High Schools That Work Reflections


I just got back from a High Schools That Work conference, and I have the word rigorous stuck in my head. Wouldn’t our students panic if they knew seven thousand teachers had formed a think tank for making learning more rigorous for them? Well, as usual, we have to fight our longstanding reputation and insist that our number one goal in life is not to torture students, but to do what’s best for them, right?

Since I got back from the conference, I haven’t deliberately thought about the intensive sessions I attended, but the concepts I learned about have been ever present in the back of my mind. For those of you who didn’t attend because you didn’t want to sit through boring lectures in the middle of your short summer break, let me share a secret with you. It was probably the most relaxing experience I’ve had all summer. Granted, I have a one-year-old and a two-year-old dancing around my knees twenty-four/seven, so maybe running a marathon all by myself would have seemed relaxing, too, but seriously, the setting and the atmosphere was conducive to thinking about what we do without the pressure that naturally surrounds us when we’re on the job. The convention area at Opryland Hotel overlooks the Delta room, featuring a peaceful river and big leafy plants – as soon as I walked in I felt stress leave my body, but I digress!

Needless to say, when I returned to my nest, I resumed my mommy role, which I love by the way, and I haven’t sat down long enough to eat a meal or watch a TV show, much less review my notes from the conference. The lessons I learned, however, are floating around in the back of my mind, and I just read something profound that gives shape and focus to the menagerie of information on project based learning and fair grading that I brought home from the conference.

Have you ever heard or read this quote, “Take care how you listen – more will be given to the man who has something already, but the man who has nothing will lose even what he thinks he has”? It’s from the gospel of Luke, and Jesus said it to a group of people attending one of his “conferences.” I started thinking about students who have it versus students who don’t. We as teachers can sort the sheep from the goats, so to speak, on the first day of class. There are some students who have done poorly in school since day one and will continue to do so until we shove them through the graduation line with the energy we have left from trying to teach them all year long. Then there are the students we try to concentrate on when we go home at night. You know, when you’re so mad at the kid who just doesn’t get it and decides to make your life miserable in his spare time, you can always say, “Well, at least there’s Jodi or Johnny or Jessi.” Those are the students who make us look good, who bring our bell curve back to the middle, who give us Christmas presents and prove our final exam wasn’t impossible after all.

According to this verse in Luke, those who already have a spark, who understand assignments and actually do them correctly, who might even be learning some of the ideas we bend over backwards to communicate, are only going to get better. They will experience success when they graduate and go on to pursue their personal goals just like they experienced success in our classrooms. They’re on a roll, and we’re just a cog in the wheel of their dynamic journey. The other kids are going to lose even what they thought they had. Now, I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know that they, too, are probably going to perform in life a lot like they did in our classrooms. Failure – or worse, mediocrity – is what they’re used to. It’s worked for them throughout their school career, and it will be the only tool they have with which to deal with the events of the rest of their lives.

So what’s my point? I was just thinking about how thousands of teachers spent several days of their summer vacation thinking about how to make learning more rigorous, and how that is going to affect those who “’have nothing,” those who will “lose even what they think they have.” If we’re going to do what the mushy television commercials say we can do, which is to change someone’s life forever – if we’re going to live up to the slogan we carry around on our Wilson County School bags (“I touch the future; I teach.”) – our ultimate goal in our classrooms will have to be two-fold. Number one, we can’t pretend kids have done something wonderful when they haven’t. Sacrificing high standards for the sake of boosting someone’s self-esteem when it has no business being boosted, is lying. We should set the bar high and stop pretending a kid reached it when he didn’t. Secondly - and this will seem contradictory, but just bare with me - it’s our responsibility to push, pull, heave and wretch the students who don’t have it so that they will learn the most important lesson of their lives – the taste of success.                   Success is addictive; the rush of really learning something will keep them coming back for more. The reason so many kids are apathetic about school is because they don’t usually have to achieve a great intellectual feat to get a pat on the back, checkmark, or general completion grade. But if they are truly challenged, and they honestly meet the challenge at hand, they will have a new definition of self. It won’t be something they talk about or are even conscious of, but the seed will have been planted. Somewhere inside they will begin to see themselves differently, as a have instead of a have not. Once the cycle begins, it will be gloriously impossible to stop, not only in the classroom, but also in the world we claim to be preparing them to live in. Working diligently until the task at hand is complete, working on assignments until excellence is achieved and doing what they thought was impossible (senior project, for example) will result in the wonderful, natural high of being successful people and seeing themselves as such. We should stay focused on this goal and remember that all we really have to do is get them started. “More will be given to the man who has something already.”