The Shape of Schools
The following is a guest post by Jonathon Medeiros.
Last year, I asked my high school English students to draw the shape of the essay we had been studying. We went through all the normal detailed work: the close readings, the annotations, the rereadings, the defining and contextualizing, the discussing and adjusting, the full blossomed development of rich textual analysis of the piece. And they were all primed to express their analysis, to defend their ideas, to share them and show them off, and then I told them to draw their analysis.
"Draw it," I said. "What is the shape of the thing we just studied for a week? Communicate your understanding in shapes."
After their confusions and their protestations had been voiced and had time to settle like fine dust in the light, the work of thinking about the shape of the text began. Watching them, and joining them, in their struggle to solve this problem I had created was illuminating. The responses the students finally found were so startling and enlightening and refreshing that I started annoying people by talking about the geometric shapes of all kinds of non-physical things. "What is the shape of that feeling? That movie? That song?"
What is the shape of school? Your school? If you could draw how a typical school runs, from top to bottom, front to back, principal to student, what would it look like? What is the shape of public education right now? What is the typical geometry of a school leadership structure?
Something like this? A "leader" at the top, perhaps relying on a small leadership team to
make or bless essentially premade decisions. That information, those decisions, then flow
downward to the people who must follow those decisions. The info typically flows down to
department or group leads, where it is filtered (or, perhaps, ignored). Then, it passes down
to teachers, and finally, it comes to students, where it is again filtered (or, again, perhaps
There is no visible way for information to flow back up to the top point of the triangle, to the "leader." It just settles like a carcinogenic sludge of heavy metals.
There are other, more charitable ways to imagine the shape of a school, something more complicated, something that looks more like a building with columns or supports.
Shared visions and goals are seemingly supported by many stakeholders here. Teachers, administrators, students, parents, community partners, counselors, librarians, custodians are invited to stand together and support the missions of the school.
This shape sounds and looks promising, but belies serious structural problems. Not everyone is imbued with the same strengths and capabilities. The visions may be too numerous, too small, too heavy, or shifting too much. The support columns might come in varying heights, widths, tensile strengths, and stability. So despite the implication of many supporting common goals, some individuals may do little work, some may do most of the work, and some may break under the stress of too much work.
Perhaps most critically, all of the support columns are separated from each other. This separation makes it impossible to communicate about the best ways to support this shifting, shared vision up top. This lack of communication can lead to frustration and apathy. Where does that leave the school?
Let's move from the triangle or the columns and back to a simpler shape. Consider a circle.
It has no beginning or end. It is continuous and it does not imply hierarchy. If we all stand in a circle and look inward, we can all see the same things, including each other. Our ages, our heights, our weaknesses, our levels or areas of expertise do not barr us from all seeing each other and nothing stops us from all focusing on the same thing in the center: our school, each other, our students.
We can also turn around and face outward in order to defend our school in all directions. When we face out, we see what's coming, know how to link arms and brace ourselves for potential threats, to fortify our school as a community, all of us "in it" together.
This ability to all see each other, to all stand together as partners, is what makes a school. After all, what is a school but the people who work and learn there? Look in. There is the school. It is all those people.
I wonder what kind of school we would end up with if we all, teachers, counselors, librarians, custodians, students, security guards, and administrators, stood in a metaphorical or literal circle and created a school together. The leader-up-top-triangle, the vision-up-above-columns; those shapes don't really ask us to see each other, to see the students, to see the school. Stand together in a circle, take time to say "I see you," and go learn.
Photos courtesy of Jonathon Medeiros
Jonathon Medeiros is a National Board certified teacher and has been teaching and learning about English Language Arts and rhetoric with Kauai High School students for 12 years. He is currently the State Office Teacher for the Leadership Institute and is the director the Kauai Local Teacher Fellowship, now in its second year. Jonathon earned a BA in English from the University of Portland, an MA in English from Portland State University, and an M.Ed. from the University of Oregon. He strongly believes in teaching his students what Nick Offerman has stated, that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you'd erase yourself. Born and raised on Kauai, Jonathon enjoys surfing and spending time at the beach with his wife and daughters.