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What If… High Schools Were For Electives

The "what if" series focuses on imagining what could be possible for schools in the future - throwing out old notions of what schools are and what they are for, thinking about what learning actually looks like, imagining new possibilities without getting bogged down in practicalities. Our authors will focus on big ideas, things we wonder, things we hope. We’d love for you to engage in the comments - let’s have a conversation about what is possible in education.

What If High Schools Were For Electives?

By Meghan Raftery

Meghan Raftery is a freelance educator, wife, mother, and citizen of the brave new world we will re-enter post quarantine. She specializes in authentic education, problem and project-based learning, and curriculum design for schools and nonprofit organizations. She founded Edjacent, an Educator Design Collaborative, in an effort to connect educators and their biggest and boldest ideas.

I have the pleasure of working with quite a few high school educators. None of them remind me of my own high school teachers. I had a mediocre high school experience, mostly because I was stubborn and hot-headed and generally unhappy to be there. I was ready for the “real world,” whatever that means, and I had low tolerance for the 90s movie coming-of-age experience I was supposed to be having. I wanted out and I let my teachers know it. They did not do much to engage me. We all went through the motions and then I left. End of story.

The high schools I work in now are not much different from my own. They have packed course schedules, crowded hallways, backpacks, bells. The subjects are the same. The tests are the same. The standards and expectations are the same. What’s not the same are the teachers and the students.

We all know the obvious changes - the technology, the attention span, the freedom and flexibility. The high school teachers of today are informed, engaged, connected. The students are empathetic, capable, and way smarter than I was. They are better, in so many ways, and they deserve better. We work hard to break the mold, but it is hard to change what has existed for so long.

Until it wasn’t.

Schooling just got dramatically different. Grading just changed. Delivery of instruction just changed. Personal responsibility and engagement just changed. Relationships are being tested. The tools are unfamiliar. We don’t even know where some of the kids are, what they are doing, how their lives have changed, if they’ve eaten.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what will be different now. If high-school me experienced a quarantine like we are now in, I would return to my school less compliant than ever. I wonder if any of our students (and their parents) will feel the same? I wonder what our teachers will tolerate and what they will question. I wonder what huge problems we will face, but also what huge opportunities are before us.

The high school teachers I work with exist in two universes. One universe is the traditional program of courses we all took. English teachers, math teachers, science teachers, social studies teachers - they innovate, create, and attempt to transform within the same box that existed, for the most part, when I was in high school in the late 90s and long before my own graduation. These people are amazing. They care deeply about kids. They bend over backwards. They are tired. They dream of a new way of teaching and learning that sometimes seems (is?) impossible.

In many ways, these folks are having an easier time with the sudden digital and home school transformation. Their courses involve a lot of knowledge and understanding level standards. There is an abundance of resources available (many of them suddenly free with sales reps ready to tell you how their digital solution will solve all of your problems!) and colleagues to connect with who teach the same subject, within the school, across the district, really throughout the country. The delivery and belief systems may be different, but there is a common language that is largely the same, no matter where you are. I took these courses. You took these courses. Online courses did not exist when I was in high school, but I would have loved to learn this way. Check the boxes and move on!

I imagine many of these courses could be taught online permanently, especially once we get really good at it. There are some teachers who would prefer to teach this way. Better yet, we could probably allow students to take end-of-course tests for the core subjects before they ever even enter a high school building. I would have easily passed the core competencies for English as an incoming freshman. Someone may have flagged me as at-risk for math at some point too. Instead, I went through the motions. How many of our students are doing the same?

What if we allowed students to take their end-of-course tests before entering 9th grade and at any point they felt ready? What if we allowed them to “test out” of these subjects or elect remediation at their own pace? We could provide online options and in-person classes based on specific competencies and student demand. We could create quiet co-working spaces within a school for kids who prefer it, but also allow them to work at any time and anywhere. When they are done, they are done. We could prioritize the content that matters most, give kids a clear path forward, provide the help they need, monitor their progress if they need additional support then… set them free!

The other high school universe that exists is the world of electives and extra curriculars. Ask most high school students what courses matter most, change them the most, engage them the most, where they learn the most. They will almost always name an elective or extracurricular activity such as a sport, the arts, a foreign language, a club. Literally named “extra,” these types of courses get second-class status in schools, but when we remember our own schooling, these are the experiences that shaped us and showed us who we were, who we could be, who we would become.

These courses, these students and teachers, are struggling in the digital environment. One reason is our continued insistence as an institution to relegate these types of courses and experiences as dessert, only if we finish all of our dinner. They represent a wider array of topics and vary more from school to school, district to district, and state to state than our core courses. It’s harder to find a relatable network of colleagues or resources for support. It is also significantly harder to conduct these classes online. Why? Because these classes require students to use their bodies, their hands, their voices. They require relationship building and physical materials and a sense of community. These classes, clubs, and activities are the heart and soul of a school.

What if we flipped the script and made electives, clubs and activities the most important part of high school? What if we allowed kids to “test out” of core classes after they demonstrate an ability to transfer the skills and content in a meaningful way by doing things that matter to them? What if kids could play their sport during the school day and take classes at night or during the off-season? What if they could double up on the number of activities they try because they have space in their schedules? What if more core teachers could teach subjects or sponsor clubs they care deeply about during the school day instead of expecting them to engage after school hours when they are already exhausted?

What if we communicated to students, families, and our communities that these are the experiences that matter most, that we missed the most when we were stuck at home, that we never want to lose?

Our students are sleeping in. They’re making their own schedules and learning when they are most focused or distracted, what work motivates them or discourages them. They are spending time with their families in the precious years, weeks, days, hours before they leave the nest for good, instead of only coming home to sleep at night. They are learning the value of face-to-face interaction with their friends instead of relying too heavily on electronic communication. They have a better understanding of the sense of place their schools and community provide.

Are we going to ask them to come back to sitting for 7 hours straight? To stay in a class for 45 minutes, even if they already know the material or are struggling and don’t want to admit it? Will we ask them to seek permission to use the bathroom or get a drink of water? Will they practice their sport until it gets dark, only to return home to mountains of homework and a 5 a.m. wake up time?

What if the kids refuse? What if we refuse?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please share your thinking (agreeing or challenging - let’s create a rich discussion) in the comments!


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