Mar 062011

Cross posted at Re:School

Several years ago, my colleagues and I recognized that students and teachers in our school were being done a disservice. In response to changing expectations in a high-accountability landscape, members of the school community were being  pressed to work harder without any consideration given towards updating the necessary tools or supporting structures. Pressure to achieve higher test scores stressed individual efforts over overall school environment. By taking the broadest look at the actual roadblocks to success, we articulated the Integrated Studies Program (ISP).

The most noticeable feature of ISP is the 3,500 square foot, freely-configurable room. Around the perimeter are cubicles equipped with desktop computers. Laptops are available for mobile computing. Students may arrange tables and chairs however they see fit. At any given moment, there are students working on and offline, independently or in small groups, and with or without adult direction. There are two conventional classrooms associated with the program where teachers and students perform large group instruction and presentations or work on projects that require a controlled environment outside the main area. The intention of this is to make an immanently flexible space that may be adapted to the needs of the learning community rather than force individuals to adapt to the artificial constraints imposed by the space. Removing the physical barriers between the classrooms allows the faculty to create a cohesive community with a common language and expectations with little expense of effort. It happens naturally because that is what the environment encourages. Isolation breeds inconsistency between classrooms and that isolation no longer existed.

Rethinking curriculum, schedule, and learning spaces created the opportunity for a number of notable outcomes. Replacing closed classrooms as the centers of activity with an open working environment allowed learning to be social and collaborative for students and teachers, better representing the professional environments students will encounter as adults. Eliminating the schedule and pacing guides, we were more able to teach literacy skills throughout the curriculum. By blending math with science instruction we were better able to make abstract concepts more concrete. Situating science within historical context helped students connect esoteric content to their world. By removing the barriers among content areas, students create deeper meaning for the topics they are studying.

By changing the conditions of the classroom, we changed as teachers in fundamental ways. We developed as professionals at an extraordinary rate. We observed, we collaborated, we provided constant feedback to one another, we held each other accountable, we picked each other up when one of us had an off day. Even the best administration could not have promoted the type of growth that we promoted in each other. The students witnessed all of this and the interpersonal interactions between them improved greatly because of it.

The key to our success is that ISP is classroom driven. We can better meet the individual needs of all children because we are no longer restricted by what are, ultimately, arbitrary structures put in place for managerial convenience. Even though teacher leadership at this depth has a tendency to make those in administration uncomfortable, the feeling can be overcome by each side recognizing that meeting the needs of children is the ultimate goal and meaningful work towards that end is sometimes difficult yet always worthwhile.