How I Resolved NOT To Make My High School Classes A Waste of Students’ Time

We, as educators, hold this truth to be self-evident: The subject that each of us teaches is the single most important one to the futures of our students.

However, when I was a measly little kid plowing my way through K-12, it always struck me that no one ever bothered to explain why I was spending countless hours learning what I was learning. “Was I really ever going to be trapped on a train speeding headlong toward another at a combined 195.6 miles per hour from a starting point 112.7 miles apart and need to accurately calculate the precise instant of my own certain demise?”

I felt the same way about certain books I was expected to read, information I was expected to memorize, and arcane topics that seemed incredibly distant from the needs of my daily life and expected future. Was there a point or a plan to all of this, or was it all just a bunch of stuff I had to learn for reasons that were never revealed to me?

The educational utility of our subject material is worth considering if we want to be effective teachers, and it seems reasonable to be able to articulate the purpose of our lessons to our students if we expect them to listen and learn. This conversation is especially important when teaching at-risk students who have not previously connected with what you are presenting; as an example, I offer the following list (tweaked a bit over the years) that I use to start discussion at the beginning of my developmental/remedial composition classes each semester:

Three Reasons Good Writing Is an Important Skill to Learn

  1. People will judge you on how well you write for the rest of your life
  2. All professional, managerial, and supervisory jobs require you to write on a consistent basis, and your business success is often directly tied to how well you write.
  3. In our interconnected world, email and other computer correspondence allow you to advertise your ability to a global audience; on the other hand, bad writing is an incredibly effective worldwide announcement of your incompetence.

Of course, we also gain a great deal more when we learn to write well. We learn to evaluate sources, weigh contrasting perspectives on a topic, persuade others of our viewpoints, and actively engage with the world of ideas around us, but that all comes after we master the basics of sentence structure and paragraph organization so that our thoughts are clear and intelligible to our audience.

Just as you can’t pick up a baseball bat and instantly hit home runs, so do our students need to learn the fundamental mechanics of good writing before they can “swing for the fences” with their own work.

This said, there is a fairly broad range of instructional techniques and course materials we might use—I have taught composition skills using everything from creative writing to source-based analysis—and all have merit when it comes to improving our students’ ability to express themselves clearly, concisely, and with a defined purpose in mind. This “instructor discretion” allows us to tap into the needs of particular audiences of students and keeps the material fresh and interesting for both teacher and student alike.

There is, nonetheless, a larger educational and philosophical question at hand that is both simple to ask and breathtaking in its implications: Why do we teach what we teach? Is it now the time to revisit the horse and buggy age assumptions that drove changes that began with The Committee of Ten recommendations in 1893 and have resulted in the seemingly inevitable high school curriculum we use today?

I believe that—as school budgets continue to tighten around the nation due to cuts in both local tax revenue and state aid—we are going to have more and more discussions regarding the content of the public school curriculum. Just as cursive handwriting, a necessary skill in the pre-computer age, has now largely vanished from our classrooms, I suspect that a lot of what public schools have taught for many years is going to find itself under a merciless microscope.

Given the questions that are now being raised about topics as previously sacrosanct as high school algebra—not to mention what has already been excised from the curriculum in order to make it easier for more students to graduate—we are likely heading for a very intense national conversation that will involve teachers, parents, students, and legislators concerning what we teach and how we teach it.

The questions I once asked myself when I was an elementary, middle school, and high school student are those we will likely hear as difficult discussions start about what to keep and what to cut. Is this material meant to turn our children into a good citizens, entertain them, help them to lead healthy lives, provide them with marketable skills—or teach them to avoid this particular subject for the rest of their days?

When I became I teacher myself, I resolved to always explain to my students why my class was not a waste of their time, and I have always strived to avoid esoteric meanderings and focus on the most direct and functional methods of imparting essential writing skills. Nonetheless, I know I must be ready and able to clearly explain to my college students how learning to write a persuasive or a problem-solution essay might be useful for their futures, and I do not blame my students for asking—it is, after all, their time and their dime.

By the same token, we may no longer be able to assume that students—and the taxpayers footing the bills—will simply accept our seemingly immutable public school curriculum, still subdivided into a shopworn 19th century subject-area silos that may no longer make any sense to maintain.

Perhaps a long overdue conversation about what we teach and how we teach it can help us to actually accomplish what has been promised for many decades—a revolutionary rethinking of public education in order to better prepare our children for success in a fast-moving global economy.

Also published on Head in the Sand ( July 14, 2016

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