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Senior Year: A Teenage Wasteland

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In 2001, the U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called the high school senior year a “wasteland.” In 2005, researchers Martha McCarthy and George D. Kuh studied data from the national High School Survey of Student Engagement and concluded that the majority of high school students were not challenged during their senior year in reading, writing, or math.

To many of us who work with high school seniors, these findings ring true. They best apply to the wide swath of "average" students who travel the featureless landscape called senior year.

As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

A Full, But Empty Schedule

I stumbled onto the wasteland during a conversation with Mike*, a quiet senior who napped daily in the study hall we shared. Our chat revealed his surprising schedule. He needed only English and government to graduate, having attained the remaining necessary credits for a diploma by the end of his junior year. So he cast about to fill the required seven periods. (All seniors are required to carry a full load—one system’s half-hearted attempt to assure the public that the senior year is meaningful.)

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Mike ended up with this alternating-day schedule:

Day One: strength training, competitive team sports, outdoor education, and a period as a physical education aide.

Day Two: English, art, government, and a repeat as a physical education aide.

Though art and physical education are important electives, Mike admitted his choices had little to do with academic enrichment and everything to do with meeting the demands of the system. In all practicality, he chose classes that required little effort so he could coast through senior year without damaging his GPA.

The Mikes

For four years I have taught seniors exclusively. But, I rarely see the Mikes. I teach two sections of AP English and two of general English. The top-tier students are overscheduled and highly motivated. Typically, the Advanced Placement course is one of several high-end classes where teachers compete for students’ time with an array of outside activities.

My general English courses are comprised of strugglers whose tenacity has kept them in school. These kids have overcome the at-risk labels and made it to their celebratory senior year. Most are remediated during the year in order to pass the tests that threaten their graduation.

This leaves the vast middle group, the average students who have played the 12-year game diligently and are ready to move on. These are the students who slip through our fingers. These are the students who spend their senior year jumping through educational hoops that waste both time and talent. These are the Mikes.

Recognizing that these students are on the cusp of adulthood plays no part in the senior year equation. Outside of school, their part-time jobs reflect an emerging sense of self and responsibility. Many pair an after-school job with an in-school experience that requires them to ask permission to use the restroom. It’s a laughable contrast really, except that students have played the game so long even they don’t see the irony. And we have lost the opportunity to mentor our youth into adulthood.

A Solution

At the very least, senior year should include dual-enrollment courses that result in community college credit. The required government course should include a strong service-learning component where students can identify and solve local governing issues. I am dismayed year in and year out when students tell me that government—probably the most important course they will ever take if they are to contribute to a democracy—holds no meaning for them.

I would go a large step further and treat the senior year as a unique capstone experience. By eliminating strict scheduling, a team of teachers and counselors could shepherd seniors through a meaningful transition. Students could work with teachers to design a schedule that would include coursework, apprenticeships, and community activities. Seniors could also accept ownership in the school community by participating in tutoring, student courts, in-house television and radio programs, designing and writing school publications, maintaining websites, or even helping interview prospective teachers. In short, let kids test the waters. Let them make decisions in close mentorship with adults.

Graduation could stretch from the end of annual underclassman testing until the triumphant day of the actual walk. The year could conclude with senior-led forums displaying the practical application of all the “stuff” these soon-to-be graduates have learned over the years. Imagine the students presenting the products of their hard work—art projects, business plans, speeches, journals, and even blogs—to their schools, communities, and families.

Rather than sigh with relief after dragging another mostly bored cohort through their senior year, we could celebrate sending these engaged, productive citizens into the world.

*This name has been changed to protect the student’s identity.

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