Imagine that you're a typical 11th grade high school student. You attend a decently funded, average "middle class" school. It's one of the three high schools in the community, and all the schools are basically designed the same exact way. Your mascot is one of the many big cat variations, your sports program sometimes wins championships, and school is just...school.
The building is ordinary, but serviceable. It's large and packed with lockers and hallways. Designed for the growing ever-population of the city, over 1,500 students pass through every day. The classrooms are nearly identical, save some science labs and the media center, and most have windows and maintained (albeit mundane) furniture.
You begin the day in your first out of seven 45-minute periods – an honors English class. It's a step up from the basic English class, but not as demanding as the AP offering. You decided that you didn't want the extra workload. Like a lot of (now) educators, you're a decent enough student: you maintain above average grades, attend most school days, and participate every-so-often in class and after school activities. School "is what it is."
It's the second semester, so class is fairly routine now. It starts with a bell ringer: a journal entry: Which character from a book would you most like to meet and why? Almost every student in the room has their composition notebook out and is writing the required 2 paragraphs. You write about Winston Smith from 1984, which you read as a class a couple months ago. After about 10 minutes, your teacher, Ms. Jones, instructs everyone to finish their thoughts. She tells everyone that today she'll be announcing the next class read.
Weeks earlier, Ms. Jones presented a variety of options from The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Lord of the Flies. Students were asked to form groups and prepare a Google Slides presentation on which book the class should read, which were in-turn presented then voted on. Ms. Jones excitedly exclaims, "...and with that said, we'll be reading Paper Towns by John Green!" Many students seem happy and halfheartedly clap and cheer. It wasn't your first, second, or third choice, but you suppose you'll read it. A few students audibly groan.
Soon after, you're handed an assignment with some introductory reflections on Paper Towns. Ms. Jones tells the class to work quietly on the assignment while she hands back your presentation grades. The assignment is due by the end of the period. After reading a quick synopsis of the book, you begin to respond to "What about this work interests you?" when Ms. Jones hands you a paper face-down. You flip it over. A "B" for your presentation on reading One of Us is Lying – there's some circles on a rubric below which you ignore, and you stuff the paper into a binder. It'll do.
As the class is working, you take a look around the room. There's about 25 other students in the room who are seated in various ways: some in small groups around a table, others at individual desks with baskets underneath for storing student materials. Some are completing the assignment, some are quietly talking with each other, a few are sneaking their cell phones under the table or have their head down.
Ms. Jones takes a seat at her desk. She's a decent enough teacher. She'll often have really interesting discussions and will design entertaining review games. Students love her jokes and in general, you're much happier to be in this class than regular English (Mr. Evans is known for being extremely strict). She is busy at her laptop typing (what you assume to be) lesson plans.
In general, Ms. Jones seems happy with her job. Yet, at the beginning of the school year she was filled with over-the-top energy...and now, not so much. She looks up and seems frustrated by the students not completing their work, but doesn't say anything. She fills out a write-up paper for a student who started throwing paper wads across the room, calls them over to her desk, and assigns a lunch detention. It seems like the school year is taxing on her – she's tired. You're in the same boat.
Ms. Jones tells the class there's a few minutes left. Most students hand-in their work, return to their seats, and start to pack up. A few students go up to Ms. Jones' desk and share their excitement for reading Paper Towns. The bell rings, everyone walks out, and it's onto the next class.
Midway through the day, you are ushered into the lunchroom. It's "Pizza Day", and everyone is excited for their slightly off-brand, yet still surprisingly good pizza. Some students also order chips and a drink. It's a good day in comparison to most.
This is pretty much the experience every day: outside of some pep rallies, a random guest speaker, or a school musical performance, it's "school." It's serviceable and you're doing alright – outside of it being a bit boring. After completing your other six periods, you're ready to leave. You ride the bus home, walk inside, and take out your homework. Today's pretty light: about 30 minutes worth of math problems. You rush to complete the assignment, finish it, then go off to play video games. It's been a tiring day – most week days are – and you're ready to zone out and prepare for tomorrow. On the weekend you'll hang out with friends.
Imagine you're still the same 11th grade student and you're attending basically the same exact high school: decently funded, averagely "middle class", and it looks like a run-of-the-mill building. But this time, things are a bit different.
In this scenario, the teachers and administrators are starting to acknowledge problems in the schooling experience: they've seen that the "same old, same old" is causing widespread disengagement, many students are falling through the cracks, and teachers are burning out. They spent the previous summer in various professional development sessions, conferences, school-wide initiatives, and cooperative planning; it's a rough mix of culturally relevant, progressive, makerspace, anti-racist, and experiential pedagogies: essentially, whatever employees thought was interesting.
You begin the day in a block schedule: there's 4 periods each day, each 90 minutes long. You're in "English" class, all students attend the same course. The building decided to remove "tracking" and service all students in the same environment, to prevent labeling and ensure all students have their potential recognized. You're maintaining good grades and participating enough.
A lot of the school "feels" like school, but there's some notable differences in your school versus the ones your friends go to: you recall an interesting project last semester where all the classes combined for social entrepreneurship projects – you designed an environmentally-conscious t-shirt brand which was presented to some potential community investors. You didn't raise any funds, but it was a pretty cool experience: you were able to work with your friends, you designed some actual wearable merchandise, and there were plenty of field trips.
Your English class is paired up with social studies today: Ms. Jones and Ms. Martin are doing a combined unit on the progressive era. You meet in the media center so all 50 or so students can fit. It's not the first time classes have combined, you've gotten used to the meeting location changing ever-so-often.
Students take their seats around the center at various desks, tables, sofas, and bean bag chairs. The teachers get their attention and toss a slide on the projector reading, "THE PROGRESSIVE ERA." Ms. Jones and Ms. Martin explain that they're kicking off a project today about reforms in the 1930s. All students will have to accomplish a few things: 1) read an excerpt from one of the books on the book list, 2) research information on how problems were solved during the progressive era, and 3) demonstrate knowledge of modern workplace conditions. Ms. Jones and Ms. Martin display a slide of what it means to "display knowledge", featuring a variety of bullet points from "classroom presentation" to "podcast" to "reflection paper."
Soon after, they disperse the class to utilize the media center. Some students jump right into step 1, finding the appropriate books, while others sit around and chat. Ms. Jones and Ms. Martin walk over and firmly but friendly guide students toward the first step. While you're reading a marked page in The Jungle, Ms. Jones calls you aside. She lets you know that it's time for a quick check-in on your progress in the class. You're used to these check-ins. The class is "ungraded", meaning that even though it assigns a grade, you tell Ms. Jones how you believe you're doing, present some evidence as such, and then...that's your grade. You found this to be a moderately stressful experience at first, but now it's commonplace.
You talk to Ms. Jones about the last book you read for self-selected novels: Dragon Pearl. She asks a few questions about the overall theme and ideas presented, which you expertly answer. Then, she asks if you enjoyed it. You say it was okay...but it was a bit simplistic. (After all, this was a book aimed at younger kids.) She suggests Last Night at the Telegraph Club, which you write down and say you'll consider for next time. At the end, you say that with all this said, you feel like you should be at a "B." Ms. Jones quickly interjects: "It seems to me like you had complete understanding of that book...this is without-a-doubt 'A' level work. Keep it up for next time." You hesitantly agree and an A is assigned. Most students earn an A in Ms. Jones' class.
One-by-one, students meet with Ms. Jones to discuss their grades. Meanwhile, Ms. Martin is hard to find amidst the collection of students throughout the room. Some are browsing the library stacks, others are listening to book excerpts on their phone, others are sitting and writing notes, and some are off to the side talking with one another. Ms. Martin checks in with the students who seem to be off task, who explain to her that they're taking a break and will finish the assignment. She gives them a time reminder and lets them be. Soon after, another student starts making loud...odd sounds – his friends laugh and it's disruptive. Ms. Martin calls the student out into the hallway and talks to him about his behavior, he returns soon-after. There was no detention, just a conversation about why we can't have this behavior here.
Ms. Jones and Ms. Martin both seem relatively energized. They're obviously tired – they're moving around and talking with students constantly – but they seem genuinely interested in what the students are talking about and learning. You know that Ms. Jones had to deal with a parent complaint last week for recommending books to students that had "gay characters" and seemed frustrated, but it's good to see that she's doing okay now. Administration must have defended her decision as nothing came from it.
As the period wraps up, some students have finished while others are only on the first step. The teachers say that in tomorrow's class they'll have something for everyone to look into, and they'll meet in the media center again. There's no doubt that some of the students were pretending to work and spent the whole period off-task.
You attend your other 3 classes: one is reviewing for an upcoming standardized test; another is a hands-on lab; and the other is a cooperative game to "beat the teacher" at mathematics. It can be frustrating sometimes, but there is never a single "routine period." On days where you're tired, it can be overwhelming – but luckily teachers are very understanding and tend to leave you alone. In check-ins, they'll see how you're doing...as long as you're participating often enough, they'll leave you be. After all, most of the assignments are things you're relatively interested in.
For lunch, the school has partnered with a nonprofit organization to supply fresher food. It's not always perfect, but it's certainly a "good" school lunch. Options are provided for all types of eaters, and food is prepared from scratch on-site.
When you arrive home on the bus, you have the whole day ahead of you. The school has eliminated homework. You decide to work with some oil painting materials your family had bought you; it's something you've always wanted to learn how to do. And, you remember that your science class has an upcoming project where you'll choose to conduct a study on whatever you want – maybe you can incorporate something with this?
Finally, imagine you're the same student...except this time public education in the United States has been completely changed. The US Department of Education has recognized that leading research has shown that much of the existing model is hurting student outcomes. They've reframed what it means to be "successful" by interviewing students, community members, teachers, academics, businesses, nonprofits, and more – and found that almost everyone wants students to be engaged, nurtured, loved, purposeful, and learned.
Based on this, they've made the following changes – which are tied to federal funding:
Beyond this, other systems in the United States have changed to support young people. The criminal justice system has taken steps to lessen incarceration and focus on rehabilitation; everyone has been provided a universal basic income to avoid living in extreme poverty; and everyone has access to quality public resources, such as great libraries and free Internet.
You arrive at school – which is very different from years past. In fact, it's been such a change that many students have needed additional resources this year to navigate what exactly they are supposed to be doing. Everyone has a different schedule: school is structured almost like a liberal arts college. In the summer, a group of volunteer students and educators – representing a wide range of perspectives – met together and planned engaging coursework. They hired additional teachers which included community members, small business owners, and older students. These classes are offered at various times in the day, depending on when students learn best, with various bussing times to arrive on campus.
You've signed up for "Introduction to Robotics and Drone Piloting" at 9:30AM, have a break from 11:00 until 11:30 with "Gothic Horror in Literature", then wrap up Monday at 1:00 with "Community Service." You prefer to end the day relatively early, while some are on campus until the late evening. You have different classes on Tuesday and Thursday, and Friday off. All of these classes are interesting to you, and they're aligned with the national standards – there are required concepts that all students must meet, and your advisor helped you choose this selection at the beginning of the year.
Due to increased funding, all students have access to any/all resources they'd need to be successful, and class sizes are small - averaging 10 students a class. No grades are given. Instead, students document what they're doing in their classes, often designing their own project concepts and adding them to a portfolio. This portfolio is then sent on to colleges or displayed on a resume. Sometimes, all students will attend a required seminar or guest speaker to learn about community endeavors. In one case, a student is talking about gender identity and her lived experience.
The school has been divided into many smaller wings: some wings are loud with hands-on experiments and a lot of active movement; some are more traditional for students who desire the "old school" curriculum; others are a midpoint. Students transition between these wings at any given moment, and collectively enforce community norms that were discussed at an early year seminar. Sometimes, students who frequently break the norms will be required to attend a session between teachers, administrators, and other students about their behavior.
You walk into Ms. Jones' classroom for Gothic Horror in Literature. This is one of four unique classes she teaches over four days; which was approved based on her own and student interests.
The Gothic Horror classroom is simple and homely: it looks like an overly-sized living room. Various comfy seats covered by shaded lamps fill the room. There's a lot of space to walk around and lounge. You're joined by 9 peers who sit around the room and get ready for class to start. Some of the students are much younger than you. You're surprised they're able to read these books with you...you think they're fairly challenging. You've been reading Dracula, which everyone agreed would be a good place to start in Gothic Horror. Ms. Jones offers some discussion questions to start things off, then other students begin leading the prompts organically. This conversation takes the entire period, and some students say farewell and leave; while others stick around and keep talking. You have some time before your next class, so you stay and keep talking about Dracula – you all watch some films on YouTube and laugh at how ridiculous Netflix's Dracula is.
There's no grades. Ms. Jones encourages everyone to journal, write about, present on – really do anything that documents their involvement with the book. She meets with students in and out of class to help them develop their thoughts and go further. Because of the small class sizes and self-selected classes, there's not many discipline issues – and those that do exist are quickly resolved. And, because the class is interest-driven and no one is ranked or filed, students of all skill levels are welcome to contribute and grow as learners.
You stop by for lunch at the campus food court. Partnerships with local eateries means that you can order any food you'd like – and it's paid for by the school. Some regulations mean that all food is relatively healthy: but all quality and fresh. You're happy with all the options – everything from simple traditional meals to international offerings that change day-to-day. And it's cool that many of the eateries are operated by students' family members.
You're scheduled to meet with your advisor today, who is part of a team looking after your progress. Sometimes you'll meet with different advisors to get a different opinion. Their goal is to ensure you're doing well, that you're having the proper supports in your classes, and that your classes are sufficiently interesting. You explain that everything is great – but you wish the school had more art offerings. They share a nonprofit connection in the community and recommend its elaborate (free) art program.
At the end of the day, you leave campus. In some ways, your home life is blended. In a healthy sense, you recognize that you should leave most of your studies at school and should take time for yourself – but you also enjoy the joy of a good challenge. You look up another book that's modern Gothic Horror: Mexican Gothic, and begin to read it so you can share it tomorrow...you figure the other students may find it interesting.
Creating better learning environments for educators and students that reflects what we know from research and experience is no small feat; and it's difficult for us to imagine change that's realistic (and something we can all agree on). But the fact of the matter is that any and all change is worth it.
The first school is the school I went to – and the experience of many students – especially white, semi-suburban students like me – across the United States. It's not a bad education for (arguably) most students, it's just not particularly useful or interesting. There are many great teachers doing fantastic work in America's public schools, but the systems that uphold them are rooted in dehumanizing practice. And, there are many schools without such luxuries, operating in areas that are not properly funded, face student overcrowding or teacher shortages, or struggle with the ramifications of poverty. There are schools built on stringent authoritarianism that remove all power and agency from students.
The second is what many of us are advocating for. It's incrementalism. We are making the most of shifting systems within something that appears insurmountable. There is absolutely nothing wrong with demanding and fighting for these changes, yet it's not perfect. There are so many roadblocks and hurdles that it often feels like a miniature rebellion versus the world. It can lead to burnout, cynicism, and a loss of hope. Critical pedagogist Paulo Freire wrote, "...the struggle for hope means the denunciation, in no uncertain terms of all abuses...As we denounce them, we awaken in others and ourselves the need, and also the taste, for hope.” It is paramount that we continue to make the most of our abilities to push back and demand change in schools: from ungrading to restorative justice, to purpose-finding and anti-racist practices.
And the third may seem like a far-off dream, but the world is what we make it to be. Progressive reforms have never been more popular. Martin Luther King Jr.'s proposed universal basic income plan has gained traction, with the majority of Americans now supporting the program; more and more Americans support a single-payer healthcare system. The growth of these progressive policies is a result of numerous people – including academics, researchers, community advocates, politicians, social media posters, and everyday conversations – all of whom share slightly different opinions and strategies for implementation, but agree on the need for change.
The classroom works because it is inherently interesting. Young people want to learn, but schooling is not always equivalent to learning – it's compliance and everyone has to do almost the same thing.
As we make these changes, there will undoubtedly be cognitive dissonance. How can we be teachers if we recognize that we're contributing to inhumane and racist discipline practices? We might resist – but at the end of the day we're beholden to school policy. How can we issue a grade if we know it will harm student motivation? These are constant, grueling questions we must push through, doing our best with any given moment to be as humane as we can, while simultaneously ushering in change.
It's up to progressive educators to constantly push the narrative and advocate for that third school. Your opinion may differ from mine on what exactly it should be, but that doesn't mean we should accept the first school. And incrementalist change is one of the strategies of getting there. Some may argue that this doesn't go far enough, or that neoliberal reform will destroy the progressive movement by moving too slowly. We must optimistically and cautiously move forward by demonstrating the need, showing the change, then demanding more for all learners. It will take a collective of incrementalists, community activists, radicals, and those working outside of the traditional school system to realize a change on this scale. And, it'll take the same actors pushing back against those who want a regressive, privatized model. But it's my hope that we'll constantly see progress, and one day arrive at a reimagined school system.