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Thursday, February 25, 2010

An Open Letter to My High School

Category: Issue 17
I was thinking in the shower earlier about what I would like to say if I attended one of my high school's school board meetings. In fact, its something I've thought about a lot in recent years.

I imagined raising my hand, or waiting for a pause and a chance to speak. Once a few eyes looked in my direction and acknowledged me, I would begin by reminding them what the purpose of school is.

"I'd like to say, that it seems to me, that teachers and principals often forget what school is trying to achieve. For example, our mission statement is: To create high-achieving world citizens. And I think that's great. Let's not forget it"

I'd continue, "Everything done in the classroom should reflect this goal. What students experience ought to be a manifestation of the process of becoming high-achieving world citizens. I would wager that not a single student feels like they are moving in that direction. And it wouldn't be a surprise if our teachers are as equally disinterested."

"It is not impossible. It is actually a very good idea. I like the sound of it, 'world citizens', it invokes the possibility of teenagers having a global perspective. Of universal themes students can stretch across disciplinary boundaries and use to connect seemingly, fragmentary and distant concepts."

I would retreat for a second, foreseeing their reaction, "I've been told before by teachers that 'other kids just don't think that way' or, even worse, 'not everybody is that smart'. If you have any inclination towards that sort of attitude, I am not speaking towards you."

"Everybody is smart. You are doubting these kids and thereby limiting them. By presuming that they are incapable of comprehending something, you are erasing their possibility of ever learning it. It is criminal that schools have been allowed to disqualify individuals without even understanding them, without even knowing them. The idea that someone is not good enough or bright enough to get something, is the most dangerous and vile threat to education."

I would regain my composure, my breath, and go on, "Every person is good at something. Schools want to filter kids by using a standardized, multiple-choice test. This test measures nothing but user competence at answering standardized, multiple-choice tests. It is not a test of intelligence and it is not a measure of anything relevant to the potential of a student to be a high-achieving world citizen. Anybody can do it. An F student and an A student only differ, in that an F student has not been allowed the opportunities to express himself through his own natural affinities and inclinations. As a matter of fact, the A student probably has not either, but at least, he has played the game well enough. Well enough to satisfy those who are responsible for his learning of how to be obedient, follow instructions and jump through the minimal number of hoops required so that the school's reputation is satisfactorily untarnished.

"'High achieving', I like the sound of that too. Not everybody is born to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or a teacher. Some students have great voices, musical talent, passion for dancing, interests in craftsmanship or art, or any number of things. An infinite number of things. Schools, ideally, should be a place where opportunities are abundant and kids can explore their interests and begin a lifelong journey of discovering the different purposes and meanings of their life. To be 'high achieving', students need to have a direction they can move in. A direction that is natural and therefor, pleasurable and meaningful for them. Just something to keep in mind"

In my fantasy, I would assume there would be a few civilized questions for me to answer from enthusiastic, fascinated teachers who genuinely were intrigued with my anecdote. If not, I would continue to speak, "Students are only going to learn something if it interests them. The student who is not interested will do the minimal to get by, committing everything that is essential to getting-the-highest-grade-they-can-achieve-with-the-minimal-effort to memory. This is called rote learning sometimes, but is actually just memorization. This often follows a pattern of viciously repeating distant, fragmented ideas over and over and trying to string them together, not in a way that necessarily makes sense or is representative of their truth in reality, but rather that is easy to remember, immediately prior, the sooner the better, to the test over the information. This is also known as cramming. These are called bad study habits, ironically they are the most successful and are no doubt the most common and preferred among "Average", "Poor" and "Gifted" students alike.

"Uninterested students have many interesting habits. For example, the amount of effort they put into an assignment depends directly upon the amount of effort the teacher puts into grading it. However, don't make the mistake of assuming the rectification of this would be for all teachers to simply put more effort into grading. Because other habits of uninterested students include, cheating when assignment are difficult/graded strictly/due quickly/unfair. Uninterested students also have a quirky knack for "forgetting", "losing", having "stolen" or simply not completing such assignments.

"If a teacher continues to push his/or her students into routinely completing difficult and harshly graded assignments, the uninterested students will certainly not respond with higher quality work. Instead, they will respond with more satisfactory work. They will not respond will a higher love of learning, a more favorable view of school, a fulfilling sense of accomplishment of their work at school, ect. Uninterested students never gain anything beneficial from their school experience, except in the social dimension. Uninterested students can be coerced into following instructions, but they cannot be forced into being high-achieving world citizens.

"Unfortunately, the same institution which has set its Mission Statement to read: 'To create high-achieving world citizens', has also set the conditions which don't allow that to be possible. Perhaps a few percent which be considered high-achieving world citizens in their lifetime, and perhaps a couple can claim that their high-school benefited them. But only a select group will be able to say that it was through their high-school's commitment to this mission statement that it has helped them the most.

"The vast majority of students are uninterested students. The educational system has failed to present them with an opportunity to pursue their interests. It has offered a bland, hodgepodge of subjects, a few mandatory, but none of them were appealing. Or perhaps, they could have been appealing, if only the class was more focused on learning, understanding and insightful experiences and revelations, rather than on rote memorization, grades and busy work.

"Students always see at least one class that sounds interesting. They take a chance and sign up. Most of the time, within just a couple weeks, the student knows what kind of class it is. More often than not, they discover that they will be "challenged", that it will not be "easy", that there will be alot of "homework", that they will have to "study", and that they should drop the course now or else they will fail if they try to switch classes at a later time. Before they have even begun to explore the subject, they are thoroughly intimidated and turned-off. What once had them curious and interested, now has them stressed and worried.

"The worst part is, is that teachers would actually take pride if their students described their class in those ways. Teachers like to hear nothing more than what they teach is "challenging". For students, this means "stressful". And associated with that is dread, not the thrill of intellectual excitement or of learning something new. An interested student wants to learn, he or she will willingly subject themselves to strenuous, late-night hours of research due to their own volition. Nobody needs to "challenge" a student is willing to challenge themselves. Only uninterested students need to be "challenged" and ironically, only uninterested students cannot benefit from it.

"Interested students don't need directions, they only need guidance. Interested students are like flowers, they only need a little water, soil and sunshine. Then they will grow on their own. They need freedom to flourish into their own potential. Each individual is waiting to blossom in their own unique way. It is the responsibility of schools to present the conditions for this to occur. To protect children from danger, allow them to explore an array of activities, to guide them as they search for themselves and guide them as they blossom into their potential. Uninterested students haven't found anything interesting in school. All they see is work, study, test. And to push them further away, they are told that something is wrong with them because if only they would worker harder and study harder, they would do better on the tests. What the teachers and guidance counselors don't realize is that it is utterly useless to work harder if the work means nothing to you and if it doesn't make sense. They fail to realize that everybody is good at something, if they are failing everything, punishment is the worst thing to do. Failure is simply a sign that, this is not the right way. Don't abandon the individual because he or she hasn't found his or her way yet when he or she only has a few options and none of them are right. Punishment isn't going to help, it may force them into something, but it won't do them any good and it certainly won't make them high-achieving world citizens. What they need is more options, different opportunities, ect.

"Schools could make a big difference by encouraging cooperation rather than competition. Competition is parochial, cooperation is global. Competition is high-achieving for the sake of yourself. Cooperation is high-achieving for the sake of everybody. It is the difference between high-achieving idiots and high-achieving world citizens. Competition is competition over grades. And grades represent the knack for following directions properly, satisfying the unique requirements of each teacher, and taking advantage of sometimes non-academic extra credit or other such grade influencers. Grades do not represent the proximity towards one's potential, or one's proximity to typifying a high-achieving world citizen. In fact, one can cheat and lazily slack through their work with minimal effort if they have the peculiar knack for it and still have higher grades then someone sincerely concerned with improving as a person and has high ambitions for themselves in life. Grades do not help school's create high-achieving world citizens.

"Every experience at school has indicated to me that school's purpose is to create passive, subordinate, workers who function effectively under command. Creativity and intelligence have nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, schools automatically assume that most of the students will NOT be creative or intelligent and treat them as if their only chance of success is if they walk away knowing how to write an essay, give a presentation, test under pressure, guess intelligently, answer questions "proving reading comprehension", understand graphs, diagrams and charts, and have passed a couple of courses on politically correct American history and government. In no way, does this amount to a high-achieving world citizen. In no way does this amount to an educated person. In no way is this the best we can do with 12+ years of education.

"There is not a single time in school where I have been encouraged to spend time learning something for the pleasure of learning it, learning something because it would help me understand what the value of one's life is without understanding the lives of one's ancestors, learning something not because it would be on the test, but because it would really benefit me as a human being. To learn something because it has value to the student. If schools were to forswear doubting students' intelligence, they could actually be places where everybody, not just teachers who are obligated to come and a rare one or two who are actually interested, could meet and discuss school policy, curriculum improvements, classroom modifications, etc.

It is not hard to imagine a school where every student reads because they want to know what it says, they want to know how the perspectives in the book have their origins in the authors background and how that message is interpreted by them on the basis of their own upbringing and framework of knowledge and therefor has new meanings and morals for everybody who reads it. It is not hard to imagine a school where there is no need for grades because everybody is interested in the subject as is naturally doing their best to comprehend it because it springs from their own natural inclination not from a forced external fear of punishment. It is not hard to imagine a school where everybody is treated as equals, not on the basis on worth, but on the basis of intelligence and on the basis of potential, on the basis of creativity and on the basis of talent. It is not hard to imagine a school where teachers don't have to teach, but instead guide students as they learn on their own. A school where students don't arrive home stressed, fall asleep stressed and enter into class stressed because they are always struggling diligently to meet the demands of their teacher. A school where every student is recognized because no longer are they neglected if they don't fit the mold the school has set through its selection of subjects and extracurricular activities. A school where students aren't bored because they have decided to stimulate their own intellects. A school where leaders, artists, laborers and professionals are created. A school that is free of hypocrisy. A school that is possible because the innate intelligence of every human being has been recognized, because cooperation is embraced and because coercion has been replaced by freedom."
Posted by Kappa on 02/25 at 09:42 PM | Permalink
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