Good Stuff 19.4

By Herbert Kohl

My three children went to a small, rural high school. Despite the fact that it had only 168 students, it was terrible. For years we fought, along with many other parents, to make the school more humane and intellectually and artistically challenging. We failed.

Small is not necessarily good, and the small schools movement has to be cautious and modest if it doesn’t want to end up with many failed small schools or mini-versions of failed larger schools.

The central issues are pedagogical. How can we organize schools, small or not, to respect the students and teachers, encourage complex and creative learning, and deal with central issues of human rights? For this special issue, I decided to share a few resources, both old and new, that might be useful to people creating or working in small or reconstructed schools.

Jonathan Schorr’s Hard Lessons is the story of the struggle to create and maintain a quality small school for poor children of color. It is neither a success story nor a failure story. He shares how hard it is to build a new school when you have to work with the adults’ old teaching habits and the chronic failure of the students’ prior schooling. It is good, tough reading for educational activists.

George Wood’s Schools That Work is in many ways the opposite of Schorr’s book. It is the work of an enthusiastic supporter of small schools and school reform. Wood’s portraits of schools in transition, written about 12 years ago, are helpful to people starting out on voyages to create schools. Some of the best schools he describes are no longer the wonderful examples of effective learning that Woods portrays. But looking at these inspiring examples can motivate people to continue their struggles for decent education for all children.

One component that is essential in the creation of a new school is the development of a community of learners, of young people and adults who believe they are engaged in common learning adventures. Two books that I have found helpful for teachers who want to create learning communities are Sudia Paloma McCaleb’s Building Communities of Learners and Matt Copeland’s Socratic Circles. Both books are about dialogue and open communication about goals, objectives, and — most importantly — problems and doubts.

Building Communities of Learners is a guide to building community with students, parents, teachers, and community organizations. Socratic Circles demonstrates how to use dialogue to build a learning community within the classroom. They both direct attention to the substance and content of learning within a community. This is invaluable when so many activist educators find themselves engaged in external conflicts with the corporate testing establishment and its complicit allies within school districts.

Building Communities of Learners
By Sudia Paloma McCaleb 
(St. Martin’s Press, 1994) 216 pp. $23.50

Hard Lessons: 
The Promise of an Inner City Charter

By Jonathan Schorr
(Ballentine Books, 2002) 338 pp. $26.95

Schools That Work
By George H. Wood
(Dutton, 1992) 320 pp. $13.05

Socratic Circles
By Matt Copeland
(Stenhouse Publishers, 2005) 176 pp. $17.50