September 22, 2023

Scott McLeod: Deeper Learning Requires Deeper Relationships?

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Scott Mcleod is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado Denver. In this piece, he notes that community (not, say, strict rules and regimentation) are key.

As I visit innovative elementary and middle schools across the country, I have noticed that these schools devote significant amounts of time for students and educators to simply be together in community. These time blocks are not academic. This community time is for small groups within the school to check in, share out, bond together, identify who might need support, wrestle with interesting ideas, and so on.

At Highline Big Picture Middle School in Burien, Washington, this time takes the form of a morning circle. I joined a sixth-grade class when I visited and was welcomed warmly by the students and teacher. We discussed things that were happening in our lives and answered some interesting questions, I witnessed two students resolve a lingering conflict and apologize to each other, and we learned about what each individual was thinking and feeling as we started the school day. Students initiated most of the conversations. When a small family of 18 students and a teacher talk together about non-academic matters every day for three years in middle school, those interactions morph over time into meaningful connection and interdependence, just like the small, additive conversations that we may have with our neighbors over the back fence.

Morning time looks a little different at Down to Earth Forest School in West Linn, Oregon. The nature-immersed independent school doesn’t have a building. Instead, students and educators meet each day at the city park and they start with a ‘soft open.’ Students trickle in over the first half hour of the school day, often accompanied by parents who use the time to touch base with a teacher, ask a question about their child, or see how they can help with upcoming events. Some students read a book or catch up on homework, while others play a game or work on an interesting puzzle. A few students might be playing in the woods and getting some energy out, while others sit and listen to an adult who is playing the ukulele and singing. The experience was incredibly relaxing compared to the typical start of a more traditional school day, and I found myself wishing that more schools had this type of peaceful beginning.

Morning circle time isn’t a new structure for many schools, but often the emphasis in more traditional schools is to get students settled and ready to receive instruction. Those purposes exist for the schools that I visited too, but the time felt less hectic and more oriented toward togetherness rather than simply preparing for a day’s worth of teacher-led academic experiences.

This time existing in the community can take other forms. For example, educators and students might spend the last 15 to 20 minutes of school checking in to see how the day went, decompressing, and identifying who needs support as they walk out the door and transition toward home. Rod Buenviaje, the principal of High Tech Middle Chula Vista in California, told me that teachers there might spend an entire week or two at the beginning of the school year doing community-building work before they dive into academics.

Read more about this approach here. 

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