Writer's BLock and Other Perils
,So, I realized that I haven't written anything of substance for nearly a year. Writing, breath of my mind, simply dried up with no warning. Just as suddenly, crashing and jangling from my brain, words of heavy-hearted confusion tumbled as I heard my 15-year-old son relay his plans for when he's homeless. Driving home from band practice, this smart, funny kid told me, in excruciating detail, his confidence in a future sleeping on the streets.
Stunned, I asked him why he a) thinks he'll be homeless and b)would believe he wouldn't have a place to live with me. He told a tale of school personnel pounding into his head the idea that he won't get into college without a 3.8 GPA. If he doesn't go to college, he won't get a worthwhile job. Without a worthwhile job, he's destined for the streets. Oh, and he'd rather suffer the elements than ask for help (one of the unfortunate traits he's inherited from me).
Lamenting the clear lack of hope and vision for the future now evident in my son, I reflected for hours into the night upon what society and schools impress onto kids. As a teacher, I understand the pressure to succeed and excel. But the definitions of succeed and excel are warped and narrow. What about the kids who aren't college bound or college interested? What about the kids who find no relevance or meaning in school, but have something to offer the world, if only they were understood and made to feel equal to the scholars?
After years of spinning on the public school hamster wheel, I switched positions this year to a private school for gifted children. I spend my days nurturing middle school minds in a supportive environment with small class sizes, freedom from high-stakes testing, teachers who are treated as professionals with plenty of planning time, and parents who exude kindness and involvement. Students assume adults care about them, and the respect I'm shown is unprecedented in a school environment. While pondering my son's plight, I also toyed with the idea of what a world it would be if all students participated in the "private school" experience. All students benefit from happy, balanced teachers, small classes, resources, and freedom of self-expression unencumbered by the pressure of standardized testing. Where would my son's thoughts be, had he gone through his 10 years of school in such a place? Or even better, in a place where his passions drove his learning?
Today, riveted, I spent a couple of hours of a conference held at my school in rapt attention (those of you who know me understand how shocking this is - my mind tends to wander into an undiagnosed ADD haze fairly quickly when I have to sit still) as two teachers from Colorado described their Denver-based self-directed school. At this school, students determine their own learning units based on personal interests. They learn how to learn. What more do kids need? Why put unengaged students through the stress and anxiety surrounding test scores and numbers and memorizing things that can be easily found at our fingertips (dates of wars? calculus? the Pythagorean Theorem?). Who decided what kids "should" learn and why? Why can't they decide for themselves? Why is allowing students autonomy to pursue passions and grow their worlds so anathema to the general public? Saddened, I resigned myself to the reality that my son would've thrived in such a place.
I don't have any answers, and not for the first time I found myself longing for the ease of being a mom in the preschool years when problems came quickly, and went just as quickly with a snuggle and a story. Brokenhearted for the myriad kids who don't "fit" the school paradigm, I created a quick fantasy of a school in which every student enjoys knowing his or her value AS A PERSON, not tied to a GPA or a test score. A place in which no one creates contingency plans for homelessness at the age of 15 because of the message sent to him or her BY THE SCHOOL (and let's face it, I'm not innocent here either - I've had several "come to Jesus" talks with my son revolving around grades and the future). All I can do is hope, and listen to, support, and love the kids I have and those with whom I have been entrusted.
Courtney is a most fabulous writer and teacher of gifted middle school students. She is the author of two novels - see the "Cate Books" page of this site for information! Watch for updates about future books that need to be part of your personal library. In the meanwhile, enjoy her pithy life observations.