Is Your School Doing Its Job?

Pam Nix (left) and Randy McFalls check the transcription of an interview they did with Pam’s grandmother, Lillian Nix

Southern Exposure

Appalachia mountains

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 1, "Who Owns Appalachia?" Find more from that issue here.

I constantly find myself in awkward situations. Among the most uncomfortable are those in which I have accepted an invitation to a public school, and I’m asked for advice. I usually refuse, simply because I don’t know the situation well enough (and wouldn’t if I stayed a month). But recently, over coffee, a new friend and I sat down and half in jest, half seriously, posed the following:

Accept for the moment the fact that public schools will never be perfect learning environments. Accept also the fact that despite all the voices raised against them, and despite all the financial chaos, they are here to stay. Now draw up a list of observations or principles or truths — say, five or six — that could be used as yardsticks to measure how any given public school is doing, or how far it has to go, given the potentials and limitations that exist within that institutional framework.

Over the next few months, I became more and more convinced that this idea of a checklist was a workable notion. I present it here, realizing that most of these principles are old truths “rediscovered” again and again, but realizing also that most schools still have a long way to go toward implementing them, and so they bear repeating. The 950-pupil consolidated public high school in which I teach, for example, has not, and undoubtedly will not, move wholesale to translate a list like this into action. None of the schools in which I have visited will either. I guess that’s to be expected. However, after 14 years of continuous, daily trial-and-error and observation inside the public-school system, I know that these principles can be recognized in that system, and I believe that the extent to which they have been recognized and acted upon by any public school is the extent to which that institution is becoming truly and sensitively responsive to the needs of the students and the communities it serves.


1 - Every detail in the physical environment of a school, no matter how small, matters and contributes in a cumulative way to the overall tone.

Recently I taught an experimental course of five students. Because there were no classrooms available during that period, we “floated” from day to day from one available space to another. One of the rooms we used from time to time was a small windowless conference room that was almost womblike in its isolation from the rest of the school environment. Every time those students and I were in that room, their behavior was significantly different from their norm. It was almost as though they were lobotomized. Only through great effort were we able to break through that listless, unemotional trance and carry on some form of discussion. In another environment — one with windows and space and air — they were completely different people. Somehow the combination of colors, windowless walls, isolation and the incessant buzzing of the fluorescent lighting transformed us in a noticeable way. How many other teachers struggle with students daily and assume the problems they are having are due to the students, or themselves, and forget the impact of environment on behavior?

On a more obvious level, classrooms with desks (often covered with graffiti) bolted to the floor, bathrooms with doorless stalls, shared locker spaces, indifferent food served indifferently, a gym that doubles as an auditorium with impossible acoustics and demonic seating arrangements, raucous bell systems, intercoms used inconsiderately, all in fortress-like institutional structures with endless cement block halls and bulldozed, paved surroundings devoted more to efficient crowd control and total lack of privacy (read “trouble”) than anything else - all such elements conspire to create an atmosphere that is alien, dehumanizing, intimidating and filled with an undercurrent of frustration.

Despite our given environments, there are plenty of solutions available once the problems with them are realized. The possibility of solutions, however, must be seen as a series of priceless opportunities to bring the second principle into play.


2 - Students must be allowed a measure of control over that environment, and a degree of decision-making responsibility within it.

If this is ignored, the natural and healthy tendency students have to exert some influence over their surroundings manifests itself in ways teachers and administrators find unacceptable, and much of their energy spent in pitched battles with students over “classroom management” and in sleuthing out those responsible for vandalism and Utter. The amount of “antisocial” behavior in a school is often directly proportional to the amount of hostility students feel toward an institution that is not responding to their needs as human beings.

The most obvious place to begin is at the classroom level. In most high-school classrooms, the norm, except for the blackboard and bulletin board, is totally blank walls and bland colors. (Walk into the only environment a child can call his or her own — usually a bedroom at home — and compare.) In our classroom, when students wanted to fill the walls with photographs, letters, documents, county maps and quilts — all items appropriate to our work — they were given permission by the principal as long as they did not stick anything or mount anything on the walls that might damage the paint. Undaunted, they eased up several of the suspended ceiling’s tiles, hung long wooden dowel rods from wires they attached to the steel girders above, replaced the tiles undamaged, and hung the quilts and display panels from the rods. The walls remain unscarred. While some classrooms nearby have sustained heavy damage from random student vandalism, ours has not suffered at all. The room is ablaze with color and life and energy, and has become a working environment that accurately reflects the amount of energy and commitment that is expended there.

In another school, as part of the curriculum, students in the home economics classes work with their teacher and the dieticians to create the school’s menus, and then rotate for a week at a time through the kitchen to help prepare and serve those meals and make them as attractive and palatable as possible, using their imaginations to find ways around the budget they have to work with, and other institutional restrictions.

Allowing students to have a constructive impact on their surroundings in ways like the above is important, but it is not nearly enough. They must also be entrusted with the power to make real decisions that affect far more than the physical environment. For example, in the Foxfire magazine classes Margie Bennett and I conduct, the students decide individually all details concerning their own articles (for which they do all the interviews, take and print all the photographs, etc.) and collectively decide such items as what the magazine’s cover design and colors will be — seemingly mundane decisions, but for students who have never had experience in making such choices, enormously important. These experiences become part of their normal English curriculum and part of their daily routine. The same pattern is followed in the other classes we sponsor where students produce record albums, radio shows, television shows, active and passive solar collectors and public exhibitions of photography. Their decisions affect not only the final product, but also such things as the specific budgets those classes will operate under given the financial resources available to us at the time.

There are parallels here that can be extended to any school as a whole. Each day, in every school in the nation, scores of decisions are made by the principal and assistant principal that affect the movements and activities of students within. Often these decisions are made by adults not because they refuse to believe students could make them just as well, but because it is so much more expedient to make them themselves. And they’re right. But one of our mandates is to help students learn to make responsible choices, and the fact is that schools, as microcosms of society, can be perfect learning laboratories for building these skills. It is somewhat less convenient, but schools built for the convenience of adults are often schools where little learning takes places.

I am not advocating — as in some alternative schools — that students make all decisions, including such things as whether or not a teacher should be fired. That would place an impossibly heavy load on students’ Margie Bennett (standing) helps Donna Bradshaw select photos for her Foxfire article. shoulders. Nor am I advocating the situation where students are allowed to make token, sham decisions of no consequence as a means of tricking them into believing they have some “say” in order to help keep them under control. I am advocating real responsibility of the best type that is possible within a normal public school, which is, granted, a controlled situation where adults will always be “in charge,” but where they can also be regarded by their students as allies and mentors and guides rather than the opposite.

How could the process work? One way might be for each homeroom to elect, on a rotating basis, a representative who would attend the weekly teachers’ meetings. At these meetings, in addition to normal business (and, frankly, I can’t think of a single meeting I’ve been to in recent memory where something was discussed that students should not be allowed to hear, but they could always be excused if such matters arose), the principal and assistant principal would outline those items that needed student body action. The students in attendance would ask as many questions as necessary to make sure they could present all the facts and ramifications to their homerooms as accurately as possible. Then, during homeroom periods each morning, the student representatives would present the issues one by one, lead the discussions and take the vote. The homeroom teachers would be there to help students over snags. Votes from the homerooms would all be tallied by student groups as they were reported, and decisions, as completed, would be carried to the front office for announcement and implementation. The student newspaper would regularly report all tallies, along with needed clarifications and explanations.

What decisions would be made? An enlightened principal could easily get an idea simply by listing all decisions made in the course of one week at the administrative level, and then looking at the list. Much of it would consist of business concerning pep rallies, club meetings, test schedules, lunch schedules, disciplinary restrictions, smoking-area regulations and the like, all of which lend themselves easily to student input. As the process became established, teachers and students would begin to identify other areas that would justify student choice. In fact, once a certain public school mind set is overcome, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify issues and decisions in which the students should not be directly involved. Excuses for not involving them even in matters as serious as strategies for dealing with teen-age pregnancy or alcohol and drug abuse begin to sound hollow and defensive.

The fact is that students in possession of accurate information are far more skillful, responsible, creative and moral in making and carrying out decisions than most adults are willing to admit. Schools trying this for the first time sometimes give up in frustration from a feeling that the students aren’t being responsible enough — that the students are 41‘playing with them.” The schools give up too easily. Invariably, these are schools where, usually for good reason, the students refuse to believe that their collective voice is going to be taken seriously. They are playing with the school because they feel that the school is, once again, playing with them. It takes time and patience — a slow forging of an atypical alliance between young people and adults — and it’s worth every ounce of energy it takes.


3 - All courses, to the fullest extent possible, should be experiential — rooted in the real.

A friend of mine has a young son who just completed a ninth-grade unit in botany. Not once did the class go outdoors. Not once did the teacher bring plant materials in. The entire course was taught from a text. The fact that any teacher in 1982, given all we know about education, would be allowed to — or even choose to — teach a unit like botany in that fashion is grounds for parent/student revolt.

Teachers must constantly ask themselves how material they are covering can be brought to life and application in the real world for the benefit of the students involved and for the ultimate benefit of the larger society they will enter. If teachers cannot, or will not, make those linkages, the course should probably not be taught at all.

Let me give another example. One of my students brought along an American history text during a recent trip to speak at an educational conference. He was studying for a test. One of the sections he had to learn concerned Spanish monasteries that were established during an early period in our history for the purpose of converting Indians to Christianity and to the Spanish way of life and to loyalty to the Crown. Now, the course over, that student tells me that he remembers nothing of that section of the book; he only remembers the motel room in which he studied it. The teacher completely missed a priceless opportunity to open up that piece of history and bring it to life through numerous real-world linkages that the students could have researched firsthand: the implicit arrogance, for example, of the missionary’s calling, and the moral dilemma of imposing one value system on another; to say nothing of the effects of all agents of cultural change at work on that student’s family, community and throughout the Appalachian region yesterday and today; and the real — sometimes positive, sometimes negative — effect such people and organizations have on any indigenous group of people anywhere. Weeks could easily have been spent following that aspect of our history, and the fact that many of the events of the past have resulted from the desire of individuals or groups to exert dominance or influence over others. It has gone on throughout the past, it is going on today (students can witness that process in any peer group and community in this nation, and by extension come to a more focused understanding even of national and world affairs), and it will continue through all the tomorrows that we have left.

How will this particular student deal with that fact as an adult? When confronted by injustice, for example, will he shrug his shoulders and rationalize events and turn away, or stand for what he knows is a more moral and humane course of action in the world? He came no closer to a decision of any sort in that history course — in fact, he never saw how the material his class was covering applied to him at all — but he should have. Why else study history?

It has been shown through projects all over this country that experiential components can be built into every subject area of the curriculum, not in place of the academic aspects of the course or the basic skills, but as one of the few ways through which students master those skills and internalize them by having the chance to put them to work. Demanding academic rigor is justifiable, but reaching for it through numerous new kits, packages, drills and tests usually defeats the purpose — creating, instead, students who simply respond more quickly to certain stimuli — like Pavlov’s dogs — but who know not a whit more about the world outside the school, the use of those skills within the world or learning as an independent and lifelong passion. What we too often get for our money is a better class of robots.


4 - The school and the community should be as one. Far more than simply using the community as a laboratory, or allowing the school facilities to be used by the community in the evenings and during vacations, students and teachers must be engaged directly with the community-at-large, forging two-way relationships that not only educate, but also endure and make a difference in the quality of life.

One of the most distressing facts I encounter in every school I work with is how ignorant teachers are of the community from which their students are drawn. The teachers can sometimes recite some basic historical facts and figures and the results of some government surveys, but they know few people on a first-name basis.

This fall, for example, one of my students and I worked for several days as consultants to an urban high school in a decaying city where a group of teachers was interested in talking about and perhaps implementing some of the things we have tried. After working with them and their classes for a day, their consensus was that nothing we had talked about would work in their setting. For one thing, they claimed, there wasn’t anything good about the surrounding community to celebrate, and everyone who lived there was dreaming of the day when he or she could move away. In the second place, there was so much hostility, anger and fear that adults would be afraid to talk with students, and the students would be too fearful of their own safety to explore the area.

Believing that in a situation of this nature there is more need than ever to attend to this particular principle, I suggested we try an interview anyway. None of the teachers or students could think of a soul who would be willing to come into the school, so a school librarian who had lived there all her life was invited. Since none of the teachers could demonstrate interviewing techniques, I spent several hours training a volunteer group of about 20 students, stressing that if anything else were to be done along these lines, members of that group would have to be the teachers.

At the appointed time, the librarian arrived, apprehensive and a little stiff (“I can’t stay long; I’m very busy”), and the students arranged themselves in a semicircle around her and went to work. The teachers stayed in the background and observed. After about 15 minutes, I could feel the mood changing as the woman relaxed and the prearranged questions of the students began to drop away and be replaced by amazed, genuine inquiries. She talked about such things as the goats she had raised as a child in the pasture where the city-block-huge school now stood, and how the gradual influx of new racial and age populations had begun to polarize and fragment what had been a cohesive community. The students were fascinated as they began to see her as a completely different human being from the one they had known previously in her professional role only.

After 45 minutes, the pace had not slowed a bit, but since the bell was about to ring, I interrupted to ask the librarian, with the students present, how she thought things had gone. She admitted honestly that she was amazed at the quality and obvious sincerity of the students’ questions. When I asked if she knew other people in the community who would be willing to undergo the same thing, she said there were many.

There may be other ways to deal with hostilities and suspicions, but offhand I don’t know of a better way than getting people talking together face to face, beginning to know each other for the first time, beginning to correct misconceptions and prejudices about each other, and beginning to explore together the reasons why the community is now in a siege mentality, and the strategies available for turning that around. It’s hard to think of a more perfect setting for what could be one of the most fascinating and valuable high-school courses ever, set up to explore what conditions must exist for people to be able to live and work productively and positively together. It would take patience and time to implement, but the alternative is to leave all the barricades standing.

Students are basically moral — quick to recognize injustice and prejudice, and, in the proper atmosphere, to challenge them. With their peer group, they sometimes make a great show about hating this or that group or race, but for most young people, those statements have not yet hardened into adult convictions.

Better still, once moved, they are willing to take action for what they believe is right. A student and I worked as consultants in a Midwestern high school, and we discovered, within easy walking distance of the school, a historic feed mill in operation that was about to be torn down, as it was in the path of a new highway project. The local students I was working with had never done interviews in the community before (despite the fact that they were enrolled in a history course), and so we started with the mill. One of the former owners told us its history while the students tape-recorded and took black-and-white photographs and color slides — all for the first time. Then the new owner described the battle he was waging with the highway department, told us why he had decided to take a stand against all odds, and showed us the petitions he was circulating in the city.

As we left, the students wanted to sign one of the petitions, but their local history teacher, who had been along as an observer, refused to let them. Her fear was that some school board members might favor the highway project, and she was afraid of repercussions. We left, the students visibly disappointed, and the teacher, I believe, regretful and feeling a little guilty. Such are school politics. The next day, on the way to the airport, I asked our driver to stop by the mill so that my student and I, at least, could sign one of the petitions. We went in and I asked for one, and the owner apologized, saying that he hadn’t had a chance to have new ones printed yet, but they were ordered. I asked what had happened to the stack of blank ones he had had the day before. ‘Well, you know those kids that were in here with you?” he asked. “When school let out, they came back with their friends and took every blank one I had. They said they were going to get them all signed and bring them back.”

The school and the community must marry. We’ve only begun the courtship, but already students in our classes, through the creation of visible end products created within, about and with the cooperation and involvement of the surrounding towns, keep the residents in our area constantly involved in their work. Television shows Mike Cook and his students create are broadcast daily over the county cable TV network. In fact, students run the cable TV studio as part of their academic work. Radio shows that students create are broadcast locally. Foxfire magazine is constantly visible, as are the record albums that come out of George Reynolds’s classroom. Bob Bennett’s environmental class recently displayed the solar collectors they had designed and built in the parking lot of the local bank, and Paul Gillespie’s photography classes mount regular exhibitions of their work in the lobby of the same bank. When a group of my students helped a class of sixth-graders design and build a low-cost playground at their elementary school, the local newspaper devoted three pages of text and photographs to that project. (The willingness and ability of students to get involved in such ways, and their passion for doing so, has been documented hundreds of times by the National Commission of Resources for Youth [36 West 44th St., New York, NY 10036]. You might want to receive their newsletter.)


5 - There should be an atmosphere inside the school, fostered by the principal, of fermentation, excitement and anticipation — the feeling that something is happening that is good and worth being a part of — all laced with a generous dose of the unexpected.

In many schools principals allow themselves to become so buried in the day-to-day minutiae of maintaining the status quo that they despair of ever having time to do anything else. Perhaps asking more of them is asking too much, but in schools where principals dream in broad strokes and lead and inspire in such ways, breaking out of the day-to-day and forcing a sense of forward motion and experimentation, the school is transformed in a magical way.

One of the most vivid illustrations I can give of this sort of school-wide experimentation (or craziness, if you will) happened recently in our school for the first time when our organization, in association with the school librarian and her staff and with the cooperation of the principal and all the teachers, sponsored a three-day celebration of community resources. With the exception of two-period blocks each day for activities that the entire student body witnessed (concerts, plays, etc.), every class on every day was visited by a person from the community who could bring what was being studied in that classroom to life. An American history class was studying the Depression at the time, and so the people that visited that class were ones who could add a human, here-in-Rabun-County orientation to the study of that subject. They were people who, for example, had worked in CCC camps and on WPA projects in the area, and even included Roosevelt’s Under Secretary of Agriculture, who lives in our county and was able to give a fascinating, behind the-scenes look at that period of time in a way a text never could. A chemistry class was visited by a chemist from the local Burlington carpet mill who demonstrated the mixing of chemical dyes and talked about the role of chemistry in his work. A biology class was visited by a beekeeper who came with all the tools of his trade; an English class studying poetry, by a local songwriter; a drafting class, by an architect; a business class, by a secretary; a government class, by our local state representative; a small engine repair class, by a man who makes his living in that field — and so on, in every class, for three days. Hundreds of community residents were involved in a coordinated assault that kept the students in a state of anticipation and excitement I had never seen before — an invasion of the fortress that people in this area are still talking about. During an evaluation period the following week, 953 students (out of 956) and every teacher said they would like to see the same thing happen again the following school year. Since then, teachers who had never before invited community residents to work with them have been doing so with regularity.


Some of you — teachers, students, principals, parents, librarians, school board members, custodians, grandparents and the like — may be tempted to use these five principles in evaluating your own school. May I offer two cautions?

First, use my yardstick as exactly that — a measuring device, not a road map. Different kinds of activities that evolve from your own situation’s soil will (and perhaps already do) serve you far better than carbon copies of those developed by others. In fact, sometimes the developing and the testing of a new idea becomes as much a solution as the final project itself.

Second, the principles I advocate are evolutionary and based on personal observation. Change them. Challenge them. Add to them.

Above all, move. Refuse to accept the status quo. Know that despite the fact that public schools are less than perfect learning environments, within them exciting and creative environments can be nourished where genuine learning does take place; with sensitive leadership those environments can spread within the system to infect the whole and to embrace the surrounding communities and the larger community to the ultimate benefit of all.