I always find it interesting how many teachers gleefully agree that maybe it would be a good idea if we send middle school students out to work and not let them come back to school until they’re ready to learn.
This idea is on my mind, because it’s the day after Labor Day and the first day of school in many places across the United States (although classes have been underway for at least a week or two in the Kansas City metropolitan area).
Of course I’m not suggesting that we regress to a society in which homeless news boys — like those who used to work for the Kansas City Star and many other newspapers nationwide — slept in groups in boiler rooms on cold nights to keep warm. And I’m not suggesting that we return to the days when companies hired child workers for tasks that required nimble little fingers that sometimes became lost in the machinery. But I am suggesting that our 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-year-old students want to feel as if they are contributing to society. They don’t want to remain mired in boredom in our middle and junior high schools.
Many of the problems of public schooling today originate in our attempts to educate children of this age group. Think that dropouts are a high school problem? Nope. Students begin to be discouraged about education at a much younger age. Think that lack of high expectations is a high school problem? Nope. In our attempt to keep as many of those younger students in school as long as possible, we make our curriculum less demanding than it needs to be (boring higher achieving students in the process, so that many of them begin to become dissatisfied with their education, too). Think that behavior problems reach an extreme in high schools? You obviously haven’t tried managing a classroom filled with 25 or 30 middle school students lately.
Instead of channeling all their ability into learning, a lot of students of this age focus on finding incredibly intelligent and ingenious ways to thwart learning. It is no coincidence that — during the Victorian era’s spiritualism craze — poltergeists often manifested in households containing young adolescents. With recurring regularity, some child in a classroom I’m trying to teach will think it’s funny to knock on the wall or under a desk or table when my back is turned. I’ll hear the knock and a lot of giggling, and when I turn around everyone looks so innocent. So I’ll say something about how the classroom must have poltergeist, and the student doing the knocking will inevitably (they are so predictable at this age) ask, “What’s a poltergeist?” And I’ll say it’s a German word to describe a noisy ghost that generally occurs around adolescents. And then, because I’ve essentially called them on their juvenile behavior (they think they’re being terribly original and don’t like to think they’re behaving childishly), the knocking will stop.
What these kids need is something to occupy their time productively. I don’t mean that in the Puritan sense of the word, as in “Thou shalt be engaged in productive learning at all times.” I mean that these kids want to contribute to society and be recognized for what they do. Most students who make it to high school without dropping out have matured enough that they can sit through boring classes, because they know the effort will get them where they want to go: to college and work. Younger adolescents, on the other hand, don’t have the ability to look that far ahead. They want to contribute something, and they want to contribute now. If not, they will knock … and dance … and talk … and paint their fingernails … and throw things out the windows … and stand on chairs … and generally do everything they are not supposed to do in the classroom. Who says these kids aren’t intelligent? They are geniuses at figuring out how to avoid what the adults prescribe for them.
The thing is, we need to learn how to prescribe for them both what they need and what they want. And what we — as a society — need, too. We need young people who do not fight education. We need young people who can put their ingenuity to work constructively.
I remember how it was when I was that age, wanting a job, wanting to work. What I did was sell greeting cards, seeds, any of those door-to-door scams they advertised in magazines and the back of comic books. (Lest you think I was a perfect little entrepreneur, let me add that I also went door to door pretending to collect money for a charity and spent it all on buying soda and candy for my friends.) At home I baked cakes and dinner and made iced tea. I didn’t even like iced tea, but my mom did. No, my room was not clean. It was a cluttered disaster. (I recall one teacher looking at my hyper-neat notebook and saying she bet my room was every bit as organized. When I told her it was not, she looked me straight in the eye and told me, “But I bet you know where everything should go.” And I did. Young adolescents do know where everything should go, and they want to put it right. My own daughter, who will turn 13 later this fall, keeps begging me to help her find ways to make money, to make her mark on something outside of school. Young people like the child I was and the child my daughter is and thousands and millions of others want someone — a teacher, a parent, someone — to look them straight in the eye and recognize their ability, their worth.
How we are going to do this, help them find meaning in their lives, I don’t know. Perhaps we should start by asking for their ideas and really listening to the answers. After all, we adults are fond of lecturing kids about the value of listening in order to truly understand. We could start by modeling that behavior. Perhaps we could start by erasing the borders that isolate school from community. Perhaps we could start by letting the kids escape from school .. at least until they’ve had enough of selling greeting cards and seeds or doing community service or serving an internship or whatever it is that makes them feel as if their young lives matter.
Life is too short to be bored all the time. I know we laugh about how teenagers say “I’m booooorrrrrreeeddddd,” and we act as if this is the way things are supposed to be. But is it? Just because this is the way it is now doesn’t mean this is the way things will always be or always have been. People seem to think that, because these young people attend middle and junior high school now, we grownups somehow don’t have permission to change an educational system that is not working and let the students do something else.
As recently as my great grandparents’ generation, that “something else” was going to work at about the age of 14. Students might, if they got that far, graduate from eighth grade. Secondary school was for wealthy students who wanted to enter college, or — if they they were girls — marry college graduates. As recently as my generation, it was not uncommon to joke that young women attending college were only there for an “M.R.S.” degree. Both my grandparents on my mother’s side were from wealthier families, and both graduated from college (although my grandmother was not allowed to earn a fine arts degree like her fiancé but had to settle for a degree that would certify her to teach art in public schools, work considered more suitable for a woman). On the other side of the family — the more recent immigrants — my father was the first to graduate from college. His parents graduated from eighth grade and went to work. One of my great uncles apprenticed to a sign painter as a young adolescent. Another was working full time as a barber and helping to support the family at the age of 14. When I first learned this part of my family history, I thought, “How horrible that their lives were limited like that.” Several decades of life experience later, I find myself thinking more expansively. Maybe they wanted to work, to feel valued, to feel needed. Perhaps it was not their lives but my original perspective that was limited.
And this experience of going to work at about the age of 14 was not limited to my family. Look a few generations back in your own family and those of others in your community. You will find that — until the 1920s or even later — compulsory education for teenagers and even younger children — especially for children from poor families — didn’t exist, not like it does now. Do you want to know why even today we have summers off from school? It’s not — as you will hear so often — to accommodate rural children who were needed to help their families on the farm. Think about it. Farm families need more help in the spring with planting and in the fall with harvest. Summer vacation (note that it’s called “vacation,” not “work leave”) exists, because in the days before air conditioning, wealthy families left the heat and stench of the cities in order to spend time in the country.
You’ll also find, if you look at history, that society did not institute public education for the good of the students. Society instituted public education for teenagers as a way to take them out of the job market, to preserve jobs for adults who needed them. Yes, adults need jobs — especially with today’s unemployment rates the way they are — but young people need to be challenged more than they are now. As educators, we keep bemoaning the fact that young people aren’t capable of higher order thinking skills such as analysis and synthesis, creativity and problem solving. They’re too busy being bored.
Let’s put an end to their boredom. Let those who are motivated remain in school, if they wish. But let the others learn the value of an education before returning to it. Let’s put their ingenuity and their energy to work. Let them rise above being exploited, either by inappropriate work or inappropriate education.
Put those kids back to work!
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