Amanda Read Sheik – Unconventional

This is a sequel to my previous article, “Reflections on Classroom Teaching.”

An empty classroom being prepared for students.
An empty classroom being prepared for students, from the author’s teaching days.

#1: The conventional school system structure does not support the development American students need to become self-governing citizens in a constitutional republic. It’s catered to professional convenience and interventionist government, not American childhood. That doesn’t mean that children can’t learn to keep the republic while being students in that system. After all, it has been done for awhile now. But it is counterintuitive, which isn’t surprising. U.S. public school pioneer Horace Mann modeled the Massachusetts common school after the public schools in Prussia, which was a military style autocracy, not a self-governing republic. Mann’s fascination with the system was its ability to condition students’ behavior. In Prussia, it trained them to be servants of their greater good: the state. Mann believed we could apply the same principles to condition students to behave according to Christian morals. But substantive Christianity involves self-initiated conviction, not behavioral conditioning. So too are the virtues of self-governance that develop “a moral and religious people” that John Adams and George Washington believed are necessary for our constitutional republic to endure.

#2: Boys and girls should not be taught in the same classrooms all day long, all week long in middle school and high school. Traditionally in this country, boys and girls attended “dame schools” together as small children, learning the early basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic from a woman who taught in a home environment. If girls furthered their education beyond that, it was almost exclusively at home with a tutor, and such could be the experience of some aristocratic boys as well. But many boys as they matured were sent to school with other boys to be taught by a man in a classroom environment. I think the sex segregation in adolescence actually makes sense, not for any perverted reason, but for simple social dynamics. Girls and boys tend to behave differently in front of each other, even when they’re serious students. Girls giggle and flirt, boys start doing outlandish things to show off (I used to tell them “tuck your tail feathers in” when I saw this). It’s a completely avoidable environment of distractions, but likely the cost of maintaining separate classes for male and female adolescents is prohibitive. I don’t think they necessarily should be quarantined from each other all day. They should learn how to behave around each other in social settings after all. In preschool the disruptive gender dynamics are usually not as pronounced, and by college, students should be expected to behave with adult maturity. But a full 6 hour school day of immature pubescent kids crammed into the same classrooms intended for focus on academics is rather silly.

#3 – The conventional school schedule routinely robs children of the healthiest hours of sunlight. I hate that we drag children out of bed in the early hours of the morning (especially when modern technology often distracts older children from sleep late into the night) and then usually keep them indoors until late-mid afternoon. This can’t be healthy for growing immune systems and minds.

#4 – Children need parenting more frequently than academic teaching, which puts teachers in an exhausting parental position. Within a matter of seconds a teacher has to decide which behavior warrants formal discipline and what that discipline will be – and invariably has to prioritize the needs of the collective (the other students) over the needs of the individual (the disruptive student). Maybe that particular student’s goal is to get kicked out of the class, and another form of discipline would be more suitable for helping him or her understand the consequences of self-centeredness. But order in the classroom must take priority in order to get through the day. Actual problem solving gets postponed.

#5 – Not every student should be in school for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. Like all human beings, children respond to incentive. What incentive is common to the preschooler and high schooler alike? I would sum it up as “free time.” In many homeschool settings, the student has some control as to the length of a school day: diligently focus on completing your assignments well, and you’re free as soon as you’re done. Hence, many homeschool students have the motivation to complete their school day well before noon. But in a conventional school setting, it doesn’t matter how efficiently the student works: the A student and the D student are equally bound to surrender at least 6 hours of their day to a collective routine. We reward good students with extra work (“honors classes”) or sentimental awards, rather than actually entrusting them with more of their own time (which could be spent developing other skills!) as compensation for demonstrating responsibility and achievement. Developing a way to allow competent, independent students to take leave of the school day early would give teachers more time and space to focus on guiding the students who actually need more attention. Yet it appears to me that the current conventional school day and year are tailored more to the convenience of professional adults and bureaucracy than to the actual needs of students.

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