This post is an excerpt from An End to the Quiet War, by APT’s Matt Daly. Preview and explore by clicking the following links. 

Introduction

For the month of August, we will be publishing excerpts of Matt’s upcoming book, “An End to the Quiet War.” The book covers a wide range of issues teachers face nationally in education, both in terms of perception, as well as our ability to do our jobs effectively and ethically. At the end of the month, the book will be released on the Kindle Format. We are incredibly excited to generate discussion on these topics, and hope you enjoy the selections as they are released.  

What Matters?

A few weeks ago, we started our first process paper in my classroom. My kids had just finished their unit on Design Thinking, and I had spent an inordinate amount of time on the idea that we were not going to just “do school” this year.

I felt this was especially important for the kids because they were all 9th graders, and new to the school.  To be able to capture their minds during this transition year would be one way to reduce the stress that the juniors and seniors in the building become almost crippled by over the course of their high school experience.

The first aspect of the paper is to come up with a worthy topic, something that is of interest to them, and that they would be excited to do well.

I have the students fill out an interest inventory as a way of preparing for this, and then I introduce the options they have for their papers.

The students must determine what type of paper they will write, and what the topic will be.

For many of my honors students especially, the conferences that we had regarding acceptable or worthy paper topics were incredibly difficult.

When they are struggling for ideas, I typically reset the conversation, and ask a fairly simple question.

“What are you interested in, what matters to you?”

The blank stares I was recieving could only mean a couple of things, but the most immediate and consistent thought I had during these exchanges, was that no one was asking these kids those questions in the school environment.

One girl was almost in tears during the conversation because I would not simply assign her a topic.

Something is going terribly wrong when these are the questions that stun and frighten our children.

When school becomes simply a series of unconnected events, tasks and trials that a student must navigate, be assessed on, lock in a grade, and move on, they begin to develop what is commonly referred to as an Episodic View of Reality.

An Episodic View of Reality

The structure of school reinforces this idea, with the separate classrooms, and the quarterly grades.  I can’t explain how detrimental this system is to a developing mind.

A student asked me a question in class the other day.  She was wondering if I had submitted grades yet, and if everything had been locked in.  When I told her that yes, the marking period was over, she proceeded to let me know that she had lied on one of her reading assessments, and that she hadn’t even read the book.  

I wasn’t even sure how to respond.

She had it figured out in her head that anything was permissible if you could make it through the marking period, and that once it was over, everything was set in stone.  She had almost no understanding that she had just confessed to lying and cheating to her teacher, and in front of a class of honors students no less.

I don’t believe this to be an isolated incident.  I truly think that the way we are teaching these students, and the environment that we provide, is creating kids who view everything around them as some type of game, and that think this type of thinking will be helpful when they eventually exit the system.

...no one was asking these kids those questions in the school environment?

Turning the Tide

In the spring of 2016, Harvard University, and a wide range of other colleges and institutions, released an incredibly important document entitled “Turning the Tide.” The study focused on the effects that the college admissions process was having on the school systems that were attempting to place students into a college.

The report begins with what I can only describe as an apology.  They acknowledge that the emphasis on creating student applications that showed a wide variety of educational and extracurricular experiences had created a trickle-down effect.

For starters, students were taking part in a ridiculous amount of activities, so many in fact that the colleges were finding it hard to believe that many of the students’ claims were even true. The size of their resumes and the number of activities students were listing created an impression that these kids were simply sprinting from club to club in a way that was most likely a fairly unhealthy situation for a high schooler.

From a school standpoint, the college admissions process had also created a trickle-down effect.  Almost every class at every high school in America is geared toward College Prep.  This has made it harder for public schools to rationalize the need for robust art and vocational programs, as the stigma of anything no deemed “college ready” seems like a waste of time.  The results of this type of thinking has real consequences when we consider how much of the school curriculum and instruction centers around a proficiency model.

In a history program at a high school one town over, the department decided that the gold standard in their subject area was the AP US History course.  They knew that the school would look better if as many kids were taking the class as seniors as possible.  This has benefits in both the state ranking of the school, but also the happiness of the parents. 

The idea was, if they used the AP class as the goal, and designed all of the courses that came before it as a way to prepare students to take the AP course, that this would improve the abilities of all students.

...Providing students with texts that they can’t comprehend does nothing to help their growth as readers."

This is exactly wrong.

One of the ways that they try to increase the “rigor” of the course is to use the textbook from the AP course in all of the lower sections of US History.  The book, a nightmare entitled “An American Pageant,” is a textbook that is written at a college level, fine for students who have elected to take an elective course offering that they know is supposed to be a college level class, for college level credit, but completely unacceptable for a sophomore taking a regular level course.

As we discussed earlier, providing students with texts that they can’t comprehend does nothing to help their growth as readers.  This also sets the teacher up as the font of information, a single person that become the only way for a student to access their success in the class.

“Turning the Tide” also contains the blueprint for moving away from the practices they decry at the start of the report. The recommendations for students and schools are that we stop placing students on an unending march through as much information as possible, but instead begin to tailor our courses to create passionate and invested individuals, that can collaborate well, solve complex and multifaceted problems that have no single correct answer, and are highly invested in a specific group of subjects.

They want students to have similar experiences outside of school, where they take up the mantle of a few clubs or activities, and are able to speak deeply on why the organizations and experiences are positive aspects of their lives.

The hope is that as the colleges begin to shift their expectations, it will have the same trickle-down effect that their current policies have had. My fear is that things have become too deeply entrenched, and that the expectations of a rapidly expanding group of schools that do not have the foresight of Harvard and its collaborators will continue to push an agenda of application strength that privileges all the wrong things, and perpetuates the dead-end comparative culture of our current high schools.

HOW ABOUT YOU?

How do we unintentionally teach students an episodic view of their world? Most importantly, how do you combat it?

About Matt

CO-FOUNDER AND CEO

Matt Daly has been teaching and coaching for over 15 years. He is an Instructional Leader, Educational Consultant, Writer, and Speaker. He holds degrees in English and Secondary Education from Providence College, an MFA in Creative Writing: Poetry, and has Supervisory Certification in Instruction. Matt lives in New Jersey with his wife, also a teacher, and his three daughters.

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