The problem with electives…getting back to the basics.

Recently, I was having a discussion with some High-School-something students. While I teach at the University level, my Undergraduate degree was both elementary and secondary education. What does this mean for me? Well, it means that I see learning as something that is longitudinal. It is not just what happens in elementary, middle school, high school, college, or even continuing education. It is something I view as holistic, as building blocks – scaffolding (that’s a term my colleagues love to use).

Knowledge builds on knowledge.

I know the title of this blog probably fired some folks up. Me too. My secondary curriculum area was in Speech and Theatre – I am an elective teacher. Students were never required to take classes I would teach. Do I think they should have? ABSOLUTELY! Speaking is a skill we all need – regardless of your career path. Theatre teaches us so much about the experience of being human. Of course I think all students should take an ‘Into to Theatre’ course in High School. They don’t, though. That’s reality.

It’s just one of the ‘things’ about education. There is: what ‘should happen,’ ‘What we ‘want to happen,’ and ‘what does happen.’ Not very often are these three things congruent. My parents were very much about connecting what ‘should’ happen and what ‘does’ happen. At the time, I was irritated about that…now I get what they were trying to do.

From an early age I knew I wanted to go to college. That has to be part of this story – please recognize this ‘rant’ is only for folks who knew they were college bound. Therefore, my parents would only allow me to take courses that would prepare me for University study. Yes, ‘allow’ – they were actually quite involved in my K-12 schooling…

Foods class? No. Child Development? No. Woodworking? No.
British Literature? Yes. Calculus? Yes. Advanced Composition? Yes.

Later, I will make an argument for why child development and wood working may have helped me…then I will quickly refute my argument. First though…I have something else to cover.

If you read my last post, you will see that I was irritated by the quality of student work. I began to think about conversations I have had with High Schoolers over the past 5-8 years…pieces began to fall together in my brain. Why is it that the quality of their writing has decreased? I hear this from the math and science folks too – so it’s not just my area. What in the world is going on? Oh…wait…I feel things clicking together.

“I’m taking Intro to Marketing.” “Why?” “Because the teacher is fun, I know I can get a good grade, and I want to be a business major when I go to college.” Huh..pause…huh…pause…huh…pause…think before you speak. Think before you speak.

I took at break from this conversation – I knew I wasn’t going to say much that was helpful. Where do I begin pulling this sentence apart? At the beginning.

The teacher is fun?

That’s awesome. We all want to be fun. Are we fun at the expense of being successful at disseminating knowledge? Do our assignments matter? Are they relevant? Are they rigorous? Have we, as adults, bought into the Gen Y/Millenial’s so much so that our focus is on them liking us? Uh-oh. I know I have. I’m pretty sure my teachers didn’t give two hoots whether I liked them or not. They cared most about me learning. Thank you, Mr. O for not caring if I liked you- but for caring for my learning.

One of my colleagues said something along these lines that changed my thinking a couple of years ago. She said, “I am not friends with my students. I am friendly with them. There is a difference. This is hard for you because of your relative youth and your proximity in age. You will get there – just know that it’s okay when you do.” Well…I’m there. Maybe this ‘trouble in writing’ has helped push me there…or, maybe it’s just maturity. Regardless of what it is…I’m glad it happened.

I know I can get a good grade?

Oh, the GPA nightmare. Take easy classes to get a higher GPA – this way the students taking Physics, Advanced Composition, German IV, and Trigonometry can actually be ranked ‘lower’ than you. I have nothing more to say than ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. We could spend another 5 blog posts on just this topic. Someday I will write about my disdain of ‘getting’ a grade. It’s something students earn. Not something they get or I give. It is earned…by hard work, diligence, following directions, and being present in learning.

Finally…I want to be a business major.

That’s great – but I can nearly guarantee you that this elective will do very little for you in college. Maybe taking Child Development would have helped me in my Ed. Psych courses? Maybe taking Woodworking would have helped me in my Set Design courses? Possibly. In reality? Doubtful.

These electives are helpful in giving a very minor background in what we want to study when we grow up. Here is the deal though – taking a semester of child development in High School most likely would have helped me in less than a week of Dynamics of Human Development. Would that have been ‘worth’ it? My parents obviously knew that and didn’t believe so…they figured when I was mature enough to study Piaget and Erikson that I would most like ‘soak in’ the information in a much shorter amount of time. Kudos to them.

Instead of taking Child Development for a semester, I took Senior Math. That did help. I’m positive. I struggled with math and had I not taken another math course I would have REALLY struggled with Math & Decision Making during my Freshman year at college.

So, what’s the point? I have a novel idea…

How about we teach and encourage our students to be proficient at the ‘basics?’ Math. Science. History. Reading. Writing. Foreign Language. These basics are the scaffolding to any other learning. I know my business teacher friends would love to have students who could efficiently compute, write well, and understand the role of history in global economics.

Electives are wonderful, they help broaden the spectrum of education. This writing is not in support of getting ‘rid’ of electives, instead – making our elective options stronger by requiring that our students have mastered the basics.

It’s time. Let’s get back to the basics.

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