My Ideal High School

Spring 2015

By Judith Sanders

Most us of must experience prep schools as nourishing environments; if we didn’t, we’d vote with our feet. However, there are a few thorns among the roses. Stress and overwork. Eating disorders, concussions, and substance abuse. Students who disengage, scrape by, get lost. Such indicators challenge us to reconsider even our privileged prep schools’ status quo.

So lately I’ve been imagining an ideal high school. For now I’m not overly concerned with budgets, laws, college admissions, or parental expectations. I’m allowing my imagination to run off-leash because, as Delmore Schwartz didn’t quite say, “In dreams begin possibilities.” I’d be delighted if the proposals I’ve dreamed up started a conversation. 

I. The Healthy School: Sufficient Sleep, Healthy Eating, Fitness, and Calm

My ideal high school’s motto would be “The Healthy School.” Its very structures would foster physical well-being because students learn better when they are not tired, hungry, and under stress. That observation might sound like a no-brainer, but all too often it’s not the current operating assumption.

Sleep. Any teacher knows that rousing bleary-eyed adolescents at 8:30 a.m. requires heavy lifting. Most of them look as if they’d been awakened in the middle of the night — which, apparently, they have been.

Researchers such as Dr. JoAnn Deak have been telling us for years that teens need on average nine hours of sleep,1 not only because their bodies are still growing but also that’s the time when the brain transfers information from short- to long-term memory.2 So if we want students to retain what we have taught them, we literally need them to sleep on it afterwards. Additionally, teens benefit most from that sleep when their circadian rhythms require it: Deak asserts that no teen should be awakened before 9 a.m., but by then most schools are deep into first period, if not second. The New York Times has published studies showing that high schools with later start times see behavior problems diminish and test scores rise.3 So my ideal school would begin academic activities when the average teen brain is fully awake — that is, mid-morning. 

My ideal school would have a resting room — a few curtained cots, supervised by the school nurse. A power nap can make the difference between a productive day and a wasted one. Likewise, easy on the coffee dispensers: the best cure for feeling tired is rest. 

Healthy eating. Many of my students dash off to school so soon after waking that they don’t have time or appetite for breakfast. Their growing bodies are rip-roaring hungry by mid-morning, so they gobble chips and guzzle sugary drinks of alarmingly unnatural colors. In my ideal school, we would lose the vending machine and open the cafeteria early. Students could then follow the adage of “breakfast like a king,” consuming the protein and whole grains that keep the blood sugar stable through the morning.4 All day after that, the salad bar, the fruit bowl, and the stocked fridge would be available on demand.

In my ideal school, the entire community would devote a full hour to a leisurely communal lunch in the European style. No, that’s not a waste of valuable academic time. Lunch is an occasion not only to develop healthy eating habits but also to practice the arts of live socializing. And, as every culture knows, feasting builds community. (In Beowulf, the civilized humans sit and eat together; only the monster eats alone on the run.)

Perhaps you’ve heard that the most accurate predictor of high SAT scores is regular family dinners.5 A Legal Aid lawyer once challenged me to name the piece of furniture most disadvantaged families don’t have. His answer: a table. Some of our prep schools’ wealthy families likewise miss out on family dinner — and its conversations. I’ve heard too many students talk about downing bowls of cereal while alone or even forgetting to eat and wondering why they felt dizzy. A leisurely lunch at school could counterbalance such trends.

Some of these lunches could be organized around theme tables, such as Spanish conversation or book groups, to break up cliques and encourage community members to interact across the dividing lines of age, ethnicity, and role. Occasionally there could be speakers from the community or faculty. And, at holidays, we’d hold a ceremonial feast. (See Hogwarts.)

Keeping fit. My ideal school would emphasize fitness over competitive sports. Few high school athletes will continue playing sports into adulthood, but everyone has to stay fit over the long haul. In my ideal high school, a fitness center would be open all day. Current athletic training involves an alternation of sudden killer workouts with semesters of idleness; ideally, students would experience the benefits of gradual conditioning through the daily half-hour minimum that experts recommend.6

But there’s an even more imperative reason for dethroning competitive sports: They are dangerous. Prep school halls can look like field hospitals: there are so many crutches, slings, braces, and boots — and that’s without a visible indicator of concussions. 

Calm. Another component of my ideal school’s healthy program involves not just stress reduction but stress elimination. Schools can be noisy, which can be stimulating — or overwhelming. The ideal school would create a calm environment, conducive to health in general and learning in particular. My school would value solitude as well as teamwork. It would strive to remove the social stigma attached to being alone7 in part by establishing desirable quiet zones, including a reading room and a contemplation room — and, ideally, a garden — where anyone could sit and think. Or just breathe. 

This stress reduction isn’t just a frill. One highly experienced school psychologist told me that students binge-drink because they don’t know how else to relax. We can’t stop such self-destructive behavior entirely, but we can do our part by de-stressing the part of students’ lives over which we do have some control. So the most important feature of stress elimination derives from modifications to the academic program itself. 

II. Academics

So what would my well-rested, well-nourished, fit, calm students actually be learning? 

My ideal school would be a learning center where students would master skills in order to develop their own interests, individually and in groups, under the guidance of teacher-mentors. It would be geared toward the students we actually have, not the ones we imagine we do. 

1. The schedule: My ideal school’s schedule would be characterized by simplicity and regularity. No more rotating block schedules that only an MIT engineer can understand.8 No more six- and eight-day cycles that keep school out-of-synch with the real world. Classes could start at 10, 11, 12, and 1, and meet every other day. Although “passing time” is out of fashion, I’d allow 10 minutes between classes as a palate freshener — not to mention a chance to visit lockers, take a stretch, run to the restroom, or set up a computer. After such a sufficient break, everyone arrives with business taken care of and ready to focus.9 Lunch would start at noon or 1. The period from 2:00 to 3:30 would be dedicated to projects (a core component I’ll explain below). Between 3:30 and 5:00, students could pursue optional activities such as studio art, clubs, rehearsals, tutoring, community service, interning, field research, or athletics. 

Although academic activities wouldn’t commence until mid-morning, my ideal high school would open early, so students could use the library, gym, art studio, computer lab, and cafeteria. No one would be required to arrive, however, until he or she has a class. After activities end (although the building might not close until 6 p.m.), students would do nothing else connected to school for the rest of the evening. Family dinner, laundry, music, books, friends, movies, games, downtime — people would enjoy whatever constitutes “having a life.” Students would have time to just be with themselves, the better to accomplish that inchoate yet vital adolescent task of figuring out who they are. The hope is that everybody would return to work refreshed the next day. 

Teachers can’t be expected to provide supervision from morning to evening, however. One budgetary increase my ideal school would necessitate: funding for paraprofessionals, who would relieve teachers of police duty in the cafeteria, bus zones, and study halls. In my ideal school, teachers would have to be present only when teaching, advising, or holding office hours; otherwise, they would be free to complete their preps and live their lives anywhere they choose. 

2. Morning classes: Reduced requirements; generalists and specialists; fundamentals and classics; life skills

Morning classes would be devoted to mastering fundamentals and grounding in the classics. Get ready for a radical statement: students need a lot less information about many subjects than we currently insist on. Paul Simon, no slouch, memorably sang, 

When I think back
On all the crap
I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all.10 

Let’s admit it: so much of what we work to have our students master, and what they slog through, will be forgotten in 10 years, if not 10 minutes. And this is as it should be, as little of it is necessary to life after graduation.11 Apparently failure to master algebra is the leading cause of dropping out of high school,12 and yet, after the SATs, most of us never need more than arithmetic — for which we rely on calculators. Do all students really need to memorize intricate grammar rules of a foreign language they will never use? We need to re-think what’s actually important to know, what has lasting value. 

In principle, I buy the democratic arguments against tracking, but in practice, in an average English class populated both by budding Shakespeares and the grammatically challenged who struggle to form a sentence, I find it nearly impossible to meet all students’ needs simultaneously. There’s a gap between prep schools’ optimistically rigorous curricula and the abilities of many of our students. With a fearless and frank assessment of who our students really are, we could better capitalize on the variety before us. We could more accurately tap the gifts and passions our students do have, rather than those we wish they did. We could more effectively help them develop the habits that will sustain them as the productive, questioning, engaged, compassionate adults we hope they will become. 

With these considerations in mind, I’d divide the core subjects into courses designed for generalists and those for specialists. The former would be geared toward those who want/need practical skills and fundamental literacy in a subject, while the latter would be for those who have academic interests. Students themselves would choose the level at which they want to invest, and they could switch as desired. The practical math courses, for example, would ensure that their graduates understand the odds of winning the lottery, the lifetime cost of smoking, the difference between a 15- and a 30-year mortgage, and when to believe the statistics in a poll. Only students who are so motivated would pursue more abstract algebra, geometry, and calculus. Foreign language classes for generalists might introduce a culture rather than force memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules the students will never use. Specialist courses would be for those who wish to speak or read the language. General English courses might feature expressive and practical writing as well as shorter and contemporary literary works; specialists would practice analytical writing and delve into criticism and literary history.

In the six academic periods over two days, students might take formal classes for only five, so they would have one free period or could take an elective. The current requirements would be reduced, laws permitting, to three years each of English, history, and science and two years of math. So of the 20 to 24 courses students would take (five or six in each of four years), only 11 would be required. After completing them, students could choose from among broad or focused electives — economics, computer science, philosophy, art history, film study, astronomy, Arabic, geology … or independent studies, made possible in part through MOOCs as well as other online resources. 

My ideal high school would also offer short courses on practical life skills, in addition to the standard health and public speaking: personal finance, lifespan psychology, civics, home maintenance, cooking, even a soup├žon of etiquette. Let’s not deny our students information that will ease their way, just because there’s no AP test on it.

Speaking of such tests, my ideal school wouldn’t offer AP courses, since most require racing through vast amounts of material while rigidly controlling responses to it. Students would be welcome to take AP tests and might prepare in short-term electives, but my ideal school wouldn’t sacrifice meaningful learning to this golden calf. 

3. Afternoon projects: Tapping natural motivation; learning that grows out of students’ interests; multi-modal and interdisciplinary learning; teachers as mentors 

We teachers try hard to convey why we love our subjects, but despite our best efforts, many of our students simply cannot warm to much of what we offer. Sometimes we inadvertently end up teaching how to sit still and endure boredom, how to feign compliance while texting under the desk.13

My ideal school would feature what I’ll call “student-led learning.” Students would actively develop their own interests through independent, interdisciplinary, multi-modal projects. The short-range goal would be to produce something to communicate, providing a real-world incentive to complete each project thoroughly and skillfully. The long-range goal would be to have the students find out what matters to them — to discover and develop the passions that might form the basis of their vocation. 

I can think of dozens of examples of such projects; here is one: For my students who love horses: Study the horse’s evolution, anatomy, diet. The history of humans’ relationships with horses. The physics of the horse’s gait. Volunteer in a program that offers horseback rides to disabled children. Keep a journal of training a horse. Prepare a business plan for running a stable. Attend a horse race or show, and write a review for the paper. Make a video about how to ride. Develop a website with links to the best resources about caring for horses. Write an essay about horses in classic children’s books or Westerns. Write poems about horses. Take photos of horses and riders. Write an editorial about the pros and cons of allowing carriage horses in Central Park. Study stats of Derby winners. Shadow a vet.

You can imagine such multimodal projects for students who love children, or computer games, or soccer, or dance, or makeup, or Latin America, or Virginia Woolf, or Dr. Who…. Or who are coping with diabetes or cerebral palsy or divorce, or who lost someone to gun violence or alcohol…. 

Centering the curriculum on such projects would mean that traditional classrooms would no longer provide a conducive infrastructure. Student-led, project-based learning requires more flexible arrangements: rooms of various sizes, with furnishings adaptable for private reading, group work, or movement, and with designated quiet and conversation areas. The ideal school might, in fact, look more like a home than an institution.

Take the “extra” out of extracurricular activities. Sometimes students who are listless or superficially cooperative in class can light up on the soccer field or debate platform. To channel such motivation into academics, my ideal school would end the divide between clubs and classes. The students rehearsing West Side Story, for example, could compare it to Romeo and Juliet, research Leonard Bernstein and/or the history of the musical, study and apply theories of acting, learn about Puerto Rico and emigration, offer a lecture-demo to the community, write program notes, or a host a post-performance talkback. 

Assessment. How would such projects be developed, supervised, and graded? Here’s one model:

The teacher’s role: from authority to advisor. Each teacher could supervise about a dozen students for the afternoon projects periods. Because the course load would be lighter than in a more traditional program, teachers’ overall workload should not increase. (This is a vital consideration: an ideal school wouldn’t decrease students’ stress at the cost of increasing teachers’.) However, teachers would have to change their orientation: In student-led, interdisciplinary, project-based learning, they would not be kings in their classrooms, but rather advisors. They would focus on helping students figure out how to get information rather than merely providing it; they would raise questions to which they didn’t know answers; they would help with organization rather than design lesson plans. As learning advisors, they would listen more than they would talk. 

The student’s relationship with the advisor would be a close, individualized one. The advisor would be charged not only with the student’s intellectual progress but also with helping him or her cope with any obstacles to learning, develop study skills and time-management strategies, and further his or her interests and aspirations. MOOCs used for independent projects can supply content but not relationships; in my ideal school, the student studying online would have a trusted teacher with whom to discuss and contextualize such experiences.

Faculty organization: From departments to interdisciplinary teams. In the morning classes in fundamental skills and content, teachers would still work primarily in traditional departments, but the boundaries would be more permeable. The workload would be such that teachers would have time and energy to collaborate when their subjects converge. When I teach Beowulf, a history teacher could refresh the students’ knowledge of the early medieval period; when physics presents the Big Bang, I could supplement the lesson with creation stories. In the afternoon projects periods, however, teachers would work in interdisciplinary teams. One teacher might closely supervise a dozen advisees’ projects, but partner-teachers from diverse departments would be available as resources and evaluators. 

Foregrounding self-knowledge. In my ideal high school, getting to know oneself wouldn’t just happen along the way. With whatever degree of privacy the student feels comfortable, each would explicitly engage in self-exploration. The year’s project planning might begin with each student completing a personal profile: Here’s what matters to me, what I want to know, how I learn best. Updating the personal profile regularly would offer a chance for ongoing reflection as well as creating a journal of one’s high school years. Literature, history, and art classes in particular wouldn’t shy from opportunities for adolescents to grapple with The Big Questions, helping them formulate their own values and beliefs.

Presentations and grading. Most projects would conclude with a presentation to evaluators and peers, in part as an incentive to excellence. A few students’ projects would earn the distinction of being presented to the community-at-large, included in a school database, or posted online. Each student would collect his or her projects in an electronic portfolio, which could evolve into a futuristic college application. 

Would these projects be graded? Absolutely. Students seem to need that external motivator, and transcripts for college still require it. However, the assessment processes would be interactive so as to stimulate ongoing discussion about standards, effort, and performance.14 Students themselves could help establish criteria. A team of evaluators would arrive at the grade, accompanied with an explanation. Students would reply and revise, learning and improving skills along the way. 

4. Independent reading: Emily Dickinson famously observed, “There is no frigate / Like a book / To take us lands away.”15 My ideal school would provide a print-rich environment, with newspapers and periodicals, books and electronic readers, strewn invitingly by comfy armchairs. In consultation with the advisor, each student would design an independent reading program to complete in conjunction with his or her projects. In the belief that no one should interfere too much with another person’s private reading, assessment would be minimal: talking with the advisor or friends at the close of each book, posting a comment on the library website or Goodreads, writing a page of reflections, or participating in a book club over lunch would suffice. 

5. Education outside the classroom: Career preparation, community service, and travel. My ideal high school would fund a coordinator of off-campus experiences. The boundary between school and community would become more porous than it usually is. Community members would be invited into the school to teach about their areas of expertise. At the same time, students would be encouraged to travel beyond the building to attend performances and exhibits, to intern or shadow professionals, or to perform community service. Such activities would be integrated into the curriculum. Rather than simply picking up trash in the park, students might learn about how the park was created, the history of urban sanitation, or the city budget for trash cans. Local, national, and international travel would be part of every student’s experience during a mini-term at the middle or end of the school year, with time to prepare beforehand and to respond after.

6. Dealing directly with psychological realities: We know that many of our students carry psychological burdens such as anxiety over parents’ divorce or illness, unrealistic family expectations, eating disorders, or uncertainty about sexuality. Yet sometimes we shove such problems under the rug, conveniently assuming they are not our business or that a stiff upper lip builds character. When students can’t concentrate, though, school becomes a charade. At my ideal school, the advisor would help each student develop strategies to cope with whatever is on his or her mind. The school would also actively involve psychologists in connecting students to the resources they need. The school would schedule progress conferences for each student with all of his or her teachers. My experience tells me that it can be powerfully affirming for a student to witness an assemblage of adults dedicated to his or her success. 

7. Graduation: Requirements and timing: Not all students would attend my ideal high school for four years. Some students are ready academically and socially for the greater independence of college after only three; others need five. Still others could benefit from a transitional period of mixing in college courses or experience outside the classroom or both. At an annual summit meeting attended by the student, advisor, teachers, and parents, the student could solicit advice and commit to a graduation plan.

Students’ readiness for graduation would be determined by a checklist not only of required courses but of competencies demonstrated through accomplishments. Selected from a master list, these might include standard academic skills as well as personal ones, such as leadership or collaboration, or a statement of values or goals. They might include career skills such as public speaking or constructing a PowerPoint or iMovie. They could also include mastery in the arts or sports or technology. And each graduate should have completed some minimum of community service, cross-cultural experience, and, as mentioned above, independent reading and travel. 

III. Nurture and Challenge 16

My ideal school is not a teenager’s ideal school. (I do plan to ask my students to envision their own.) But high school is always going to be an uneasy compromise between adults’ farsightedness and teens’ nearsightedness. A colleague observed that students don’t know what they don’t know. To be sure, this is true; however, students do know, consciously or not, what they need. We teachers need to cultivate our skills in listening not only to the explicit messages our students send our way but also to the implicit ones encoded in their behavior. We should offer more practice in a skill of inestimable value: identifying and articulating one’s genuine needs and opinions constructively. 

My ideal school would strive to balance nurturing students with challenging them, but I can imagine a tough-love advocate objecting that such a school would only spoil them. Yes, in life you often have to endure boredom, get up early, push when tired or hungry, cope with stress. But school — with its myriad opportunities for enrichment — shouldn’t be reduced to boot camp for the rat race. The premise of my ideal school is that engagement makes education more effective. After maturing in the humane environment that such a school would create, its graduates might go on to improve work-life balance in adulthood. 

Do I expect my ideal school to become a reality? When pigs fly. Or, rather, when adults, too, are calm, well-nourished, rested, feel a sense of control, and are engaged in work they find meaningful. Yes, the devil’s in the details, and those realities of budgets, laws, college admissions, and parental expectations that I so blithely glossed over at the outset are indeed devilish. But change originates in imagining — in dreams begin possibilities. Your ideal school would doubtless look different from mine. (My son, a recent prep school graduate, says that my ideal school sounds like a cross between Google and college. Fine with me!) But if my ideal school somehow gets you thinking — even if it makes you angry enough to envision something very different — then this essay will have achieved its purpose.

Notes

1. JoAnn Deak, “Research on How Sleep Affects School Performance,” Kidsinthehouse.com; online at http://www.kidsinthehouse.com/teenager/health-and-development/sleep/research-how-sleep-affects-school-performance.

2. Sarah Spinks, “Adolescents and Sleep,” Frontline; online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/from/sleep.html.

3. Jan Hoffman, “To Keep Teenagers Alert, Schools Let Them Sleep In,” New York Times, March 13, 2014; online at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/to-keep-teenagers-alert-schools-let-them-sleep-in/?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A7%22}&_r=0.

4. Allison Aubrey, “A Better Breakfast Can Boost a Child’s Brainpower,” NPR News, September 4, 2006; online at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5738848.

5. In Lucy Calkins’ book Raising Lifelong Learners: A Parent’s Guide (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 1998), she quotes from Shari Lewis’s foreword to Awakening Your Child’s Natural Genius (Thomas Armstrong, New York: Putnam, 1991): “A couple of years ago, there was a study to determine what caused children to get high scores on the SATs…. I.Q., social circumstances, and economic states all seemed less important than another subtler factor. Youngsters who got the highest SAT scores all regularly had dinner with their parents.”

6. See, for example, “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults,” American Heart Association, March 10, 2015; online at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/American-Heart-Association-Recommendations-for-Physical-Activity-in-Adults_UCM_307976_Article.jsp.

7. For justification, if needed, see Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Random House, 2012).

8. The two reasons for rotating block schedules — (1) a class shouldn’t always meet first period because the students aren’t awake yet, and (2) students who leave early for sports meets shouldn’t have to miss the same afternoon class repeatedly — would be obviated by my ideal school’s schedule, since no classes would be held until mid-morning and students would be pursuing their own projects in the afternoons.

9. See Daniel J. Levitin’s New York Times article on research showing that “Taking breaks is biologically restorative” (“Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain,” August 9, 2014); online at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/opinion/sunday/hit-the-reset-button-in-your-brain.html?emc=eta1&_r=0).

10. Paul Simon, “Kodachrome” on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, 1973. Paul Simon, “Kodachrome” on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, 1973.

11. Many articles point out that while no research shows that homework enhances learning, much experience shows that an overload is hurting some students. See, for example, Valerie Strauss, “Homework Hurts High-Achieving Students, Study Says,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2014; online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/03/13/homework-hurts-high-achieving-students-study-says/.

12. Andrew Hacker, “Is Algebra Necessary?” The New York Times, July 28, 2012; online at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html?pagewanted=all.

13. See William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014) about elite educational institutions producing conformists — and for other reasons, among them its impassioned defense of liberal arts.

14. For strategies about how to grade project-based learning, see Matt Weyers and Jen Dole, “PBL Pilot: Matching PBL with Traditional Grading,” Edutopia, January 5, 2015; online at http://www.edutopia.org/blog/pbl-pilot-matching-traditional-grading-matt-weyers-jen-dole.

15. Emily Dickinson, “There is no Frigate like a Book”; online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182908.

16. Thanks to my former colleague Jenn Gorzelany, the source of this idea.

Judith Sanders

Judith Sanders, Ph.D., teaches English at a nearly ideal high school in Pittsburgh.