Thursday, April 02, 2015

Superlative Disease

I live in Silicon Valley. And I work in one of the most prestigious private independent schools in the country. In Silicon Valley. So I am surrounded, it seems, by a culture of fastest, smartest, youngest, first, best. You would think that in a place known for innovators who took unconventional routes to success, we wouldn’t be so wrapped up in these superlatives we keep using to define ourselves and set ourselves apart from one another. You would think we could focus more on the journey than how quickly and amazingly we reach the destination.

My ex-husband used to say he planned to make his first million by age 30. Sad for him, I suppose, that instead he was bankrupt and divorced from an amazing woman (that would be me) before he turned 33. When we have these labels as goals, do we hurtle toward them at all costs? Do we miss the journey because we are hyper-focused on the destination? Do we forget to be human -- and to treat others humanely -- along the way?

I worry about my students, my advisees, and my son. My students took my class, for the most part, to avoid taking programming. They have already labeled themselves as being not inclined toward computer science. Is it because they feel they can’t be the “best” at it? I get one semester to dispel myths and transform mindsets. My advisees are wonderful, adorable freshpersons. They still have three more years of high school after this one. Three of them intend to take AP Chemistry as sophomores. I’ve been working on them and their parents. Is it really necessary? What edge do they think it will give them to take it next year rather than as juniors or seniors, if at all? And at what cost? The other six are, for the most part, enjoying high school as the final years of their childhoods. And I get to enjoy it with them. Don’t need no AP Mania harshing my mellow, y’all.

I think I have decided to not allow my son to take AP courses. His passion is history, and I think he’d be frustrated and bored in a class that is basically a year (or even TWO!) of preparation for one big test. Tests are not my kid’s friend. I want him to continue to enjoy and explore and interact with history. Not to see how much of it he can cram in his head and keep there until May. As for other APs, I’d need a pretty good argument. If I thought he’d pursue art, I’d let him do those.

And to what future doom am I cursing my child by denying him the choice of AP classes and all that stress? Gee, I don’t know . . . a life? My son will never be an amazing student. At least not as long as school is done to kids the way it currently is. But he already is and will continue to be an amazing person. And I will opt for that any day of the week. You know what his superlative is? Being the best HIM there is. I dare not do or say anything to squash that joy and wonder and, yes, sometimes struggle.

I had a ninth grader tell me she felt school was so competitive, so she always had to keep pushing herself. Why? I asked. Says who? I exclaimed. And then I told her she doesn’t have to play that game. She told me she wishes she was already an adult. No way! I uttered. I begged her to enjoy childhood while she still could. I told her that I try to act like a kid as often as possible to see if I can still get away with it. Childhood rocks. Adulthood kinda sucks sometimes.

But what about that spectre of competition she senses haunting her? It follows her home from school and creeps around when she’s trying to enjoy a tv show or read just for fun, I am sure. It keeps her up late studying and preparing and working. And it wakes her up early to get just a bit more studying in.

We need to exorcise these ghosts of a made-up belief system around education and achievement in our country. We have one side saying our kids aren’t competing on the global stage, and the other side making them crazy with worry about their future. That future is going to be filled with the kinds of problems you don’t solve by studying for tests. The drought in California? The global need for new fuel sources? Future food shortages? Climate change? All the A+ test grades and 4.0-plus GPAs in the world are not going to keep our species from destroying ourselves and our planet.


Kirsten Spall said...

Best choice I ever made was dropping my honors courses Junior year of highschool. I knew I was going to a CSU and the added stress of the classes would do little for me. Second best choice? Attending a CSU instead of a pricier UC or Private University. No student loans, same teaching credential my friends got from higher ranked schools. So glad my parents let me do it!

Ben Wilkoff said...

I am somewhat divided on the topic of AP classes, as the ones I took in English and Calculus were the ones I most enjoyed and remembered in all of high school. The teachers were supportive and made the courses about learning and not the test. However, my AP credits let me skip an entire year of college and start teaching even sooner. That was my goal, but I enjoyed every minute of the journey in getting there.

Now, I think that it is pretty likely that I enjoyed these courses because I was really good at playing the game of school. I could write an essay without trouble and I could study for a few hours and do well on tests. I do not believe that the ability to do those things should determine whether or not you have a great learning experience. I believe that opening up many other opportunities for kids to learn is the right approach. However, I do not begrudge those who enjoy the challenge of an AP-style curriculum. It isn't for everyone, and we shouldn't push everyone to do it. But, I don't think we need to remove it as an option either.

P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here:

Diane E. Main, GCT NorCal 2006 said...

Ben, thank you for sharing your view. I agree that people should have the option. But I am worried about what it has become in our society. People's reasons aren't always as noble as yours were.