Soft Fall light stretches across the nuts and bolts of wooden play structures as laughing children jump from swings and head for the lines now forming outside of a brick building filled with windows. It is 7:30 am. As lanes of students file through doorways, the scent of oatmeal, toast, and fresh fruit wafts across hallways and a chorus of growling stomachs erupts.
The cafeteria near the entrance fills quickly. Adults and students of all ages intermingle—seated on bright blue stools and chatting over balanced breakfasts. One or two volunteers from the community outside of these school walls can be found at each table. They wear fluorescent orange buttons listing their investment in this institution and the students within.
Teachers ask their students about basketball games and birthdays and everything in between. They use these 45 minutes to hear the stories (real and imaginary) crafted by the children in their classrooms. They grow to know them as learners and as people.
Along the walls of the cafeteria, poster board flutters in the breeze. Intricately detailed and beautifully decorated, these are the projects of the second grade class. Rotated monthly with projects from other grade levels, these posters demonstrate a basic principle from the unique perspective of dozens of different students.
As the children finish their meals, they gather their trays and take them into a large washroom at the back of the cafeteria. Working alongside their peers, teachers, and principal, the students arrange into an assembly line of sorts—washing and drying trays, throwing away trash, mopping floors, and wiping down tables. By 8:45 they are again filing through doors—this time moving past personalized lockers, art and music rooms, the gymnasium, the nursery, and a library filled with books. On their way, they will stop in pristine bathrooms. Opportunities for after school activities and clubs are posted on stall doors and electric hand dryers. Signs written by the fifth graders in curling cursive letters remind hand washers of the importance of hygiene and water conservation. Blue recycling bins are found in every corner. The middle school woodshop class has donated covers with holes of different shapes that make it easy to tell which are for plastic bottles and which are for paper.
As the students find their seats, chants can be heard in the hallways as each class begins daily interactive lessons. Peering into the doorways of the pre-school and kindergarten wings, tiny heads are seen bowed in concentration as children sit on brightly woven mats—each working on individual projects. Dependable and constructed with the different learning styles of each child in mind, the daily schedule is tacked outside of the classroom. The next few hours call for story time, art class, nap time, and group games.
Moving toward the 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms, students can be seen shuffling to the library in shifts—picking out their own books and returning with wide toothy grins. In several classrooms there are two teachers, one carrying out lesson plans at the front of the room and another seated in the back, taking notes and offering help. 9 and 10 year-olds hold the hands of toddlers they head off to the nursery to learn and play. A lesson in a 4th grade classroom spills into the outdoors as children run outside the windows with butterfly nets and field journals in tow. Learning about native plants and animals in the area, they are growing to care about their surroundings.
This is a snapshot of a few morning hours in a day at a Utopian school—a school where children are educated with the intention that they will become great citizens, and where there are no limits when it comes to resources or investment. I have found myself dreaming of this school throughout my experience this past semester with my independent study “Education in the U.S.” Fueled with the disappointing anecdotes and statistics of books like Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch, Taught by America by Sarah Sentilles, and “The Influence of Teachers” by John Merrow, I found myself trying to imagine what a school outside of our broken education system could look like. As I researched the controversy of teacher’s unions, tenure, charter schools, and teach for America, complexity became a recurring theme. When solutions are presented in our education system, and arguably in American systems in general, they are often presented too simplistically. We fail to see the whole picture. We do not consider the countless variables that cause the issues we wish to solve. When we do begin to unravel inevitable webs of complexity, the solutions become so daunting that many throw their hands in the air and give up. I will admit that during a few points in my study with Maria, I had this same feeling. Faced with the double edged swords like standardized testing, tracking, and teacher evaluation, I found it easy to have a strong opinion, but much more difficult to offer a legitimate solution. No matter where I turned there were limits to face and possible pitfalls. Probable risks and possible rewards. The fear of failure is palpable, but this fear cannot warrant doing nothing. This is the stance of the infamous Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools and notorious dictator when it came to shutting down schools and firing faculty who did not meet the criteria of “progress” for the children of D.C. Though she was alienating (and probably a little out of line,) I do respect Michelle Rhee for her determination to change a broken system. This fierce hope is something that needs to continue if progress is to be made. Limits must be acknowledged, but we cannot allow them to halt change and to blow out hope. For this reason, I have chosen to present what I have learned over the past semester in the form of a Utopian school. A school where limits do not apply. A school based on the positive aspects of education gleaned from all of my reading, writing, research, discussion, and work with second graders at Greenvale Park Elementary, and informed by all of the mistakes, injustices, and shortcomings in this same system. By beginning with an image of the “perfect” school, we might learn how to acknowledge limits and balance them in a way that allows us to get as close to the ideal picture as possible. We might prioritize and work toward a vision. To begin with the endless limits of the education system is to begin with pessimism. Now, more than ever, we need to use hope and holistic thinking to begin to mend an inconsistent and corrupt system. The “hope” card is a card that has been played before. I am reminded of Obama’s 2008 campaign, or the mantra of Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman. Though it might be painted as overused and cliché, I think that the notion of hope is vital as we contemplate how the future will unfold for the coming generations. Through a series of blog posts, I will lay out my own microcosmic example of an ideal education system—examining one piece at a time. By breaking down the ideology of my Utopian school according to the issues that have captivated me most throughout this semester, I hope to use a perception of perfection to move toward something more.