Is your high school doing a good job? Ask your student if he or she is being challenged by the academic work. The student will give you an honest answer.
Doubtless, some students are challenged. A-students who practice sports most of the year, and who are active in the wider community, have difficulty balancing their different obligations. It’s hard to find time for it all. It’s hard to get enough sleep! However, their averages are sometimes so high in the 90s that one may wonder if they should be doing something ... more challenging? Students who are not challenged may succumb to routine and boredom — or overconfidence.
Is your student bored? Studies have shown that student interest and enthusiasm are highest in extracurricular activities, like music, drama and sports. Can this enthusiasm be transferred to academics? Maybe it can’t fully, but maybe there are alternatives to sitting through lectures taking notes. The way forward is to engage with the material, not just “cover the material.”
In English and social studies (history), students should read real books, not just textbooks. Textbooks are useful mainly for chronology. Students should know that the Civil War preceded World War I! General narratives — a long series of historical events — lack interest without specific details and individualized characters.
I am not asking students to read the hundreds of pages of Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson — but they could read chunks of it. For example, the pages on the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, in which John Kennedy and his brother, their advisers and Vice President Johnson figure out what to do about Soviet missiles installed in Cuba without bringing on nuclear war. This is a study in decision-making under pressure, and it makes fascinating reading.
Copies of this book and others like it could be placed on a reserve shelf in the library and students could take class time to read chapters and sections of them. Yes, class time. The last two years of high school could be more like college, with fewer classes and more time for reading, research and thinking in the library, not in so-called “study halls.” They should do the kind of reading that leads them deep into a subject.
In literature, plays lend themselves to in-class performance. Shakespeare can be a difficult read, but these days, there are editions with the original English on one side of the book, and notes and translation on the facing page. Instructors and students can take parts and act out the lines, sometimes hamming it up, and making the text come alive. Poetry, being in general a short-form kind of writing, also lends itself to concentrated close reading, and reading aloud.
Some English classes could be writing workshops, with writing exercises in class every other day, corrections in between. That’s the way to learn how to write: Write a lot, have the work criticized and rewrite. The instructors will learn how to correct quickly and create excitement around deadlines! Why not publish a class newspaper?
But everyone needs to be challenged, not just the top students. The “A” students will probably turn out all right. (At any rate, we’ll see!) How about the C-students, or those who are getting B's, but not in honors classes? Their names and grades are not on the school lobby walls, or in the newspaper! Are they being challenged? Are they working hard enough? Who are they, anyway?
Are they simply laying off the pace? Are they bored because it’s fashionable to be bored, or bored because they are not being challenged? Are they afraid to show interest? Few students admit they like school! Is the curriculum too rigid, an imposing lockstep routine? These underachievers are the unknown quantities of the school system. Something should be expected of them, until it’s clear nothing can be — which is rare.
It is possible some of these students should be in a vocational track, but can’t accept the scorn vocational studies often inspire in parts of the general population? This will be the subject of another article.
Pushing, or challenging students does not mean being unkind. There is a delicate balance to be aimed at, urging students to do better. I’m not saying it’s easy! What is at stake is a loss of human potential.
Everyone wants students to feel good about their school — but feeling good about one’s school should include recognition of its meaningful standards.
A former student once put it more bluntly: “Make it harder!”