Re-Education: Thoughts on education from a very non-educated student

*It was a few of my teachers at CAM (Mrs. Williams, Mr. Kring, and Ms. Muldoon) that taught me to think about school in a different light, about what I was learning rather than what I was being taught. I’d heard the Mark Twain quote, about not letting “school get in the way of your education” or something along those lines, but it wasn’t until this year I really gave some thought to it. Am I completely right? Nope. But I’m not completely wrong either. And if I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s that being wrong and realizing you are… is good*

So, this is Final’s Week, that time of the year when studying consumes your entire life and every high-school student is tested on what they really learned from a year worth of lessons, projects, and homework. It is, in the true sense of the term, your final exam. Most of you will remember it. Some of you will think back with dread. The point is, this is Final’s Week. So it’s also my Final Week of Thoughts regarding the school year.

This year differed from all others in one key aspect: I learned.

What do I mean by that? Well, I mean this: I learned that it’s okay, and even healthy, to be wrong, as long as you take the time to become right. I learned that “mistakes make your brain grow.” I learned that Sal Khan is against grading student’s work the traditional way, and maybe I am too. I learned that tests aren’t the end-all, be-all of education, and yet they are necessary. And most importantly, I learned that schools need to change, and should change. But they can’t do it alone.

How did I grow to understand this? From the efforts, both conscious and accidental, of three teachers: Ms. Muldoon, Mrs. Williams, and Mr. Kring. From the videos of Sal Khan, Eddie Woo, John Green, and many others.

Let me break it down into three main parts.

  1. Learn Me the Answers (teaching vs learning)
  2. Create Me Some… A’s (a lack of creativity)
  3. You’ll Use This Next Year (reasons for school)

There are four main entities really responsible for the problems in our school-system education. In no particular order, they seem to be: Teachers, Parents, Students, and Education Regulators. Together, we (since I am included in this group) have produced a robotic, unhelpful education system that pushes kids through high school, into college, and to careers they have no passion for. Some of us are lucky and escape this. Others, not so much.

What I’m looking at today are a few problems with education, and these are damaged areas that show up undeniably strong in teenagers. They affect all areas and years of life, but I think the causes and consequences are most obvious in our middle schools and high schools.

 

Part 1– Learn Me the Answers

There’s a large gap between two words that are considered synonyms, or at least a couple: Teaching and Learning.

Teaching does not lead to learning, and learning does not come from teaching. At least, not naturally.

Some students leave school, even college, having learned absolutely nothing. They memorize a few sheets of answers, forget said answers after the test, and hopefully pick them up again when Finals roll around. Each student gets a letter grade, F or D or C or B or A, depending on how well they score these tests, and sometimes how they participate in class. Now, this is all simple, and efficient when it comes to grading. But is it the best way?

That’s our initial problem. This method of teaching does not engage the kids. Even when it’s a subject they often enjoy, they won’t be interested, and they won’t really participate. Let’s say somebody loves history. And so they pour their efforts in, read the assigned passages, answer questions, study for the test, get an A. What did they really learn? Well… nothing.

This problem, perhaps, might lie in the curriculum. It isn’t meant to teach anything. Its single purpose is to prepare students for weekly or monthly tests, which then prepare them for final-exam tests, which then prepare them for SAT’s, ACT’s, etc. And those get them into college. (I can’t speak for how the education works in college. Haven’t been there. In high school, we’re told that if you can just make it in, they’ll do the real preparing for your future, and you’ll leave college as a functioning adult ready to conquer your chosen field… or never use a degree you paid six figures for.)

So what can we really do to fix this? Well, for one, choose better curriculums, if you’re given the option. And if you’re not, make the most of the ones you have. Instead of “living by the book’s rules,” mix things up. Create projects and discussions that interest students, get them riled up, and -heck- even get them to fight! If you can get students to argue about a topic that has to do with Science, Math, History, English… well, then they’re at least engaged.

And give more thought to how you can improve as a teacher. I admire the ones who are constantly evolving, wanting to do their best, to cover all the bases, and who realize their limits as one single person. You can’t teach us everything, nor should you have to. But chances are, you can do more than you are now.

Which brings to me another point. Some students are harder to get involved than others. Everybody knows this. There’s always that kid who sits in the corner, eyes wandering, piling up C’s and D’s, just enough to pass. This is one of the major problems. What do you do with those kids who refuse to learn? Who take no joy in learning? I’m not sure yet. There are people much smarter than me, and I don’t have all the answers.

But what I do know, for a fact, is that more kids are like our example ^^ than should be, and I believe some of this fault lies on educators and education curriculum. There are plenty of students who would engage, who want to, and who will if prompted. One thing I absolutely can’t stand is lazy teaching. I think everybody has this to some degree, and that’s understandable. I also can’t stand lazy learning. The thing is, it’s much easier to spot.

We like unconventional teachers. We like the teachers who aren’t afraid to sit at their desks while they teach, because their legs are tired, and yet their lessons are interesting, exciting, captivating. And the teachers who don’t change their entire class-scheme when the principal walks in to observe. Trust me, we can notice, and we don’t appreciate it. We don’t want a fake teacher, just like you don’t want fake students. And if you’re a good teacher, and your students enjoy you, then your methods -no matter how unconventional- should be applauded by principals, not marked off on a paper and scorned.

Do teachers get too much of the blame and not enough of the praise? Absolutely. You shouldn’t have to fear for your job, you should get paid a lot more, and you should have every resource available to you. But at the same time, there are many, many teachers throughout the country and the world who should not be teachers. They don’t deserve resources or money, because they aren’t teaching. And we aren’t learning.

So, to sum it up for all you who skipped my paragraphs of faux-wisdom:

1. Not every kid can be persuaded to learn but most of them can

2. Teachers deserve more help ($, resources) and we deserve better teachers (in a few cases)

 

Part 2– Create Me Some… A’s

This section is almost completely the fault of a TED Talk I saw on Facebook. A good thing coming out of social media? I know, right. Here’s a link, if you’re interested. The guy rambles a bit too much, and tries to be too funny, when he should have just gotten to the point: Schools kills creativity.

Actually, let me be a little more specific. School MURDERS, DESTROYS, VIOLATES, WRECKS, SHATTERS, SUBDUES, TORTURES creativity.

Am I being a bit overreactive? Yeah, okay, I am. But here’s the deal. Go into any classroom in America at a normal, public school and even most private schools, raise your voice (over the drumming of teenage rebellion) and ask, “Who here has written anything in the past month, outside of school work?” Likely result? Zero hands. And so we try again. “Who here has painted anything in the last month, outside of school?” This time? Well, okay maybe a few hands. “Drawing?” A few more, likely the same crowd as Q #2. “What about read a book?” Two hands or so. Some sniggers and comments about “I don’t read books.” They think it’s funny. It’s serious.

Go back in time to when these kids were younger, in their toddler years. How many colored? Well, most of them, daily. How many read? The majority. How many, you know, wrote stories? I’d guess about half of them tried it at varying points. So what happened?

“Technology,” some will shout. “Computers! Video games! Obesity!” The CD whirs to a stop. But… these kids didn’t grow up with all that. Sure, they had phones by the time they were 11 or 12. But they’d stopped drawing and reading and writing by then. Already, they had split with the creativity of their artistic youths.

Is your generation different? Think back to a time before you had a phone, a television with 600+ channels. Did you read? Probably. Did you write? Nah, not your thing, I get it. Did you draw or paint? Not the artsy type, alright, I understand. So… what did you do? Or should I say, “What did you create?”

Adults, you have an excuse. Jobs. Wait, how many hours is that? Eight? Plus an hour commute maybe, so that’s ten. Twenty-four hours in a day. Let’s say you sleep eight, work ten. You have six left. Okay, you eat an hour breakfast and dinner (somehow) and spend two hours with your kids. 24 – 10 – 8 – 2 – 2= 2. Two whole hours, a day. You have time to create. What you don’t have is the desire.

When we were kids, we made time to do these things. We would fit them into our schedule, somehow and some way, because we enjoyed them. And because they electrified us. They stimulated our brains in a way nothing else can or ever will. Maybe you’ve forgotten the sensation, or holding up that painting or staring at the sheet full of words, and knowing you made it. You created that out of nothing. It sounds like something attributed to gods and immortals. In a way, it’s the closest we’ll ever get.

Reading, in my opinion, is just like creating. It’s not passive entertainment. It’s engaging. Some people say, “I don’t like to read,” or, “I didn’t inherit that gene.” Well, you’re wrong. Nobody likes to read until they’ve found the right books. It’s that simple.

Where does school fit into this? One, simple way: School should encourage creativity and reading.

Creativity is like exploring. It’s exhilarating. You want to engage students in your class? Find a way to have them create something. My best teachers always had us building or shaping something. A giant marker, for instance, or a life-size replica of a character from a novel. These are simple ways, but effective. And there are so many others.

There’s another way, and it’s why I included the creativity=exploring line. The best example I can think of is math. Some teachers go about things like there’s only one way to solve an equation, and then others let you make mistakes for yourself and go down roads they didn’t have in their lessons plans. They’ll take an extra day or two, just to make sure you have the topic understood. “Mastery,” one teacher called it. I think there’s really something to that.

Mastery… rather than hastiness. Interest rather than rushed lessons.

One other example that comes to mind, and something I wish more people would think about. It’s about assigning books for reading, and I do understand it complicates things. This is one example where good teaching methods clash with the curriculum set up by the state and federal governments. Rather than trying to read ten books a year, let’s read four, and really delve into them. Let the students read them leisurely, so that they will learn to love to read. I’ll cover more about this, and the burdens of homework, but for now think of it like this:

Nobody loves to read with a gun pressed to their head.

Homework, in a sense, kills creativity. Excessive homework. Especially when you reach sophomore year and up. Teenagers go to school 7 hours a day, are expected to work at least 3 hours on top of that, not to mention any sports and other clubs they’re involved with. And yet I still expect and wish they would engage in creative acts. Writing, reading, audiobooks, an instrument, painting, drawing… if you can’t find joy in any of these things, then… I don’t know.

Is homework necessary? Yes, for sure. I would never say get rid of it. But if every class gives 15 questions for homework (or something along those lines), you multiply that by 7 and that’s 105. I do think homework gets in the way of creative endeavors. But, on the flip side, students often don’t use their free time wisely. If they paid attention more in class, then they wouldn’t need as much homework.

So, really, the creativity problem requires a twofold solution: Parents and Teachers. Both to encourage creativity, both to limit stressful distractions.

What are the benefits of this “creativity” I keep mentioning? There are many. It helps to de-stress, it improves your brain, it makes you (to put it shortly) smarter, and it can help level emotional waves that teenagers, especially, go through. I took up writing in 2015, just as I was leaving eighth grade. If I had my creative outlet in middle school, things would have gone a lot easier and I would have been a much less-troubled person.

Once again, for your skippers…

1. School should encourage mastery and interest

2. Parents and Teachers should revive creativity

 

Part 3– You’ll Use This Next Year, K?

One of the greatest problems facing classrooms is that the students see no point in being there. It’s getting late, so let me wrap this up very quickly.

Teachers, one thing I ask is that you never give the excuse, “Well, you won’t really use this in real life.” That’s false. A lie. We will use it. Maybe we won’t ever have to calculate the force of gravity on a sled going down a hill, but we’ll have to solve problems. Complicated problems, when we want to give up, give in, and outsource the tough job to somebody else. Tough jobs have a certain beauty to them, and we need to rediscover that. Circling that final answer is the best feeling, but only if you put in the work to get there.

School is like a workout for the brain. Whatever you gain there, you take into real life, just as when you’re at the gym. However, there is another similarity. Overdo the workout, lift too much too soon, and you’ll suffer injuries, frustration, and setbacks.

What do we really strive for in school? A’s? Diplomas? Most of us do. Maybe we’re trying to beat the person to our right, to our left. Get in the top 10 percent of our class and snag that scholarship. I found myself extremely stressed last year, like most people are. It’s said that the mental state of most teenagers nowadays would have landed them in an asylum less than a century ago. That might be an exaggeration, but not by much.

I made it my goal to disregard grades and instead focus on whether or not I really got the material. I didn’t worry about my diploma coming up in a year, but rather focused on how I could translate the countless hours spent at school into real-life situations today, not five years down the line in a job I probably won’t have.

Is that reasonable? I’d say so. My grades actually dropped a hair, and yet I’ve never felt so confident in what I learned this school year. I really thought hard, about topics and debates and beliefs and my own influences. And I decided that school isn’t about grades or diplomas. It’s about learning, and finding a way to translate those skills into real life as quickly as possible.

At The End Of The Day…

The bell rings. We grab our backpacks, shuffle into the gym, and are dismissed in groups as 15 minutes slog by. Our brains are numb, our hands full of homework or empty and longing for the familiar joystick of an Xbox controller. We might shoot around when we get home or run, watch a few episodes of television, obviously eat a snack. But after that, it’s into our shelters, whatever that may be. Our room? Our game console? Our job?

And at the end of the day, we lay in bed, dreading school, whenever it comes again. Next week, next month, tomorrow… it doesn’t matter. We dread it.

This isn’t how it should be. Not any class. Not Math, English, Science, History, Spanish, any subject. They should all be engaging. Interesting. And productive.

Yet that’s not how it usually is. Because when we dread school, we’re almost always afraid of these two things, no matter what kind of clique you fall into.

  1. A math problem. And… you know how to do it. At least, you remember hearing her teach it. But you didn’t learn it. You don’t know it. You won’t pass it.
  2. Silence. And your work is finished, so there’s nothing else to do. Next period, there’s History, and more of the same. Silence. You put your head down. Silence.

What if I told you that every single kid wants to learn? They really do. They want to understand Algreba and Calculus, and World War 2, and Newton’s Laws. They want to enjoy that book you’re about to assign.

If I told you every kid wanted to learn, really wanted to grasp the material, what would you change? How would you teach? Would everything still be about “finishing today’s lesson?” Or would it be more about lessons for tomorrow?

Every kid wants to learn. They want to speak Spanish, comprehend complicated Math, enjoy reading books. But the road to that place is rocky, and overgrown with thorns. There are so many other routes, that lead to shinier things.

Perhaps teacher isn’t the right term, because you’re not really teaching students. You’re leading children, into that thicket, towards that path, and hoping, with your fingers crossed, maybe they’ll follow you year in and year out, as the thorns tear your shirt and not ours, and the sun beats down on you instead of us.

So lead. Do your very best. Some of us will follow. Others will stray. But for those of us who follow, we’ll never forget you.

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