Not to be confused with home schooling, or a school for homies(No issue with homies, just clarifying), I am talking about a school that feels like a second home. The feel of the school is so crucial. The more of a welcoming home environment that is created, the lower stress levels are, the more opportunity our students are given to perform closer to their potential.
There is no doubt that more research is needed about how stress affects the brain. That said, there is a new flood of research that supports the notion that stress in the learning environment is much more of a detriment than it ever has been as a benefit. I believe that we have to devote every policy we can to reduce stress, but also incorporate real accountability in our students. Here is a recent TED Talk about stress’s affects on the brain. With the new information we have on the troublesome effects that stress can cause, we have to do all we can to mitigate its affects.
We’ll start with the building itself. Halls need to be painted colorfully in a way that is bright, but not loud. Plants should be included and maintained in and around the building, especially flowers. Bells should never be used again, ever. I mean seriously, unless there is a fire bells are about the most prison-like structures installed in schools I have ever seen. Desks should almost never be in rows. In fact, desks suck out loud and don’t do anything to welcome our students. At least not the desks we’ve seen to this point. There are so many better options, not the least of which is a standing desk. In math and science rooms, I want walls of whiteboards with infinite whiteboard pens that our kids can use to move about the room and do work up and about. I want an environment that shouts don’t lecture me to death! We can design a room that urges lesson plans to minimize direct instruction and begs for collaborative learning opportunities. Our students should be excited by the decoration, architecture, the furniture and the ambiance created by our schools.
Next we go to the schedule. At least in terms of High School; never again should our kids be learning more than 4 topics a day. In a perfect world something along the lines of college type scheduling where the topic determines the amount of time per week is a phenomenal way to approach the scheduling. Most likely something along the lines of block scheduling where kids only see a few topics a day can really slow the pace of day down, allow 10 minute breaks in between periods, and create classrooms that are filled with time to really discuss concepts and dive deeper into them. Support periods and free time needs to be included throughout the day. There has to be time during the day for teachers and students to meet and collaborate on efforts in class. Meditation has to be a part of the day. Three years ago the New York times discussed how “In sitting still, a Bench Press for the Brain,” we can stretch the muscles of our mind by sitting still and refocussing through meditation. According to the Mindfulness in School’s Project teaching mindfulness to young people: “reduces (likelihood of) depression-related symptoms in adolescents.” This is a growing field of research and the benefits continue to increase as more is learned on the topic. I believe if we build this into the school we can see results similar to the Visitation Valley Middle School has had using Quiet Time.
Growth Mindset. I am 100% bought into Carol Dweck’s now famous concept. This is the foundation we must build the school on. Every student can achieve at a high level. Every student is worth the effort and labeling only works to divide students into groups, keep certain students down and builds a wall between the faculty and student body. Focusing our school on growth, improvement, grit and determination makes every failure a learning moment and makes every challenge worth taking. We have to build a culture around courage and understanding. The faculty must be understanding and the whole community has to have the courage to make mistakes, take on challenges and work through issues to a real conclusion. This is how real learning gets done.
The last thing, and a large thing, is that the school should be based on real and honest assessment of our students. This to me means portfolios that we maintain as a means of showing consistent growth. Students must be taught self reflection with every subject. “Grades” should be non-existent. I plan to expand on this idea, but in the meanwhile check out the book by Mark Barnes or Starr Sackstein to go in depth. Suffice it to say the traditional grading model focuses solely on points and grades, allows for inflated grades, battles over point scales, and very little discussion about what is being learned or not. I intend to continue learning about the implementation of this system and write about it in much greater detail soon, so for now, this is something I’ll say is in development.
Realistically, I think if we approach our school from a place where every policy focuses on lowering stress, honest assessment, and growing as a community we will find real success for every student.