of services for students with disabilities. This is a school deeply rooted in the community, a school with resources and flexibility in how to use them, a school that empowers leaders, teachers, students and families to make choices that matter.

Summer Reflections or How Education Reform Messes with One’s Head

In took a month for me to realize my that my greatest success last year was letting kids play. But at the time, it was my greatest source of doubt. This is a product of the current culture in eduction: our priorities are so skewed, so perverted by the false necessity of ‘rigor’ and the corporate ed agenda, that we forget what real learning is.

Exploring ecosystems, pretending to be squirrels digging for acorns, working together to build trees from recycled materials, observing hissing cockroaches, making birdfeeders, singing – kids made the decision about what to do and when to do it. What number could I assign to the experience they were having at that moment? None. But I do know, at least now, that they were making an emotional connection to science. They were making discoveries. They were having fun. And they were learning. But there I was, nervous I would get caught.

It started in desperation. Having never taught kindergarten before, I needed to figure a way to keep them engaged for a whole science period ASAP.  So, I introduced new  stations each week and let the kids choose their science activity. All the activities were hands on and revolved around a theme depending on what we were studying. The idea was for the activity to be self directed and continuous, not something quick that the kiddos would finish in 2 minutes and then run up to me with cries of “I’m done, I’m done!”They could try something new, or they could return to a station they had already visited. Most students got to try every activity, but some did not, because they weren’t ready for some of the more sophisticated or stimulating stations or because they loved one center so much that they wanted to return again and again. Although this was working in the sense that the kids were highly engaged and always excited to explore, a part of me felt like this approach stemmed from a failure on my part- I couldn’t “control” the class in the same way that other teachers could in order to teach with a more traditional approach. The children weren’t writing  every day, they didn’t have folders, our time on the rug was brief, usually consisting of a song or movement activity and modeling a new activity.

After an observation by my principal, I was told that  the activities were great, but she suggested that maybe the kids could bring a worksheet to each station to record what they did. So in an effort to “get ready for first grade” I introduced folders and the kids started doing some writing and drawing. It was fine, but it is only now in the depths of summer that I realize how foolish the whole “get ready” mentality is, and that I didn’t need those worksheets- that I was doing exactly what I believed in and exactly what is appropriate for 4 and 5 year olds. Choice based, hands on, multi-sensory, play based activities should be part of kindergarten every day. I was scared to get “in trouble” and worried that they weren’t learning what “they were supposed to” but they learned so much more that that. In fact, I was astounded by how much they remembered at the end of the year, how almost all the students knew the parts and life cycle of an insect, could recognize different types of trees, how they talked about centers from months before- “remember when had the water center?” They may not have each had exactly the same measurable experience, but they were all thrilled to explore science and had acquired a wealth of knowledge about living things.

And they were learning more than just science content. As I modeled each new center, I had opportunities to model sharing, problem solving, communicating and helping others. Because not every student did the same thing every day, students always had the option to collaborate or work independently. And because so many of the activities were play based, most of the times the children worked and explored together. And it paid off.  After my second observation, my principal also commented on the tone in the room- she said that she saw the same class in another setting and in my room they were calmer and kinder to one another. And I was so worried about what I thought I was doing wrong, that her compliment barely registered. Meanwhile, the kids were happy and they were practicing valuable social skills instead of being pushed to “get ready” for academics that they were not, in fact, ready for.

Going into this year, my goal is to bring this approach into all my classes. I remember yelling at a 3rd grade class last March and feeling like I was being tough, just like the other teachers. I used to never yell, but there was so much tension around me that I lost my bearings and thought I was doing right by shouting at kids who were not engaged simply because they were exhausted, alienated in their own classrooms and because I had absorbed the false idol of “rigor” and planned something boring and too hard.  Now, after the summer to reflect, I realize I need to bring a little more of what I did with kindergarten into every class- more choice, more hands on, more play, more collaboration. They are, after all, all children. And all children need learning to meaningful, developmentally appropriate, fun and empowering.  I hope I can carry this conviction with me into the new year, in spite of everything.