In Here’s My Future I’m talking about my transfer from a traditional school after seven years to an integrated, more alternative school and all the changes that this change brings for my profession.
One of the many different features at my new school (which feels less new every day) are project weeks that are not special things that happen every 1-2 years, but happen twice a year and are part of the general lesson structure. Their topics are defined for each year and the teachers can decide how to work with those topics, whether to give the students a lot of freedom for their projects or clear guidelines with which they can work. It is a great concept that might have some glitches here and there, but as with everything here, these are solvable problems.
The last of these project weeks had the theme “Language and Art” and because I love writing, I decided to do a poetry slam with my students. It didn’t turn out to be a really popular project, but I gathered a small group and I got them to write some texts. As it turned out, some of them decided to write about school and their texts seemed strangely familiar. They resembled texts and sentiments I know from my old school. “School sucks. Lessons are boring. Teachers are annoying, etc.” I think I made it more than clear that I think this school is really special and much better than the standard schools. So how could it be that students react exactly the same? Here are some possibilities.
- Teenagers in general have a hard time seeing the value of where they are and what they are doing, especially if it is organized by adults. In the end, there are still some adults who tell them what to do and at a certain age that always sounds stupid. Showing movies to teenage students can be really frustrating because they are an incredibly critical audience. Why should they be less critical about school?
- In our culture, it is very common to rant about school. Because most schools do actually suck and generations of students have experienced it this way, children are for ages told that school might be useful, but that it still sucks. I’ve heard parents often tell their kids, that they didn’t realize how important school is but that their kids should do it better. That is not really convincing or it would have worked for them too. Do you know any portrayals of school in movies or books that portray it positively? There are exceptions, but not liking school is nothing unusual at all. It’s “cool” to make fun of teachers and school because you know that people generally will agree or laugh.
- Another possibility of course is that some of those students might actually have some bad teachers. Maybe “bad teachers” is too strong, but not all of the teachers at my school are perfect (because that is impossible and teachers are still teachers – which also means having a job with a difficult image in our culture). And a couple of bad experiences might easily lead to a general feeling of being misunderstood, again, especially during puberty. Some students had included some direct insults on some teachers that I asked them to take out.
- There is also the question of the point of school in general. I'd be the last one to argue that kids actually need school at all. Following Daniel Quinn's and other school critics' thinking, school is not really the most effective way of learning, no matter which school it is. Humans have survived for thousands (or millions?) of years without school. I would argue that my school does one of the best jobs of being a school, but at the end of the day, it is still a school.
But does all of this explain the texts my students had written? Does it explain how a school that does so many things right and different is still perceived this way? Well, yes. It must also be considered that most of my students don’t know how bad school can actually be. One reason I’m enjoying my school so much is of course that I have many years of bad experiences and in comparison the new school seems really great. That doesn’t mean I will in the future realize that this school sucks too, but if it is the only school experience you have, it might be much harder to appreciate.
After the students performed their texts, some teachers were shocked, wondering what went wrong, if the students felt that way. Some even felt insulted, which painfully reminded me of the reactions to my play. I think (and some colleagues agreed), that it is important to talk to students about these issues and (even more importantly) to try as hard as we can to offer them something they enjoy and that gives them the feeling that their time here is worthwhile. We are still here for the students, not the other way around. We shouldn't fight back on such criticism, but actually discuss these issues and take them seriously.
And while there are those students who rant about school, just like at any other ordinary school, one big difference is that there are also students who see what they have and who are happy to be here. Not surprisingly, these are often students who have been to other schools before. But you wouldn’t normally find these exceptions at a regular school. The paradox (as someone wiser than me pointed out) is of course that at my school here, they are allowed to publicly say these things, even if everything is better here. At those schools where things are typically bad, you’d be punished for mentioning any criticism. I’ve experienced that myself for too many years and just because I can voice criticism now doesn’t make this school bad. A good school needs criticism that is actually heard to evolve and get better. If you don’t allow a certain dissent, you deny the freedom that allows a system to work.
In conclusion, this incident shows me yet again that I’m in the right place. And it also shows me that progress simply takes time. Having a good school with a vision and smart concepts is great but it is still only the start. But you need that vision. And the patience to let that vision spread at its own speed. This school provides the soil that allows such a vision to grow.