Always on the lookout for ways to help high schools run more smoothly and effectively, I keep noticing that many good ideas for improving high school programs and policies look a lot like the way elementary schools operate. I wonder if some of these ideas from K-5 schools could be adapted for high schools. For example …
1. Focus on literacy. Literacy is the primary focus in most elementary classrooms. Reading and writing skills are used to develop students’ skills in other subject areas. It’s no surprise that elementary students usually rate reading and writing as their favorite school subjects. (Gym and recess also rank highly.) And then what happens? In high school, continued improvement in reading and writing is frequently considered the sole domain of English classes. While some high school subject areas use reading and writing to support their curricular goals, many students’ enthusiasm for reading and writing nosedives after about sixth grade, which is usually when literacy is separated and de-emphasized in the overall curriculum.
But what if high school kept reading and writing at the center of its curriculum, instead of trying to keep it in balance with other disciplines? What if schools made a conscious decision to include choice reading for students each day, along with a specific commitment to develop lifelong readers and writers? A new study from the Institute of Education at the University of London indicates that students who read for pleasure are more likely to do well on math tests. This research doesn’t surprise me one bit. Literacy supports everything else we do in a high school. Why not put it at the center of our mission?
2. Send stuff home. Many elementary students come home with “backpack mail,” a folder jammed with PTA flyers, newsletters, spelling test results, and all kinds of material generated in their schools and classrooms. That wouldn’t work with most high school students for about ten thousand reasons. But what if we did a better job of communicating with parents about what is going on in our classrooms and schools?
Many high school teachers use email lists to send out information and newsletters. When I’ve done that, many parents appreciate it, but just as many do not like lengthy emails cluttering up their phone-based email. I’ve learned that parents tend to appreciate short updates when they come by email, or links to information that they can explore later.
Most schools now have some kind of online portal where parents can see their students’ grades. That’s fine, but it’s usually just letter grades and numbers, which only provide a limited picture of their students’ performance, progress, and experiences. Elementary students bring home everything!
What if we made more student work available online for parents to see? For example, our department’s Ning allows parents (and anyone else) to see our student writing and other class-related material, but only students and teachers can add comments and content. I encourage parents to check out how and what their sons and daughters and their classmates are writing. Young writers’ conception of audience is sharpened when they know their pieces can be seen by almost anyone.
3. Go out for recess. What if we just played more? Yes, I mean games. Humans like to think and solve puzzles. What if we infused our course content with games? I played quick games of Hangman three different times last week in order to engage students and get them guessing about something. One example involved an allusion from Field of Dreams: “Is this heaven? No, it’s _____.” When we got as far as I_ _ A, someone shouted “Ikea!” Priceless. (Correct answer: Iowa.)
It’s easy to go beyond Hangman though. Quizlet can be using engagingly, and teachers and students can learn to create game-based instructional apps or use pre-existing gaming apps, many of which are free.
How about this for fun? Brad Graba, a biology teacher at our school, literally created an international sensation last year when he launched #organellewars on Twitter. Students created Twitter accounts for specific organelles and then conducted online campaigns to be elected president of their cell. This was the talk of our school for weeks, and then it spread far beyond our walls. For more details about this impressive activity, see p. 27 of the most recent National Science Teachers Association Reports.
When I was a kid, I played in a creek on the edge of our neighborhood to catch minnows and sell them to the local bait shop. This week my daughter’s chemistry class played in a creek that runs behind the high school. They collected its nasty water, tested the water’s properties, and then purified it.
But recess is not just about activities and competitive games. It is also about valuable down-time. Relaxing with a book of choice for a few minutes in the middle of a stressful school day can be considered something like play as we relax and escape into the book’s other world.
When it comes to writing, Penny Kittle says in Write Beside Them, “There is not enough play in high school … Playful writing leads to a comfortable voice that is easy to read. Too often writing assignments in high school ask for a voice the student struggles to find. Students are asked to be an authority of something they know little about. The writer is pinned to the ground by a topic and voice wrestled out, which of course leads to stilted, awkward writing.” Writers need to play around with sounds, words, and ideas.
Field trips are sort of an extended recess. High school students need to do memorable things to help them assimilate new learning. Go places. Bring in guest speakers, in person or via Skype. Author Kate Messner maintains an incredible list of authors who Skype for free.
4. Re-think homework. Homework expectations in elementary school are usually clearly defined. Rarely are students expected to do more than an hour’s worth of homework in elementary school. The best elementary school homework policies focus on choice reading at home, and some review of previously learned facts.
But in high school, many students are overwhelmed with homework. High school teachers rarely coordinate their homework expectations and schedules from subject to subject, so students tend to have mountains of homework early in the week and tests galore at the end of the week, and this increases exponentially at the end of any grading period. Ironically, this is detrimental to learning.
Students who actually try to do everything that is assigned as well as study for each test frequently end up with sleep deprivation and school-related anxiety. And their learning suffers. Because of homework. Make sense of that if you can.
Other students learn how to take shortcuts, or they cheat. Again, what does that teach students?
Of course, some students do fine with loads of homework, but wouldn’t they do just as well with half as much homework?
Elementary schools have the right idea on homework. Keep it short. Make it review-based. Assume that parents will not be involved. As much as possible, coordinate testing so that high-stakes events are not clustered together.
Another way to re-think homework is to consider the flipped-classroom model that has students getting direct instruction on their own time through pre-recorded videos or podcasts while class time is used for guided practice and enrichment experiences.
5. Use narrative-based report cards. Elementary school report cards tend to have checks and plusses, which are fine, but what I love is the teacher’s narrative that explains exactly how my child is progressing, struggling, and achieving. I can’t imagine how much time goes into those descriptions, but I appreciate every syllable every time.
High school report cards tend to show letter grades with maybe a brief canned comment or two. Standards-based report cards are only slightly better. As a parent, I don’t care at all if my children have moved from level 3 to level 4 on standard X or Y. What I care about is if they are engaging with others responsibly and respectfully, and specifics about how they are learning in each class. High school report cards showing grades and canned comments barely make a ripple in my parental consciousness, but I pored over those elementary school narratives.
Each of these ideas has significant obstacles. Most American high schools try to be mini-colleges. Ironically, the college paradigm they are trying to imitate is an early 20th Century model based on lectures and tests, an approach that hasn’t exactly proven to be the most effective way to promote learning, especially for adolescents.
Maybe instead of looking ahead to post-secondary institutions for inspiration about how to improve our high schools, we should take a look back at how successful elementary schools shape our students’ first academic learning experiences.