Things I Know 120 of 365: I’m pretty sure we meant to build schools

America is the land of the second chance – and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.

– Pres. George W. Bush

Think back to your school. Elementary, middle or high – it doesn’t matter. Picture the structure, the hallways, the classroom, the layout. I’m guessing you had a central location where you could stand and monitor the goings on in multiple hallways as you turned around.

Picture the materials. Cinder block. Windows that opened, but only a little. (If the room had windows.) A heating system that worked – sometimes. An air conditioning system that didn’t exist. Periodically throughout the day you heard a PA system that announced who should be where when. This was in addition to the bells or tones that sounded at regular intervals to move people from one place to another. The system was likely made complete with the addition of closed circuit cameras and metal detectors in the mid-90s.

Did I get pretty close?

Now add uniforms.

Now add 8-foot fences.

Now add razor wire.

Now you’re in a prison.

We’ve been building schools like prisons for a long time. Lately, we’ve been arguing the design has been about security. I’m uncertain if we’re protecting the students from the outside world or the outside world from the students. Either way, there’s not much about traditional school design that screams “Learning!”

Diana jokes that my classroom is more of a club house. Within my first weeks at SLA, the architects whose offices were directly under my room showed up at the door with a tape measure.

“You have the students moving around quite a bit,” they said, “We’re going to pay for carpeting to help soften the noise.” Since then, I’ve been adding to the room the way large families store things in their garages or attics.

Most recently was the addition of desks whose surfaces operate as dry-erase boards. Throw in the bean bag chairs, icicle lights, and bright paper from lessons past and the club house description becomes apropos. Oh, and their’s a picture my students drew of Neverland on a 14-foot sheet of butcher block paper. It’s hanging from the ceiling.

Levity aside, my classroom is a constant effort to build a comfortable space where people would want to read and write.

Many of my students’ initial literacy educations were in school lockdown. Seated in rows of desks facing a teacher desk, they compliantly learned how school readers read and how school writers write. They did as they were asked to do.

It was incarceration-based education.

A part of me wonders whether the education community should be looking for leadership in the work of L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca who is beta testing his new Education-Based Incarceration Initiative designed to prevent recidivism once inmates are released.

According to NPR, “Baca wants his prisoners to accomplish more than academic achievement. He wants the program to equip inmates for a better life outside prison walls. Courses in life skills like leadership and decision making give time in prison a constructive purpose.”

Not unlike the description of the physical space, replace “prison” with “school,” and you have a decent explanation of what I want for my students.

3 thoughts on “Things I Know 120 of 365: I’m pretty sure we meant to build schools

  1. I'm studying the Third Place concept right now, or rather it's a concept I've taken to as my focus. My career goal is to create third places — in libraries, classrooms, wherever I can — for teens. Your classroom fits almost all of the T.P. principles — I wish more did.

    • John, thanks for the comment. I didn't mean to imply building schools like prisons was anything new, just something that was knocking around in my brain.Thanks for the photos. They certainly send the message home.- Zac

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