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Educators Go From Soloists to Choreographers in the Future School Day

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Different levels of experience and expertise create a vibrant learning environment.

Joe Ross leads the California region of Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that partners with middle schools to expand and re-imagine the learning day for low-income children. The organization draws thousands of volunteers into classrooms every year to teach 10-week “apprenticeship” courses where students learn about a variety of professions and fields firsthand.

By Joe Ross

My daughter recently broke her finger playing basketball. When we went to the clinic, the waiting room was packed with dozens of patients, and there were only a couple of medical doctors on duty. We spent 20 minutes with a nurse, ten minutes with the X-ray technician, seven minutes with the orthopedic resident, and just two to three minutes with a doctor. Against apparent odds, our visit turned out very well. Thanks to the combination of talents, expertise and communication styles provided by several professionals, my daughter experienced a remarkably effective – and efficient – healing experience.

In the school day of the future, imagine a similar scenario playing out in classrooms and schools here in California and across the country. The role of the teacher would evolve from that of a soloist to a choreographer, bringing together people and resources in different combinations to create a vibrant learning environment that efficiently serves a growing, evolving population and provides enrichment through a combination of caring relationships.

Citizen Schools, the nonprofit organization that I work for, was founded on the premise that everyone has something to teach. Our founders had their eyes on two assets: time and talent. Sixteen years later, the organization is partnering with schools across the country to lengthen the school day for thousands of students by mobilizing a “second shift” of educators.


The second shift includes a corps of full-time teaching fellows – recent college graduates learning their craft, many AmeriCorps national service volunteers – plus thousands of community volunteers who teach topics ranging from astronomy to video game design to journalism. These hands-on, project-based apprenticeships bring to life math and science and literacy, and draw a connection between school learning and career opportunities. For example, an apprenticeship taught by Hewlett-Packard employees last fall inspired students to imagine careers in law and corporate strategy. (See the video below.)

The typical American school day is an artifact of a bygone age. The length of the current school day means kids spend just 20 percent of their waking hours in class. That’s insufficient to meet the needs of today’s students, especially those from low-income backgrounds. Across the country, more and more public schools – both charter and district – are lengthening the learning day from six to eight or nine hours as a necessary (albeit not solely sufficient) part of their strategy to close the achievement gap. But more time for learning is only productive if it is filled with cool stuff – engaging and authentic activities that make learning relevant, rewarding, and fun. That’s one reason why talent is so important.

What if we used talent to staff the classroom the same way a medical facility is staffed? Nine to ten hours of organized instruction for a student could look something like this: four hours with a “master teacher” (a highly-trained professional), two to three hours with a “teaching fellow” (a young educator or mid-career switcher), and an additional two hours with a community volunteer (a coach, citizen teacher volunteer or online educator who facilitates distance learning).

To provide a longer school day with hands-on learning opportunities, we need to rethink when and how a student learns, what it means to teach, and who can be a teacher. Now, at a moment of urgent need and great potential, it is time to open the schoolhouse doors wide to a second shift of educators.

Read more in the Future School Day series.

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