The serious grading has begun, and the serious speed bumps are popping up in the road. Yesterday’s speed bump was an essay from Michael, whom I wrote about last week. Michael’s essay was so convoluted that it was impossible for me to grade it. (It reminded me, troublingly, of essays I received a couple of years ago from Khawar, whose saga some of you may remember, and who almost drove me to the brink.) I wrote Michael to say PLEASE COME SEE ME. And then I put my head down on the table and groaned for a while.
It’s not Michael’s fault. Michael is absolutely aware that he has problems – he wrote notes all over his paper to the tune of “I did my best but I don’t think I did good,” and messaged me immediately after the essay (I was home with a cold while a sub invigilated) to say that he was “scared about his essay.” He has every reason to be scared. He’s been pushed through the system to this point despite the fact that he has none of the tools he needs to deal with college-level writing.
It is also not the fault of any individual teacher, course, or school. Students with serious academic issues pass my courses all the time, not because they’ve mastered everything they need to master, but because they’ve worked hard and the numbers have added up. I think it’s unlikely this will happen in Michael’s case, but I’ve been surprised by this before.
School is the problem.
I’m having my first thoughts of the semester about quitting my teaching job and becoming a strident, shrieking education reformer: abolishing classrooms (particularly 40+ student/teacher ratios) and grades, completely overhauling curricula (particularly “English” studies, which I’m now fully convinced is an antiquated and unhelpful domain, at least at the level of general education), chopping big colleges up into small, focused learning “communities,” and, most importantly, focusing all of formal education on helping students learn how to learn.
Students need to be learning how their brains work. They need to be focused, not on grades and R-scores, but on becoming flexible, confident, skilled learners who can tackle challenges with brio and curiosity. They need to be prepared for a world that we can’t even envision right now, for jobs that don’t exist yet, for problems that are not even a glimmer in humanity’s collective eye. Our school system – the one we’ve almost all been through, the one that pays my salary, the one that will take a freaking revolution to dismantle – prepares them for none of these things.
I know I’m not the first to say this. I’ve watched Ken Robinson’s TED talks and RSA Animations, I’ve read reams of material on interdisciplinarity, on unschooling, on various other alternatives to the rusty, crumbling structure that is our current view of education.
The question is, why is so little happening? Why does someone like Michael, who can’t understand a simple personal narrative essay from a national newspaper, feel that going to “college” is his best/only option? He can’t do college, not as college is right now, and the best college can do for him is to try to jam him into the college mould and maybe, if he’s lucky, shuffle him through.
I would love to hear from any of you out there who are working or studying in alternative educational environments with some success. Whether you’re homeschooling your own children, or teaching at a “gradeless college,” or designing an interdisciplinary curriculum at a technical high school, or doing an internship in a hands-on work/study program, I would love to know on an intimate, anecdotal level what other models are working for teachers and students alike.
I don’t know that I can pack my bags and leave school as we know it behind. I certainly can’t do it tomorrow. But I’d like to know that there are other possibilities, because this one has overstayed its welcome.
Image by Nicolas Raymond