Thursday, May 28, 2015

Less is More

            Less is more. At least according to a blog post about the Finnish educational philosophy. Written by a teacher who spent time in Finland, this post reveals truths about education in general that every educator should consider, starting with the idea that less is more.
            This idea resonates with me because I see it played out daily at my school. A school which targets at-risk teens, we focus on individual attention and developing relationships with students via a block schedule. I have students during a three-hour period for 28-31 days. Often I’ll have the same students for multiple blocks in a row, allowing me to get to know the learning style of the students as well as understand how they process information and their strengths and weaknesses in learning.
            With the individualized attention and fewer teachers, students end up learning more despite the school having a small staff.  In fact, many have commented on how this is the first time they feel they’ve learned something in school.       
            Finnish students spend less time in school and start later. A school day for them begins at 9 or 9:30 and ends at 2:30. What? Can that be? It can be. Research supports a later start to the school day yet school districts continue to have early morning starts.
            Another less the Finnish students encounter is less homework. The belief is that work should be able to be done during the school day. Here, again, is another similarity between my school and the Scandinavian ones. My school is designed for students not to have homework. It should all be done in school.
            There are more similarities between the alternative school at which I teach and those in Finland, which I find encouraging. Alternative education has got it right. At least at my school. Maybe we should reconsider some of the things we do in the States where more is not always better. Maybe we should look into refining our expectations. Maybe we should reevaluate how schools run. Because sometimes, less really is more.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Summer "Vacation?" Summer Dreams


           The end of another year looms in the near future. Another year of successes and failures. I’ve been dreaming of next year already before this year has even been put to bed. I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to spend my summer. And truth be told, I’d love nothing more than to visit other alternative high schools and glean from them ways to improve my classroom and school.
            I know it sounds dorky, like, who would waste vacation days on that. But I think it sounds great. I’d get to combine my love of travel with my passion for my job. Besides, despite what my school board members may think, and the general public, most teachers spend the summer working on something for the next school year. At least, I do. And in an ideal world, I’d spend this summer checking out alternative programs in other states.
            I doubt I can get my administration to pay for any of these trips, but it’s something I dream of doing. Jumping in the car and road-tripping through various states, visiting as many alternative schools as possible, and taking notes about what works and what doesn’t. Really, a trip like this wouldn’t cost a lot of money, but the pay off could be priceless.
            I’ll keep dreaming the dream. And who knows, maybe next summer I’ll plan a trip. In the meantime summer is calling, and so is my list of “to-do” items to get ready for next school year. Summers aren’t really for vacation, they’re a time out to refresh and renew for the next year. And dream. Always dream.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

If Only...

      Recently, I had lunch with a couple I knew in college. It had been a while since I last saw them and I had forgotten the wife, Caroline, worked at an alternative school, just like me. It didn't take long after that discovery for the two of us to be immersed in our own side conversation. What I learned from that dialogue is that teachers from alternative schools are starved for interaction with their colleagues, with people who understand the ebbs and flows of dealing with our unique student population.
       In my state there is a conference held yearly for alternative educators. Unfortunately, it's one that switches between math and science curricular areas one year, and social studies and English the next year. That interaction is nice....but it's not consistent nor is it enough. In addition, this conference is held in conjunction with the adult education (GED) conference, so nothing is totally dedicated just to alternative education teachers.
       This friend and I lamented the short amount of time we had to talk and share stories, finding commonalities and differences between our two programs. The conversation left me hanging and wanting more. Before departing, Caroline quipped, "It's too bad there isn't a regional conference for alternative education teachers. If anyone needs support, it's us." We both chuckled and moved on.
       But I haven't forgotten. What if there was a network of alternative education teachers who banded together to meet and share best practices? What if there was a conference for alternative education teachers? I know there are the dropout and prevention conferences on a national level. I've been to them, yet they don't really address the needs specific to my school.
       Would a regional conference fill that void? I think it might. However, it took  a long time to organize just the alternative schools in my own state, as sparsely populated as it is. What would it take to mount a multi-state conference?
       Talking with Caroline made me realize how starved I am for interaction with other alternative teachers. I enjoy interacting with colleagues in my district but that can only go so far. We're really from two different worlds. Most of the PD I attend doesn't really apply to my classroom situation. Sure, it can be bent to fit into the mold, but there's always gaps.
      I don't know what the solution is.  But it has me thinking...which often leads to surprises!