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Changes Schools Should Make to Better Serve Students: A Student's View

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ADORA SVITAK
James Duncan Davidson

My mom once asked me about the first steps I would hypothetically take to make a "better school." I don't claim to be an education expert, but I do have personal opinions about the ideal school -- one I'd like to go to. Among many other things, I said that I would change school starting times, improve cafeteria lunches, and bring back recess. These would be good first steps because they help a lot of students a little bit. And they can have wide-reaching impacts.

Starting Times
Studies have repeatedly shown that everyone, especially children with developing brains, need a good amount of high-quality sleep. It's difficult to get when you have to worry about waking up at 7 in the morning to go to school. Not everyone is a morning lark, and by starting school so early, not only students but also educators have to stave off yawns throughout the day.

I was at a conference where a well-respected sleep researcher, Dr. James Maas, revealed that adolescent sleep cycles tend to begin at 3 a.m. and end at 11 a.m. Yet we're starting school at 7 or 7:30 a.m. While I wouldn't quite change school start times to 11 a.m. (since we have to consider parents who have to go to work), I think it would be reasonable to move them to 8:45 AM or after. Then hypothetically a teenager could go to bed at 12 a.m. (as many often do), wake up at 8, shower and eat breakfast, and go to school with eight rather than five or six hours of sleep.

Lunch
Another step: improve cafeteria lunches. Put a cap on the amount of sodium, fat, and calorie content allowed in each lunch. Mandate nonfat or 1 to 2 percent milk (and in smaller containers -- who really drinks that much milk?) instead of whole milk. Get rid of chocolate milk, soft drinks, and vending machines with unhealthy items. Require a certain percentage of food served be organic and/or local, and have smaller portions to help minimize cost (we all know how much food gets dumped out). Have the school's cooking classes (or maybe the entire student body) help make lunch on certain days.

A bigger step: I think it would be a good idea to have randomly assigned seating during lunch. This might be controversial among students, but the social division that occurs when students simply pick out where they want to sit can be hurtful and exclusive to students new to the school or children with difficulty making friends. Also, it seems that teachers rarely eat lunch and converse with the students. I've learned a lot from being able to have conversations with adults. So, teachers would be required to eat lunch with the students -- at least on certain days -- (and really, if they really can't stand students to the extent that they can't eat with them, should they be teaching?)

Recess
While making nutritious school lunches would be an excellent way to start combating childhood obesity, bringing back recess, at all grade levels, could do even more (as well as markedly increasing cognitive ability). In middle and high school you might have a somewhat more organized approach (depending on students, because it isn't hard to envision students simply standing around and talking to each other instead of exercising.

Perhaps instead of a dreaded required class one semester of junior high, physical education could become a fun, daily 15 to 20 minute class -- where healthy behaviors, like calisthenics, frequent exercise, jogging, and hiking, would be modeled every day. Students could get involved actively in the "curriculum," by submitting their favorite exercise activities and voting on which new things to try.

"Big" Changes
I want to talk about "big" changes I would make in education (if I were in a position of incredible power!) -- multiple, age-independent, subject-based grade levels; online learning; and authority hierarchy in school.

Age-Independent Grades
I took two electives recently at Redmond Junior High. Everyone asked what grade I was in. It would go something like this:
"Adora, what grade are you in?"
"Ninth grade."
They look incredulously at my apparently seventh-grade style of dress (i.e., sweaters and shirts vs. tank tops and jackets) and say, "You're in ninth grade?"
"Yeah," I nod quickly, and explain, "I skipped a grade."

[Actually, it's feasible that I skipped two grades, since 12-year-olds are often put in seventh grade (depending on when your birthday is) but usually I say I just skipped one, since I'm now thirteen.]

One's grade in school decides what you'll learn and the level at which you'll learn it. It decides when you'll graduate from high school and even the friends you'll make (most of your friends are probably in your grade or close to it). My question is why your age, not your aptitude, should determine your grade -- and why grade covers all subjects, when people have varying degrees of ability and interest across subjects. (Yes, there's a reason kids are always asked, "What's your favorite subject?")

I am at a loss as to the benefits of putting a group of people of approximately the same age -- but of varying aptitudes -- into one room where they will all learn the same thing. The quicker students will sit bored while the teacher re-explains a concept they already know from their voracious reading, while the slower students will be confused and left out by the rapid pace at which everyone else seems to be progressing.

My parents homeschooled my sister and me for many years. Why? Because the local school insisted that I, being three, should go to preschool, and my sister, being five, should go to kindergarten. The problem? You learn your alphabet in preschool, and I was already reading chapter books. At the same time, however, I was not so far along with math and science. In other words, I was not "advanced" in everything. Yet many gifted and talented programs try to put students into all-around advanced classes.

Wouldn't it make more sense to be able to take some kind of test (oral, written, multiple choice, or informal discussion with a counselor) to determine what level you would be? Maybe then I could have taken a test which would have allowed me to learn at second grade reading and history level, and kindergarten or first-grade math and science.

To me, this approach makes far more sense than sorting students into grades based on when your birthday is. Would you ever tell a son or daughter, little brother or sister, "You weren't born before September 1st, so I'm not going to help you learn your alphabet"? Yet that is what our school system does every year.

Placement tests to sort students into levels would put students with a larger knowledge base into higher grades, but a large knowledge base doesn't necessarily mean a love of learning. I'd propose that honors/gifted status would then be determined by a student's desire to learn and exhibition of independent learning traits (i.e., reading a lot outside of school, tracking current events, etc.). For instance, if you're a 10-year-old who's been advanced to seventh-grade level mathematics, you'd be placed in the honors math class. The material covered would be the same as the seventh-grade level math (because honors classes would no longer have to serve only as a means of providing harder material -- you'd be placed in a higher grade if you had that large knowledge base), but there would be more discussion, extracurricular activity, etc.

I personally think that there is no compelling benefit to having an age-based grade system. It could be argued that some poor little advanced 3-year-old, taking language arts classes with 8-year-olds, will feel different and lonely--but 10 years ago, you would have found 3-year-old Adora Svitak taking classes at Renton's H.O.M.E. Program (a public program offering classes for homeschooled children)... with 6, 7, and 8-year-olds, among others -- and feeling fine. Diversity should be more than a buzz phrase. If students are prepared to make friends with and learn from those younger (or older) than them, we have made true progress in embracing diversity.

Authority Hierarchy in School
I definitely think that students need to get involved in decision-making on a deeper level, beyond simply being on an associated student government or student council. At the TEDx conference I organized last year, TEDxRedmond, several speakers (all of whom were under 18), spoke movingly on their opinions about education and certain ways their schools had supported and/or failed them.

In many countries, schools are preparing students to participate in a democratic environment; yet schools themselves tend to be extremely autocratic, with all high-level decisions being made by adults. Let students have a voice -- use online technology to have students give constructive feedback to their teachers and school administrators. Implement student suggestions. Put students on school district boards. Allow students to help form curriculum and get their ideas on which assignments work best for them. Hold regular meetings where students are invited to speak to their school officials.

Online Learning
Every school district should have an online learning framework, so that "blended learning" (partially online, partially in-person) can be an option for students. Students could read more of the fact-based lesson material online, so that when they came to class in-person, time could be used on higher-order thinking skills like experiments, projects, and the like. A lot of excellent learning takes place when students are face-to-face with each other and a teacher, yet there are situations where students may not always be able to make it to class. Should students not be able to continue doing any of their work simply because of a school flu epidemic, school staff on strike, snow days, or absences?

Other obvious benefits of incorporating online learning:
- Teachers could post assignments, students could submit responses, and teachers could grade them, all online, without worrying about endless stacks of paper.
- Students could keep up with what was going on in class and see instant grade updates.
- Teachers could post multiple-choice tests, which can be easily computer-graded, online, and save themselves from the tedious work of checking multiple choice answers.
- Students could review materials from past lessons before a test.
- Teachers could easily post links and resources online for students to view.
- Parents could keep updated on what was happening in class.
- By using tools like Elluminate, Skype, GoToMeeting, chat, Google Voice, etc., teachers could easily stay in touch with students (particularly when students had questions).

As a student at an online public high school, I see my teachers using many of these tools. Many of my teachers have Google Voice as well as embeddable chat tools, so we can quickly get in contact.

Of course, all these changes, big and small, will cost money. Where will that come from? By shifting more content online, we could cut some of the spending that would go toward giant reams of paper and industrial-size printers and copiers. Maybe we could levy a tax on soft drink and junk food purchases, to pay for healthier school lunches. (We could call it "Buy a Twinkie for Yourself, Give a Whole Wheat Sandwich to a Student!")

Finally, students should take international studies classes, since it's often shocking how little Americans know about other countries. Let's do a pop quiz. I bet most Canadians can name our president. Can you name the prime minister of Canada? It's rare to find someone who hasn't heard of "California" or "New York" before. Can you name a single state of India? It's easy enough for most people to find the U.S. on a map. Can you find New Zealand, recently affected by a devastating earthquake? Or Afghanistan, where we're currently at war?

I know this post is quite long, and because of the extreme municipal-level management of schools, many of these changes are seemingly impossible. In the coming days and years, I'm hoping we can work together to create a better school -- not just for today's kids, but for tomorrow's.

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Adora Svitak | Child Prodigy Writer | Young Poet

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Adora Svitak: What adults can learn from kids | Video on TED.com

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