In this listening session (which is currently my last scheduled; the parent session had to be rescheduled until after the holidays), I worked with a group of ten 5th and 6th graders at Dorothy Moses Elementary. We chose two elementary schools for these sessions, because each of these schools enroll Lincoln residents, and it is those residents who will be relocated to the new facility next year.
This was an amazingly talkative bunch – so much that they didn’t have time to any art exercises, and I had to ditch more than one of my conversation-generating questions. The early conversation was much the same as in the other sessions; we talked about the purpose of learning and education and what a successful student should look like. The main point that stuck out in this portion was their insistence that making mistakes was a good and important thing to do – that people learn the most when they mess up, and that if a students always makes A’s, the work isn’t challenging enough. Their implication that making straight-A’s is not a good thing is notable. Worth a pause and a ponder, I think.
As in the other sessions, I had the kids break up into small groups and discuss the question: without any influence of adults, how would you transform education? They wanted specifically to know whether they could say anything they wanted, even “crazy stuff” like going up into space. I encouraged them to keep it helpful to the conversation, but also pointed out that an idea that starts with something as unattainable as “going up into space” may help listeners to understand the student’s keen interest in astronomy and desire to participate in hands-on activities.
This group exploded with things to say and thoughts to share. Because so many students were active participants, the line of conversation jumped around like a ball in a pinball machine, bouncing from food choice to student/teacher relationships to thoughts about the physical space of the new school. Later, as I compiled all their comments, I looked for themes to try to make sense of their cacophony of eager thoughts.
Physical Space and Tools: The students seemed to be looking for a sense of order here, suggesting separate fields for different sports, improving building acoustics to limit noise pollution from other classrooms, and providing safe places for band instrument storage. They wanted water fountains in each classroom, and an indoor playground they could use through the long winter months. They envisioned their playground including rock-climbing walls, but also more traditional “outdoor” playground equipment. They also asked for padded chairs and soft carpets in their classrooms. As for tools, the participants were strong advocates for hand-held devices including ipads and tablets. They preferred tablets to laptops, and suggested updated Activboards.
Food: Food was an extremely important topic for this group. Their main concerns included portion sizes, fresh, healthy options, and student choice. All of the kids wanted larger portions of food, with regular snacks throughout the day. Although they talked at length of their desire for fresher, healthier options (including suggestions such as a salad bar and sandwich bar with fresh (not canned) fruits and vegetables), they also wanted the occasional opportunity to have an “unhealthy” choice. They wanted more choice in drinks as well, mentioning V8 and flavored waters as alternatives. Most of all, they wanted someone to ask their opinion of what they wanted to eat.
Teacher/Student Relationships: This topic kept coming up as well throughout the discussion. Students wanted an environment that nurtured mutual respect both between students and between students and teachers. They wished that assumed misdemeanors could first be addressed through conversation and reasoning before a punishment was delivered, again, emphasizing that point of mutual respect. And they wanted to be given reasons for certain disciplinary actions. In addition, they felt that non-teaching staff should not be given the authority to deliver disciplinary actions.
Academic Content: The students here talked mainly of having additional classes in the arts, as well as increased options for career planning courses, and more hands-on learning opportunities. They wanted home economics classes for all kids, even in the earliest grades, and field trips that take students beyond the Bismarck/Mandan area. They expressed interest in moving towards a task list scenario for their day, in which they moved through their goals at their own pace. They also wanted after school programming that included things like art, drama, and athletics, educational games incorporated in the school day, typing classes, and a period of down time.
Student Choice: From being able to remove their shoes during the day to helping decide what courses they studied, the kids wanted more freedoms and more input into their school experience. They mentioned small things like wanting to wear hats during school and earbuds/ipods while they worked at their desks. They also discussed bigger issues like having choice in the teachers they worked with, suggesting that students visit multiple teachers in order to experience different teaching styles and find a good match. They wished for more multi-age interaction, specifically saying they wanted more contact with younger kids.
Sometimes kids’ eagerness and creativity can form a barrier between them and the practical-minded (and often over-stretched) adults that care for them. It took me a few days to really process this session, to understand that “I want to be able to jump out of an airplane so that I can study physics” or “we should take a field trip to the Empire State Building and just read a book up there” are serious requests. I don’t believe that particular student thought he would actually get a parachuting field trip in elementary school or have a reading day in New York, so I had to think deeper about what he was suggesting.
What he truly wanted was adventure and excitement. He wanted to feel what he was learning and to have it be relevant to his interests and to his life. He wanted to be stimulated, and he wanted to have fun while he was learning. He wanted to actively engage with his world, outside of the classroom. And he wanted to have a say in how he learned. In the silence of my own home as I wrote this, I heard him, but not until I took the time and found that reflective quiet I needed. Perhaps slowing down and really listening will, in the end, help us travel faster and farther than we ever thought possible. It’s been a pleasure.
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