I grew up going to my mother’s afterschool tutoring program in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago. It is the best learning community I’ve ever been a part of and the best learning experience I’ve ever had. That is high praise because I have been lucky enough to attend extraordinary schools and to have great professional development and learning experiences as an adult.

My mother created a unique culture. Everyone was challenged to do their best, every single day. It was the ultimate in high expectations, both for individuals and the group as a whole. There were no short cuts or excuses. We did lots of things in teams and groups. These collaborations created positive peer pressure where we encouraged one another. Folks who were strong in one thing were helping ones who were weak in something else. We had a sense of camaraderie. We were all in it together.

Everybody was both teaching and learning. Ten-year-olds taught five-year-olds, and fifteen-year-olds taught ten-year-olds. At every stage, you were expected to continue to learn and improve, but you also were expected to help others. The older students took great ownership for how the younger children were doing. At a very young age, children felt like leaders, role models, and teachers. It also had the benefit of helping students understand what they were learning because one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it or explain it to someone else.

In the learning environment, everyone was both a teacher and a learner. We were constantly pushing each other’s limits. There was no valid excuse for not working hard or for misbehaving. We had clear rewards for working hard, and there was a sense of teamwork and support across age groups. Finally, there were adults in students’ lives who would stay with them for the long haul. They were there day after day, week after week, year after year, through good times and bad.

Schools should combine all of those things: passionate, caring adults; teams of students learning together by helping each other and pushing each other; students constantly both learning from others and teaching others, and having the highest expectations for everyone. If every child had the chance to have that kind of learning environment, education in this country would reach an entirely different level. It would change students’ lives.

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