Recently, I asked students in my two Senior English sections to leave comments on an earlier post from this blog–about “senioritis.” (You can read the comments themselves at this link to the post.) The two sections make up about a quarter of the whole senior class. After reading comments, taking notes and grouping ideas, I wanted to reflect on their comments, as a way of honoring their thoughtful responses and clarifying my own thinking. Therefore, I write for them first, and then me and anyone else wanting to join the conversation. The first three paragraphs summarize comment constellations. In the fourth, I reflect on how best to spend the last months together, and what their comments suggest to the whole school.
Woven throughout the comments is some version of the question “What’s the point?” By this they mean why should I continue working hard after getting into college? What’s the point? Asked another way, why does this work matter, anymore? They want to do things that make life “important” and “meaningful.” They say it is easy to slip into “senioritis”–i.e., to shut down after college acceptance. What is the point of trying when they already know where they will be going next year? Since before their senior year, some students have preferred spending time on things they want to know or need to know, instead of things they feel are being “shoved down their throats.” Most students, though, express the general idea that their high school work has served its main purpose, which is acceptance to the “dream college.” After that, with the possible exception of AP courses, what’s the point of trying hard? To quote one student: “nothing you do matters [now], what’s the point?”
Grades count. The majority of students express this idea, directly or indirectly. One student writes that the need for good grades is “pounded into your head” from a young age. Many students mention the sign taped to their freshmen lockers: your transcript starts now. They are told the grades count now that you have entered high school. After college acceptance, the corresponding idea emerges : the grades don’t count anymore. Despite the obvious caveat that colleges notice falling or failing grades, many students feel that the pressure for good grades eases after college acceptance. The clear systemic answer to the question of what counts is: grades count. That’s the primary institutional message. The same student who mentions pounding into heads concludes his comment by recommending we remove grades, making room for truer, deeper learning. Another thread in the question of what counts is the idea of goals. Most students write about the goals they have pursued: get into a good college, and get a good job. The motivation for school work comes from these goals. Even in elementary school, writes one student, they start thinking–encouraged by the school, parents, and other adults–about their “dream school.” Why learn more than necessary to reach these goals, for they are the main reason for working hard. They provide the primary incentive.
Once the goal has been achieved, what next? The trouble comes when seniors find themselves asking this question while still in school. Many of them answer this question by shifting energies to relationships and things they want to remember. Though most are ready to leave school, many are reluctant to leave friends and classmates. This is a liminal period, a time of transition. It is its own kind of time. With less pressure, students can learn new things about themselves and their classmates, experiment, or “slack off.” For some, the excitement about college dims their view of the monotonous, constrained high school days. While slogging through the muck of remaining homework and tests, these students look forward, . In the short term, the forward glance makes some sad about less time with friends and family members. Others can’t wait to break out into new communities. I am particularly grateful for the observation that most students do not care any less than they have. They are the same people, but the circumstances have shifted. In response to this situational shift, they have re-allocated their energies and attentions–to things that now seem more relevant and important. They have a similar amount of motivation and energy, but they spend it in new places.
If you dig around in the student comments about what matters and what counts, you find several people advocating what we might call true, deep, or meaningful learning. Some students are genuinely thirsty for this. For example, they acknowledge that students and society bear responsibility for the school dynamics that favor grade-hunting over the chance to “truly learn.” Ideally, a student “should want to learn [for its own sake].” Instead of grades, this student argues, people should aim “to constantly be learning.” While some admire “rigorous study,” not everyone enjoys work that fits that description. (Personally, I believe that the genuinely curious person, which is most of us, can enjoy rigorous study.) Still others see the ideal goal of learning at school this way: “to shape your intellectual growth.” In sum, many students see themselves as part of a learning system that sometimes does not “cultivate a love for learning.” They have nearly finished navigating this system. When looking back, they see soft spots in the system of incentives. Many acknowledge that they share responsibility. At the same time, they understand what genuine learning feels like. I want to agree with one student who calls school a “powerful force,” rather than simply a job. Patterns in these student comments suggest ways to make the experience even more powerful. For example, we could give “less emphasis on number grades, test scores, [while] looking to explore topics.” This student’s comment reminds me of an article recommended by a friend–a BBC article about Singapore’s move beyond grades. Here’s the article.
In our particular course, we are ending with three different books–two I chose and one they will choose. In the first case, we explored the topic of what it means to be human, in light of the Old English poem Beowulf. Now, we explore the unexpected consequences of science and technology by reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Finally, students choose a biography, autobiography, or memoir that interests them–given where they have been and what interests them. I hope that our final activities match this transitional time for most of them. Time will tell.