This month's guest writer in The Breakroom begins her clinical internship today in a local area pharmacy. The next three weeks are critical as professional certification as a pharmacy technician depends upon successful completion of the internship.
In addition to being a knowledgeable and highly skilled certified pharmacy technician candidate, writer Toni Hornes Sullivan is a reflective, big-picture thinker. And, she is passionate about the power of education. So, it was not a surprise to us when one of Toni's teachers offered her essay, "Education Changes Everything," to post in The Breakroom.
As we were preparing to post this month's blog, I had also finished reading Tara Westover's memoir, Educated. So many pieces just fell into place. I think that Tara Westover, Toni Sullivan, and all of us at this School Sisters of Notre Dame sponsored organization would agree that education really does change everything. We are grateful to Toni Hornes Sullivan for her perspectives and for sharing how she believes we might be able to do education better in Baltimore.
When I was a child, I was intrigued by Japanese schools in anime. I loved the uniforms; and, I would often read about how students would spend their days in and outside of the classroom. This love expanded when I took elementary education classes in college and learned how various instructional models work. Given the challenges faced by Baltimore City public schools, I believe changes must be made to create healthier environments for students and teachers alike.
In this regard, I have given some thought to setting free time outside of the traditional curriculum day and to teaching the curriculum following an alternative instruction days model.
In Baltimore City, the instruction day for most elementary and middle school students begins between 7:30 – 9 a.m., which I think is too early for most students. With the transportation system and traffic patterns in the city, students can easily become stressed in their daily travel, especially if they are taking multiple modes of transportation – i.e. bus, subway, and walking – each way. When students arrive at school, I would recommend thirty minutes to an hour to decompress. Free-time activities, such as meditation or courses in the arts, could be scheduled in the morning so that students are not immediately diving into math, English, and social studies instruction. Free-time activities would allow teachers to de-stress as well, as they often must arrive early in the morning to finish preparing lessons or do administrative work. Allowing a little extra time for both students and teachers in the morning before the instruction day begins will ensure that they are not too frequently overloaded with assignments and paperwork.
I would also recommend that students and teachers have access to counseling services at school. Counseling services for students is especially important, as many students are dealing with issues such as homelessness, abuse, and trauma and are unable to resolve the issues on the own at their young ages. Because students spend a large portion of their day in school, having convenient and immediate access to counseling services would greatly improve their capacity to learn and to be resilient in the face of tough challenges. Counseling would also allow students the space to voice their issues and then work to resolve them. Faculty need counseling services as well, as many teachers face harsh administrative environments as well as the stress of high frequency contacts with administrators, parents, and students.
I think that the timing of the instruction day for high school students also could be improved. Most classes are scheduled for less than an hour; and, there are frequent room changes. Even though the schedule itself may not be so demanding, instruction often suffers because it has to be condensed to fit into small time slots. At the high school level, there is also the challenge of state and national exams to consider, which often forces instruction to be too narrow so that it can meet test standards and metrics.
In addition to setting free time outside of the traditional curriculum day, I would suggest adopting an alternative instruction days model, where students would study one to three subjects at most. Using this model would allow students to concentrate on learning fewer subjects, while learning them in more depth. For instance, a science course that before only allowed for a brief PowerPoint presentation could now accommodate full science experiments, outdoor observation, and classroom discussion, allowing students to absorb the material as well as explore its applications. Alternative instruction days would give students the opportunity to see the many possibilities for using and applying the subject matter they are learning and would give them time to question the uses and applications of the subject matter in the world around them. Alternative instruction days may also allow students to receive fewer homework assignments, freeing them from long hours of studying after the school day.
The alternative instruction schedule should also include career preparation, as students will need to be increasingly multi-faceted in their skills as they prepare for college or the workplace. Schools could have a very powerful role to play in the future of students’ lives – teaching them to challenge themselves by taking subjects that are unfamiliar to them and giving them the opportunity to measure their strengths and weaknesses in considering which paths might be best for them.
The ultimate goal of learning is for students to be actively engaged in determining the course of their lives, achieving their fullest potential, and understanding how to take good, healthy risks in life.
Making these adjustments in our school would support both students and teachers, would make learning richer and more enjoyable, and would help to create an overall sense of well-being.
Students should be able to achieve at every step along their educational journeys; and, I believe that adopting these important changes would have direct and positive effects on student achievement.