Doing School by Denise Clark Pope

My youngest son has speech therapy every Wednesday, and so every Wednesday we walk to his speech therapy because it is only about 2-3 minutes walking distance from our house. His speech therapist and I decided that we try having me wait in the lounge while she works with him, because he seems to not want to talk when I was there. So I thought I’d try and get some writing done for about 45 minutes at the lounge, but they had the TV on. I ditched that idea and brought a book instead.

It was during this 45 minute slot on Wednesday that I started reading Doing School :How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students by Denise Clark Pope. I was hooked right away. Pope welcomes her readers to Faircrest High, a high school located in a wealthy California suburb which has the lowest dropout rate in the state, small class sizes, and high quality teachers. She shadows five students recommended by the faculty as successful and outstanding students.

There’s Kevin, the’3.8 kind of guy’ who is liked by everyone and is a master at last minute cramming. It seems to me that Kevin is pressured by his father to get good grades so he could go to the best colleges, and especially so because his older sister dropped out of community college a couple of time. His younger sister, he claims is a better student than he is despite her lower grades. He claims to be a good person, not a good student. Rightly so, as he reveals what he resorts to to attain those good grades. He’s the kind of student who worries about what would look good on his transcript and takes courses that are easy to ace. Both of his parents are Faircrest professionals and he’s one of the wealthier students in the school. When I was reading about him, I thought about my younger brothers. I wonder if they have been pressured to succeed like this also because I, their older sister, had not fulfilled her father’s wishes. I didn’t really mess up like dropping out of college. In fact, I think I attained a pretty good CGPA in college despite two babies, but what my father had planned for me didn’t pan out.

There’s Eve, the typical Chinese student who attains good grades out of sheer hard work. She reminds me of The Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, with her endless hours of study, and only 3 hours of sleep in a day. She reports of physical symptoms due to her lifestyle. Her lifestyle is not one that I envy, despite her good grades and assertive personality  and smooth manipulation of the administrators. She definitely has connections, and can work her way through administration to get what she wants. What bothers me about her lifestyle is the never ending hard work that lands her with only 3 hours of sleep and ailments that must not be healthy for a growing teen. When I was in high school, during the exam years, I’d study harder but I only woke up at 5 am every morning and went to bed at 11 pm (and only because of the prep hours). Then again, my grades were not that great. Decent, not great.

Teresa, a Mexican, is self conscious about her Mexican accent in her English. Where she feels inferior in her classes in school, she feels complete ease in her Mexican dance class. She excels in some classes and practically fails in others. She works outside school hours because of her family’s financial condition and this garner’s my respect for her. There was one incident when she and her team mates were supposed to work on a Rwanda report presentation that reminded me of my college days. Her team members practically ended up making her do all the work, and for this, she spoke up to the teacher while they were supposed to be working on it. When all was done and presented, she learned that she got an A, and her teammates got a B and C respectively. I was taking an English class in college and we were supposed to work as a team to present something, I forgot what. I already had my first child at the time, a baby still carried about in a car seat and it was in winter where the Iowa snow was thick and unrelenting. My father in law had come to visit, and so we all went to the coffee shop for my group meeting, with my baby in tow, in her car seat, in the wintry weather. I waited for ages till one of them turned up. On the day of the presentation, I was the only one knowledgeable enough about our topic to answer questions directed to our presentation. Andy, our Engish instructor, gave me an A. I had gone to speak to him about that, and alhamdulillah he listened to me just like Mr. Grady listened to Teresa. My impression of white American college kids was established ever since, though I remember one classmate, who was actually nice and has good study and work ethics. Unfortunately that seems to be an exception rather than the rule to me.

One student who really caught my fancy is Michelle, who is a 4.0 student. She is quite unique from the other four students in that she learns because she’s truly interested in learning. Her elementary school experience was somewhat like child-directed learning, so she seemed to have kept her love of learning intact and fine tuned. She gets As very easily but admits that those As don’t really fulfill her. Unlike the other students who are caught in the grade trap, and derives fulfillment in attaining As, and stress in anything less, Michelle looks for something beyond those good grades that everybody else are racing towards. Michelle doesn’t cheat. In fact, she has even refrained from showing too much interest in class because of the lackadaisical attitude embraced by the other students, who would shun her for actually being interested in the subject matter taught in school. I believe my love of learning was buried deep under the school system. However, during my high school years, I did and still do, love Biology. I remember finding a college biology textbook in our classroom’s closet at the back of the class, and I remember taking that book back with me to the dormitory. I was in boarding school for five years of my secondary school years. However, unlike Michelle, I didn’t get all As. I loved drawing the diagrams and labeling them, but I hated the practical part of all the sciences, which is basically the lab components.

The fifth student, Roberto, is also one of my favorites. He is the kind of guy who studies hard but doesn’t study smart. He doesn’t manipulate or use any persuasive tactics to change his grades or situation, even in situations where he had the absolute right to. This somehow leaves him behind. I love his honesty even though he did cheat once, out of pressure. He, like Teresa, also works outside of school, and is well liked by his boss and co workers. There was one incident where he was looking through the microscope in Biology lab, and was truly engaged in it, unlike the other students who simply did what they were told and jotted down the data and considered their work done. In our scurry to abide by ‘higher standards’ and complete the syllabus, our schools has robbed students from keeping their natural love of learning intact. It’s only later on in adulthood that some people truly rediscover their love of learning and some lucky ones manage to keep in intact either through some wonderful teachers in school or active parents at home who strive to keep a lifestyle of  learning.

This is a book that I read with ultimate interest and one I couldn’t put down. It was really interesting to see how students are caught in this ‘grade trap’ which doesn’t sound that much different from the time when I was still in school. It truly belies the initial purpose of learning. Pope later gets in contact with these students and Kevin is already in college. All these students who were racing with each other towards good grades thought that things would ease up in college. But they found out that college is the same. I am currently writing a four part article on the love of learning, and one of them is on grades. This phenomenon presented by Pope proves to some point that grades are not all they’re made up to be. Eve, who studies day and night, admits to forgetting all the information she had learned to ace an exam so she could make space for the subsequent bouts of information for the next exam in line. That’s how it was for me in school too. My oldest daughter is now studying chemistry and I can honestly say that I remember nothing much of the chemistry I learned in high school. It’s that sad and pathetic.

Grades can be a controversial topic. My part two of the series of articles on Love of Learning is on the importance of grade (not). When you say grades are not important, it’s hard to accept because our educational system has been so established that we accept it without question.

“Of course grades are important!” people would retort.

And because our educational system is so established and unchanged, despite the ongoing school reforms, I also have to cave in and say,

“Yes, unfortunately it is still somewhat important, but to me, it’s not important enough to warrant complete submission to a curriculum to the point of blind and unmeaningful learning.”

There are ways to get around the system. In fact, universities (at least in the United States, as far as I know) look beyond grades when those piles of university applications come their way, because there are so many As to sift through. A straight A high school applicant is not necessarily a master of those subjects, nor is she necessarily a learner that is in love with learning. It takes stepping outside the box and a stubborn nature to dig your heels in and look for ways to go around this grade obsession when you have to go through the system. Alfie Kohn suggests going back to individual student evaluation in doing away with grades. He also suggests getting the students themselves involved in assessing their work. I like this method and was just thinking about it last night for  my own children. When students are not under pressure of attaining ‘good grades’ so they can jump through the hoops of our educational system, maybe we can get more life-long learners, and truly serve the real purpose of learnng.

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