28 May 2007

Another Casualty of the School System

A high school student that I know is the latest casualty of the school system. The student writes, "I give up. I've had it with this bullshit" in a final fit of frustration with one (actually several) of her subjects. (I am being deliberately vague here to protect both the guilty and the innocent.) This is not a marginal student, nor one at risk; this is an A student in the final year of high school. The student has been given a near-failing grade on a presentation assignment in which s/he discovered subtle and significant connections in the subject matter, presented them in an articulate, logical and well-prepared fashion, and engaged the class in a lively discussion of the issues for over twice as long as any other student had done (the other students who were to present that day apparently skipped the class, so this one filled the time since the teacher had nothing else prepared).

So why the bare pass on the assignment? Apparently (1) the student did not present the teacher's preconceptions about the subject, choosing instead to come up with original ideas, and (2) chose to use the bulk of the seminar time to facilitate a lively conversation after presenting a concise case for the ideas, rather than belabouring the point and filling up the time that way. The rubric for time stated that the seminar was to be 20 minutes. The student interpreted this to mean the entire seminar - including conversation; the teacher chose to interpret this to mean that the prepared material had to consume the 20 minutes, even though there was supposed to be some facilitation. There was apparently no explicit, pre-defined division of time, yet the student was penalized for half the presentation being "missing." Additionally, the rubric scores for articulate presentation, logical flow of ideas, and preparation were each penalized by half the total value since the teacher claimed that she could not know whether the "missing" prepared material would have been equally articulate, logical, and well-prepared. And, there was no consideration given for quality of facilitation, engagement, and the fact that the student saved the teacher's butt by keeping the class actively engaged throughout the period.

As I said, this is a student who used to love school, and love literature (actually, still does - reads complex and sophisticated authors without having to worry about ridiculous content tests - who said what to whom) but now has become allergic to both in the academic setting. I know this student's parents, and they have been actively engaged throughout the schooling of both their children.

To me, this is another sad case of a burnt-out, small-minded teacher conveying the well-rehearsed lesson that school is the place in which a love of learning and the value of curiosity, discovery and insightful, abstract thought are to be trampled beyond recognition. These are substituted instead by a discipline that enforces compliance, conformity, and intellectual docility, rewarding the mediocre to create a compliant, easily distracted citizenry for the benefit of the elites.

Having had two children go through the public education system from start to finish (both relatively successfully), I have seen more than my fair share of teachers that could use an intellectual refresher. Once upon a time, this was the purpose of Professional Activity days. But even when spent in professional development seminars, there is not the time to engage in the types of activities that can effect revitalizing transformation. I think it's time that we considered paid mid-career sabbaticals for K-12 teachers for them to take a mandatory year at a faculty of education, studying, perhaps among other things, critical pedagogy and contemporary methods for engaging with their students. Because this is for the health and welfare of the teachers (not to mention their students) I think it could quite reasonably be funded out of the vast wealth of the teachers' pension fund. (As an aside, the traditional BAH/dialectic approach would be against this funding proposal, whereas a Valence Theory approach would find this to be an optimal solution for all concerned.)

Why do some teachers end up being ridiculed on students' Facebook walls? What would drive a student to be so disrespectful, sometimes to the point of defamation? What causes school morale problems that lead to teachers and administrators being mocked? Students are not born hating school and believing it is irrelevant to their lives. Those lessons are well taught.

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goin2college said...

Unfortunately, I also know alot of people exactly like this who just get burnt out from school. There has to be something wrong somewhere when this happens alot.

Leigh said...

here is my sad advice that i give to younger people i know in the same depressing situation is this:

well, first I give them the Atlantic monthly article on the roots of the school system and have the kids understand school is not about education it is about socialization and societal control – historical fact

then i help them learn how to get good marks. being original does not get you good marks. being smart does not get you good marks. being thoughtful etc. etc.

giving small minded teachers what they want is how to get good marks. And besides it is a good life lesson to learn how to work the system to your advantage bc truth be told, these types are everywhere and work in every industry.

Then I tell them, focus your original talents and great ideas on those few but exceptional teachers that matter. That’s where you can blossom and then do your own thing.

Work the system, don’t let it work you.