Let's make school a more engaging, relevant, and joyous place for all children.

Over the past several months I have had the chance to talk with many students and parents who are interested in Willow. While they all come with a unique story, there is a common thread in what I hear. Nearly all have said they want a school that is engaging. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this word, and what it means in an educational setting.

The first time I really wondered about how much students were truly interested in what they do in school was when I was in my Masters of Teaching program in 1990. One of the most eye-opening experiences I had was when I “shadowed” James, a 9th grader, for a week. I went to every class with him. I ate lunch with him. I went to detention when he did.

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And what did I learn? School was boring. It was drudgery. In some cases, it was a humiliating experience. James found most of his classes meaningless. While he did love science because of the hands-on nature of the program and a teacher who took the time to build relationships with every kid, for James school was something he “had to do.” Granted, this was the experience of only one student, and only for one week. But how many more like James were there? In a study of student engagement, students were asked by researchers to describe their experiences in school. Some do say “enjoyable” or “interesting.” Far too many, however, described their day as boring, hectic, and stressful, and that they were “just doing school.”

When I was in my principal certification program a few years back, I had the opportunity to visit many classrooms and schools in the region. I quickly found that schools have a personality. There are schools that are alive. Classrooms are active and dynamic. Students and adults feel valued and respected. There is joy in the learning process.

The reality is, however, that far too many schools are not this way. At least, not fully, and not for most students. All the teachers I know are wonderful, caring adults who want the best for children (I worked with some of the most talented teachers anywhere when I taught at Pioneer Middle School in Walla Walla). However, most teachers feel that they are trapped in a system that stifles innovation, enforces uniformity, and does not emphasize a holistic approach to education for each student.

At Willow, we shift the emphasis from the system to the child. We ask each student to identify what interests them and what they are passionate about. We help each student set, monitor, and meet their personal learning goals. We support and challenge all students.
Our emphasis on relationships and social-emotional learning lets every student know they are valued and cared for. Our discipline program shifts the paradigm from punishment to one that focuses on prevention, enhances communication, models respect, and embraces natural consequences. It teaches fairness, responsibility, life skills, and problem-solving.
In short, Willow is engaging.

I think every parent, teacher, school administrator, and public school board member should shadow a student. And if possible, for more than one day. Take the opportunity to see what the life of a student at school is really like. And then ask yourself this question: would I want my child in this classroom or this school? If the answer is anything less than an emphatic yes, it is time to start a conversation about how to make school a more engaging, relevant, and joyous place for all children.