This morning I am thinking about school. More specifically, I am thinking about the school I would create if I was the kind of person who wanted to set myself on fire by becoming an administrator and dealing with all of the very worst of American bureaucracy: the public education system.

(N.B: can confirm that melancholy leads to creativity; I was blue again this morning, mainly because I am deeply tired because I did not sleep well, and I was cranky and logy until I thought of this idea, and then I was happily off on the tracks of the idea. I got distracted frequently, because neither exhaustion nor creativity are necessarily good for focus; but it was great fun to think about this and to try to problem-solve. So much fun, in fact, that I think this will end up being more than one blog.)

All right, let’s start with the basic structure, and the most fundamental changes I would make to the current education system (while still trying to work within it, which is why this is not something I would ever pursue.). Personally I’d want it to be high school, because I like teenagers more than littluns, and middle schoolers are demons in human skin; but it makes much more sense for it to be K-12, so we’ll go with that, and I’ll just pretend I’d have a partner who would handle the lower grades, and an exorcist for the middle grades. We would follow the traditional schedule with summers and weekends off, and the school day would be 8-3.

But here’s the big difference: there are no grades. (Anyone who knows me saw that coming from the first sentence of this post.) And I don’t just mean abstract letter rewards for paperwork filled out, I mean there aren’t grade levels: no first grade, second grade, tenth grade, fourth grade, eighth grade. That’s why it should be K-12, because my students should not be divided by their birthdays. It’s just about the stupidest possible way to group people, and it NEVER HAPPENS ANYWHERE EVER outside of education and then, like, bowling leagues. Students at my school will advance through subjects as they master the subjects: regardless of what age they are. When I was in the sixth grade, I was reading at something higher, let’s say the tenth grade level because I don’t actually remember my own lexile scores: that means I should have been in a tenth grade reading class. Or even better, in a class with anyone else who read at a tenth grade level regardless of their ages.

So that’s how it works. The basic idea is this: the classes will be run by unit, not by grade level. You can attach the units to standards, if that makes your ears wiggle, but I think of it like a novel unit, a sonnet unit, an argumentative essay unit, and then those can be repeated at different difficulty levels, Easy, Medium, Hard, Brainmelting, etc. Short pieces, a few weeks to a few months, though that would also depend on subject, like if a math unit on fractions takes a year, then so be it: year long unit. Students sign up for units they need and ones they are ready for, according to what the teachers are offering at any given time.

I realize this would be a logistical nightmare. I imagine it as a series of two-week units, so that every two weeks, students re-register for classes. I think on some level it would straighten itself out because most students would want to continue with a single subject, especially if they liked the teacher, so my units, for instance, could go through my usual “tenth grade English” class in sequence, and students at about that skill level could just keep signing up for my class every two weeks or so, and that would cover the school year. On the other hand, if students are the type who get bored with subjects quickly, they could bounce around more; take more English one month, and then more math the next month, and then nothing but art the month after that. This way, while it would be difficult to arrange the master schedule as it would be changing all the time (And I would need at least one full-time registrar just to track where everyone is at any given time, and presumably more depending on how many students and teachers are at the school and how much technology can fill this need. Though I also have a plan for getting help to the people running the basic functions of the school, which I’ll get into later.), it would eliminate entirely the bored pain-in-the-ass students who disrupt classes constantly just because they’re tired of English and would rather be in science. Fine: go take a science class this month. Come back to English when you’re tired of science.

It would also allow students to re-take single units they didn’t master without having to re-take an entire year of a subject. Depending on how well you could stagger math units, it would solve the problem of students getting lost halfway through Algebra and then never recovering: because they don’t understand everything that comes after that point in their Algebra class, and then in most schools, they either take a second trip through the same class, or move on to a new class they’re not ready for, or take both the repeat class and the new class, and have a horrible time in both. None of those are good solutions, and all of them lead to students hating math and believing they are bad at math, through no fault or actual lack of their own. If a kid can’t get a math concept, they should stick with that math concept until they get it right, and only then move on to the next part.

The ideal with math, then, since math is so sequential (Though I question that; I would guess that at least some of the sequential nature of math instruction is because we’ve always done it that way. I’d guess that some algebraic concepts could be taught much earlier than others, and would be helpful in mastering other mathematical areas.), would be for a math teacher to focus on, say, the first half of what is now geometry, divided into month-long units — say five of them, though we’ll get into the class schedule later — so Geometry Month 1, Geometry Month 2, Month 3, Month 4, and Month 5. If that teacher taught five classes, they could teach all five months, one period a day each, all year long, and students could advance through the months or repeat the months as needed by shifting what period they took math each month. (If the teacher got bored with that, the math department could rotate the months through several teachers. Point is, all five months of the first half of Geometry are constantly available.)

Each unit would be basically pass/fail, with whatever final assessment product the teacher wanted to use. After the unit and the assessment, the teacher would approve the student to move on to the next unit, or say the student had to repeat the unit. I imagine that each student would collect stamps or stickers, essentially, each stamp saying that they had completed and mastered a single unit; graduation would come after the students collected all of their stickers.

I’ve got much more to say about this school, but I think I’m going to break this imagined school system up into several posts, so it doesn’t get too ponderous. What do you think so far? Is this clear, what I’m proposing here? If not, please comment and ask questions, and I’ll try to clarify. There will be more to come.

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