I got a pretty good high school education. When I was eleven, my parents moved to West Chester, Ohio, and I attended a suburban public school. My teachers were kind. They stuck around for years after I graduated, and many of them still teach at my high school.
We had a football team, a 200-piece marching band, an award-winning newspaper, and a choir. When it came time to choose a foreign language, we got to pick between four: French, German, Spanish or Latin (I picked Latin). Our cafeteria had a salad bar, and a little patio area where only seniors could sit. All things considered, it was a relatively “nice” place to teach and learn.
Only when I became a teacher did I realize that not all public schools had these “amenities.” I remember, very clearly, watching High School Musical with my students during homeroom. On the way out the door, one of my kids asked me, “Are there actually schools out there like that?”
“Like what?” I asked, “Where people spontaneously burst into song and dance?”
“No. Schools that look like that. Where there’s more than one kind of food in the cafeteria. And the teachers just let the kids, you know--walk around the halls? And you don’t gotta wear a uniform?”
“Well. I mean, it’s not EXACTLY like that. But yeah, not all schools are like this one,” I replied.
The truth is that American public school students receive vastly different educational experiences depending on their demographic information. Schools in America are still very much segregated and homogenous, as are neighborhoods, and for many students, the quality (or lack thereof) of their high school education will play a large role in the opportunities they eventually have access to (or don’t, as the case may be).
At the time, I taught at a charter school in Denver with a student body that was about 98% Latino. We shared our building with an elementary school, and as far as “amenities” were concerned, we didn’t have many. Hell, we didn’t even have air conditioning.
That said, what we lacked in amenities, we made up for in other ways.
I often ask former students what they wish they learned in high school. Answers vary from “how to write in cursive” to “how to file my taxes.”
What I wish I learned in high school is something we taught our students in stride: how to keep going when things are hard. We even had a special word for it. Grit. Tenacity and resilience were built into the fiber of our school culture. Where I was learning how to conjugate “to write” in Latin (scribo, scribare, scribavi, scribatus), my students were learning how to try again, and again and again.
And as it turns out, the relationship between one’s grittiness and their ability to succeed has a much stronger correlation then their ability to recall the quadratic formula. Or to recall anything, for that matter.
As we consider how schools can meet the demands of an ever-evolving society, it’s imperative that we build programs that emphasize and develop the character traits essential to thrive beyond the classroom. It’s time for a radical shift in the way we teach and learn.
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