If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Friday, April 25, 2008

What Can You Do?

Back in New Jersey, I taught a level 5 Spanish class that we called Spanish Contemporary Culture. It was basically Spanish and Latin American culture and history through film. We would watch a Spanish language movie with some redeeming educational value, learn as much as we could about the country where the movie took place, and usually finish off each segment with the students writing and filming their own movie based on what we had been studying. It was always a small group of students, and we had a lot of fun with it, especially during the periods when we were filming our own movies.

The last time I taught the class, I had a student in it named Adam. (N.B. I expect that I will find myself telling many stories about people I know and students I have taught. It is my intention to protect their privacy by changing their names, especially in the case of my students. In the great tradition of Mathnet: "the names are made up, but the problems are real"). Adam was a bright kid, a junior in high school at the time I taught him, and he had strong opinions about what was and what was not worth his time. My class was worthwhile because speaking Spanish was a skill that he could imagine being useful at some point in his career. English class, on the other hand, struck him as a complete waste of time. Learning to write well was fine; writing was a professional skill that he would need. But why, Adam argued, did they have to read all these novels that had no relevance to his own life?

I'll come back to my arguments in favor of reading fiction in school in a later post. At the moment, I want to connect this story to the question of what skills students should have when they graduate from school. My main point is that while I may disagree with Adam's conclusions when it came to English class (mostly because I disagree with the purely economic model he was using to judge value), the fundamental question he was asking was an important one: why do I need to do this?

As a teacher, I feel that it is my responsibility to always have an answer to this question. Whatever I am teaching, I should have a clear and well thought out reason why I am teaching it. In the world of independent high schools, our answers are often related to skills that are necessary for getting into, and being successful at, a good college. While that fits the goals of many students, it is certainly does not offer a complete list--or even an appropriate list--for all students. Just off the top of my head, I would mention the ability to work well with a group as a skill that does not necessarily have much value for getting into college, but which will be hugely useful to students in most of the rest of their lives.

So, this time I'll finish with a two part question--as always, my own answers to follow. What skills should students have when they graduate from high school, and why should they have them?

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