Doves adorn the staircase to the middle school, twirling gently in the air currents, still exuding the active hope for peace expressed by the students who made them and arranged them. At the top of the staircase sits a totem pole, made by the class of 2019 back when they were seventh graders, expressing who they were at the time and thus, in many ways, who they are now. I walk into the middle school lobby, where soon enough kids will start to flood in, flopping on the chair and couch, half sitting on each other’s laps as they chatter about any- and everything that crosses their minds. I walk into my room, past the Black Lives Matter, Girl Power, and LGBT Safe space signs on the door, and arrange the blue beanbags in a half circle. Soon, kids will half-walk, half-run into the room and either drop their backpacks on their beanbag of choice, whirl, and return to the lobby, or drop down to relax and hang out with their friends as they arrive.
With five teacher/advisors volunteering to chaperone the 8th graders on their annual trip to Washington, DC, it seemed only right for me to step up and sign up to sub in their absence. I got Andrea's 7th grade Science/Math class and Meghan's Junior IB Bio I class. We got off to a bit of a slow start in the 7th grade Pre-Algebra class as the 7th graders who were in the predominantly 8th grade Algebra 1 class downstairs were apparently baking, and there was a tidal wave of enthusiasm for the idea of our doing the same despite the fact that we had neither ingredients nor oven. But it wasn't long before I was tossing dry-erase markers to students to go put up their answers to the homework on the board before checking them over.
Recently, Robert Pondiscio, an online friend of mine, posted a link on Facebook to an article published by Alfie Kohn entitled “Encouraging Courage.” In the article, Mr. Kohn argues that “There is already enough [education research] to help us decide what to do (or stop doing) on many critical issues,” that “there are plenty of examples of outstanding classrooms and schools in which that research is being put into practice” but that “What’s lacking is sufficient courage for those examples to be widely followed.” Mr. Kohn continued on to challenge educators to question traditional practices that interfere with learning, take responsibility for their personal role in the process of education, and share power with students. A lively discussion ensued on the page and, as a progressive educator, I found myself moved to write a more lengthy response. Three of the prime concerns expressed during the discussion were the roles of factual knowledge and homework in the classroom, and what (if anything) progressive educators want students to be able to do upon graduation.
Let’s start with the question about what goals progressive educators have for their students, and work backwards. Research tells us “that various ‘enhanced’ forms of discovery learning work best of all.” (Kohn) So how do I, as a progressive educator, try to put that into practice? Essentially, I determine the fundamental, non-negotiable parameters for a course and then turn the students loose to explore within those parameters, talking and conferring with them all along the way. Both the non-negotiable parameters and the individual student exploration help them learn the kinds of things I want them to learn - in short, to meet my goals.