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Stories from School AZ: The Problem of Choice

In nearly every teacher-led meeting I’ve ever attended, the conversation tends to revolve around the same issues: test scores, grades, curriculum, standards alignment, and how these relate to vaguely defined “student achievement”. I can count on one hand the PLCs that haven’t been concerned with these — and only these — topics.

So it was refreshing to talk to my principal the other day, who lamented the fact that “not enough students have skin in the game”; meaning that very few students in our underserved, rural, impoverished district believe they have a personal stake in their education.

He’s right of course, and the issue is in no way unique to my district. Study, after study, after study confirms this, yet very little seems to be done to actually address the root cause of why students are so disengaged from their own learning. After all, isn’t learning supposed to be an enjoyable experience? Shouldn’t the fulfillment of one’s curiosity be, if not life-affirming, at least pleasant?

But this question only uncovers yet another problem: where can curiosity exist amid a data-driven curriculum?

The argument could be made that this is where the “art” of teaching becomes paramount — that a teacher’s passion for their subject and rapport with their students determines engagement level — but then why is teacher expectation and training focused primarily on normalizing curriculum independent (or sometimes even in spite) of any teacher’s individual personality or educational background?

The public education system, in its attempt to combat teacher incompetence, has also effectively sterilized teacher excellence. What we are left with then, is the most neutral of beiges — stale, bland, inoffensive, plastic — and we wonder why students aren’t enthusiastic about it.

On the other side of this is the students’ perspective. Their educational journey was standardized twenty years before they were even born. They are over-tested and under-stimulated. They’ve been told that there are core classes and electives — already we see value discernment here — and that core classes are necessary and important (interest is of no consequence), and anything they themselves elect to do is always secondary.

In short, students are conditioned from the very beginning of their education to believe that their curiosity and interest is, in general outside the scope of, and in particular of lesser value than mandated classes. Students learn one of the most foundational and harsh lessons of the American public educational system passively: school is directly antagonistic to individual personhood.

This inherent antagonism ultimately leads to bitterness, both from teachers (why can’t they just sit still and do their work?) and students (why do all of my passions have to be extracurricular?). How can we bridge this gap? How can we make sure students have “skin in the game”? How can we, as teachers, include student interest as an equally important component alongside curriculum and standards, instead of omitting it (intentionally or unintentionally) from the equation entirely?

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Paul Forehand

Paul Forehand teaches ELA and Russian Language in the Kingman Unified School District. He earned his undergraduate degree from Oklahoma State University in Russia...