Column: Not Your Parent’s Classroom

By Tom Healy

Bueller? …Bueller? …Bueller?

If you are like me and have watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off more times than you can count, you are able to envision the scene in the social studies classroom that follows, complete with bubble-gum blowing, glazed over stares and that one student asleep drooling on his desk. “Does anyone know the name of President Reagan’s economic policy? Something D-O-O economics? . . . Anyone? . . . Anyone?. . . Voodoo Economics.” Unfortunately, nearly 40 years later, Hollywood still depicts our secondary schools in a similar fashion: desks in rows, teacher at the front of the room, students complacently and compliantly receiving information. Thankfully, classrooms across the nation are currently undergoing a transformation to avoid this counterproductive classroom environment: a necessary change to education as many of us remember it.

For those of you who have children in middle school, you may have noticed some elements of this transformation during our recent Open House Nights. If you saw seating options that are way more comfortable than our old desks, a physical layout that did not resemble a graveyard (desks in straight and neat rows), and/or spaces that allow for students to explore and collaborate, then you observed the physical transformation of the modern classroom. Along with this new definition of space, another major shift in today’s middle school class is the role of the teacher. No longer is the expectation that Ben Stein is commanding the room, acting as the expert whose job it is to tell students what is and what isn’t important to know for the test. Teachers today are expected to plan learning experiences that require their students to “do the work” during a class period. Take, for example, a science class I observed at the end of last year where students moved through a learning progression that included individual time gathering information about magnetic fields through readings and videos, engaged in a few mini-labs with actual magnets and finally met in a small group with the teacher to discuss the key curricular concepts and varying levels of depth. Seemingly miraculous to those who aren’t used to planning lessons like this, it all took place in 45 minutes, not to mention a brief introductory discussion about a current event with a science connection about the great white sharks off of the coast of Greenwich Point. The benefits of a lesson like this are vast: first, it speaks to the idea of personalized learning — students working at their own pace and teachers working with students to set and achieve mastery of content standards. Furthermore, critical thinking was the main activity for all learners through the duration of the period.

It is not enough for modern day schools to teach the way we have for the past 100 years. While this process worked for many of us who were “good at school” several decades ago, what our children need to succeed in today’s world is not to be the person with the most knowledge, but to develop into the creators, innovators, collaborators and critical thinkers who take what know and share and apply it in new and better ways. This is a work in progress, as it takes time to change our practice from the comfortable “known” that existed in Ferris Bueller’s metaphorical classroom. However, the transformation is no longer an opportunity, but now it is a necessity.

Tom Healy is the principal of Central Middle School in Greenwich, CT. He is a proud product of the Greenwich Public School system and worked at Greenwich High School and Western Middle School as an instructional aide, social studies teacher and assistant principal prior to filling his current position. Tom holds a Masters from Sacred Heart in secondary teaching and earned his administrative certification at UCONN through their Administrator Preparation Program. Tom and his wife Kyle are also Greenwich Public Schools parents with a daughter in 7th grade and a son in 3rd.