Let me tell you about a couple of end of year school events I attended at two different schools. The first event was an end of year awards banquet for a charter school with about 240 students in grades 6-12. This school’s primary curricular focus and methodology revolves around Advanced Placement classes. Keep in mind that we were attending an awards banquet where awards like student of the year by grade, subject, etc. are being handed out.
The rest of the school’s mission statement is about creating students ready to be active participants in community. And this is what I saw on this night. I saw a diverse community of students whoop and holler for each other as their classmates where given different awards for academic awards, leadership in community, attendance, etc. I also saw teachers whoop and holler for their students. I saw teachers and students high five, hug, slap each other on the back, tease one another, tell inside jokes that the parents didn’t get, and generally have fun. I left knowing that these students were known by their teachers and that they also knew their teachers and that they were partners in the process of learning and building community.
The other event I attended was graduation in a small school. Smaller in this case with about 130 students in grades K-12. This school is quite different in curricular approach with a stronger emphasis on individualized learning and project-based learning. There are no AP classes, awards banquets, or other emphasis on standardized testing and comparisons to a norm. Interestingly, their mission statement also has language about teaching students to participate productively in community. Same goals, but different approaches.
The graduating class typically is between 18 and 20 students. At this event I saw students and teachers whoop and holler for each other, tease one another, high five, hug, shed tears, etc. All the same communal body language I saw at the first school. It is a unique graduation because the focus is entirely on the individual students. There is no graduation speaker, no class speaker, or most of the other traditions of graduation—excepting the caps and gowns. Students march in and are seated. They are then greeted by the school’s administrator who tells the parents what graduation is all about at this school. Then one by one each student is given their diploma. But his or her name is not simply read off and diplomas handed out. Instead a teacher stands up and spends 5-10 minutes talking about each student before they hand out the diploma. Sometimes this is done with humor, sometimes it is very serious. No matter the tone used by the teacher it is always a message that acknowledges the students strengths and weaknesses and more importantly how the student has learned from these to become who they are. Because they are still teachers for a few more minutes they also provide a take-away message and guidance for the students’ next steps in life. In the end it is always joyful and tearful at the same time. I left knowing that these students were known by their teachers and that they also knew their teachers and that they were partners in the process of learning and building community.
So what was in common? Size. Both schools are small enough that most if not all of the students know one another. Both schools, despite disparate methodologies have a primary focus on school built around relationships, which is much easier to facilitate in a smaller school. All the teachers know all the students. In a small school, the students and teachers have a better opportunity to work together to build the community. Often this is simply because they have to. Want to have a dance, well, the students need to make it happen because there aren’t others that will provide it. If the computer or projector isn’t working for class that day, in a small school, there probably isn’t a tech department to call up. The teacher and the students need to figure it out and get it working.
Community and relationships in a school requires participation. And in a small school, all have to participate. For some this can also be a curse, because you can’t hide in a small community. But hiding out usually isn’t good for learning anyway. You can’t remain a wallflower indefinitely in a small school. I left this event knowing that these students were known by their teachers and that they also knew their teachers and that they were partners in the process of learning and building community.
In both these schools, I left the event having a sense that these truly were communities and there was a real sense of family. This was especially true in the smaller school. A student once said to me when asked about going to a school with a class of 18 and if everyone got along. She said, they had to. It was like with your brother or sister. You don’t get to choose your family, so you have to love one another. In a small school, you don’t get to choose to avoid someone, so you have to work out difference. Maybe you don’t love one another, but you have to at least accept one another. If you can’t avoid someone, then you better figure out how to work together. There isn’t really another option. Students don’t learn from someone they don’t like, and they certainly won’t learn in a place where they don’t feel welcomed, safe and known. This requires schooling built around relationships. This requires a small school. And then students will learn. Maybe creating small schools based on relationships should be our primary focus of school reform instead of on the next round of testing, the latest curriculum, methodology, or technological advancement. Size does matter.