Friday, May 21, 2010

To Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable

So, in leui of those great technical opportunities that I was supposed to somehow be able to secure with my B.S. in physics while still living in a tourist town, I picked up some side work continuing my high and low ropes course experience.

I don't mean to imply that it is a drugerious job:  I like hanging out it the trees, and still find belaying for people and instructing them in team challenges rewarding.  The job is also for a conference center--where money is the bottom line, staff are merely expendable timecards whose time in operation must be minimized above all, opportunity for professional training or advancement are negligible to nonexistent--welcome to the real world.   Those who can't stand middle schoolers need not apply.

One thing this job has allowed me to do is observe a heck of a lot of middle schoolers.  Middle schoolers in large groups.   Sixth graders, seventh graders, and eighth graders, male and female, (although mostly white, unfortunately) public school and private.

Working with these groups has radically changed my opinion on the merit of private school.

The private school kids, be them sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, are a pleasure to work with.  They are attentive and polite, they really by gosh do encourage each other, they make truly insightful comments while climbing or during processing, they make references to Winston Churchill and physical laws.

The public school kids, on the other hand, have to be constantly told to pay attention; are full of such witticisms as "this is gay" and "hahaha, you fell"; trying to facilitate discussion with them is like pulling teeth; and an alarming number of the evaluation we ask them to fill out fail to display an adequate grasp of the concepts of sentence, subject, and predicate--much less provide any specific or helpful comments about what could be improved.  "IDK" and "make boring fun" are my two favorite answers.  And by "favorite", I mean the ones that make me most want to hang my head in despair.

I used to have such faith in our public schools, believing the a la Degrassi hardships of popularity, fitting in, and gym class to be necessary character building experiences, thinking private schools were a waste of money for an education that was not necessarily any better, their whole existence a mark of somewhat elitist parents.

There are several factors differentiating the public and private school experience, which might explain the vast differences is emotional maturity.  Money of course leads to greater opportunities, in terms of better funded teachers, and more chances for the kids to also be able to afford developmentally beneficial extracurricular activities.  Parental involvement at all is huge, and while not always present for private school children and certainly not necessarily absent for public school children, it is probably still more likely to be present for private school children, since the parents care enough to send their child to a school they have to pay for.

In the end, though I think a lot of it is about challenge.  I was challenged in public school because I wanted to be, because I was pre-capable, for whatever reason, of challenging myself.

It is immediately obvious to me that the private school kids willingly challenge themselves, because they see the value in challenge for challenge's sake.  They also deal well with challenge.  The ones who start to climb and get afraid are capable of sorting it out, prioritizing, and either consciously pushing themselves in or having the self-knowledge to say "I have reached my limit and would like to stop now."

The public school kids do not, generally, challenge themselves.  The ones who aren't inclined to be afraid just do the activitly quickly, goof around, comment on how easy it is, and go off without processing how it could have been made into a learning experience.  The ones who are afraid cannot be convinced to try, or when they try reach a spot where they are afraid and cannot cope.  They cry, they are non-responsive to processing or encouragement, so we let them down and they go off inside of themselves, internalizing a negative experience.   The emotional maturity, the ability to accept and deal with challenge, is greatly limited, when compared to like-aged private school groups, and even in some cases with private school groups two grades lower.

I think public schools don't have the resources nor the mentality to challenge kids enough, unless, like me, they had supportive and involved parents, and had learned to seek it out.    All this standardized testing as benchmark, and lowering expectations so that passing is possible to more people.   No Child Left Behind, and all that.  Everyone's a winner.  Here's a gold star for trying.

Everyone is not the same though, and everyone is challenged by different things.  Public schools don't have the resources to tackle each student's individual need for the correct challenge; private schools undoubtedly have more of those resources.  Many privet schools also have higher standards in general, and that is really important too.  Allowing people to succeed without being challenged does them a disservice in the long run, even if the standards cannot be met by all.  Dropping a standard ensures that some who otherwise might have will never develop the tools to meet it.  An opportunity to gain emotional maturity--in my opinion equally as important as knowledge--is lost, and we all know what a pain an emotionally immature eighth grader is to be around. At least, I could tell you stories.  Exasperating stories.

No Child Left Behind does exist for a reason.  We don't want to just abandon the failing kids, goodness knows.  In the afterschool girl's program I am doing, I work with girls from the complete opposite end of the social hierarchy as the stereotypical private schooler.  Girls kicked out of public school, girls generally failing and falling behind in their classes, children of poverty-line single mothers drawing largely from the African American and Hispanic communities here.  Because we have a one to one mentor/student ratio, we can get the focus out of them.  We have the resources to find what works for them, find what pushes them.  Attacking and overcoming the challenge of rock climbing is one of the center themes of our program, and the program often dramatically improves the low self-confidence and behavior issues that get them referred to our program to begin with.  These girls are smart and capable but for various reasons aren't stimulated in public school.

Unfortunately, with state budget cuts and state budget cuts, I don't imagine this problem is going to get anything but worse.  The issue is obvious in an experiential learning/outdoor education setting, and experiential learning is both handy at addressing this sort of thing, and not the kind of thing many schools have the resources to provide.  

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