Saturday, October 25, 2014

What's a Day in the Life of a Student?

There's an interesting piece in the Washington Post about how stressful it is to be in school all day. Perhaps we don't understand or envision the lives of the kids we serve. Doubtless we all find our own classes fascinating, or we probably wouldn't be able to conduct them, but do they resonate with our kids?

It's an interesting observation that we are up and running around most of the time, and may not, therefore, understand how tough it can be to sit in place for 40 minutes, or indeed all day. Actually, I remember being bored out of my gourd for the overwhelming majority of my high school classes. Participation was not encouraged in any but one of my classes. That class was called sociology. I remember being amazed at having a teacher who elicited our ideas and appeared interested to hear them. I always recall that one kid, who was pretty much a model student, boasted of how reading was unnecessary, since the only two books he'd ever read were Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and that he'd turned out fine.

I was an avid reader in high school, but the school itself rarely asked me to read anything, let alone anything challenging. I can remember English classes in which we read Silas Marner and The Old Man and the Sea, aloud, one page at a time. These classes were pretty easy for me, since all I had to do was figure out which page the girl in front of me was on. With that info, I could read the next page aloud and then tune out for the rest of the class. It was a great gig for the English teacher, who could just sit on her ass for weeks as this nonsense went on.

I also recall studying biology, which NY State now calls living environment. I had a bearded teacher in a white lab coat. He would place a transparency he'd prepared on an opaque projector, and we would copy notes every single day. He would stand in front of the room stroking his beard and occasionally ask, "Is everyone finished copying?" When everyone finally finished, he would change the page. I spent the entire year looking longingly at the girl to my right, who sadly had a college boyfriend. I spent a week in June cramming from a red Baron's Regents book, barely passed the exam, and never studied science again.

When I finally made it to college, I found that my sociology teacher's style of actual discussion was pretty popular. The good student that had been hibernating within all those years woke up, and I had teachers who actually encouraged me as a writer and a person. Almost no teacher I had before college had done that.

I'm happy to say I know not a single teacher as stultifyingly tedious as those I encountered in high school. But I think it would probably benefit all of us to try the experiment of sitting for a day or two in a student's shoes. A former principal of mine had us go to PD like that one day, but I'm not sure that was sufficient. For one thing, most of us expect PD to be stupefying, and reports I hear from people who sit through endless PD on Mondays and Tuesdays seem to confirm that.

Perhaps instead of terrorizing us with high-stakes observations and dismissal based on test scores, we ought to be given a couple of days to shadow students and do their work. This real-life process would give us insights into who are students are and what they go through, and would allow us to adjust our own practices to suit the needs of the kids we serve. Personally, I'd love to follow some of my beginning ESL students for a few days and learn how well equipped they are to deal with the classes they have.

But I'm just a lowly teacher, so I'm not altogether optimistic my suggestion will resonate. Only the likes of Bill Gates, Andrew Cuomo, John King, Michael Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and Barack Obama get to decide what goes on in public schools.

Doubtless that's why they all send their own kids to private schools.
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