Middlebrook teacher Will Mathews (rear center) reads his prepared remarks about the proposed schedule change during the BOE meeting on Feb. 2, 2023. Credit: WE-TV broadcast

For background on the Middlebrook schedule change debate and how we’ve produced today’s stories, check out our Special Report introduction article.

Middlebrook sixth grade teacher Will Mathews spoke to the Board of Education on Thursday, Feb. 2 in support of the proposed change. He presented his view of navigating instruction differently, by “embrac[ing] sustained amounts of time” — not just for the sake of more minutes, but as “systemic change in our classrooms that deepens our instruction and expectations with method diversity, while growing to higher levels what our students know, understand, and can do; ultimately independently and without us.

Greetings. My name is Will Mathews, I am a son of Wilton, and a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Middlebrook. Thank you, Superintendent Smith, Chairman DeLuca, and the Board of Education for inviting me to share my vision tonight. I appear before you wearing primarily the blue standard of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child because what is in our student’s best interest is what most interests me.

When I started with the Wilton Public Schools my youngest brother was two months old and I was regularly being asked to change his cloth diapers. The first wave of Punk bands all released their first or second albums alongside some other personal favorites, the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack and “Love Gun” by KISS.** Oakland beat Minnesota 32-14 in Super Bowl XI. Star Wars: A New Hope was dominating box office sales worldwide. Jimmy Carter was seven months into the 39th Presidency of The United States. The United States of America was just over 201 years old, and this version of Wilton High School was only six.

I hope that being a 37-year-and-counting project of the Wilton Public Schools allows me to speak to you this evening from a stance of experience, learning, and observation. Before I continue I want to be clear to everyone that I do not believe a change in schedule alone, whatever it looks like, goes far enough to fix the attrition we are facing at Middlebrook.

From the moment I started as a novice teacher of English at Middlebrook I have believed our schedules are flawed. They have allowed for only the bare minimum of daily in-depth learning, and lead us into recidivist tendencies towards a compliance-based model of instruction, reductive pedagogies, and punitive practices. From the moment the students attend team base to when the last bus departs, the day in the life of a Middlebrook student is non-stop-go, and a daily balancing act upon the tightropes and tresses of numerous grownups who have widely differing expectations and routines. Every 40 minutes or so, the students have to find their way to the next waypoint where things might or might not be the same as they were yesterday. Lunch and recess, sad to say, might just be the most hectic waypoint of the day.

In some ways, this frenetic daily pace reminds me of being intentionally deprived of sleep, except instead of sustained periods of rest we are being deprived of sustained periods of learning to be able to engage with and construct understanding of the world around us. We are learning deprived. For a world-class introvert like myself, our staccato school life is often exhausting, and I believe our increasing rates of social-emotional crises which our mental health teams routinely make us aware of, tell a similar story for our children. On the days when we have had more sustained amounts of time to slow down and engage with our students, such as across mask breaks, interdisciplinary team projects, or even half-day block schedules before Thanksgiving, I have experienced glimmers of what our teaching and learning ecology could possibly aspire to be.

What I am interested in for our students is not about minutes overall; it is about learning over coverage; synthesis over recall. What I am attempting to express here is only partially about implementing a new schedule; we do that all the time (Jan. 1 to Feb. 1 = 21 school days with 11 modified schedules). What this is really about is systemic change in our classrooms that deepens our instruction and expectations with method diversity, while growing to higher levels what our students know, understand, and can do; ultimately independently and without us. This is about students having the sustained time to not only learn an important skill from their teachers, but more importantly, have the time to independently and with their peers, practice that skill and find ways to bring cohesion to previous learning, and to think critically about the world we are a part of.

What I am interested in for our students is a new teaching and learning ecology that embraces sustained amounts of time for the ongoing, integral assessment that helps inform us on a more individual basis how we navigate our instruction. Alongside more informed assessments, this would also celebrate individual feedback that helps students know and understand what they need to do, in order to level up their ongoing performances. In a system of sustained amounts of time for ongoing assessment and feedback, teachers can guide students through success to develop higher levels of intrinsic motivation that will feed into loops of positive reinforcement and engagement. When we have time to focus more closely on process over product, we can track the growth of our student’s real intelligence, and worry less about artificial intelligence.

A new teaching and learning ecology of more sustained time with students cannot be a version of “how it’s always been done” shellacked onto a new framework of longer class sessions. That is not sustainable for anyone involved, especially students, if we try to live doing the new thing the old way. Students need our expert instruction and explanation, but they also need the sustained time to process and apply what we so skillfully present. Students need the time to practice these skills so that the learning gets sticky, and so we the educators can determine in more depth where they need to go next or what we need to revisit.

Since 2018 I, along with two administrators, two curriculum coordinators, one instructional coach, and four of my social studies colleagues, have seen this working with high levels of student agency and civic engagement at Hudson River Middle School. During classroom visits across content areas, with opportunities to confer with students, we have seen how more sustained teaching and learning sessions can be designed to be more constructive, collaborative, and give students the skills and tools to use their learning to take informed action. With a school-wide approach to method diversity, Hudson River Middle School is able to design daily sessions with the time to help students think critically, act with principle, and build their knowledge through inquiry with growing levels of independence. I am interested in that for our students.

Wilton Public Schools has structures and systems in place to support big changes such as these at Middlebrook. Between academic team, IET, instructional coaching, department, curriculum coordinator, and leadership structures we are fortunate to have the human capacities to collaborate, and help each other make the necessary shifts; as long as we have the vision, the space, and the time to orienteer that path before we reach the trailhead. We cannot be left on our own to just figure it out.

We are also fortunate to have available the kinds of necessary supports, including from the Wilton Education Foundation, to participate in high-quality professional development in and out of the building, such as webinars, workshops, institutes, specialty groups, site visits to other schools, visiting experts and professional developers, and even the encouragement to make classroom visits within our own building. Many educators I have met have shared that their districts do not provide for these kinds of learning opportunities, in both financial and class coverage supports. I have benefitted, and in turn, my students have benefitted, greatly from this district-provided, professional development, and I am grateful for the improvements to my teaching practice that have prepared me for changes to the classroom.**

Though I may sound quixotic and lofty I am under no illusion that this sort of shift throughout our classrooms will be anything less than tectonic. With the necessary and sustained time and resources for faculty, staff, and administration to engage in professional learning, and plan collaboratively with colleagues, essential changes such as these can be nimble and adaptive. With the necessary vision of leadership at all levels, for what a new ecology of sustained time for teaching and learning will become, we will discover essential changes such as these supporting the Wilton Public School’s Mission, Vision, and Portrait of The Graduate in ways we can only imagine right now, to the benefit of all of our students and our civilization overall.

In conclusion I warmly invite any and all of you to visit with my students and our classroom anytime, so you can see for yourself a slice of what a day in the life of a Middlebrook student can often look like. Thank you for your time and consideration.