The State of Public Education According to an 11-Year-Old:

Last Thursday and Friday I had a series of back and forth email exchanges with one of my 11-year-old sixth grader Mr. O's teachers that resulted in me phoning the principal. Even after a good conversation with him I felt unsettled--like, crap, I've made the wrong decision about sending my kid to a traditional public middle school. 

I've repeatedly been told not to make my kids pay for my personal belief in public education, that public schools are terrible and are going to make my kids into dumb robots. But at the end of the day, I fundamentally believe there's more right than wrong in our schools, that they only reach their full potential when we all invest in them, and that teachers--even the ones that can't quite seem to understand that I'm not playing when I ask them to contact me that same day if there's a problem with my child at school--work hard and want students to learn.

With that in mind I headed over to the Curtis School on Saturday morning for their Teaching and Learning at Home and at School conference. The presenters included some of my favorite folks who are trying to transform education: Sir Ken Robinson, Yong Zhao, Alfie Kohn, Nikhil Goyal, and Carol Dweck. And there were some new folks--Richard Gever, Steven Jones, and Wendy Mogel--for me to learn from, too. The goal was to, as Sir Ken said, to talk about the mindset and actions needed to reclaim education and make it once more about the relationship between learners and those who help them learn. I won't rehash the whole event here, but I'll just say that it was one of the most inspiring education conferences I've ever attended.

After spending the day thinking about the dangers of praising intelligence instead of effort, how students with the highest GPAs usually rate low on creativity but rate high on being dependable--turning them into mere worker bees for companies, not entrepreneurial innovators--and how we need to ensure students have cultural competence, I came home and, after dinner, I decided to ask my sons a few questions.

"Do you like school?" I asked Mr. O.

"What do you mean?" he replied.

It should be an easy yes or no question, not one that needs to be parsed. "You know," I said. "Do you like school?"

"You mean the learning?" Another clarifying question. He can't say yes, so I know the answer is no.

"Sure," I said, "the learning."

" Not really," he finally confessed. Ah, sweet honesty.

"Why not?" I said.

"Because it's boring," he replied with a shrug. "The stuff we do is just boring. And there are too many tests."

I know there are plenty of children who agree, and there there are plenty of adults who don't care if kids think school's a boring and test-heavy experience.

I turned to his little brother. "What about you? Do you like school?" I asked 9-year-old Mr. T.

"Yeah, I guess," he answered. How's that for enthusiasm, folks?

Taking a question from one of the conference's speakers, Richard Gerver, I asked, "What do you like better? School or Disneyland?" I might as well have asked if they'd rather have a $100 bill or a lump of coal.

"Duhhhh. Disneyland. What kind of crazy question is that?" Mr. T replied. "Are you feeling alright, mom?" I assured him that I felt just fine. He walked away shaking his head and mumbling to himself, "Disneyland? Wow."

I can do all the big thinking I want to about education, but if I can't make it work for my own child, well...that's a problem. And the first step is listening to what's going on with them, so I asked Mr. O if I could ask him a few more questions. I recorded the entire conversation--these are his answers verbatim--and I typed it all up so I myself can read through it later and reflect on how to better support him.

Los Angelista: So tell me more about why you don’t like school.

Mr. O: It’s not that I don’t like it, exactly. Like I said, it’s just that it sometimes gets boring.

LA: What gets boring?

O: Sometimes the teacher’s talking and you’re sitting there and you’re not really listening and you’re trying to kill time in your imagination.

LA: But why wouldn’t you just listen?

O: Well I do listen but sometimes it just gets hard to listen cos you get bored. A lot of kids don’t listen.

LA: What are you supposed to do while she’s talking?

O: Sometimes she’s just talking and I have no idea what we’re supposed to do, sometimes we’re supposed to take notes.

What fascinates me is that to most adults, it doesn't matter if it's boring. We expect children to simply suck it up and listen--be obedient, even if they don't know what the purpose is or understand how something's relevant. We expect it because that's what we did in school, and in a society full of worker bees, that's what many of us do at work, too.

LA: What would make school more interesting?

O: Maybe doing more interactive assignments. Like let’s say you’re reading about science, you could actually let students go outside and see nature and experience it so we could learn more about it. We sit a lot. I wish school offered a class that’s more art—where you can learn how to draw people really, really well. And more field trips.

LA: So tell me, what would make school more like Disneyland?

O: It would probably need more creativity, more imagination. When kids get to walk in, you can decide how you want the day to go. Stuff like that.

LA: What would it look like?

O: Magical looking-- a medieval hallway for ancient history. A plant life hallway with vines and a jungle for science. That kind of thing.

That's a pretty amazing idea. The decorations at Disneyland are a huge part of what makes it special, so why can't we get cool themed hallways in schools? And why can't we have days where the kids get to decide what they want to do? What he's talking about is Google's 20 percent time come to life--that resulted in the creation of Gmail. Imagine what kids could create.

LA: What is the worst thing you see happening at your school?

O: Drugs. Kids dealing drugs. Some kids are getting picked on by older kids and then the adults don’t bother to do anything about it, although they act like they do. Like, let’s say there’s a fight on the yard and adults are standing there. They don’t do anything.

What I've noticed in recent conversations with several educators is that these two things--drugs and bullying/fighting--are accepted as a given in many middle and high schools. Teachers don't believe we can do anything about it. "The parents are just as addicted as the kids--to both legal and prescription drugs, so they're not going to do anything," one teacher told me a couple of weeks ago.

LA: If you don’t understand something in school, what happens?

O: Well that kind of depends on what kind of teacher. With Ms. X, she doesn’t really care. She’ll just move on. But with Ms. A and Ms. B, they’ll do their best to make sure I understand it.

LA: Do your teachers care about you?

O: I think Ms. A and Ms. B. But not Ms. X.

LA: So how do you feel when you’re in her class?

O: I feel like she doesn’t really like me. She doesn’t really want me to be in her class. She tries to pick on me.

LA: Do other kids notice?

O: Yeah. She does it in front of everybody.

We ask kids not to be bystanders to bullying, but if the adults aren't modeling that, and are in fact bullying students in class, that's a real problem. Also, learning is about relationships, so if there's no relationship, there's little to no learning happening. Yes, the teacher, Ms. X, is the one I had the disappointing email exchange with.

LA: Tell me more about what you think about tests.

O: Being able to think is more important than a test. Being able to think and answer the right questions in real life is more important than a test. But then they kind of go hand in hand, I guess.

LA: Do the teachers talk about the CST a lot?

O: Um, yeah. They talk about how if we do good on the weekly tests, we’ll do good on the CST.

On the one hand I'm so relieved that he's more interested in learning than tests. On the other hand, how long will that last in a culture where the main point of doing well on a weekly test is so that you can do well on the state standardized test?

LA: What’s more important: Looking smart or learning how to fail?

O: I’d say learning even if you fail. Failing is how you learn stuff, you know? But there’s a difference between learning that way and just failing cos you’re not trying.

LA: What do you think is more important, good grades or creativity?

O: Good grades, because without good grades, I might not be able to go to college. I could have all the creativity in the world but if I don’t have good grades, I’m not going to get in college.

LA: What’s more important, that you tried hard or that you got a good grade?

O: That I tried hard.

LA: Do you think you think your dad and I are too hard on you about school?

O: No, cos I do need to get good grades so I appreciate you all pushing me to get better grades. That reminds me, I have to study on Sunday and Monday for my math test on Tuesday.

Those questions were inspired by Carol Dweck's presentation about a fixed mindset vs a growth mindset—in a growth mindset, you look forward to failure, feedback, and hard work. In a fixed mindset, you believe the opposite. What's interesting to me is that he puts creativity below good grades but doesn't do the same with effort, and he rightly ascertains that we care a great deal about grades. However, emphasizing grades leads to more less risk taking, curiosity, and eagerness to take on harder tasks. Of course the conundrum is if he doesn't get excellent grades, in our current education model he's shooting himself in the foot, especially when it comes to college admissions.

LA: Do the teachers talk to you guys about college a lot?

O: Eh, not really...Well, they sometimes have some staffer go on the loudspeaker doing a one-minute speech about college.

LA: What do they say?

O: 'I went to college and you should too.'  Like that’s going to motivate anybody.

I laughed so hard over this. So often, the approach that we think will motivate kids ends up not being motivating at all. I imagine the voice coming through the loudspeaker sounding like Charlie Brown's teacher.

LA: What do you wish you could change about school?

O: The lunch. Sometimes they feed kids crap. Moldy food and then the kids throw up. I hate the drug dealing that goes around. JC got offered drugs so he’s probably not going to go there next year. Also, let’s say you get a really nice teacher and then you get a really nasty teacher. You can’t do anything about it. You can’t switch classes. And theft. On Friday a kid got his gym clothes stolen out of his locker and some other stuff too. The other day someone got his phone stolen. Also the afterschool program—it doesn’t really seem like they have a safe or stable afterschool program. They let high schoolers on campus, too. Oh and having enough supplies in the right place is a problem. We need to make sure if something gets dirty or broken, they have the money to replace it. Most of the time the teachers buy things with their own money, and they shouldn’t have to.

LA: What are the things they did at Y Elementary School at you wish they did at Z Middle School?

O: 1:1 laptop program. More technology. We have to share a laptop with two other students. It’s not really your laptop. And I already know how to do most computer stuff. Teach me something new.

Agreed. He doesn't need more "how to use Microsoft Word" help. Give him some actual coding experience.

LA: Should schools be K-8?

O: NO. I like being separate from elementary school because otherwise the eighth graders would mess with kids Mr. T’s age. Try to sell them drugs.

Note to self: talk to principal again about drugs on campus. This is clearly bothering him. He's brought it up three times.

LA: What about the size of your middle school?

O: There’s a lot of kids in the whole school. What I don’t like is that in my honors classes there are less kids. If you’re not in honors, the classes are packed. That’s not fair. And if you’re in honors, it’s almost all white and Asian kids. In the classes that aren’t honors, it’s more diverse. Like I’m supposed to believe nearly all the smartest kids are white and Asian.

LA: Why do you think there aren’t more black and Latino kids in honors?

O: Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe they purposely keep the number down. I’m not sure.

He's brought up the racial divisions and how honors kids get resources the other kids don't several times. Why is it that an 11-year-old can see these things--and be bothered by them--but many adults are not? Truly, I don't think we adults are bothered enough by that. We're too used to operating in a race and class-grounded scarcity model--if everyone's child gets small class sizes, resources, and technology, there won't be anything left for my baby.

I could see that Mr. O was itching to go wrestle his brother on the floor so that was the end of our conversation. We say we want more creativity and imagination in kids, but I wonder what would happen if every parent and teacher asked students these sorts of questions, and then changed teaching/parenting according to what they discovered?


EYL said…
Thank you for writing this and transcribing your entire conversation with your son. Definitely gives people like me (someone who believes in the public education system but doesn't have children yet) more insight and real thought on what STUDENTS think about their education. It is THEIR education that we are fighting for afterall.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks for reading. What I really started thinking about is that my son's enrolled in a gifted program that's trying to be innovative, etc, so imagine what the kids in the "regular" school might say.

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