Lessons from the classroom

  • Article by: LYNDA MCDONNELL
  • June 10, 2009 - 6:07 AM
Since January, I have spent two hours a week at a charter high school in Minneapolis, helping students learn the basics of journalism and produce a school newspaper. I was student as well as teacher, learning from companions who are two generations younger. Here are some of the lessons I learned. 1. Labels don't describe what's in the package.

Special ed. Bipolar. The labels rise like fog, usually to explain away some lapse. In my school days, the labels were shorter and crueler -- "slow," "lazy," "bad," defining the limits of what was possible. Today's more clinical labels can be used as excuses by teachers and students alike. But a special-ed student was the first to complete an assignment, overcoming deep shyness to interview fellow students. A bipolar student dodged every deadline, then stayed up all night to finish work lest she fail. The special-ed student needs extra explanation for some assignments. The bipolar student needs help imposing steadiness on her life. Both need high expectations, a wide sense of what is possible and fewer excuses for failure.

2. Without the ability to concentrate, learning doesn't happen.

During my first weeks in the classroom, students who were trying to write stories on the school's computers quickly abandoned the challenge and flipped to Google or Facebook. Distractions are more abundant and accessible than ever for today's teens. To keep students focused, teachers confiscate cell phones and headphones or require composition with pen and paper (25 cents for a pencil if you don't bring one). Perhaps the biggest achievement in our class was that students developed the power to work through tough spots. Instead of detouring, they asked for help or burrowed through.

3. Unlimited open enrollment is not a great idea.

Allowing students to switch among public schools has been marketed as a way to force schools to compete for students and drive up quality. For some students, it surely works that way. Some students came to my small charter school after feeling lost in giant high schools. Some sought teachers who could explain their lessons in Spanish. But for some students, switching schools has become a strategy of avoidance. One junior had already been to seven high schools. After a dispute at home, she left mid-semester to move in with a relative and enroll in her eighth. What's the message? When things get tough, I'm outta here. For schools trying to retain students, there's a strong temptation to give the customer what she wants: A genial, loose and undemanding atmosphere.

4. To improve graduation rates, start early.

When Geoffrey Canada came recently to talk about the educational leaps made by poor black children in the 100-block Harlem Children's Zone, he stressed the need to invest early and to keep investing until they're through college. In Canada's program, the investment starts with classes for parents of newborns on discipline and the importance of reading to their children. Next come intense preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. The extra help continues through high school via charter schools, tutoring, dental and medical care, social workers and after-school programs. The cost -- averaging $5,000 per year per child -- seems high until you reflect on what we middle-class parents invest in summer camps and home computers, tutors and music lessons. Investing like this in poor kids is surely cheaper than paying the costs of prison, family violence, addiction and chronic unemployment.

5. Giving up is not an option.

In a speech in February, President Obama delivered a challenge to teens: Dropping out is no longer an option. Every teen must graduate from high school and get at least a year of postsecondary training. To accomplish that, young people need a multitude of committed adults behind them. They need people who will set and enforce limits -- who will hold schools accountable for getting results and using money effectively for all children, not just our own. They need adults who will push when they slack off, support when they stumble, listen when they're hurting or happy, tease and encourage and celebrate. That assignment, dear reader, is ours.

Lynda McDonnell is the executive director of ThreeSixty Journalism, a youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas --

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