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K. The boy who was happy that he had to work for school

This Thursday morning was an early one. Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School (Parker for short) was a hour drive away by bus. Very relaxing after some busy days in New York. We were welcomed by Ruth and Alec who gave a short presentation about Parker. At Parker they teach 7th till 12th grade, 13 till 18 year olds. They do that in three fases. Division 1, division 2 and division 3.

After the small introduction we were welcomed in different class to follow ‘advisory’. Something that every class has twice a day, at the start and at the end of the schoolday. In advisory the student talk with each other and their teacher about whatever they need. We saw a group of seniors who were about to graduate in three weeks. They came to the conclusion that not everyone was ready to graduate because they missed several hours in community service (doing things like taking out trash, be a t.a., being a service student). It was interesting to follow their conversation. It was so chill, you could really see that this group has been together for a long time. After advisory we got some more information about the school.

Children follow lessons in several subjects; Arts & Humanities, M(ath) T(echnology) and S(cience), Spanisch and Wellnes. When in div. 1 and 2 you follow everything. In div. 3 you get to decide some subjects you want to follow. Some aren’t necessary at all in div. 3. Children don’t have to think about higher education when choosing those subjects. It’s just what they want to learn, what they want to grow in. Children can ‘graduate’ from div. 1 to div. 2, div. 2 to div. 3 and from div. 3 to graduation by completing a ‘gateway’. That basically means that they have to prove their competence in subjects by collecting work in a portfolio but also by giving a presentation to their friends, family and assessor.

We were allowed to visit several classrooms in the school and were highly encouraged to visit the 7th and 8th graders because they are the youngest. Big bummer that those classes were full already with other colleagues. So we choose to observe a class called ‘Supreme High Court’ (12th grade). It was about debating and how you should do that according to some rules. It was a really relaxed setting. Students and teacher alike. The students got an assignment to attack the weakest argument given by the teacher and attack it with the most devastating counter attack. Even though it was a debate, they all stayed so calm and collected. They were encouraging each other a lot nonverbally.

Next up was ‘Financial Math’ (12th grade). A subject that, according to me, has to be given in every high school. They learn about budgeting and how they can apply it to their own personal lifestyle/way of living. They got a starting salary and had to budget things like student loans, taxes, mortgage and such. Too bad that we aren’t here next week because then they’ll have calamity day. The teacher will give them an unexpected calamity to deal with. These situations are personally for they take note of each students’ budget. They basically have a practice run on life while we got a diploma and don’t know ho to do our own taxes.

The debrief after these classroom visits was all about asking questions to the faculty. I was really curious about the curriculum. What I understood is that they revise the curriculum every two years. The whole domain gets together to reflect on the projects done and decide what to keep, revise, or let out. At Arts & Humanities they do 1 year on America and 1 year on the world. When a student doesn’t graduate a specific domain they can redo that skillset. An overlap of content can happen, but it doesn’t really matter for it’s not about the subject content but the type of skill they have to show. Some things the faculty were really excited about were the collegiality and student-teacher relationship. The teachers here get 1 hour a day (!!) to prep lessons or consult colleagues. They also have several times to week to get together with the teachers from the whole domain in their division and moment to consult all the teacher from that domain in every division. The relationship with the children is very important to give constructive feedback. They usually teach kids for about two years so they really know what a child needs to grow. Some may need oral feedback, some don’t need sugarcoating and others need compliments.

On to the next set of lessons observed. This time we actually sprinted towards the div. 1 MTS classes so we got in to observe. You could immediately tell what the subject of the lessons was, foodchain and the food pyramid. After the student got back from their break they got to work right away, no instruction needed. I noticed a lot of fidget toys and plushies in the classroom, according to one student it’s to calm nerves and feel more at ease. When a student says they’re stuck the teacher helps them by asking questions on the things that they know or have studied before. There were always two teachers in every classroom. The ones we saw had their roles divided. One gave an instruction while the other walked around, helped focus students or answered individual questions. The co-teacher and/or students can correct the ‘teaching’ teacher without problem. The students keep their work in a personal map. After MST we observed a div. 1 intro into Spanish class. These kids sounded like they have been practicing Spanish for several years. The whole class was spoken in Spanish, it was a total immersion. The teacher was very clear in his language, it was easy enough to understand. Especially with him moving around so much with his hands. Even a beginner like me could understand. The teacher said that they got this far by looooots of repetition.

After all the classroom visits we were allowed to leaf through some portfolios made by juniors (div. 3 first year) and seniors (div. 3 graduation year). They told us about the assignments inside their portfolios and why they choose those nine assignments to put in. K. was someone who stuck with me. He told us that he enrolled into Parker at 9th grade. That is two years later then most kids. At first he was really happy that he didn’t have grades anymore. Then he found at that even without grades he still had to work. At first he didn’t really understand. Afterwards he learned how to ask for help and now he’s cruising along as if he had been here since first year. He contributed that to his teachers who helped him every step of the way, but also his peers who selflessly helped him when he was stuck. Another girl told us about why she put an assignment in her portfolio which basically moved her to tears. She told us it was the most difficult lab she had ever done and she had to make a test. The first time she handed it in she got an ‘approaching’ on it. She knew that it wasn’t enough and revised her work with the feedback given. When she handed it in for the second time she got a ‘meeting’ as assessment. The last girl we spoke told us about her assignments and why she choose those subjects/domains.

All with all it was a lot to take in. I have so much inspiration right now that I just don’t know what to do with it. I want to change a lot, but don’t know how (yet). Where to start, what to begin with, how do I even get my team along for this rollercoaster ride?

I want to introduce my team to the Parker way of grading childrens work (Beginner – Approach – Meeting) but also the way of giving feedback, revising, feedback and revising again. I know It’s not possible, but a hour prep time a day would be fabulous. 

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