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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Riddle Of Time

This Blog opens with a riddle from J.R.R. Tolkien:

What is:

This thing that all things devours,
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kings, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down

The answer = Time.

Time is one element that is surely limited, regardless of how much we need it or how much we value it. No matter who we are and how much we have, time is dispensed equally in that it is offered in the same amount each day to everyone. Yet, how we use it determines much of who we become and how our future unfolds. This is similarly as true of schools as it is for individuals.

The amount of time available to schools is usually governed by negotiated contracts. State guidelines often shape how the time is distributed, per regulations addressing various subject matter. However, there remains some time, albeit a fairly small quantity, that beckons the discretion of the school's policymakers in distributing those valuable remnants.

We have chosen to invest this discretionary time in a manner that would be considered unusual in 2012, and perhaps even blasphemous. At a point when schools are redistributing minutes away from curricula not tested by state assessments and spending it on those learning areas subjected to high stakes testing, we are avoiding that knee-jerk reaction and acting in a way that could be described as counter-intuitive.

We have added daily recess to our elementary school schedule. That's right, we went from not having any recess for our young learners and carved out time for them to experience a recess. We opted to promote opportunities for children to engage in physical and social exercise. Playing and interacting with classmates in a far less structured environment can earn dividends that are at least as valuable as what these same learners would gain if the minutes had been returned to some area of formal study.

I keep reminding myself of reading a study not long ago conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor that cited the number one reason most people lose their jobs results from the inability to work with others (although the current depressed economy might substitute fiscally induced lay-offs as the new top reason). Not lack of competence, but inability to get along with co-workers. This is especially telling when one considers the growing number of workplace environments that require groups of people to collaborate on tasks.

Now, given the reason that people lose their jobs, as stated above, why do we continue to reduce opportunities for socialization of peers at school? That is, recess more closely mimics the reality of socialization than a school orchestrated scenario in which adults closely monitor interactions. Playing games and understanding and observing "rules" of the game, resolving conflicts (was it a fair ball or foul ball?) cooperating, and even competing, are the many attributes that can emerge from typical recess activities.

Beyond recess, we have introduced a twice weekly "Morning Program" on Monday and Friday mornings at the start of school for our elementary level learners. This event is designed to reinforce the hallmarks of a community and nurture the relationships we desire among inhabitants of our school. There are shared rituals (singing happy birthday to those celebrating their birthdays that week; reciting the pledge of allegiance) and reinforced meanings (selecting recipients of "Gotcha" awards that recognize those who demonstrate noteworthy behaviors that promote a positive and constructive school culture,...) that are considered valuable means of shaping the orientation of our school community. Parents are invited and encouraged to attend the program and they are introduced and acknowledged. The Morning Program sacrifices a collective total of about forty minutes per week from the time available for delivering our formal instructional curriculum.

The concerted effort and collaborative decision on the part of our staff to reallocate our time is predicated on values that generate faith in the belief that learners will more likely reach their potential when they feel comfortable, accommodated and socially engaged within their environment. In contrast, too many schools have eliminated recess and Morning Programs in an attempt to raise levels of performance on state tests by spending as much time as possible on test preparation ---- at what expense???

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