04/09/2012 03:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2012

A Modest Proposal

Last week I spent two hours a day leading an exploration of T'ang Dynasty Chinese poetry with an incredibly awesome group of 11th graders in Julie Daniel's English class at East Oakland's Fremont High School. This was particularly delightful because Julie was my student in 11th grade some 9 years ago and now she is a dedicated and beloved teacher with her own classes. We read Du Fu and Li Bai, we wrote poetry that talked back to these, we discussed nature and ethics and Confucianism and Taoism. We even tried our hands at bamboo ink painting, illustrating poems with graceful stalks and the perfect leaves of bamboo.

Now that I'm a professor in the teacher education department at a university, this past week reminded me of how much I miss high school, how much I miss being regularly in the presence of teenagers, especially in our cities. The curiosity, the testing of limits, the awkwardness, the courage, the insight... it is all there in strong measure. These youth are on the front lines of contested space -- grappling with a system that seems set up to fail black and brown youth, finding their way often with little support. One sees tragedy quite often, the wages of our cruel society, but also one sees miracles on a daily basis. It's all there.

Part of me wants to go back, to plow in to the joy and madness of daily classroom life. And yet every time I think of such a possibility I get a cold chill -- a worry about the beast, the beast of the public school schedule, the harsh marathon of running to maintain balance and focus all day every day. I see it in the faces of my friends who are still teaching. I drop in often in their classes. They are always engaged in something terrific, interesting, and thoughtful with their students. But they look stretched out, over-stimulated, with those deer-caught-in-headlights eyes. They are beset with a thousand decisions, big and small, through the day. They are keeping utter chaos from breaking out while nurturing initiative and creativity in the kids. They are fending off demands and attacks from administrators, district officers and politicians while trying to stay focused on the kids.

After school, at night, many report they are barely able to communicate with loved ones. It takes some hours to simply decompress, before diving into a long evening of reading student work, writing emails, preparing future lessons, working out forbidding permission forms for field trips, trying desperately to get a reimbursement that was promised, adjusting for a troubled kid, fielding email queries, writing letters of recommendation to colleges or juvenile hall judges.

Then there is the life of the kids. Often in school research we ask graduate students to "shadow" a student for a whole day, go to all classes, be a fly on the wall, watch what she experiences. The near-universal report begins with a cry of "boring!" The boredom and drudgery of much of the day was almost impossible to absorb. The shadowers found themselves checking the clock regularly and it seemed to crawl ever more slowly. We inflict this life on teenagers and expect them to be studious, interested, curious and reflective. Most who are rewarded in this regime have learned compliance -- have learned to fake interest. They have seldom had a chance to embrace deep educational experiences.

As I drove away from my final class, still aglow in the great work the students had done and with my hands sticky from the black soot ink, a modest proposal occurred to me. Why do we force these kids to meet in class every day, five days a week, six or seven or eight classes a day? Why do teachers have the responsibility to plan and execute lessons all day every day? Under these circumstances, work cannot be productive. Minds cannot be engaged. A kind of contact fatigue sets in, down days are invented and kept under the radar. Everyone is caught in the frantic dance. In the Midwest when their schools are closed by a snow day, the kids jump for joy. The funny thing is, so do the teachers! Why are we trudging off to this school routine without question?

My proposal would be that each class meets only twice a week, maybe for 75 minutes, more like undergraduate college classes. Yes, not a longer school day, which is the latest idea from some "reformers," backed by some questionable research data. When classes met, serious engagement, projects, debates, mini-lectures, group work and exploration would happen. But students would have lots of free time. What was once called homework could now be done during some of this time during the day. And teachers would be less crazy. They could really embrace the classes they had while having abundant time for reading student work, giving feedback, studying in their discipline, planning with colleagues, meeting individually with students and generally taking care of business.

But what would happen, you ask? Wouldn't the kids run the streets? Shoplift or worse? I'm sure that the main objection I will hear to this proposal is the concern of kids being out in society. This forces us to acknowledge a primary purpose of our schools for teenagers -- to keep them off the street. But even if we were afraid to actually let students come and go as we do in college, perhaps we could create on-campus activities for students when they were not in class. There could be study halls, tutorials, internships and field trips. And also art, music, and other self-chosen activity centers. And lots and lots of recreation. The possibilities go on and on. School being joyful. Imagine that.

This is a proposal that is quite a stretch. Perhaps it's just a cry in the dark. There are too may entrenched processes in place. But sometimes we have to dream, to let go of the constraints and barriers and just imagine how it could be. Perhaps it seems like an exercise in futility. John Lennon's "Imagine" is also considered a pipe dream (no borders, no wars, lots of love) but it was crucial to put out there, at least to hold on to as a beautiful dream. And who knows, dreams sometimes do come true. Generally as a result of a great deal of inspiration and work.

If we made a schedule on a more human scale, students would learn more, learn deeper. They would own their education in profound ways. Teachers would be able to act as professionals, really expanding and stretching their curricula and their roles. We would not burn out but would get better each year, with time and encouragement to explore new ways to teach and learn with young people. We could be like Li Bai as he takes us up into a mountain trail, "a guest come into wildflower confusions."