What is the value of school?

Before I left for Turkey, my mom got me a Barnes and Noble gift card so that I could download fun things on my new and fancy, black magic Nook. Today I finally used it and downloaded Why School: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere. As a teacher and learning enthusiast, this title jumped out at me. I’m only about six pages in, but the author, Will Richards, has already raised enough valid points and questions that I felt the strong urge to send these questions into the blogosphere.

“In this new story, real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like–not just with a teacher and some same-age peers, in a classroom, from September to June. More important, it happens around the things we learners choose to learn, not what someone else tells us to learn.

This new story requires us to ask the difficult yet crucial question: why school? I’m not suggesting we consider scrapping school altogether. I’m suggesting that this moment requires us to think deeply about why we need school. Or to ask, more specifically, what’s the value of school now that opportunities for learning without it are exploding all around us?”
This is not exactly a question that I want to answer right away. It should take some time and thought, and perhaps research. I know that, as a student, I enjoy the school setting; I enjoy classrooms and lectures and class discussions and exposure to things that perhaps I would not stumble upon on my own. Yes, I enjoy learning and researching and reading on my own, but I really do enjoy the structure of school as well. But as a teacher, I am constantly challenged to appeal to students who do not enjoy a traditional classroom setting. So what is the value of school? What can we learn in school that we can’t learn out of it? And how is the structure advantageous to the current generation? I’m not sure yet, but I’m going to keep reading and get back to you. In the meantime, I’m interested to hear the thoughts of others on this topic.

The answers lie in the questions

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since Ms. King’s fourth grade class at Bill Hefner elementary. Ms. King, if you’re reading this, you were the shit and I thank you for helping realize that I was that kid.

I was that kid who asked my teachers for leftover worksheets or overheads so I could go home and teach my stuffed animals all about sentences. I would line them up, each with a pencil in hand, in front of the chalkboard my stepdad made me.  I was that kid who would lend out my books to friends, fake glasses posed on my nose as I cataloged which book they’d borrowed. I was that kid who wanted to get in front of the class and show everyone that I knew how to do things. I still am that kid, but I have found that that kid has more ideas and passion than I originally gave her credit for.

It is no secret that there are problems within the school system, but it seems to be a secret to the administration on just how to fix those problems. After receiving my BS in English Education and learning just how I was supposed to impart knowledge to the future administration, I decided that public school was not going to be where I made change happen. There were simply too many papers and tests and board members in the way of everything I wanted to try and everything I thought was useful for my students. So I tried a new route and realized that I wasn’t the only teacher having this problem.

When I taught Composition at ECU, I found that a majority of my students were not only intimidated, but often confused by the idea of creative license. What a novel thought for an instructor to not only genuinely ask for your opinion, but allow you to structure it in more than one way.  At the beginning of a new semester, my students would repeat similar questions and sentiments:

“This needs to be five paragraphs, right?”

“I’m not really sure how to write a thesis.”

“You can start a sentence with ‘and’?”

“I thought you should never begin or end on a quote.”

“I was always told that you can’t use ‘I’ in your papers.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever actually written a research paper.”

“What’s analytical writing?”

These students were in college—many of them even took AP English. And through no major fault of their own, they were victims of American public school narrow-mindedness. Now before I go any farther, let me qualify that statement: I am in no way placing complete blame on the public school teacher. I have been there and understand how hard it is to be creative and demonstrate variety when you have objectives and deadlines and supervisors to deal with. That being said, I have encountered too many teachers and too many of their students who are stuck in conventional ways and rules when it comes to language and writing. Language is ever evolving; the instruction of it should reflect that.

So when faced with those questions and statements of rules and regulations, I would smile and shake my head slightly. Forget it, I would respond. Forget everything you have ever learned in high school about writing. Here, you are not writing for an end of year test. In my class, you will not receive a zero on your paper if you repeatedly make the same grammatical mistake. (I won’t be happy, but you won’t get a zero.) Here, your content and conventions will be weighed equally.  When you leave my class, if you forget everything else, remember at least these three things:

1. Always ask questions

I could not stress this enough. Always, always, always ask questions. No questions, no answers. At the heart of every great piece of writing lie questions. Questions about the world and how we respond to it. Even if you think you already know the answer, it is vital to know what question you are answering. The answer to life may be 42, but what is the question??

2. What’s not there is just as important as what is there

Say I give you a picture of a house with a girl in front of it. You describe it to me in great detail—the girl and her dress, the house and its faded curtains and open, empty garage, the overgrown yard and what appears to be a broken tractor in the background.  But what’s missing? Where are her shoes? Why is the garage empty? Why is no one else in the picture? No other houses? There lies the story.

3. The best of writers were the ones who challenged the rules

What I teach my students is not set in stone. The rules I tell them are more guidelines than anything else. I give them tools to help them and show them how to best use those tools in various situations.  If they figure out how to use those tools in new ways and apply them to new situations, then I have done my job. If they decide to acknowledge what I’ve given them, but change the way things are done, then maybe I can learn something new from them.

It takes me at least whole semester to convince my students that I don’t know everything and that’s ok, but that I will share what I do know and that writing isn’t such a horrible thing once you’re allowed some wiggle room.

So all this rambling leads me to my questions (for it is imperative to always ask questions):

  1. How can we change the system when the system won’t acknowledge what it’s doing wrong?
  2. How can we convince teachers that variety is essential to learning and that what we teach today might not apply tomorrow?
  3. How do we help our students keep that excitement for learning that many of them had when they first started school?
  4. How do we know that what we are teaching them is what they really need to know?

I have opinions for each of these questions, but not necessarily answers. I’m a teacher—I don’t always have all the answers. But I’ll be damned if I don’t keep asking questions.