Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why School?

With a luxuriously long break, I wasn't quite ready to go back on Monday. But once I was standing in my classroom, I realized how much I had missed my students.

But goodness are they tired. Nearly every high schooler has a story about how they stayed up until two or three in the morning before sleeping until noon or later. Their behavior has also been great so far this week. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that they've been able to sleep on a cycle that is much more beneficial to the teenaged body's wiring.

The school at which I work is fairly progressive and starts comparatively early, but many schools start buses as early as 5:45 a.m. All of this thinking about student health, sleep schedules, and what could be done about that made me think about something larger: Who is school for?

At the beginning of every term, we free write about school. I ask students why they come to school and would they come if it weren't a legal requirement to do so. The answers surprise me. Many don't realize that compulsory attendance laws exist. Most often, I hear that a student would come two or three days a week to check in and see friends. Most surprising, however, is the answer "Of course I would come to school! You need an education to get anywhere in life, duh. And you are a crazy teacher lady for even asking this question. Plus, my mom would probably make me."

I'm not surprised that students think this way. I surprised at the diversity of students providing that answer. All my students, at some point in the day (though not all points), want to learn. They want to be better. They want to know things. But I'm not sure society knows what we want to teach them.

I want to teach my students to be curious and excited about learning. I also want to teach them skills that will make them critical consumers. I don't know if I'm trying to make them good workers, but I want them to find jobs that they are passionate about and able to obtain and keep.

Is this why we invest billions of dollars in education every year? And if it is, why are we not sending more students to college (who can complete the coursework)? Why is youth unemployment so high? I try to stay away from the hand-wringing about how our schools are failing our kids. I think there are successes across the country every day, but if the acrimony in our public sphere continues to exist, I do have to wonder just what we're teaching future citizens.

I think school as an institution needs some direction. We need to let kids know why they come to school every day. We need to not take for granted that they would like to learn to read, write, and arrange blocks. We need to start early on letting kids know why society has decided to compel them to go to school for several hours, five days a week, nine months a year, for thirteen years. Then, they just might stick around. And they might learn something.

I know there's a lot of history regarding immigrant assimilation and child labor laws that led to our current system. So, my question isn't why do we have school. Why should we have school? What do you think?