Yogi Berra once famously said: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” This puzzling statement describes the situation that faces educators and schools around the world when it comes to improving education.
How can we help children who have trouble achieving in school? We know that the old “boot camp” style of teaching does nothing for many children, particularly those who are disadvantaged or who may have a learning disability. But many schools cling to the old methods because the teachers and principals themselves learned that way.
They find themselves setting aside all the research and theory they learn in faculties of education when they face complexities in classrooms of their own. Change can be difficult to implement when you are under pressure. We all tend to rely upon “traditional” ways of behaving, even when there may be no good reason to do so.
It reminds me of the story about the young man who wants to cook a roast for dinner. He remembers that his grandmother always sliced the end off the roast and then placed it sideways on the rack next to the larger piece of meat. After doing this a few times, it occurs to him to ask his grandmother why she did this. Her answer? “I never had a roasting pan big enough for the whole roast, so I had to cut it to fit the pan I had.”
Well, things have changed. What worked (or more likely didn’t work!) in classrooms decades ago is not helping the students who are being left behind today. But, a model public school in the heart of Windsor is quietly and successfully leading the way in urban education for the 21st century. The F.W. Begley Public School and its principal, Paul Schaffner, are implementing thoughtful and inclusive practices for their diverse and complex community of families and students. They are also working with teachercandidates from the Urban Education Program at the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Education to make sure that the next generation of teachers becomes part of the process.
What did the school do when it recognized it had a large population of children who came to school speaking only or mainly Arabic? They created Ontario’s first and only bilingual Arabic/ English transition program for elementary students.
Knowing that research has consistently demonstrated that learning two languages will greatly increase children’s literacy and academic progress, Begley’s unique program is preparing its young Windsorites to be tomorrow’s successful citizens.
And building on research that demonstrates increased school success for children whose families are invested in their education, Begley has welcomed students’ families into the school for a variety of inclusive and bilingual programs and events.
While the effectiveness of Begley’s approach to education may be seen in improvement of students’ standard test scores, perhaps an even greater marker of Begley’s success is that the staff and administration are truly dedicated to seeing the development of the next generation of engaged and committed Canadians.
What is the secret? Teachers who care and who are supported by an administration that looks at the larger picture: Recognizing that improving the educational experience for students can be done in big ways -such as the bilingual transition program -but also in small ways.
Here is one example of a small difference that, research has shown, may have a beneficial long-term effect: On a recent snowy day, the Begley students were called together for an assembly in the gym. The purpose of the assembly was to celebrate individual students who had shown progress or had made a special contribution to the school community. But, before naming the honourees, the principal made an announcement. It was about the snow. What do kids do with snow? We all know. But rather than announce a rule forbidding the throwing of snow, Schaffner talked to the students about the school’s expectations. The expectation is that students will be safe and that they will not cause one another harm.
Instead of proclaiming a topdown rule where teachers and the administration are responsible to mete out discipline, the Begley school expects its students to demonstrate responsibility and respect for one another. By teaching young people to think critically about their role in society, this school may be on to something.
We know that breaking rules is one of the inevitabilities of childhood, but learning how to establish and maintain good relationships is one of its joys. And those responsible relationships are one of the expectations we have of people in well-functioning democracies.
Isn’t it nice to know that there is a school in Windsor that is preparing its students for success – and, at the same time, preparing them to be the sort of neighbours we would all like to have?
Danielle McLaughlin (Director of Education, Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Education Trust) is the 2010-11 Law Foundation of Ontario Community Leadership in Justice Fellow at the Faculty of Education, University of Windsor.