College verses career read

From the Washinton Post’s Answer Sheet

By George Wood

On a recent fall morning I found myself on the deck of an almost completed cabin overlooking the mist coming off the Hocking River. Two teachers, three fathers, sixteen students, and I had gathered for the once-weekly “show and tell” session in our junior/senior advisories — this time at the cabin that three seniors had designed and built for their senior project.

The cabin is “off the grid.” It has solar power, a composting toilet, water caught from the roof, and a wood burning stove. It is, in the best sense, sustainable. The three seniors had done all the research on the building techniques, worked with carpenters and solar installers to learn what they needed to know, and had built the cabin from the ground up.

That morning we had gathered to hear about their work. We also sat in a circle to listen to one student play Wildwood Flower on the banjo, see the sketches for another’s ceramic project, and go over the fitness plans another was designing for four participants in an experiment in weight loss and exercise.

What a complete joy.

Here were young people who had being given the freedom to manage their own learning, and who were challenged to find someone who could guide or mentor them in that effort. Now they were presenting a finished product to their peers and community. This was school at its finest. If only I had a picture showing the pride on the parents’ faces as they watched their boys present their work!

I used to be puzzled by why more schools do not have a senior project or similar requirement. These assignments help prepare students for the world after school. For seniors, it isn’t long before they have emerged from the cocoon of “school,” where makes sure they have a ride to school and a meal at lunch time, decides what they are to learn and how fast, and looks for them if they don’t show up for class.

But how well do we prepare students for life after this? Not well all. It is no wonder that so many kids drop out of college or find themselves adrift in the job market after school. And few become involved in the civic life of our neighborhoods or communities. They just are not ready for it.

For all the yammering about schools helping kids be “college and career ready,” not a single reform plan put out by any legislator or foundation addresses this issue in an honest way.

Come on, be real: what gets us ready for life after school is not calculus or the intricacies of the War of 1812 (though students should learn that too). What really matters is the ability to be resilient, to find one’s own way to learn, to be able to take on individual and group challenges, and to know how to learn.

Of course, you are not going to find that in the proposed new revisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known in its current form as No Child Left Behind) or in the current mantra of tying teacher evaluations to student standardized test scores. And, I am afraid, when we hit the next decade and I am retired, we will still be reading stories about the need for change in our schools.

But if we want to make a difference in the lives of our children, it is time to stop tinkering around the edges. We just keep on demanding another test, or more content, or new teacher evaluations when the answer is not there.

Instead, we could, right now, change what it means to be a school graduate. We could ask each school, in its own way, to demonstrate that all of their graduates are proficient in the ability to learn, that they can manage their lives, that they are engaged in their communities.

In fact, many vocational schools, like ACE in Albuquerque, do that now. And so do many of the schools, such as The Met in Providence, RI, and the many schools associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, founded by the late Ted Sizer and which meets this week in its annual Fall Forum.

I would not have every school require a senior project like we do at Federal Hocking. But I would provide every school with the options and supports to build a program that faces the future rather than our past.

In the meantime, I am still savoring the mellow banjo notes floating over the smells of bacon, eggs, and coffee and the smiles on the faces of young people celebrating the accomplishments of their peers.

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