UnStructured Schools

All year long we’ve been dipping our toes in the Relay pond, the UnCommon Schools waters, the “Get Better Faster” pool.  And all year long, I’ve avoided wading too deep.  Something just hasn’t felt right.  Something has felt – if I am to be entirely honest – toxic about the uber-structured current that threatened to knock us off our feet. We watched videos where teachers hold up fingers to indicate steps in a rigid process and students follow suit, standing up, pushing in chairs, moving to the carpet, all so that instruction can commence in “T-minus five-four-three-two-one,” often without a single word.

As an instructional coach, I have listened and learned alongside teachers who are making sense of these practices within their own classrooms.  We can agree that the intentions of (A) maximizing instructional time and (B) reducing behaviors that tend to escalate during “unstructured” moments throughout the day are worthy goals.  However, we often disagree with the execution of practices that feel (at best) uncomfortable and (at worst) completely counter to the communities we hope to cultivate.

Our teams have responded with a sense of compromise, often creating routines for purposeful talk, brain breaks, and other-than-“Better-Faster” transitions, all the while maintaining a distance from the practices that have been described (at their worst) as militaristic and offensive to students and teachers alike.

I was fortunate enough to be able to work through this with my teammate and friend, Amy, whose classroom community is fostered and forged on her strengths, namely her willingness to hand over control of routines and rituals to the students who will enact them and her amazing gift for building relationships through hugs and humor, humility and humanity.

Back in December, we looked at the UnCommon Schools rubric, with its “100% all-in” and its 30-second silent or content-driven transitions.  We collaborated to craft something that fit her style and the community of her classroom.  After a few weeks, one transition that her kids fell in love with was the one that had her grabbing her phone, dialing up a pop music station on iTunes, and dancing with them.  She’d talk and check in with a few as she bounced to the beat and let out a few lyrics.  And many of the kids would dance and sing right along with her.  Others would decompress at their seats, seek out their friends, or simply sit in silence.

When the song was over, the kids were usually ready, but Amy wasn’t.  She had spent the time talking and connecting with kids.  And these transitions, the joy in them, was directly connected to her engagement in them.  My feedback to her was to let them go on longer, long enough to connect, long enough for them to be ready, long enough for her to get ready.  Even if they lasted more than 30 seconds?  Even and especially so.  Why?  Because it felt right.  I just didn’t have the words to say it any other way

Enter Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz with “Emotional Environment,” chapter three of their book Kids 1st From Day 1.  I had only just started the chapter and begun to reflect on our year-long journey of tending to transitions and schedules within our instructional day.  Along the margin of page 62 – amid the conversation about building a “balanced diet” of structured and unstructured activities – I wrote, think about Relay transitions vs. Amy’s.

Like many great professional reads, I had to put this one down right then and there.  I couldn’t go on without a chance to soak in the sentiment of this section.  What I had read so far was not only confirming of our beliefs, but challenging to the practices we were trying to incorporate and systematize within our school.

It wasn’t until days later that I was able to process through this realization.  We were, surprisingly enough, without kids on Friday.  We were involved in a collaborative brainstorming activity where we rotated among stations. A colleague came over during one of the transitions and pointed out that, when given the chance to move, we sought out each other, connected with each other, sometimes about the topic and the task, other times about things that keep us connected as a community of people.  We rotated as we were supposed to, but no one held up five fingers to direct us in a series of steps to get from one place to the other.  Why?  Because (1) it wasn’t necessary and (2) we wouldn’t do that to adults.

Why wouldn’t we want the same for our students?  The fact is, we do, and this chapter helps us to explain why the “other” way did not feel right.  It wasn’t.  It wasn’t what we would want for people of the world.  It is based on control, not community.  Compliance, not critical thinking (page 59).  And our students have been trying to show us the way.  They have been trying to show us in how they transition from one structured activity to the next.  When their willpower is depleted it “looks a lot like off-task behavior.  Giving up, avoiding work, distracting others, or taking a looooooong trip to the bathroom might be a child’s way of telling you they are all tapped out” (p. 61)  And telling us, they are.  They need something different.

The best part:  the “different” that they need is not so hard to come by and aligns with an inquiry or authenticity stance of instruction:

  • Choices and coaching through their choices, the good and the bad
  • Process valued over product
  • Opportunities to move as part of a task as well as just for the sake of building muscle memory (and in Amy’s case, dance moves)
  • Scheduling that recognizes the cognitive demand of structured activities and so balances these with less structured possibilities

These gems from Kristi and Christine feed forward into the rest of the chapter that elevates building community, teaching social skills, and supporting all kids.  The message:

Ultimately, our classrooms are microcosms of the world, and we want them to be places where we, too, would want to live.

This work, as Amy discovered, isn’t just good for students, it’s good for us, too.  People of the world should dance.  Now that “sounds like something worth teaching” (p. 81).


I am participating in a book club about Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz’s Kids 1st From Day 1 hosted by our colleagues in Jeffco’s Curriculum and Instruction.  You can follow our journey – which will culminate with an afternoon with Kristine Mraz in May 2018 – at their blog, Teaching with Elevation.

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