School & District Management Opinion

What Students Need in the Restructured High School

By Lynn M. Hoffman — October 16, 2002 11 min read
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What are adolescents seeking to accomplish in high school? Yearbooks offer hints.

There’s a cartoon I use in my classes these days that speaks to the apparent disconnect between adult and student purposes for school. The eager parent quizzes her teenage daughter about her first day back to high school. The daughter proceeds to describe the latest developments in the dating status and changed physical appearance of her friends. When the mother asks specifically about her daughter’s academic subjects, the girl uses her classes to situate the times during the school day when she first observed these social developments in her peers. In my work as a middle and high school teacher and principal, I often marveled at the enthusiasm and dedication that teachers displayed as they immersed students in academic content. Over the years, I have been privileged to observe truly creative, engaging lessons developed by colleagues and now student-teachers, and sometimes, as a teacher, managed to design such lessons of my own. In my hundreds of middle and high school classroom observations, announced and unexpected, I have seen my share of engaged, enthusiastic students intent on mastering academic content. But more often than not, I have observed students, even the many academically able ones, as only peripherally engaged in the learning process, if not sleeping, writing notes or doodling, grooming themselves, whispering with others about anything but the topic at hand, or simply staring into space.

My puzzlement about this discrepancy between the adult emphasis on academics and the often-apparent different agenda of the students they serve increased as I watched my own two children navigate high school. Lengthy, gossipy letters, obviously passed back and forth between my daughter and her friends during class and adroitly folded into those little packages that only teenage girls can create, tumbled out of a backpack with my daughter’s Advanced Placement English notes. Endless, multiple phone calls solidified plans for summer meetings of the yearbook staff, but never occurred as a way to untangle geometry or calculus homework problems. A day off that might have been used for sleeping late, shopping, or catching up on favorite soaps was spent with other members of the student government association painting all the school’s exterior doors purple, the school color.

How did an adolescent who could not remember to make her bed or feed the fish manage to remember the birthdays of all the friends she sat with every day at lunch, providing each with a home-baked and decorated cake on the appointed days, even as she forgot her Spanish homework? How did a boy who regularly accumulated four “lates per quarter” (the legal limit before detention) during his four years of high school and routinely slept past noon on weekends, cheerfully get up without fuss or reminders to be at work by 8 a.m. on Saturdays at the local mini-mart?

Why did my children invest so much more of themselves in sports, part-time jobs, and extracurricular work than they did in their academic subjects? Why, even today, do my children recall their friends, sports participation, the organization of schoolwide events as the most important components of their high school careers?

For the last several years, I have been trying to understand what high school is for, from the perspective of students themselves. My quest has taken me to high school yearbook classes as I talk with students about their perceptions of what is important about school, and analyze their yearbooks for clues of what it is about high school that matters most to them. Curious? Read on.

After poring over hours of transcripts of conversations with hundreds of high school yearbook students, often among the most engaged, invested, and academically talented in their schools, I am finding that students uniformly invest their time, energy, and attention in activities that enhance their ability to get along with others, get involved, and be independent. Heewon Chang described these elements of an adolescent “ethos” in 1992 in Adolescent Life and Ethos: An Ethnography of a U.S. High School, her study of students in a small rural high school in Oregon. As I travel to high schools in different states, of varying socioeconomic levels, and in suburban and rural areas, I am finding that Ms. Chang’s concept of an adolescent ethos and the elements it comprises hold true for high school students everywhere I look.

Getting Along With Others. Students care deeply about their friends and the acquaintances that make up the age group with whom they attend school. They revel in their relationships with close friends whom they see each day, talk to on the phone at night, and spend time with on weekends. School acquaintances matter, too—the students who sit around them in geometry class, or always meet them at the same table at lunch, or even the ones they routinely see in the halls as they pass from one class to another during the school day. Friends that adolescents make through school activities are often especially cherished; sports team, yearbook, band, and chorus buddies are bound together by several years of shared history, experiences, and mutual interests.

I am finding that students uniformly invest their time, energy, and attention in activities that enhance their ability to get along with others, get involved, and be independent.

High school students work hard at getting along with one another. They struggle with decisions in student government and learn to come to a consensus as they choose homecoming themes or how to plan and execute the weeklong events that precede it. They decide how to raise and spend class funds. Yearbook and newspaper students argue over what is covered and how events should be portrayed. Each page represents a variety of decisions over form and substance that have sparked disagreement and been resolved.

Students describe part-time jobs as opportunities to hone their human- relations skills. They recognize that these entry-level jobs force them to interact successfully with a wider array of people and personalities than they experience in school. Part-time waiters and waitresses, sales clerks, and nursing-home attendants note that their jobs present constant opportunities to build their relationship skills. As these high school students have explained to me, by way of the captivating stories they tell about their work experiences, working builds one’s capacity to develop patience, to learn to respond courteously in the face of rudeness, to be more outgoing with strangers, and to control a quick temper.

Being Involved. Students regularly describe stressful schedules that are a jumble of classes, multiple commitments, and obligations generated from participation in clubs, sports, student government, and private lessons for everything from dance to karate, in addition to religion-based and community activities. More than half the students I have interviewed held part-time jobs, and described devoting from five to 20 or more hours per week to them. Homework is sandwiched in last, after club meetings, practice, and work, often occupying students long after their parents and siblings have gone to bed. School activities spill over into nights and weekends during the school year and into the summer. Band and cheerleader camp, early football practice and conditioning, and organizational meetings for the yearbook are summertime activities. Students routinely describe working on their yearbooks late at night, on snow days, and on vacation days to meet deadlines. In one school, several section managers described a needed “all- nighter” to get their book out on schedule. I know of few adults who could manage successfully or for any length of time the frenetic schedules described by the yearbook students I have interviewed.

Being Independent. Students in every school I have visited have equated “being responsible” with being grown-up. Students crave the freedom and independence that comes with obtaining a driver’s license and having a car to drive. Working and earning their own money provides students with an incredible sense of independence. Experiencing the death of a classmate due to accident, illness, or suicide and participating in the accompanying rituals and religious services also catapult adolescents into the world of adulthood. Making plans for life after high school that extend, as one senior noted, beyond what she planned to do next weekend, encourages students to feel more adult. Visiting colleges and receiving mail about them addressed to students by name are also mentioned as markers of independence.

Sadly, students I have interviewed post-Columbine have mentioned that enduring bomb scares and isolated student attacks also fast-forward their feelings of being grown-up. Surprisingly, students also mention that successfully coping with extensive school construction projects and their accompanying inconveniences, such as reduced or eliminated parking, cramped spaces, and the loss of relied-upon soda machines makes them feel more adult. Students I have met explain that earning the trust of adults makes them feel grown-up, either at school or on the job.

Students demonstrate an awareness of high school as a four-year, rite-of- passage experience, an observation first made by Jacquetta Burnett in her ethnographic study of a rural high school in 1969. In their yearbooks, students lyrically and nostalgically describe how they entered high school as nervous, overwhelmed, frequently lost freshmen, gaining assurance and security as they moved through their sophomore and junior years. Annual homecoming festivities and other traditional activities such as proms and “ring day” mark their passage from one year to the next.

Curiously, I can identify no academic rites of passage involving all students built into the high school program, except perhaps the graduation ceremony that signals students’ completion of high school requirements. Selected students who participate in the National Honor Society induction ceremony have noted its almost magical quality and importance to them, and they have documented the induction in their yearbooks. Where are our rites of passage centered on academic achievement?

As someone who has spent most of her career trying to support and encourage students’ academic learning, I am struck again and again by the lack of spontaneous discussion students generate about the role of academics in their high school lives. Inevitably, I am the one who introduces the topic. Overall, students do not associate academic engagement or performance with anything they describe as meaningful or memorable for them during their high school experience. Academics are described as boring, routine, and necessary primarily for inclusion on transcripts for college.

In several yearbooks I have studied, an academic section is actually omitted from the book; in others, it receives scant coverage in relation to other sections. In two yearbooks that contained relatively extensive coverage of the school’s academic program, yearbook staff members made it clear that the section was created because their advisers had decreed it. Even students in these schools expressed reluctance to squander precious, expensive pages on a section that they believed other students would find unimportant. Most students tried to avoid working on the section because it was, as they said, “Boring!”

Students have mentioned a few academic programs that capture their interest and attention. High school yearbook students in several schools have said that they found their Advanced Placement classes, particularly in English and in social studies, intellectually stimulating and engaging. At a rural school in Pennsylvania, students described their senior projects, an inconsistently interpreted state requirement, as positively as their yearbook class and extracurricular activities. In this school, seniors begin early in their high school programs to meet with faculty advisers to plan their projects. Extensive reading and research are expected, and many students design projects with a community-service component that seems to make them especially engaging. Finally, students must present their projects, complete with written descriptions and summaries, evidence of research, and visuals, to a team of faculty members who judge the projects’ merits and question the students about their work. A senior told me that the panel presentation was the best part of the process, because he “got to teach the teachers” about something he knew more about than they did.

My research tells me that in high school, adolescents are primarily engaged in the work of growing up.

Students speak positively about their yearbook experiences and explain why yearbook classes are more meaningful to them than their academic ones. Descriptions of the benefits of their involvement in the production of their yearbooks mirror adolescents’ descriptions of the benefits of extracurricular involvement in general. They value the opportunity to make good friends, to ensure the quality of the book through their effort and involvement, and to enjoy the sense of responsibility they feel to fellow yearbook staffers and those who eventually will read the book. Students express feelings of pride and a sense of accomplishment in completing their yearbooks, and recognize that they develop design, publishing, writing, and computer skills as a result of their involvement.

Many of these students draw comparisons between the yearbook class or club and other classes in their schedule. They value their yearbook classes because they produce a real product, they expend extensive out-of-class time and effort that is clearly necessary and expected, and they determine their own day-to-day work activities and manage their own workflow within the parameters of given deadlines. Finally, these adolescents recognize that others, including fellow staff members, their adviser, and students who have purchased a yearbook, are depending on them to complete their work correctly and on time; the very visible yearbook is dependent upon their efforts.

What are adolescents seeking to accomplish in high school? My research tells me that they are primarily engaged in the work of growing up. They value experiences that encourage and support their efforts to be involved, to get along with everyone, and to develop independence. If these essential “adolescent ethos” elements were recognized as the centerpiece of the high school program, rather than elements to ignore, suppress, or work around, how might high school be?

Lynn M. Hoffman is an assistant professor of education at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

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