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Let's have a parade of parades!

 Sept.18, 2010

I heard this week an illuminating story about addressing children's needs.

It's a story about a day in an elementary afterschool program. On this particular day, teachers had been having great difficulty controlling students all day long. As the teachers passed the children on to the staffer supervising the afterschool class, they all but said, "Good luck," and then left.

Well, said the afterschool teacher, who would like to have a parade? All the hands shot up.

Well, we will need instruments to have a parade. So go get some instruments.

The children were perplexed. There were no drums or clarinets or tambourines in the classroom.

Well, you decide what the instruments will be.

One child came back with a ball. Another came back with a piece of paper to wave. Every child decided on an instrument and came back.

Well, where shall we have our parade?

The children talked and decided they needed a big space. They settled on the parking lot in front of the school.

Well, who should lead the parade?

More talk. They decided the teacher should lead, because the teacher was the tallest.

And then they raced outside, lined up and had their parade. And by the time they got back from parading around the parking lot, they were ready to focus on their homework and other activities.

The teacher's damn-the-lesson-plan attitude put the children's needs first, and led to a splendid outcome.

But equally important, the teacher set up something on the fly that became the children's own. It was the children who decided on the instruments, for example. They picked who would be at the front of the parade. And each time they made a decision, they had done so for a reason that they themselves identified. It was classic experiential learning in communal decision-making.

Perhaps it behooves us to allow parents to have more control over where their children go to school. If they did, they would be more invested in the education that goes on there.

Imagine how empowering it would be for the school board to say to each parent: We're not telling you where to educate your child. Why don't you tell US? If you want your child to go to one particular school, let's try together to make that work.

Since the mid-1970s, every CMS magnet school had one incredibly powerful attribute: Every parent was there for a reason. They knew what the reason was and they were determined to make that educational experience work.

For some, the magnet meant a curricular offering. For others at the same school, it meant a child's proximity to a parent's workplace. There were all sorts of reasons.

Imagine if every CMS school could tap into that power. And if every child were learning in such an empowered environment.

Steve Johnston