Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why School Should Not Be Like Camp

I apologize to my weekly readers, I took a break for a couple weeks since I started my new job as an administrator and my brother's recent wedding.  I do plan on updating this blog more regularly when the new school year starts up again. With the school year just a mere few weeks away, I thought it was appropriate to discuss the notion that school is not camp.

Every year at about this time of year, there is much discussion in newspapers and on blogs about how successful camps are in instilling in campers a connection to their heritage, culture, and in many cases religious values and practices.  I too believe this to be true in many cases and have had my own share of both positive and negative camp experiences.  However, there is a movement in education now to make school reflect the camp-like experience bringing the heart and soul of a camper's experience and extending it into the school year and the institution of school itself.  This idea comes from a misguided notion that if we make learning more fun it will be more meaningful and therefore more powerful to the learners.  This is what I could not disagree more with.

A very wise person once told me that life is not a shabbaton (religious weekend retreat).  It is not an NCSY havdalah (youth group ceremony to end the sabbath with singing, dancing, and candles glowing in a dark room, that is known to be spiritually uplifting and often is).  Another words, life is not camp, not a party, and not a shopping spree.  Life has ups and downs.  Our goal as educators is to teach and prepare our students to live in the real world.  While there is a place for these activities, making every day special devoid those special times with real meaning and creates a shell of the intellectual and academic experience we want our students to embrace during the school year.

While I understand why schools may break for a couple days for color war and I understand why on a hot June day schools have yearly field days, however, creating a school that is essential camp where these deviations from learning or watered down versions of learning exist on a weekly or daily basis has no place in preparing our students for the ultimate goal, to succeed in the real world.  

While I'd like to believe the real world is changing rapidly and schools definitely need to adapt to this change in meaningful and concrete ways, creating camp experiences constantly in a school actual cripples our students for life's challenges when they get out of a "student centered make me happy all the time"environment and into a job where they are not the center of the experience, but rather a piece in a rather detailed puzzle and making them happy is not really the focus of anyone else nor of the activities and responsibilities they must engage in.  It creates a hedonistic society, for while we already have too much of.  Instead, we should be focusing on teaching our students life lessons and giving them the skills to make the best of every situation they are in.

Giving students ownership over the material they learn and choices in what they learn makes sense. However, stopping the academics of a school day for a large portion of the year to create "Fun" moments does not.  We have roughly 180 days to teach our students, to engage them in meaningful acquisition of knowledge and skills.  For roughly 60-90 days a year (depending on summer vacation) they can attend camp, sit in front of TV, go to the mall, chill with friends, or do anything they so please.  In fact, studies have been done to compare the learning lost over the summer between rich and poor students and justify why certain schools, like KIPP in Baltimore, have more school days throughout the year and do not break for summer.  The knowledge lost during this time over the years invariably may alone be responsible for the achievement gap between the rich and poor.  Regardless, elevating that gap, enabling students to "tune out of learning" more than we as an American society already do, seems counter productive and even destructive.

When I first began teaching full-time, I was lucky enough to teach AP courses right away in a well known yeshiva.  I quickly had to adjust to the constant interruption of the school day by "inspirational speakers", psychologists, spiritual advisors, extended homerooms, and even Israeli-American Idol inspired competition weeks, not to mention full weeks of color war and a variety of other camp like activities.  I calculated my first full year of teaching there that what was suppose to be 160 days of learning, was in fact cut to 124 actual teaching days.  Now I will say, 80-90% of my students still managed to score 4's or 5's on their AP's, but this was because they learned a tremendous on their own and had a ton of late night reading sessions and even occasional Sunday group sessions with me.  Hence, what should have been their fun time, was forcibly taken from them since the school had butchered the school day to create "fun" moments.  I worried these students would be crippled when they went for jobs outside school and needed to work through times that were not fun and exciting.  I worried and still do, that these inspirational moments would be a crutch.  I am sure they were for some of them.  This was actually a driving force in my move to public schools.  Time management and balancing work and fun is something public schools, particular the Academies, does well.

I immediately saw the difference at the Bergen County Academies my first year teaching there (their day is an extended schedule starting at 8am and ending at 4:15 with some students electing to have no set lunch time or a mere 20 minute lunch).  When I was first asked to be on the Yeshivat He'Atid board, this was a key question I asked (how many days of school do you have to teach) and was delighted when they explained we would be striving to have 180 full days of learning for our students.

Many years back, I had a terrible geometry teacher.  (I believe she was later fired.) Mind you, this was after having wonderful math teachers throughout much of my elementary school and middle school years.  She was painful to listen to and confusing.  I had always been a star at math and diligent at doing my homework.  In fact, in 8th grade, I had received the algebra award for best in class and was valedictorian.  So, come 9th grade, when I was taking geometry like most 9th graders should, I was thrown in the honors geometry class.  Unfortunately, this meant having a teacher who had zero patience and was unable to explain concepts in a variety of different ways.

At first, I blamed her for my poor grades.  (Yes, they were REALLY bad.)  Then, I approached my math teacher from 8th grade, who was well known in the school and whom I was very close to, Mr. Gardner.  He said something that I have never forgotten.  He told me this was the best experience I would ever have.  I looked at him like he was from Mars.  How could this be?  He said, you can not let one person define your experience.  If you like math, you like math regardless of who teaches it.  More importantly, he said it was my duty to learn math that superseded her duty to teach me.  It was my responsibility.  I would need the material later in life for the SAT's and I could use her as an excuse to admission's officers as to why my grades were bad because they wouldn't care and after all others would be applying for the same colleges with better grades in geometry.  After that, I got a tutor, I spent hours working with friends, began doing homework, and I did much better.   He also told me, and perhaps more importantly, that the best lesson in life is to learn how to work with people you do not like.  That having a teacher I didn't like would prepare me for having an employer some day that I might not like or a co-worker.  Fortunately, I really like my current employer and co-workers, but I have had the experience of working at places where this lesson has come in handy.  Geometry was not camp, but I now kick butt at geometry.  More importantly, I kicked butt at the SAT's.  I didn't let her define my experience in math.  I redefined it.  I took control over my experience.  I valued it.

Now, ideally every student should always get great teachers who they like.  Certainly, when hiring teachers, I look for their ability to teach students in different ways, be gregarious towards students, and attempt to make learning engaging and even, yes, fun, but there will always be students that will not jive with a teacher, even the best teacher.  This is an experience every student will have and it is a life lesson.  In addition, not every subject is something every student adores.

Removing everything a kid does not like from their schedule and replacing it with singing, dancing, or sports is not the answer.  Just like I cannot eliminate paperwork (and everyone who knows me knows I hate paperwork) from teaching, does not mean I should stop teaching and instead do something that has nothing to do with teaching.  Instead learning how to be better at something that does not come to you easily, or learning how to tackle a problem in a creative way both cooperatively and independently and providing students with the skills to do this may not create a camp like experience, but it will create a student who is prepared for the world around them, who can make the best out of any situation thrown at them, and who will succeed in an increasingly competitive global society that we live in.

The competition is fierce.  Other countries have school 200+ days a year.  In Korea, the common question is not, "Why does my child have so much homework?" but "What else can I do to help my child me the best he/she can be?"  Our mindset needs to change.  Camp is fine, in fact, for less academic students, camp can be especially meaningful, but dumbing down education to make it more like camp, is definitely not the answer.  We need to pump up education, not bring it down.

How do we engage less academic students then you ask?  I will address this in another post.  Lifting them up, expecting more from them, treating them with respect and appreciating the skills they bring to the table is a start.  Education has to be engaging.  It has to enable students to be in driver's seat in their own educational experience.  Camp however, is not the answer.