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"Classroom bad, bus good?" Or...maybe not?

Last week, I walked through the halls of a Boston area Jewish day school. The rooms had most of their belongings filling boxes in the hall, as the rooms were probably were being readied for a fresh coat of paint. The rooms were dark, and nobody was around. A thought ran through my head, which struck me as somewhat odd as I considered it. I thought, as I peered into the empty rooms, how strange that kids are expected to come every day to these little rooms, and sit there and learn. How odd that learning is expected to take place in the confines of these rooms! At that moment, it seemed very unnatural to me. There is a whole world out there, I thought to myself. Shouldn't kids be out in it, learning about it?!

I heard an interesting story on the radio this week about the Manual school in Denver, Colorado. They have added 90 days to their school calendar, as well as lengthening the school day. While I generally recoil at hearing such things, after hearing the principal of this school intelligently explain their decision, I began to have second thoughts. The student body is mainly from underprivileged families. The kids don't have much to do over the summer, and the new summer program is mostly a service learning program, where the kids go out into communities, and learn about slavery, for example, in the communities where these things transpired. The kids apparently like the program (at least the principal said they do!), and don’t mind being there. The school’s website features the following bold statement -

"Thunderbolt graduates will be the scholars and revolutionaries our society needs to abolish inequalities and make real our nation’s promise that all individuals have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." (1)

Sounds like a lofty goal, but who knows? I was impressed by the principal’s articulate portrayal of the school. They seem to have a creative, sincere and caring approach to the extended day, and perhaps it is working for them. In a video about their second year, the principal appears to be a real effective educational leader. (It's no wonder he was interviewed by public radio.) The school has taken advantage of some unique grants and programs, and is moving almost in a charter school direction. Watch the video and decide for yourself. (2)

Meanwhile, three states to the east...a website for the Chicago Public School system states their reason for wanting to lengthen their school day:

"It's difficult for Chicago teachers to impart the knowledge and skills their students require when our children spend less time in the classroom than just about anywhere else in the nation." (Mayor Rahm Emanuel, campaign Education Address, Dec. 10, 2010.)

It then goes on to explain: “The Longer School Day Pioneer Program is built on a simple fact – Chicago Public School students spend 15% less time in the classroom than the average American public school student. We have the shortest school day of all major American urban school districts.”  (3)

How does this sound to you? Sincere? Perhaps too competitive?

It would seem that the fact that students may spend 15% less time in classes than their peers in other states shouldn't make it difficult for the teachers "to impart...knowledge and skills."

The entire program is "built on a simple fact." But is the fact that "we have the shortest school day of all major American urban school districts" reason enough to make the school day longer? 

The site goes on with what seems like a patently false claim (although I’m sure the Mayor would disagree!); “A longer school day is a richer school day … one that provides for 90 additional minutes of instruction.”

Is a longer day really a “richer school day?” I don’t believe so. It may be just the opposite. Interestingly, the site than goes on to explain what can be packed into an additional 90 minutes. Here’s their list:

  1. reading
  2. math
  3. science
  4. art
  5. music
  6. physical education,
  7. longer lunch
  8. a real recess.

All in 90 minutes! Something doesn’t seem to compute. To be fair, I watched the video on their site entitled “Five Things You May Not Have Known About a Longer School Day.”

It may very well be that the public schools in Chicago are catering to the same type of students that the Manual school is in Denver. (I did get that feeling watching the video.) And maybe they could accomplish good things in that extra 90 minutes? 90 minutes a day, split into two periods, could add 8 new classes to each week. So perhaps the above list is not so outlandish. 

The people in the video, not surprisingly, are all in favor of a longer school day. I tried to watch the video with an open mind. While a few decent points were made, much of their reasoning sounded quite spurious to these ears. To paraphrase one teacher, “We’re already here, so we may as well keep teaching.” Why not watch it and decide for yourself? (4)

On the other side of the spectrum, I watched a video made by the “unschooling bus family.” If you haven’t heard of them, they are a family of unschoolers traveling the country in an old school bus, unschooling all the way. Pretty cool and hip, no? (I think so!) As much as I’d like to say I loved the video, the truth is, while I enjoyed a lot of it, aspects of it bothered me, for several reasons. I liked that they now have their own theme song! But some of the lyrics describing how the kids spend (some of) their time rubbed me the wrong way. Not a big deal, but when "you tube" and "x-box" make it into the lyrics that describe their homeschool routine, there may be a problem. Why not watch it and decide for yourself? (5)

I read a nice essay penned by a high school junior, posted in an online discussion hosted by the New York Times, about the merits of grading. She writes that her English teacher...

"...tossed all of the planned curriculum out the window for the month of November. Throughout the month, she informally assessed us and guided us in the right direction. She had us write our novels in Google documents so she could check our writing without collecting it. By the time we finished, we had improved dramatically.

When the state tests came around, I was more confident than ever about taking those tests. Even though we had never picked up our big English textbooks we still learned the essential skills needed to do well on the test. I was more confident because, through this different way of learning, I found that I was more motivated to understand than from a book. Also, I will remember all of these writing skills much longer. I liked this new way of learning better because I actually wrote a novel, instead of just answering a multiple choice question on writing one." (6)

Unfortunately, it still always seems to come back to standardized testing. But clearly, there is high-quality learning taking place in classrooms around the country, with dedicated teachers such as the one described here. And also clear to me, is that home/un-schooling is no panacea.

What do you think is the right approach? Which approach resonates with you? Kids spending even more time in school, taking standardized tests, but (perhaps) being involved in productive learning, led by (hopefully) creative and dedicated teachers? Or traveling the country with no set learning plan at all, having varied and unique life experiences, as a family, but spending a lot of time on x-boxes and you tube? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I encourage you to share them in our discussion forum.


 1) Retrieved from the internet 7/29/12.

2) Retrieved from the internet 7/29/12. 

3) Retrieved from the internet 7/30/12..

4) Retrieved from the internet  7/31/12< /a>

5) Retrieved from the internet 8/01/12

6) Retrieved from the internet 8/02/12  -


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