Opinion
Education Opinion

What Are We Waiting For?

By Susan Graham — June 02, 2009 3 min read

My 8th graders are driving me nuts right now.

I ride an early bus, can I come in early to work before school?” “No, I have a leadership team meeting.” “Then can I come in during 7th period?” “I’m teaching 6th graders during 7th, and besides, you have a class then, remember?” “Well, then can I stay after school?”

We are finishing sewing projects and most of my kids (and by the way, just over half of them are boys) hustle into the room to get started and have to be reminded several times when it’s time to stop and clean up. While it might not be typical of a middle school classroom at the end of the school year, it’s pretty common in the Exploratory (formerly known as elective) wing of our school.

Let me tell you a little about what’s going on around me. This week, my teaching partner’s class is making pizza from scratch. They are applying concepts of asexual reproductive biology, and observing the impact of the Columbian Exchange on European dietary choices. In the art room kids are finishing up paper mache masks, but they are also writing about what their masks convey about themselves and talking about how images factor into myth, superstition, religion and power. Over in the Computer Applications room, students are busily working out how to use a new application as they build story lines and write dialog using a cartooning program.

Technology Systems classes got a little rowdy last week, but that’s to be expected when 8th graders are testing their hovercraft--floating down the hall in a chair mounted on a piece of paneling, levitated by an electric leaf blower, and steered with a small fan. The noise is more structured down in Chorus, Strings and Band as they read a little Italian and use fractions to the level of automaticity, while putting wave theory into practice. Physics, biology, geography, history, math, creative writing, and foreign language are all being used. Students are involved, engaged, and invested in the application of academic concepts, but none of them are in an official academic class.

That’s why, when Public School Insights asked four real live teachers “What would you do with the stimulus money?” I suggested organizing middle school academics around students’ elective class choices. This is not a new idea at the high school level. We have Career Academies and High Schools That Work, but I fear that they may be too little too late. Researchers are confirming what teachers have been observing for years---the decision to drop out is usually made during the middle school years. For many of our children, the teachable moment has passed before they can access high school programs that are organized around the interests, skills, and innate abilities of so many of our students. They have disconnected with what school is offering.

I am substituting students for parents in this recent observation by Larry Ferlazzo

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines involvement as “to enfold or envelop.” It defines engagement as “to interlock with; to mesh.” ….When schools involve [students] they are leading with their institutional self-interest and desires…..When schools engage [students] they are leading with the [students’] self-interests (their wants and dreams).

Engagement crops up in education conversation frequently these days. We want to engage everyone--students, parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers. Involvement is primarily an attempt to sell what we’ve got to offer by getting the client to buy into what the education process is currently willing to put on the table. Engagement markets education, repackaging our education product to align with the client’s needs and wants. But engagement still comes with an agenda because the school is still doing the leading and the engagement tends to serve school purposes.

Stephen Hurley, writing about his school’s art-based curriculum for Edutopia says

When we talk about engagement, we are often referring to what we do as teachers to affect a positive learning environment.

Hurley wants to take that engagement a step further. As students engage, interlocking and meshing with what is happening in the classroom, the focus shifts to the learners’ perspective. But the inference is that responsibility for that interlocking -- and the purpose for which the meshing occurs -- still lies with the teacher, the hub around which the engagement takes place.

To speak of investment, however, is to speak of something that is more related to how a student responds to a task. When students are invested in the work they are doing, they become -- quite literally -- wrapped up in the design, implementation, and outcome of the task. It's quite a visceral response, one that may begin with engagement but becomes richly personal. When students are invested in a particular piece of work, it becomes something that matters to them.

I invite you to return to our Exploratory hall where most of our students are involved, engaged, and invested. Why? These kids have gone one level further. They are empowered. They chose their elective classes and they go home talking about what they did in their elective classes because, within a structured framework, they are in charge. They make the connection between informational concepts as they create tangible products. They seek information, apply what they find out, and retain what they learn during these classes because they are meeting their instinctive human need to produce something of value.

I fear that we spend far too much time and energy trying to teach young adolescents what we want them to know. What would happen if, instead, we framed school in terms of what they want to know? The other day I read an ASCD editorial on high school redesign by Gene Carter that addressed the question, “Is it good for the kids?” He said,

ASCD supports high school redesign that includes a rich and rigorous curriculum, meaningful and relevant learning experiences, and relationships with caring adults who know students well.

My question: Why wait until high school?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.