I can rely on one thing every time I visit a school, whether it’s here in Washington state, or in San Francisco, California, or in West Texas — consistency. In every school and every classroom, I always feel at home.
Most schools look and feel the same, no matter where they are located on the map . I can always count on decorated hallways with motivational messages and student work. The classrooms have a similar look and feel, desks and whiteboards, literature-rich walls, a teacher’s workspace, and books, so many books. It’s comforting.
We all know what to expect when we walk into a school, no matter the community. For me, this is both comforting and concerning. I am comforted because I always know someone will greet me when I walk in. I know there will be energetic teachers at the front of classrooms. I know that students will be hard at work or avoiding work at their desks and I can always hear laughter on the playground at elementary schools.
It is concerning, because we appear to have a very specific idea of school and this idea is the same in almost every community. Yet, just like in our classrooms, where we always have new students each year, no two communities are the same. Each one needs something different, yet the traditional layout of our schools suggests we don’t seem to be responding to those needs.
Recently, I visited the small town of Marfa, Texas. The school district is quite small, with fewer than 500 kids in their system. Just as in school visits past, as I entered the school I was greeted by a stern, but kind office manager. Kids bustled through the hallways with their backpacks slung across one shoulder, and the hallway was lined with classrooms, doors open, desks in lines or semicircles, and lessons scrawled across whiteboards. The hallways were warm and inviting, plastered with posters and inspiring quotes. All of it familiar, and comforting.
An administrator toured me through the school bringing me into an 8th grade English class and then over to a 9th grade math class. The district was small enough to house the middle and high schools in the same building. In the math class, I spoke with several students and the teacher. I spent only a few minutes talking with each student, but in that short time I learned one had just moved there from Austin, another wanted to be a nurse and was working on graduating a year early, and yet another dreamed of coding, but wasn’t sure he was college material. The teacher had only been at the school for a couple of years. He’d come here from Arizona, where he’d taught in a bilingual program. There were only eight students in the class.
More than 75% of the student-body identifies as Latinx and/or Hispanic. Every student I spoke with was bilingual, not only could they speak Spanish, but were also literate in Spanish. Additionally many of the educators I spoke with were also bilingual. Yet, at this school, students did not have access to dual language or bilingual instruction. Additionally, this small math class of only eight students was taught in exactly the same way as one with 30 students. In each of the classes I observed, I saw teachers lecturing up front and students sitting in desks in rows, taking notes, and engaging via discussion.
I see this standardization or traditional delivery of instruction everywhere. I have seen some variations. Amy T. Andersen’s classroom in Ocean City, New Jersey is one. She has adjusted her seating for deaf culture. Students sit in an arc around the room to ensure they can all see one another. Amy’s been able to adjust her instruction to better meet the needs of her students and to provide an authentic experience for them. I’ve also seen flexible seating, with tall tables, short coffee tables, couches, bean bag chairs, and traditional desks mixed in. Although, flexible seating is only one strategy and must be accompanied by additional innovation in instruction to truly make it flexible.
What it comes down to is that it’s not about mandating or standardizing instruction. It’s about giving schools the flexibility to meet the needs of the community in which they reside. In Marfa, Texas that could mean implementing dual-language without having to jump through impossible hoops to do so. Or, exploring new modes of teaching and assessment because their small class sizes allow for options. For example, teachers could focus on mastery rather than level, allowing students to work at their individual competency and pace, maybe a form of flipping their classrooms in order to provide more one-to-one support.
The point is, schools need to meet the direct needs of their communities. Sometimes this means we shouldn’t all look and operate the same, no matter how comforting that feels. We must look critically at our communities and try something new. It’s challenging, but it’s the right thing to do.
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