Friday, June 20, 2008

Blog Blast for Education: Why We Need More Types of Schools

For more Blog Blast for Education entries, please visit April at It's All About Balance

One of the things I enjoy most about blogging is how much I learn about other cultures, countries or ideas on a daily basis.

When I think about where I learned the most over the years, they've involved experiences, rather than a classroom:

* Living on my own in Soviet Russia and teaching English there
* Bringing U.S. teens to Soviet Russia for a camp experience
* Using a telescope on our terrace to learn about the patterns of stars and unique astronomical events
* collecting "specimens" by the seashore
* snorkeling
* reading cookbooks and really learning how to cook
* making my way around Paris, Vienna, Florence on my own
* biking through six countries of Europe and only speaking the language (sort of) in three of them

I also had some great "in school" experiences:

* making a "Senegal Village" in Central Park
* researching, writing and performing a play entailing the U.S. Civil Rights movement
* learning to play the violin as an entire class of third graders
* writing, taking to the streets, and eventually sending, petitions about ecology projects for New York State
* participating in a mock trial about similar ecological issues
* creating a 17-minute-long movie as a fifth grader, which we wrote the script for, acted in, directed, and did full editing
* an "Arts and Ideas" course where we read a specific author and studied an accompanying artist, then wrote stories/created art in the style of the writer/artist as well as wrote essays/copied an art piece
* creating the sets for an opera production and working on this in conjunction with artists from The Metropolitan Opera
* participating in a model U.N. session at the U.N. complex itself, alongside students from all over the world

So, yeah, I've been blessed, both educationally and experientially. I've had very, very rich experiences, partly to do with growing up in NYC, partly to do with having a set of parents who pushed me to try new things and who made travel a part of our existence no matter what our other financial obligations were, and partly because I liked a good challenge.

Another, maybe more important reason, though, was that I grew up in the 60s/70s and I went to alternative schools.

No, these aren't the types of "alternative schools" that are last-ditch stops for kids who "can't make it" in any other setting. These are the types of schools that were influenced by Summerhill, Dewey and Outward Bound. These were schools that were going to create competent citizens rather than academes.

And the darned thing, is that despite the fact that I took French, Spanish, Art History, two English classes and two art classes my senior year, I didn't suffer academically from my lack of math and science.

I went on to several excellent institutions of higher learning.

We are in a "back to basics" movement right now, exemplified by "No Child Left Behind". As teachers, we are encouraged to "teach to the tests". Our schools are being graded - more and more academic requirements are being shoved at our high school students and everyone is expected to rack up huge amounts of debt by going to college. And to get into said colleges, we are all expected to have the same, carbon copy education.

This allows for no sense of the individual, no pursuit of interests, and often little passion for learning.

In most other industrialized nations, students begin to specialize by their later high school years. It's accepted that students will lean towards either the humanities, math/sciences, the arts, or vocational training. Yes, vocational training can be a huge bugaboo when it becomes a "slot" to push various classes or races or minorities, but it doesn't have to be set up that way.

What happened to dignity for all of those who CHOOSE hands-on fields? Why should someone who loves carpentry and wants to make things and make them beautifully, fall into college debt? What is this supposed to prove?

What happened to schools without walls? Alternative ed. programs, experiential learning centers, magnet schools?

We are supposed to be a society that prides itself on individualism. In the U.S. we have a truly odd educational system - we don't have national exams, we don't subsidize our students' university educations, we don't really have much decent vocational education, we don't allow our older students to specialize (these are features which are part of virtually all other industrialized nations' educational systems).

Through our system of local school districts, we have the opportunity to think way outside the box. Why, then, are we not taking advantage of this, but instead clinging to an increasingly cardboard cut-out dumbing down?

Not everyone needs trigonometry. Not everyone needs to be able to argue the finer points of Shakespeare or Hemingway.

Everyone needs guidance to find their best calling. Everyone needs experiences to learn what will make them happiest and most competent in life.

We need to go back to more choices.


nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Amen Jen!

You know how I feel about education in the States.

We are not teaching kids how to think, only how to take a test. I went to public schools in Jersey in the 80s and they were excellent. The schools were academically rigorous but we still had music, sports, art, wood shop, home ec etc. etc. I'm sure if that system has cut back on the "extras" but I hope not.

Jen said...

It probably has cut back on a lot of the extras. Michigan has just upped the "basics" requirements for high school and also started a group of "common assessment" tests that each child has to pass after each requirement is finished. This is an absolute disaster for those who have rote memory issues, etc.

It's one thing when they do that in countries where that's long been a part of the program, because the teachers learn how to prep their students (they DON'T teach for the test until the end of the semester and then they JAM), but our teachers are ill-equipped. I'm going to be very interested to see what happens to our drop out rates as a result.

I'm very worried they're going to skyrocket.

Korie said...

Excellent post and very very true.

Tara R. said...

I would love for more schools to 'teach to the student' instead of 'teach to the test.' Not all students learn the same way, and the sort of alterntive schools you advocate would meet the needs of these students more effectively.

[via BlogBurst for Education]

Unknown said...

My younger brother who is pursuing his Ph.D. in his mid-40's signs all of his e-mails with the following:
"Where the predominant idea of student life is office and career, knowledge takes a back seat. A dedication to knowledge is something to be feared, insofar as it leads away from the path of bourgeois security." -- Walter Benjamin

I think that quote says a lot about the reasons why teachers are forced to "teach to the test", and why many of the opportunities for imaginative engagement with learning have fallen out of favor; such opportunities don't serve the immediate bottom line.

April said...

Hallelujah, amen, standing ovation!!!

I actually retained more from the one school I attended than any of the other schools where the info left my head as soon as exams were over!

Change and choices are definitely needed!

And thank you for participating, and spreading the word about BlogBlast for Education!

April said...

Um...meant to say I retained more from the school that didn't require tests.

Jen said...

Thanks, Lilac!

Tara, I couldn't agree more.

Greg, I love your brother's signature quotation.

April, thank YOU for getting this whole thing going!

Jen said...

April, I kind of figured that's what you meant, lol. ;-)

Jami said...

Wow! Thank you SO much for this post! As one whose educational background and training consists of knowing when to yell, "Do your homework now or so help me ..." I really admire you and all teachers.

Jen said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jami! I really feel that experiential education is key for so many kids.

CableGirl said...

One of the things that drove me crazy as a teacher was the concept of teaching to the test. In my opinion it does very little but kill the enthusiasm for education in students. Students get so accustomed to being spoon fed what they need to know for an exam that they don't care about the other aspects of the courses they're taking.

BTW, just so you know, I'll be expecting more posts about your other experiences... :)

Jen said...

I so agree with you, CG. It's why it breaks my heart about Michigan's new direction.

And um... yeah, I guess I'll have to talk about those at some point.

Thistlemoon said...

Jen, you are speaking to my own heart here. I swear we just had a similar conversation this weekend when we were visiting my mom and aunt. Our discussion mainly centered around debt - and how kids that go to college are usually in massive debt, just to get a job, a job that is unlikely to have an income that pays off that debt in less than a lifetime. It is sickening and strange and I think you really are bringing it full circle.

I went to an alternative college - Hampshire college and my brain really expanded there. It was a wonderful learning experience, but it did not get my a job that I could pay off my debts (not that there are many that could have). But there is definately something broken about our educational system here.

glamah16 said...

Hear, Hear.So much of what stayed with me was what I learned outside the traditional classroom. The arts and other cultures were huge for me growing up.Now with all the cuts and lack of choices I worry. It seems we just push them them through to pass and they really know nothing in the end.

Jen said...

Jenn, I can't tell you how much I agree with this. I think it's absolutely criminal that we put our young people in this never-ending cycle. I love Hampshire, btw. ;-)

Wow, Glamah, you really said it all. There are so many of us (myself included) who don't fit inside the box and in most other cultures in the world there's training beyond the traditional routes.

Anonymous said...

What the heck happened to plain ol' vo tech and shop??? Everything is all college, college, college followed by career, career, career.

I am the anti-career person. To me, "career" means 80 hours per week, no life outside of the office, always working harder and harder lest you get fired and so on.

Most of my special ed kids won't get to college. That in and of itself is okay; that problem is that they need some sort of vocational training to be able to take more "hands on" jobs. Despite visual impairments, many of my kids would be fine as plumbers, mechanics, chefs, whatever. And while everyday math would help with those types of jobs, I don't know that you need advanced trig. (Hell, I have my doctorate and I don't use advanced math!)

The other problem I have is that too many people get college degrees when college degrees aren't necessary for their jobs. When I went to college, I knew about a half dozen people who wanted to work in the radio industry as either DJs or station managers. While the college degree didn't hurt, they probably could have gone to Specs Howard and saved the $60,000+ that our private college cost.

What would help solve some of our educational problems? Smaller classes is one way to start. Special ed classes are small (we are capped at 8) and so lots of learning takes place. Of course, to do that we need $ to pay teachers--and I mean a decent, living wage. Public school teachers are paid well in Michigan, but only because of our strong unions. Charter school teachers make thousands less and private school even less than that (plus no pension fund). When I was in "teacher school", no one wanted to work at charter/private for that very reason (no disrespect intended, peeps). Basically, happy teachers + small classes = good things. I know that we have a few billion dollars that could be diverted from, oh I don't know maybe Iraq, and invested into this idea. Just a thought....

Jen said...

Oh, Patti, I'm with you 5000% on this! You could almost take the words right out of my mouth.

Anonymous said...

As the child of blue-collar families, I am quick to tell my students "there is absolutely nothing wrong with deciding college is not for you". The beauty of America is that we get to pick what we want to be...some would prefer to sit at a desk all day, others would rather die than have an indoor-job. I tell them that it doesn't matter if you live in the White House or if you drive a garbage truck -- there is no shame in putting in an honest day's work. (And then I tell 'em that if they decide to be plumbers, car mechanics, or A/C guys -- they better remember who their favorite teacher was when I show up asking for my discount!!)

Thanks for dropping by my place. Here's my response to the comment you left: Jenn: I can’t believe I forgot that one…given my experiences with Buggy. ( I hope you don’t mind that I put it in TWO spots…the administrators’ AND the teachers’ lists.

:0) Ms. H

Jen said...

I really loved your lists, Ms. H. They were soooooo on target! And I've said similar things to my students. I'm really sick of the "college only" U.S. mindset.

anno said...


I also suspect that requiring more tests (standardized, of course) and offering fewer educational options actually contributes to rising drop-out rates. Just a hunch.

Jen said...

Well, um, yeah, Anno. That's why I think it's going to have the opposite effect from what the er... idiots... reformers in Lansing are expecting.

LunaNik said...

I LOVE this post!! "Schools without walls" may very well be my new thing to preach. Great, wonderful, amazing post. Truly inspiring.

Jen said...

Thanks so much, Lunanik!

We Are Never Full said...

You have said exactly what I say all the time. I'm a school counselor and it's very difficult sometimes to help kids get to know other types of careers they could be happy and wonderful at, but it's very difficult when school is not even about helping kids get to really understand their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. I work for an inner-city school and it's even worse because these kids don't often have the support at home to help them explore these other sides (non academic) of them. i can't tell you what I would give to bring back geography, wood shop, home ec and offer VARIOUS types of art (graphic design? ceramics?).

the whole education system is so f*ed up right now. it's time to go back to the basics.

Jen said...

I'm so with you on that... the basics of life and learning, rather than whatever suddenly made endless tests and more esoteric subjects "the basics".

Goofball said...

hmm and here I was thinking the north-american school system already offered so many choices and much more flexibility. I guess you've not seen our school system yet.

Flexibility is necessary...but we must still assure a good set of base education for everyone as you can't expect everyone to make life choices already early on. catching up high school subjects later on as an adult is much harder.

Kori said...

I really loved this post, for a lot of different reasons. Especially the line about what it proving if someone CHOOSES to work with their hands, etc...I hate the idea that an alternative school is now a punishemnt, and only the kids who got kicked out of regular school can go there; for my daughter, hte life skills they are learning "over there" will serve her in better stead than she is currently getting.... yeah, this was a good one.

Momisodes said...

I couldn't agree more. We live in an area filled with Ivy league schools, and my husband (self-taught in his specialty) cannot help but notice how applicants at his company lack drive and basic knowledge for his field after graduation.

Jen said...

Goofball - are you saying that Belgium has NO differentiated curriculum - ALL your students go through college track and they all go through the same school system? That would be so different from most other European systems... Most of the other countries I've studied have "compulsory education" through 9th or 10th grade and then "Senior High" or whatever it's called is for those going on to university and it's somewhat differentiated. Is Belgium different?

Kori - the kind of alternative that my son goes to is the "old-fashioned" type of alternative high (we have the more "modern" version in our town as well). He has rigorous classes, kids who want to be there, opportunities to take courses at local colleges and universities, opportunities to take internships, etc. It's a public school and entrance was via lottery. I also agree with all your points, though.

Sandy, it's a common problem these days. Also, these graduates can't write. That's a huge mistake as far as I'm concerned. Boy, I could do a whole post on that one! Also, because your husband was self-taught, that probably indicates that he was really motivated. Voila - you have a good worker.

thailandchani said...

You are so right on all of these points that I don't have a significant comment. Honoring all paths is the most important thing and the realization that education will lead in all sorts of directions, not just the proscribed path.

Dru said...

This is a great post.

I think the education system should backtrack to the style that was in existance in the 60/70/80s. I had a great education where we had academics but we also had art, music, gymnastics and the ability to explore outside the classrooms. It was very well-rounded.

From what I see of my niece's education so far, they don't have as much.

Jen said...

Chani, thanks for your support on this. I think we probably see eye-to-eye on many subjects.

Dru, I couldn't agree with you more! I'd love to go back to a more well-rounded, more inclusive educational system.

Anonymous said...

I think that our kids are caught in a conundrum. We emphasize education and school at the expense of real life learning. We want them to have book knowledge without the experience of having to live in the real world and by that I mean, learning self-reliance, discipline, and learning from their mistakes. What I mean is that they learn so much traveling to some place where you don't speak the language (just and example off the top of my head) and that experience will help them in the classroom. Things like how to deal with stress, disappointment, time management, planning, etc.

On the other hand, while we say we value education, they are trying to learn in some of the most unpleasant conditions. Schools without adequate heating and AC, poor nutrition in school lunches, not enough teachers and not enough classrooms. Is it any wonder that they don't care about school? Our educational system tells them that even we don't care about school. It's just something so that they can get a diploma, get a job, and start paying taxes.

Taking Art, Music, and Gym out of the schools has also been disastrous. We have a bunch of obese kids with no outlet or even catalyst for creativity and imagination. We wonder why children follow the crowd instead of expressing their individuality? It's because we've shown them that creativity and imagination are less important than making sure everyone is on the same page and everyone gives the right answer. It's all very depressing.

So why do I teach? Because I think there are enough people out there who feel the same way and want to do something about it. Because I think that students want encouragement to be themselves and want a safe place to do so. Because I believe that children are the future...oh, wait, sorry, I was channeling Whitney Houston for a second and lord knows, if we are going to take music out of schools we should start with that train wreck.

Jen said...

Brava, Dingo! Again, I bet if we all tallied our own best learning experiences growing up they wouldn't have been workbooks and getting a good score on a test! I ran into an art teacher from my son's school this morning. I asked him how his summer's going and he said, "What summer?" He's personally reviewing each and every art portfolio from all of his students this year, trying to do much more with his art space, sitting on hiring committees so that people "true to the school" will actually be hired, etc.

THAT'S the kind of teachers we need. And you. And Teacher Patti. And even, moi. (yeah, I'll sing my own horn a little).

If teaching isn't truly your calling, you probably shouldn't be there.

Thanks for the GREAT comments!

painted maypole said...

you always write so well about education, and have been a great encourager for me in my education woes with MQ. Thank you.

Jen said...

Thanks for the kind words,PM. Clearly, education is something I feel passionately about.

Meg said...

Wonderful post! I'm totally with you!! And I'm living proof that a person can make it without math and spelling skills!!

However, I do think that most kids with a "surburbish background" will succeed in school and perhaps find a way to pursue their interests outside of school.

What I worry about, is the kids in the "urban" areas. Kids from economically disadvantaged homes--often raised by a single parent or grandmother. Kids who, even in 8th grade, think when you measure with a ruler, you start at the 1". Or that the US encompasses one whole globe and that Iraq is on another globe.

I don't see any educational reforms working in those schools in isolation from reforms within the the larger society.

And we are such a "consumer-driven, immediate gratification" society, that I worry about the suburban kids, too.

WWBD?? What would Barak do?

OK. Must do vacation laundry now.

Jen said...

Thanks for the comments, Meg! I used to think suburbish kids would succeed, but the more "reforms" (ie. testing criteria) they impose, the less that seems likely - look at all the boys especially in their early 20s who are just drifting and lost and have racked up enormous debt!

Having said that, at least they started off with many advantages, and needless to say, I'm more worried about those students in our underserved schools.

I just feel strongly that we need more educational models, environments, etc. The Coalition for Essential Schools was starting some truly promising work, and No Child Left Behind crumbled most of it, for example.

Laski said...

I am so about this post!!! I live in an area that is so limited--academically, culturally . . . you name it. My previous school is doing away with nearly all electives. No photography. No digital arts. No cooking/baking classes. Limiting art and music. What is happening???? NCLB is so frustrating. I get the motivation, but I firmly believe there must be a different way of accomplishing the goals.

As for "having a set of parents who pushed me to try new things and who made travel a part of our existence no matter what our other financial obligations were"--this is who I want to be for J. Desperately . . .

BTW, from southeastern MI originally. Attended an anatomy camp at UofM(back when I thought I might be a DR instead of an English teacher). Loved Ann Arbor . . .

Jen said...

Laskigal - thanks for your thoughtful comments! I'm seeing so many good electives being pushed out - all the things you are describing. I agree, while the goals of NCLB might be good, they sure need to think of other ways to approach those goals.