By Margaret Zheng
As a passionately obedient elementary school student and an avid apple-shiner, I would never have imagined that I would grow so tired and frustrated going to school. I suppose my “break” was soon to come, at the rate I’ve been philosophizing about education and escaping the bell routine for PMEA music festivals and other personally fulfilling educational trips – and recurrent snow days have certainly not helped to delay my emotional dissociation from the school system.
But after spring break and the energizing flow of the orchestra trip to Iceland--during which I eagerly practiced Icelandic, immersed myself in music, and soaked in the soul-refreshing nature of the pure, fragile Arctic--I feel spiritually traumatized. The artificial rhythms of school and my disjointed schedule of AP and Honors courses, though exciting in their challenge and individually fairly relevant in their content, now resonate hollowly with a me who has rediscovered the joy of immersive, proactive freedom.
Isn’t this senioritis, you might ask? Ha – but I’m only a junior! A high-achieving one, yes, who has accelerated in certain subjects and thus takes several classes with seniors, but that doesn’t change my graduation date. Besides, I would imagine that some degree of frustration with school is far from exceptional.
Compare me, an avidly intellectual 11th-grader involved in music, with a 9th- or 10th-grader taking all Academic-level classes (the “normal” course load) who’s passionate about sports or some industrial art or whose evenings are largely spent on a part-time job. On the surface, we look very different and probably have never interacted much with each other except perhaps during gym.
But search deeper within us, and you’ll find something strangely familiar: an American, suburban teenager struggling to define him or herself, who has a growing urge for independence and spite for arbitrary authority. Someone who, if not for attendance laws and the equally strong mandates of careers and family and higher ed, would probably think twice about going to school. Not that school is absolutely uninteresting and useless without such societal and social mandates, but there are some aspects of its regimented nature - take your pick - that, contrary to the CRSD mission statement, stifle rather than encourage students’ “self-fulfillment.”
Such criticisms about public school are legitimate, even righteous. American public education has developed less along discoveries in the science of learning and child development, so much as through changing political climates in which various educational theorists have fought to have their plan of religious or secular inculcation instituted in the schools.
Compare that haphazard school design with the revelations of anthropological and psychological studies that the natural way for children to learn is through play -- a sort of self-directed, exploratory learning -- and not through top-down instruction enforcing obedience and suppression of creative impulses. Hunter-gatherer societies have always allowed children this educational play, in which they instinctively experiment with new objects and concepts and imitate the guiding behaviors of adults and older children.
Yet the success of democratic, self-governing schools like Sudbury Valley, in which there are no formal classes and no designated “instructors,” suggests that even in a digitally industrialized society as ours, the model of education as inculcation is not only irritating and restrictive for students, but also fundamentally superfluous.
At Sudbury Valley, a private school enrolling children from ages 4 to 19, students spend each day doing what they wish, whether that is reading, running outside, playing video games, or having a stimulating conversation. They know no distinction between schoolwork and play as they truly live the proverb, “you learn something every day.” And when they are ready to graduate and to enter the adult world, they by their own volition have learned both the technical skills they need for careers and higher education as well as the self-management skills essential for life.
There are other innovative models of education that might function better within the current public school system. Take the public high school Iowa BIG, founded four years ago collaboratively by three neighboring school districts. Students in BIG work in small teams to complete projects they design to be challenging and interdisciplinary and to benefit and engage the community, mastering along the way the academic skills and state educational standards taught in traditional advanced coursework, and gaining practical experiences that distinguish them on job and college applications. More examples of creative, 21st-century high school design, such as a school based in a museum, can be found on the XQ Institute’s website (https://xqsuperschool.org/xq-schools).
Perhaps I should doubt my sanity, or at least my emotional stability, and take caution that my thoughts on this fervent topic of education may be outright crazy. But in my strange stirrings of spring fever I have wondered, what if instead of pursuing endless patchwork reforms to a fundamentally faulty system, we in CR started a new high school, with both students and adults as the designers? Then we would have the freedom to break as much or as little from current practices as we wish and could discover and realize our vision for how high school in the global, digital age should be.
Let me suggest a name for this dream school, which again might be utterly unrealistic or deeply inspiring: Daring (Council-)Rockers Energize Adolescent Minds. For we teens were not meant to languish in boring or personally irrelevant classes taken largely for a grade. We were meant to grow into exciting, productive persons whose lives are defined by purpose and who are ready to soar into the beautiful chaos of the adult world and make our self-fulfilling contribution to this Earth.
Think about it, feel into it, chat about it with your friends, colleagues, or whomever with a spark of caring. Then answer: are you ready to DREAM?
History of American education, in two parts
History of education, anthropological perspective
Sudbury Valley School
High School Design