How to Make Dropping Out of School Work for You

08/02/2012

I recently spoke at the #140edu Conference in NYC on the topic in the title. This is what I said.

How many of you here graduated from high school?

#140edu stage - via digital camera

#140edu stage – via digital camera (Photo credit: NJ Tech Teacher)

How many of you liked high school?

Just as I thought. Despite the laws mandating it, despite the ominous predictions of what will happen if you leave it, not everyone should go to high school.

Let me say it again, not everyone should go to high school.

This sounds like heresy, especially coming from a teacher.

But even in a time when it seems like you need a college degree to be an auto mechanic, not everyone should go to high school.

When I dropped out of high school for the first time, yes — I’ve done it twice — dropping out was considered a sure path to economic and social failure.

Not much has changed since 1968. Dropping out of high school is still labeled a sure path to ruin. That there are students dropping out of school is still called a crisis.

It is not a crisis. It is a message.

Thinking of drop outs as a crisis leads to solutions that focus on compliance– things like raising the age at which one can leave school, or more truant officers to track down the education fugitives.

But if we look at students dropping out of schools as a message, drop outs tell us is that school sucks, that it is not reaching them, or that they feel they have no hope for success, in high school or beyond it.

They tell us that they are not being challenged enough, or not being allowed to follow their interests, or just that school doesn’t fit them: it is too big, too small, too cliquey or too dangerous.

The reasons students leave school are as differentiated as the lessons we teachers are being told to teach them.

You have heard, and will continue to hear today and tomorrow, about ways to make school better, more enticing, more encouraging, more engaging and more effective.

All that is good, but it is almost impossible for any modern high school to meet the needs of all students.

This is not for lack of intent or lack of effort. It is a result of an increasingly centrally-mandated standardized world. Now we’re all supposed to hone our lessons to the common core. Really? Does anyone really want to be common?

Instead of focusing on how to make school better or teaching better, I’m going to talk about how to make learning better.

My idea of the perfect school is one in which you can  learn what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, where you want to learn it, and how you want to learn it.

I say, do what teachers have been telling you to do for so long, take charge of your education and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

I dropped out of high school twice, and college once, because attending was interfering with my learning. I got tired of teachers calling my questions and observations distracting and disruptive. I got tired of being told what to learn and when to learn it.

I figured out that knowledge doesn’t come in neat little packages called math, science, English Language Arts or social studies. Art is not a subject, neither is music, or health.

Knowledge is a massive, ever growing, completely interconnected all enveloping mass. It is the butterfly effect writ large, where everything we learn, every insight we gain, every understanding we come to, changes EVERYTHING.

So I left.

My parents were not happy about any of it, but I had the biggest, most cultured and most diverse city in the world to explore.

I still got a great education because I asked questions, followed tangents and never stopped being curious.

The real key to making dropping out — or opting out if you prefer– is to do it soon enough. Don’t wait until you’re beaten down by the system and have lost interest and hope. Leave school while you still have curiosity, a hunger to know something, to know anything or everything, and before you have to support yourself financially. It may be after 10th grade or it may be after 8th. You will know when it is right for you.

Now you can sleep a little later, but don’t spend the day in bed, or watching cartoons or talk shows. There is a world to explore.

Today it doesn’t matter if you live in Manhattan, like I did, or in East Nowhere, the whole world is available to you.

Think of the tools you have now that didn’t exist when I dropped out. Computers, the internet, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, and more are all there to help you access the world and learn anything you want.

You don’t need a curriculum, a road map or a plan at all.

Just ask a question and seek an answer.

Then ask another question.

Listen to the answers you get. Follow tangents. Focus like a laser or wander aimlessly. Tinker. Play.

All knowledge is connected and things will all start to make sense as you note commonalities, wonder about discrepancies, make connections and develop insights.

Are you in love with baseball? Study it. You’ll learn about statistics – figuring pitcher’s earned run averages takes complex mathematics — develop strategies, learn the science of the curveball, learn about the history of race relations in America, and more. You’ll learn about why the Dominican Republic produces so many major league shortstops and why Japan doesn’t, but produces pitchers. Follow baseball as far as it will take you…then ask another question.

Do you like to knit? Study it. Learn about different kinds of wool, how they differ and where they come from, how they become shocking chartreuse or majestic magenta. Learn math as you figure out how much you’ll need to make that sweater, the physics of tensile strength.

Into dolls, dogs, drumming or debate? Are you passionate about golf, gardening, guitar, grapes or Greta Garbo? It doesn’t matter what. Take the paths   your interests and passions give you.

Greta Garbo in The Joyless Street. Alexander B...

Greta Garbo in The Joyless Street. Alexander Binder (for Atelier Binder) made the portrait during the filming. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while you’ll become an expert, an authority. You’ll wander off one path and discover another one, perhaps the secret of life, the universe and everything.

Just keep asking one more question and you will find many more answers. Each of which will lead to more questions.

Joyce Valenza calls it “a never ending search.”

Here are some things you are likely to discover:

People are eager to talk about what they do and what they know, to someone who is interested in learning.

People are eager to tell you their stories, what they think, what they feel, to someone willing to listen.

Your bullshit meter will develop and become more accurate.

You will find the joy of learning again, the joy of teaching what you learn, and you’ll rediscover the excitement of wondering.

You will learn that all answers lead to more questions, better questions, deeper questions.

Keep asking.

Keep learning.

Do all the things school doesn’t leave you the time to do and you will get a better education than any institution can give you.

Don’t worry about getting into college. Getting into a good college requires standing out from the crowd, somehow distinguishing yourself from the hundreds of thousand other high school seniors.

So while all those other kids are all taking the same classes, cramming for exams and spending every extra minute doing every imaginable community service and extra credit assignment, you’ll be having different experiences.

While they’re being told what to learn, you’ll be deciding what to learn. Their learning will be limited by the curriculum, your learning will be free-range, going as far as your curiosity takes you.

Just think of the application essay you’ll be able to write.

And somewhere in the process of writing that essay, you might begin to wonder whether you really need to go to college.
Once you start becoming a free-range learner it is almost impossible to stop. And that is the best part of it all.


Please, son, be anything else. Anything.

02/20/2012
English: teacher

Image via Wikipedia

I love my son.

He is a high school senior about to decide what college to attend. One of his criteria is which school to which he’s been accepted has the best program to prepare him for his chosen professional goal.

I very much want my son to be happy in his work because if he is it will not seem like work.

He wants to be a high school English teacher.

I am trying very hard to talk him out of it.

My son loves to read and read at a high school level in fifth grade.

His current English teacher has him co-teaching a couple of lessons in the class. No other student is doing that.

Another of his HS English teachers told my wife and me “the greatest gift I could give my profession would be for your son to become an English teacher.”

Heady stuff, indeed.

My son could possibly be a very good English teacher. That is why I am trying to talk him out of it.

These days, very good is not good enough.

That’s the illogic of the new teacher assessment deal that NY Governor Cuomo pushed for and that the spineless NYSUT (NY State United Teachers) agreed to. Under this plan a teacher rated excellent by his principal and by other local teacher assessments would be rated as ineffective if his students did not show growth on the one day state tests are administered, even though those tests are only supposed to be 40% of the teacher’s rating.

How are we supposed to teach math when our governor and the state teacher union agree that 40% of X is larger than 60% of X?

No matter what else the teacher does, no matter how good he is on the other 179 days of the school year, he cannot be rated as anything other than ineffective if the test scores don’t go up enough. If that happens two years in a row he can be fired, even if he has tenure.

Indicted murderers are presumed innocent until judged guilty by a jury of their peers.
Tenured teachers are presumed ineffective, despite acquittal by their administrators.

How can I let my son become a teacher under a system that is as illogical and as unfair as the one his father will be working under starting next year?

Oh, wait. I’m a librarian. I don’t have students whose test scores can be compared year-to-year. No matter. The school’s total overall test scores will affect my job rating, whether or not most or any of the students come into the library and whether or not I have any influence on their performance on those one day exams.

More logic. Impressive.

Kid, I love you.

Become a mortician, a lawyer, a barber, or an accountant.

Pick rags for a living.

English: Jewish rag picker, Bloor Street West,...

Just don’t become a teacher.

It just isn’t a good job anymore.


Setting High Expectation For Them and Me

09/12/2010
High Hopes
Image by This is Awkward via Flickr

I like quotations.

One of my favorites is Robert Browning’s “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”

Talk about setting high expectations!

High expectations are important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers look at something and say, “my kids can’t do that.”

I just said it about something I was looking at in my lesson planning.

Then I realized that of course my students can’t do that, I haven’t taught them how to yet.

Sometimes teachers forget that we don’t have to teach what the students already know and can do but we do have to teach them what they can’t do. We have to expect them to be able to learn it.

If we don’t, they won’t.

My son is a voracious reader who got a perfect score on his 4th grade state ELA test. He wants to grow up to be an English professor.

His 7th grade English teacher told us that he has much deeper understanding of the assigned readings than the other students in the class and showed it every day in class discussions in which, she said, he sounded more like a high school student than a 7th grader.

But she could not give him the A he otherwise so richly deserved because he did not do his homework.

She wasn’t teaching English. She was teaching compliance.

Then there was his 8th grade honors English teacher who gave the class the homework assignment of making a list of the characters in a play they were reading. No, not character analyses. Not character sketches. Not a chart of the inter-relationships among characters.

Just a list of their names.

My son refused to do the homework because, as he wrote in a note to his teacher, it was inane and insulting to honors English students who were well aware that there is a list of a play’s characters right in the front of the script.

His ELA grades kept going down because of low or misguided teacher expectations, not because he was any less interested in ELA and not because he was any less capable of reading with insight and writing with clarity.

My son did struggle with math. He never got a grade above a D in any aspect of math.

Mathematics homework
Image via Wikipedia

But his 6th grade math teacher had clear, explicit and very high expectations for the class and she taught students how to meet them.

He got an A.

More than that, he began to understand that he was not bad at math, that he should not expect for it to be too difficult for him.

Students need to know their teachers believe in them.

They need their teachers to set clear, specific, high goals and make them explicit.

Then they need their teachers to teach them how to meet those goals.

My students can learn how to meet them.

Your students can learn how to meet them.

Now it is up to us to learn how to set them.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Never Let Go, Never Give Up

04/30/2010
Clinging Vines
Image by TexasEagle via Flickr

“Once I am your teacher I never let go.”

That is one of the first things I tell my students at the beginning of the school year.

I started saying that in my third year of teaching when I finally got my own class. They were twelve sixth-grade special education students and they didn’t believe me.

Those kids are freshmen in high school now. I still have the phone

A gang sign of the Bloods

Image via Wikipedia

numbers of their parents or guardians in my cell phone’s directory.

Every now and then I call one of them to see how the boy or girl I taught is doing.

Some are thriving, some having a harder time.

One has dropped out and joined a gang.

I ran into him the other day after school.

He was wearing his colors so I didn’t have to ask him what was going on in his life.

We made small talk for a while before I asked him what happened, why had he given up on school.

He is a smart boy who has raging hormones and is easily distracted. He is also a very good basketball player.

He told me that his school doesn’t let freshmen play on the varsity and that students must maintain passing grades to be on a team.

He is capable of it, but he didn’t have to work too hard in middle school because, as a special education student, he had modified requirements for passing from grade to grade.

Those modifications disappear in high school

In high school all students are required to meet the same standard.

We warn them, but it still comes as a shock when it happens.

This boy realized around midterm, right around the time this HS basketball season ended, that he would not become a tenth grade student. He would not be on the varsity next year.

He has always had problems at home and those problems had worsened.

That’s why the gang is so attractive. It is a new family.

They don’t let go easily either.

This is where the corollary to I Never Let Go comes in.

I also never give up on a kid.

I reminded the boy of what I had told him four years ago and he laughed.

“I didn’t believe you then, but you tracked me in 7th and 8th grade and always checked in with me and my teachers.”

“I thought that was over when I graduated.”

I smiled.

“I never let go, and I never give up on a kid,” I told him.

“And the best thing about never is that never never comes.”

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Another Argument Supporting Public Education!

03/14/2010

There has been a lot of talk lately about the privatization of education.

This issue has come up before. This Mick Stevens cartoon appeared in New Yorker magazine in 1992.

Need I say more?

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Run Schools Like Businesses? Absolutely!

02/01/2010
Business Plan in a Day book
Image by Raymond Yee via Flickr

I’m about to say something radical.

Okay, it may not seem so radical to you but to the people who have known or read me for some time this will be startling.

Schools SHOULD be run as businesses.

I ran a business for almost 20 years so I think I understand some things about how to do it.

The business leaders who complain that schools should be run more like businesses don’t get it.

They don’t get it so much that I don’t understand how they stay in business.

The people who oppose running schools like businesses also don’t get it.

They think that schools run like businesses will be even more like factories than schools are already.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: the folks talking about running schools believe their customers are their product.

All businesses have at least one product. It may be cars, or widgets or accounting services, whatever.

All businesses that want to stay in business also have customers who buy or rent those products.

It is essential, in business and in the rest of life, that products and customers, both essential for business survival, are not the same thing.

Any smart businessperson will be able to tell the product and the customer apart.

Actually, there are a lot of not-so-smart business people who can also tell you what their products are and who their customers are.

It really isn’t that hard to do.

But, somehow, the people who insist that schools should be run like businesses can’t.

They think their customers are their product. I have no idea who they think their customers are.

The school-as-business advocates cling to an industrial model of school.

This industrial model emerged in the last part of the 19th Century and the early-to-mid parts of the 20th century to teach children who grew up on farms, children who grew up in other countries, and the children who grew up on farms in other countries how to be good, obedient, factory workers.

The industrial model of schools taught and teaches how to be in place at the assigned time, not a big farm skill but essential in industry.

The industrial model teaches how to follow directions, also useful in industry.

The industrial model also teaches how to produce on a rigid schedule, and we all know that assembly lines move on a rigid schedule.

Despite all the talk that schools are bad, they actually are exceedingly good at doing what they were designed to do: take in raw youths and produce compliant, punctual workers.

The problem is that our schools are designed to feed students into the industries that America no longer has.

All those jobs that initially moved to Japan and more recently to China, Vietnam and India not only led to the decline of industrial centers like Detroit, Youngstown, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana, they have led to the obsolescence of the American model of education.

Now there are various efforts to “reform” schools in some way.

Most of these efforts, charter schools and the like, are small adjustments in a model that more and more people say needs a major overhaul at the minimum.

In any case, these charter schools have come into existence to give students, guided by their parents, choices about where to go to school.

Competition, it is claimed, will force public schools to become better.

In other words, public schools, private schools, parochial schools and charter schools are all competing for the same student just like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and Five Guys are all competing for the same stomach.

Those folks who say schools should be run like businesses still think of the student as their product even though their customer, industry, has fled to the hinterlands and is unlikely to return no matter how compliant the students schools create.

The student who used to be the product of the school system is now the consumer, the customer.

So I think it is now essential to run schools like businesses.

Schools-as-businesses now need to focus on the student, figure out what the student wants, how much of it they want, in what kind of package, and where they want to buy it.

Schools and school systems need to sell themselves to their customers the same way Chevy, Ford and Toyota have to sell to drivers.

Now the problem of keeping students in high school is a marketing and management problem, not a legislative one.

Now creating schools that students want to attend will take more than new packaging and other tweaks.

It will take new products, new formulas and new locations.

This is big.

It’s like the day after Thanksgiving for retailers, now get the customers to come to your school.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Differentiating Deliciously

11/29/2009
The Food Technology room at Marling School in ...
Image via Wikipedia

No, I’m not talking about the social bookmarking site.

I’m talking about education and food. That’s what this blog is supposed to be about and in a Twitter response to my last post, @ToughLoveforX remarked that high schools should have teaching kitchens.

I disagree.

All schools should have teaching kitchens. Maybe even all classrooms.

The earliest lesson that I remember from my schooling was when, in first grade, we shook heavy cream for what seemed like forever to make whipped cream and butter.

The next lesson I recall is when we made applesauce.

There was a time not that long ago when most high schools and middle schools had classroom kitchens. Most were removed shortly after Russia’s first space shot galvanized American educators to get serious about science and math because we had to put a man on the moon.

Been there. Done that.

Now its time to reexamine that decision to remove those kitchens.

Kitchens are the perfect venue for teaching middle and high school students.

Those students have an abundant interest in food and eating, so there is incentive to show up for class.

Each of the major disciplines can be addressed in the process of completing the task of planning, preparing and reflecting on the flavors of a menu.

Researching dishes to include on a menu involves language arts, social studies and nutrition science,

Scaling the recipe of a dish for a smaller or larger number of servings is measurement math and multiplication or division.

Costing the price of the ingredients, creating a budget and doing the purchasing incorporates various math concepts and skills.

Cooking and baking involve chemistry, physics and nutrition science.

Invitations, dish descriptions and critiques all involve writing.

And so on.

And why stop there? Sewing classes, woodworking shop, and other venues of practical skills are rich with academic possibilities.

Every day I have students coming to me and asking for food. Every student in my school is eligible for free breakfast and lunch, but I hear stories about how mom works two jobs and doesn’t come home until midnight and then starts to prepare supper.

It is a long stretch between an 11:30 or noon lunch and a midnight or 1:00 AM supper. Even if there were no academic benefits to having teaching kitchens, doesn’t it make sense to give these students the ability to prepare a nutritious meal or two?

There is a big push right now to introduce more and more technology into classrooms and I’m all for that. But the technologies most classrooms need are not interactive white boards or hand-held computers; what classrooms need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

The investment for a classroom full of computer-based technology and a teaching kitchen are roughly the same but kitchen equipment is far more durable, more easily maintained and far less likely to become obsolete within a few years of purchase.

Critics of my proposal, and I expect there to be many, will say that classroom kitchens don’t teach 21st Century skills, or that I’d just prepare kids for flipping burgers.

Nonsense.

Writing a recipe is pure concept mapping.

Planning a menu requires the accumulation and integration of information from a variety of sources and the creation of a cogent new document. Its a process of planning, drafting, gathering feedback, revising, proofing and publishing. Sound familiar?

Well run kitchens require collaboration, planning, critical thinking, problem solving, adaptation to changing circumstances, the ability to gather and evaluate information, mutual respect, attention to detail, and the ability to apply principles learned in the synthesis of new concepts.

Those sound like 21st Century skills to me.

Is there some risk in giving your average high school student a cleaver and 10″ chefs knife? Absolutely, but far less than giving that same student a car.

The fact is, the technology most classrooms need is not an interactive white board or hand-held computers; what they need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

OK, maybe a computer or two to access recipe sites and to write the class blog.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,506 other followers