“Being flexible with your curriculum is not about sending the message to students that the curriculum is unimportant. It is about sending the message that it is important in a different way.” – Claire Potter
This semester I have been working in a sixth grade classroom at the public elementary school which I attended as a kid, aiding and observing one of the school’s most experienced teachers. The class itself is a little more than half students of color, and is genuinely economically diverse. The teacher–a Black man who was of the first generation of his family to attend college–was my teacher when I was a sixth grader, and has been working in the local school system for over three decades. At this point in the semester, the short time which I have spent in the classroom has already been hugely challenging and revelatory. I am learning new techniques and ways of organizing lessons, and am pushed to come at education from whole new perspectives. Yet above all else, there is one element of the classroom that has been more eye-opening than any of the countless others.
As an aspiring educator and young teacher, I was initially shocked to see how much free time students in this classroom receive. From side conversations with their table mates, to jokes and stories which are encouraged by the teacher, the class is full of students’ own voices and ideas, ones which often are completely unrelated to the curriculum. When a piece of technology isn’t working, the teacher lets students talk amongst themselves until the problem is fixed, then gathers their attention again. When a group finishes a problem set early, they are allowed to hang out at their table until the rest of the classroom catches up. When an individual student is having trouble focusing on an assignment, she is allowed to take a walk in the hall, or even sit in the teacher’s chair to gain her focus back. And in the midst of introducing new concepts, the teacher stops to let students share anecdotes, ask personal questions, and demonstrate new dances, actively making room in the class for tangents and diversions.
In many of the teacher training programs in which I have been involved, allowing for this type of unfettered and undirected use of class time would be viewed as the ultimate failure of the educator. Much of modern education training–especially that which focuses on urban student populations, and is directed by the private sector–prioritizes classroom management as a means of minimizing side conversation and distraction, with the goal of eliminating them all together. Every minute of every lesson is planed out carefully, with the aim being to cram as much information and skill-drilling as possible into every moment of classroom time. Doug Lemov’s infamous book Teach Like a Champion–which has become a sort of education bible for Teach For America, Breakthrough, the charter school movement, and many other conservative sectors of educational reform–lays out tens of techniques, many of which push the classroom to function at a breakneck pace, and are designed to ensure that every students is vigilant and engaged with the lesson for the entirety of an instructional period. These techniques, which are quickly becoming the standard for modern education reform, force students to spend so much time in orchestrated participation and information absorption, that there is virtually no time left for processing, questioning, challenging and relaxing.
That these techniques are being ruthlessly enforced among brown, low-income and urban student populations, but are much less so in suburban, private and wealthy districts, is something we must pay attention to. That these techniques and their authors put an incredible amount of pressure on teachers and support staff, forcing them to become the crowd control management for enormous and in-need classes, yet put no pressure on urban school districts or private powers to fund smaller class sizes or better resource schools, is another important note to make. That the purpose of these techniques is to cram students’ minds with measurable skills and information, preparing them solely for tests, college, and work which supports the private sector–and that it is the private sector itself which advocates for the implementation of these techniques–is reason not only for concern, but for outrage. Yet all these troublesome and crucial points aside, there are even more important reasons why allowing free time in the classroom is radical.
What I’ve learned from observing a highly experienced teacher in action is that allowing for free time in classroom prioritizes students’ mental health and happiness, and provides them with just the leverage they need to challenge the system of which they are a part. It gives students the room to process new information and make it their own, rather than filling them with disjointed facts, and expecting them to regurgitate them immediately afterword. It leaves them space to react, respond and critique the curriculum, allowing them some say in what is worth learning and what is not. And perhaps most significantly of all, it teaches them that their voices are valuable, that their own ideas, experiences and expressions have a place in the classroom, and that learning should engage every part of themselves, not just their academic or intellectual sides. When students are allowed to joke, to dance, to laugh, and to get off topic, they are allowed to be their whole selves, to share every aspect of their being with their peers, and to learn more from their peers than they ever could in an overly regimented and skill-based space. This prioritizes the classroom as a genuine learning community, not just a cell for the drilling of oppressive knowledge.