I heard a student debate this week on CBC The Current on whether high school should be optional. The pro side argued that teens should be free at the age of fourteen or so to consider many options besides or in addition to formal schooling, including internships, work, volunteering, travel, or personal scholarship. The con side argued that most teens are not wise enough at that age to make decisions that could “close doors on their future” and thus limit them in their further learning and career options. The pro side thought they were mature enough, and also that parents and mentors would still be able to help with these decisions anyway.
I listened for the reasoning behind the assumption that all the speakers seemed to be making, without ever stating it, that because public schooling is free only up to one’s senior year, one has to cram in all the learning one can before then or it will be too late. They treated this limitation as if it were similar to human developmental stages such as attachment, or learning to crawl and walk, the appropriate phases for which really are fleeting, making remediation, or filling in the gaps, difficult.
I agree that there are developmental stages of learning in the early years, but the teen years are something else entirely. The teen is not in general a person that benefits from being constantly under authority (and authority they may see as not merited), subjected to seven plus hours of sitting, listening, reading and writing. Neither is it developmentally appropriate to require them to yield the management of their intellectual lives to–I was going to say teachers, but it’s not teachers who are running this show. Nor school administrators, nor school boards, nor legislatures, nor governors…who is it, anyway? Who are the people or entities that hold that vision of what kids need to learn? So far, when I trace the money and influence, it seems to have a good deal to do with economic competitiveness, social stability (which feeds economic competitiveness), and military strength (derived from economic competitiveness).
I was chatting with my daughter last night about ways to teach, convictions and passion that teachers carry and whether they can live by their principles within the system. She has an English teacher she respects, but she said sometimes he’ll say, “I think this is dumb that I’m supposed to teach this, but I’m supposed to, so I’ll do it anyway.” What does that say to students? Not that I think teachers should keep their views to themselves, or ignore policies and guidelines they are expected to follow, but maybe–I’m saying this as one who doesn’t yet have a contract job yet, mind you, but I need to preach to myself and see if I can keep up my courage to stand when the time comes–maybe he should have entered into a dialogue of a sort about how to reconcile, or overcome, these conflicts between conscience and convention or policy. What’s the process, and don’t we want to model that? Like, how do we recognize what’s worth standing up for, and how do we not be a whiner but instead be a courageous and loving voice, a patient and tireless advocate, for better and better principles? How do we model the strength to go against our own preferences at times instead of treating those too as if they are principles? I suppose one just gets tired, and the only relief is a bit of camaraderie with the students because of being fellow slaves to the system.
Yesterday I taught high schoolers about the effects of algal blooms fed by nutrient runoff, and some were with me, some were just not bothering to try. I feel I’m pretty engaging, and good at making it not intimidating to participate in a question and answer session or discussion. I use my seating charts, call on random students, give them more than one chance, and let them think about what I’m asking. But there were some students who just were tuned out, and though they’d pay attention for the few seconds I called on them, they’d drift off right after and forget what we were talking about. I was going around in circles just getting them to recall that plants produce oxygen when they are growing and decomposers use oxygen. Basic sixth grade science, but it just seemed beyond them, because they didn’t want to learn it, or remember it. In this situation a teacher can choose to, A) say, “Oh, and this will be on the test tomorrow,” and keep going; or B) say “This will be on the final exam. Those willing to actively participate, please come to this side of the room and gather around,” and continue, while the other half does quiet work of their own choice or goes to the library or home.
As I circulated later while they worked on algae bloom flow charts, I felt prompted by one table of students to explain that some teachers are extremely strict and mandate all the rules and give lots of tests and grades are everything. Others teach without requiring anyone to tow any line as long as they are no causing trouble, take it or leave it, because they believe that only the students can choose whether to work hard or not, and only the students will take the consequences of their choices in the long run. I’m somewhere in the middle, I said, because I really want you to learn this and have a clearer understanding than students why it is important, and will build in incentives as I can, but realize that there’s a time to let someone choose to fail if that’s the way they roll. I’m here to encourage, do my best to teach well, and leave the rest to students. If I am tempted to try rescue, it’s because someone is trying hard and struggling, not because they have no will to succeed.
What I’d like to extend that to, or wonder if I could, is to have a series or gradation of conversations with students about their choices in learning. First, as some students take on the challenge of personal scholarship, basically I just say, “Go girl!” *(or guy), and just sort of facilitate and cheer them on, give them their head, so to speak, and maybe do grades either differently or not at all. In the other polar situation, with students who are choosing not to make an effort, would come a conversation first to determine if there were hurdles they were facing with which they needed a hand, or, if they really didn’t care and didn’t want to be there, that they be allowed, even required, to leave. I would let them know that I felt it was not my role to decide for them,and it was time to talk with them and parents privately about a better plan for their time.
I think sometimes the problem isn’t really the student him- or herself, but this complex interaction in which they have been largely disempowered about making any meaningful choices about their education, an/or have no mentors helping them see the value of school learning and hard work.
Getting back to the alternative high school where I subbed a few weeks ago (and signed up again this week even though it meant working more days than I had planned): the freedom was good for those students. Okay, so some chose not to show up at all. And I say, so be it, and let’s get to a place where most of these so-called dropouts become liftoffs, not just (as it seems they are generally now regarded) pregnant teens, drug dealers, low wage workers, and welfare recipients. If they find they are floundering, they can come by for support and mentoring, to discuss their choices and make a plan. Not because their options are dwindling as they near and pass the ripe old age of eighteen, but because that’s what a public system should do for its people. Public school. Public library. Resource-rich, staffed by qualified professionals and caring volunteers, free, and optional. And when learning with older peers seems to be more appropriate, and it’s become relevant to pick up Algebra II or English 99, students can attend community colleges, and take these high school equivalent courses for free.