I will be teaching Romeo and Juliet from our district’s “transcend the traditional” textbook this quarter. I read Romeo and Juliet as a 9th grader in the early 1980’s. I taught it in the mid-1990’s back near the beginning of my teaching career.
The theme my textbook has selected as a way to engage students is “Sweet Sorrow.” Really. We’re supposed to spend a whole quarter discussing Sweet Sorrow? No, that’s just sorrow I feel. Nothing sweet about it.
I decided a more intriguing approach might be to make the whole quarter about the emotions in general and how we deal with them. Do our emotions control us, or do we control our emotions? Are our emotions always valid, or is it wise to question them? These are ideas worth discussing. Since students seem to be stressed these days (especially the Pre-IB students I have in four of my classes), we have started the quarter talking about student stress. The question we’re exploring is this: should school help students deal with the stress they have, or reduce the stress by lightening their work loads?
To answer the latter question, today we read an article based on an National Public Radio story entitled “What’s New in High School? Stress Reduction 101” by Tovia Smith. She discusses a school that has cut back on AP courses to reduce students’ stress, but has seen some protests from parents, who fear their children will be left behind in the cut throat race to elite colleges. It calls the competition to have rigorous schools an “arms race.”
One sentence in the story stood out for me. Mother and film producer Vicki Abeles says that “No one wants to be the first one off the treadmill and looking at things differently”.
We discussed her metaphor: the treadmill is, of course, the endless running to take the most rigorous courses to get the highest GPA to get into the best colleges to get the best jobs to make the most money…
Ironically, this approach to education seems almost… mindless.
I asked my students this question: Is education about running on the treadmill in a mindless attempt to get ahead, or is education about having the ability to get off the treadmill and stand back to question it.
The answers surprised me. Most of my pre-IB students (the ones who spoke up, anyway), said education should be about the ability to stand back and question, to try to look at the big picture. IB students are often known for their hyper-competitive, treadmill-like behavior. I was pleased.
What stunned me was my “regular” students. They insisted that education had to be about running on the treadmill. They had no time to question the treadmill, they said, and what good would it do, anyway? You can’t fight the system. You can’t change anything. Other people tell you the rules and you just have to play the game. They applied this to life, too. You can’t change anything, they cynically proclaimed.
But many of my students know better. One of the pre-IB students was packing up, and she wanted to keep discussing the essay. She noted that the metaphor of competitive education as a treadmill is appropriate for a reason we had not discussed in class.
A treadmill implies motion that doesn’t really go anywhere.
You don’t realize something like that unless you can get off the treadmill and look at the big picture.