Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Add This to Your Reform Wish List

On a recent fall Wednesday morning I found myself on the deck of an almost completed cabin overlooking the mist coming off the Hocking River. Two teachers, three fathers, sixteen students, and I had gathered for the once-weekly ‘show and tell’ session in our junior/senior Advisories -- this time at the cabin three seniors had designed and built for their senior project.

The cabin is ‘off the grid’. It has solar power, a composting toilet, water caught from the roof, and a wood burning stove. It is, in the best sense, sustainable. The three seniors had done all the research on the building techniques, worked with local carpenters and solar installers to learn what they needed to know, and had built the cabin from the ground up.

This morning we had gathered to hear about their work. We also sat in a circle to listen to one student play Wildwood Flower, on the banjo, see the sketches for another’s ceramic project, and go over the fitness plans another was designing for four participants in an experiment in weight loss and exercise.

What a complete joy.

Here were young people being given the freedom to manage their own learning, challenged to find someone who could guide or mentor them in that effort, and presenting a finished product to their peers and community. School, at its finest. And if I only had a picture of the pride on the parents’ faces as they watched their boys present their work!

I used to be puzzled by why more schools do not have a senior project or similar requirement. Given that when these same young people graduate in just 7 months they will never again experience anything like ‘school’, it would only make sense to do things to prepare them for the world after school.

Think about it. Never again will they find themselves in the cocoon of the school. Where someone makes sure they are fed, decides what they are to learn and how fast, where if they do not show up for class someone goes looking for them, and makes sure they have a ride to school and a meal at lunch time. I guess the military is the closest thing to school that I can think of, and even that experience, as it tries to take away individuality, runs counter to the school’s dual charge of developing individual talents while simultaneously inducting newcomers into a culture.

It is no wonder that so many kids drop out of college or find themselves adrift in the job market after school. More importantly, how few of them engage themselves in the civic life of our neighborhoods or communities. They just are not ready for it.

For all the yammering on about schools helping kids be ‘college and career ready’ not a single reform plan put out by any legislator or foundation addresses this issue in an honest way. Come on, be real, what gets us ready for life after school is not calculus or the intricacies of the War of 1812. That may help. But what really matters is the ability to be resilient, to find one’s own way to learn, to be able to take on individual and group challenges, and to know how to learn.

Of course, you are not going to find that in the new revisions of ESEA or in the current mantra of tying teacher evaluations to test scores. And, I am afraid, when we hit the next decade and I am retired we will still be reading stories about the need for change in our schools.

But if we want to make a difference in the lives of our children, it is time to stop tinkering around the edges. We just keep on demanding another test, or more content, or new teacher evaluations when the answer is not there.

Instead, we could, right now, just change what it means to be a school graduate. We could ask each school, in its own way, to demonstrate that all of their graduates are proficient in the ability to learn, that they can manage their lives, that they are engaged in their communities. In fact, many vocational schools, like ACE in Albuquerque, NM, do that now. And so do many of the schools, such as The Met in Providence, RI, and the many schools associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools founded by the late Ted Sizer and which meets this week in its annual Fall Forum.

I would not have every school require a Senior Project like we do at Federal Hocking. But I would provide every school with the options and supports to build a program that faces the future rather than our past.

In the meantime, I am still savoring the mellow banjo notes floating over the smells of bacon, eggs, and coffee and the smiles on the faces of young people celebrating the accomplishments of their peers.

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