I've been thinking a great deal about high school lately. My 30th reunion is coming up this summer, which is bringing me back to my wonderful (read the sarcasm here) days. And my daughter is finishing up her second year, hating every minute. I've spoken to lots of people about their high school experience, read books, seen videos, and have come to the conclusion that high school isn't good for anyone. So I figured I would lay out my thinking here, in the hopes that some of you high school teachers can prove me wrong. Or maybe rethink things a bit.
Puberty and High School
The first problem I have with high school, and probably the biggest, is the fact that high school comes at a time when our brains tell us that the only thing that matters is that we fit in. And there is no way to fit in. We are too fat, too skinny, too big a butt, no butt, wearing the wrong clothes, carrying the wrong bag, having multiple bad hair days. And all of this is going on while we desperately want to be attractive to the opposite sex.
What does high school do to help with this? First, a rank is set up. Did you make honor roll? Highest honors? What is your ranking in your class? Did you make it into AP classes? Are you taking the classes for the "dumb" kids (those would be the hands-on classes - we'll talk later)?
Next, high school sets up clubs, run by high school students. Try to join a club and you have just joined a clique. The students running the club decide who does what, by popularity, not skill. Try out for a music night and get in or not, depending on your relationship with the students running the club. Join a business club and get to run the school store only if you are friends with the leader of the club. Even community help clubs...choices are work the car wash on Saturday with all the kids, or make posters to hang up on the walls. Who decides? The students running the clubs.
The Ranking System
Apparently, the purpose for high school is to pass tests to get out of high school. AP exams, regents exams, finals, mid-terms. And the purpose of the classes is to prepare for the tests. You can see my previous blog about this here. So let's take students whose sole purpose in life is to be social and tell them that all they should be worried about is how they compare on the tests to everyone else in the class, district, county, state, country. Yeah, that works. Oh, and let's put all the tests in the same week. Add more stress to their already stressed lives. I know children who come home hysterical because they didn't get the top score in class. I hear about children having anxiety attacks during testing week. I watch my own daughter study, call friends for help, cry, and stress out before each exam.
And classes are ranked, too. AP classes are at the top. Only the best and brightest survive those. Next is regents classes. These are also for top students but available and manageable by many. Then we have those "other" classes. These are the hands-on classes many kids want to take but can only take as electives. Shop class, cooking, art classes, sewing, music, etc. These are often not available to those AP students. No time. So the classes tend to be filled by students not able to make it in AP classes. Hence, the term..the "dummy" classes. Everyone wants to take them but most students avoid them if they can. And last, in our area, is BOCES. BOCES is a program for children who cannot make it in school at all. They go there to learn a trade...car mechanic, hair stylist, cook, etc. They take academic classes in between attending these hands-on classes. All of it happens off campus. I have never met a child who has gone through BOCES and said they hated it. They all love the program. But it does have a stigma attached.
The Teacher/Student Connection
In elementary school, we spend lots of time trying to connect with our students. We help them get through projects, we plan tests carefully around each other, being sure not to schedule too many at one time (mandated state tests are the exception). We help them study. We give them breaks. And we notice when a child comes in unhappy and talk about why. We talk to them before the day begins, while they're packing up, while they're in small groups, while walking down the hall. We talk and we connect. We know about siblings and grandparents, outside sports and musical awards, new births and deaths in the family.
Move to middle school and those connections start to waiver. It seems to me that middle school teachers walk a fine line between wanting that connection and not having time to make the connection. But they try.
Get to high school and it doesn't even seem to be a concern anymore. A student can go through high school not connected to any adult. Move to class, sit in your seat, don't talk, don't volunteer any answers or any information, move to the next class. See your guidance counselor only when you are told to and then, keep quiet, offering nothing of importance. Just make sure you do well in class or they might start get interested in you, even if it is only to put you in those "other" classes.
What does this mean? The artistic child is never recognized for his gifts. The slow processor goes home each night to work 3-5 hours more just to keep up. The depressed child just gets more depressed knowing she has no one to reach out to. The social child leads and follows her friends, doing just enough in class to get by. The child whose parents are divorcing, brother just died in a car accident, grandparent moving in, family having financial difficulties...that child is lost. Who can focus on school when life at home is falling apart?
Who does belong in high school?
I'm not sure this question has an answer. I think that the popular kids enjoy high school the most. They have each other, although sometimes at a great cost. I think the children of "Tiger Moms" do well in school simply because they have no choice. I think that's it. Stoners get stoned on school property and no one notices. Geeky kids get bullied daily and no one notices. Girls get pregnant. Boys deny it's theirs. Each year there is at least one major weekend incident with a group of kids getting massively drunk and destroying someone's house or wrecking a car.
Why are these children behaving this way? Would they if they had better connections to adults in their lives? I don't know the answer. I just know I have to help my own child. So, thanks to a conversation with Gary Stager, my daughter is graduating early. Next year will be her last in high school. She will receive a regents honors diploma which should put her in good standing to get into the college of her choice. She will not be taking any more AP classes. She will finish up her classes while spending half the day at BOCES in a photography program (the class for dummies). I don't care that she is going to BOCES. It has a fabulous photography program, complete with graphic arts. She visited the school for a day and fell in love. I am determined to make her final year manageable any way I can. Then off to college, which she dreams about.
So what do you think? Do I have it all wrong? High school teachers, fill me in on the reality as you see it. Those of you who loved high school, tell me why. Or maybe, let's start to redesign the schools so more students fit in. Maybe design more like BOCES. What should we do about high school?
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