Finding Balance

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Today while walking, a retired teacher and I discussed the changes in education that have come to area schools in recent years.  Like all things, there are positives and negatives surrounding these changes. We took out and examined both, the upsides and the downsides.  

The school from which my walking buddy retired is an extremely high-performing school that embraced the workshop model and “best practice” instruction with rigorous and time-intensive language arts curriculum guides.  The principal embraced change and led by edict, “We are going to implement this new curriculum this year.  We will ensure fidelity by asking you to input your lesson plans, enduring understandings, essential questions, and learning targets every day on the shared drive.  The literacy coach and I will read and comment on these as well as stop by your rooms with checklists to give you feedback.” And so it went. A two-hour reading block and an hour long writing/word study block, complete with carpet time, minilessons, anchor charts, and share outs, ruled the day.  Students moved from one lesson to another like clockwork. Literacy performance increased. The school earned a 97% on the State School Report Card. The principal was selected as a Kohl’s fellow. The results are impressive and awe-inspiring. These were the pros, but as in all things, there were resulting cons.

As the new normal with its accompanying test scores and accolades came to stay, there were consequential changes, consequential losses, and consequential shifts.  “What are these?” you may be asking. As literacy instruction became king, its preeminent curriculum began to squeeze out other activities during the day. Things such as teacher planning time.  Meetings encroached on this sacred time so that teachers had only three 35 minute prep times per week. Not so bad, except that conscientious teachers began staying late and working after dinner until 10 or 11 o’clock.  Teacher teams met in summers to work on lesson plans with the required understandings, questions, and targets. Most of the staff sought help in the form of anti-anxiety medication, retirement, or job changes.  Science, so interesting to students, also was compacted into two 30 minute lessons a week, and Social Studies became a 20 minute lesson three times per week. Gone were the projects and plays and recesses. Choice, the hallmark of workshop models, became almost non-existent as “the curricular guides” asked students to read certain books that aligned with lessons.  Sadly, to me, one of the greatest losses were the projects. To me, projects made a difference. In all my years of education, one of the things I remember the most was a third-grade Native American (Indians, in the old days) project. I remember it still-the Iroquois. I remember the designed and painted forests; handmade longhouses; and the little Indian figures.  All were so impressive to my 8-year-old self. Sad to think what our 5- or 7- or 10-year- old children are missing, this joyous part of education! All these pressures were the “last straw” for my friend who decided to retire.

 
I want to be fair.  I’m a literacy coach with training from a prominent university.  I believe in the workshop model, constructivist and collaborative learning, rigor and high-standards. I believe students need choice and enjoyment in learning.  I believe in student growth.  (Our school received a 89.9%.) And, I believe in best practices!  All this being said, and while believing best practices should be considered for instructional decisions and to help all children reach their full potential, it also is important to find balance.  How can we find balance in the joys and curiosities of learning (with its routines and regiments and accurate planning) with the joy of being a child? How can needs of the child’s academic and social/emotional life find balance in a high-performing school that demands rigor and results?  These are questions educators need to answer. These are questions that need pondering. These are questions that demand actions. We need to remember the child-the whole child-in the curriculum. We need to find balance!

About bjdonaldson

I think of myself as a Renaissance woman with a variety of passions. If you visited me, you might find me hanging out with my husband and children. Our Golden Retriever would be lovingly near. I am a Literacy Coach/Reading Specialist at an elementary school where I provide professional development and coaching to teachers. Formerly, I was a Reading Recovery teacher, an interventionist, and a middle and elementary classroom teacher. Getting up in the morning is not hard; I still love making a difference in the lives of children and teachers.

6 responses »

  1. This is a wonderful inspiring, and thought provoking post. Yes, with change there are trade offs. But, your data provides some impressive gains, as well. I would have to agree with your estimation of one of the saddest losses is that of the projects. I believe in interdisciplinary (or trans-disciplinary) learning. I believe in inquiry-based project learning and place based learning, all beliefs gained through my own teaching practices (non-formal, non-licensed) and educational observations. Above all, I believe in the power of experiential learning – on which the foundation for my environmental/outdoor lessons have been built for the last 13 years. You have a powerful memory regarding the Native American Project on the Iroquois. I remember projects like that (I carved a bowl in 7th grade when we studied the Iroquois Nation). And, my eldest son got to experience his multi-aged classrooms turn into three different native American tribes, complete with scenery, housing, and food when he was in 2nd grade. “Doing” or “hands-on learning” is part of applying content and new knowledge; these methods are also supported by educational research . So, while the gains in literacy are impressive and yes, I also believe literacy – in all its forms -is probably one of the most important achievements students can accrue during their time in school, they also need to have time and opportunity to make the concepts stick for themselves. One way to achieve this is through student choice and experiential learning. I would hope that some compromise can be found to provide both (literacy and experience), and still retain the desired outcomes. Thank you for this reflection. I enjoyed it very much.

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  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I believe the idea of interdisciplinary integration may be part of the answer in the sense that children might be able to use art, music, movement, etc. in conjunction with literacy skills (reading, writing, technology, etc.) to demonstrate understanding across content areas.

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  3. Last week on #PoetryFriday, I posted a poem called “Balance.” On the surface it appears to be about riding a bike… but my thinking like an under current when I wrote was filled with the very issues you have raised. I am not convinced that these high-stake tests are measuring the things that matter most in life. Yet they are the controlling factor is so many decisions that affect hours upon hours of our children’s lives. I look at my sons’ and daughter’s work saved from elementary years. They were top students in their classes, but it does not reflect the level we are asking in today’s mandated high-stake tests. They loved school. And, oh my! Today, they are highly productive adults, and they are mentally and physically and emotionally well. What are we teaching our kids about life when there are pep rallies before the test, motivational talks before the test, and so much talk about high scores . . . before their age can be expressed with a double-digit number?

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  4. Your questions are right on- “How can we find balance in the joys and curiosities of learning (with its routines and regiments and accurate planning) with the joy of being a child? How can needs of the child’s academic and social/emotional life find balance in a high-performing school that demands rigor and results?” Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I often find myself asking the same questions.

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