Useful Learning for Teens

This week our local paper published an article about the increase in truancy rates among students of all ages in the local schools.

What interested me the most is that the rate of truancy increases as children get older, so that by the time they reach 12th grade, well over 40% of them miss at least ten days of school per 176-day school year, and a quarter of them miss 20 days or more per school year.

Some of this can be explained by the fact that 12th graders often have cars and can easily take the day off, drive around town, and no one will notice because they look like the young adults they are, not students. It’s a lot easier for them to play hooky than it is for your average first-grader.

But I wonder if there isn’t another reason so many teens skip school. My memory of the last two years of high school can be mostly summed up by the phrase “relentlessly boring.” Each semester, when I set up my schedule, I squeezed my class requirements into the tightest time period possible, skipping lunch and putting study hall at the end of the day, so I could be out of there as early as possible.

However, I didn’t spend that extra free time loafing. For most of my junior year, I had a job in a hardware store, working from 2:30 to 9 most days. So I needed to get out of school early. But I also had a life, one that extended beyond what was going on in my high school.

Most of my classes were dull, not very useful for the future, or both. There were some useful classes, like typing, home ec and industrial arts, but those of us who were college-bound knew better than to court the possibility of wrecking our GPAs by risking a B or C in those subjects. So I did my best to stay awake through classes that were not very interesting or not very useful: World History via lectures and textbooks, Literature via lectures and textbooks, Sociology via silly games and fake wedding ceremonies. Snore.

However, I took one class during my senior year that was excellent, and I loved it. It was designed and run by one of the school’s social studies teachers, and it was called Public Service Practicum.

The teacher, a highly regarded educator named Richard Chierico, designed the course to help students understand what goes on in local government. He worked out agreements with local government entities, including the village board, the public library board, public works, etc., to allow each of us to work within the system as volunteers, and to shadow various employees so that we would get a firsthand look at how local government operates.

I worked with the public library board, which meant I had the chance to work at all the stations in the library so that I understood just what went on. Then I attended library board meetings after being filled in on the issues by the head librarian. I even attended a gathering of head librarians from all over the region. Having long been a bookworm and regular visitor to the library, I found it all fascinating.

As much as I enjoyed the course, I think what made it extra special is that Mr. Chierico treated us as young adults. He trusted us to go out during the school day to our different posts in local government and to arrange future appointments with our supervisors. He didn’t treat us as other teachers did, as students in need of repetitive instructions and orders. He just expected that we would do what we needed to, and so we did.

I think that’s the problem with high schools, and why there’s such a high truancy rate among older students. What teens do in school is not relevant, it’s not interesting, and it’s too much of what they’ve been doing for all their lives: sit still, raise your hand, you need a pass to go to the bathroom, no you can’t leave campus for lunch. We all know the drill.

Teens are too old for that kind of school. They need to be challenged, trusted and freed. Will some of them bolt if given freedom? Sure, but you can’t imprison everyone because some will run.

Teens are smart enough to know when something’s useful or of value. They’re also smart enough to know when they’re being warehoused. Instead of trying to figure out how to reduce the truancy rate by imprisoning teens further, parents and teachers need to consider other alternatives.

I think this is why so many teens have done well in homeschooling. It gives them the time and the freedom to explore their interests and to consider what they need for their futures. Not to mention, they never need a pass to go to the bathroom.

(For ideas on what useful things teens can do, check out the video below.)

5 thoughts on “Useful Learning for Teens

  1. Barbara, I hesitate to post about truancy because I don’t want to detract from the great things you said about teens learning useful things and being treated as though they might actually be able to handle the responsibility given to them.

    But I do want to point out that those truancy figures are inflated. In high school a kid is considered truant for the day if he doesn’t get to class in time for the attendance to be taken. So for some of that 40%, they weren’t really missing a whole school day, but may have been 5-10 minutes late for ONE class that day. In other words, being in school for 6 hrs and 50 min of a 7-hour school day could still cause you to end up marked as truant for the day.

    But yes, there are too many kids cutting school because they can see there’s nothing valuable actually going on there.

  2. When homeschooling, I accelerated my three kids, combining grades 11-12. Add to this some high school level units in junior high, and my kids graduated earlier than their traditionally schooled friends. Why did I do this? Not to push them, or to rush them into adulthood, but because we were able to complete all their high school work in a shorter period of time. For the year after they graduated (when “normally” they would have been seniors), they worked and took a handful of classes from the local community college. Like you, Barb, my senior year in high school was almost entirely a waste. I got on the work study program I was offered and left at noon, going to work at my Dad’s retail store each afternoon. I loved it, and felt like my time was better spent.

  3. I got into trouble with the school my senior year for having too many absences. They were all “excused” absences- mostly college visits and a week spent attending the U.S. National Figure Skating Championship (as a spectator as unfortunately I was not a talented enough competitor to qualify). My parents didn’t care so long as I kept my grades up, which I did.

    There’s a difference between cutting class to party and missing school in order to do something worthwhile.

  4. It is so true that much of traditional school is boring. I had several excellent public school teachers who were willing to help me learn as much as possible. They set up and rewarded all sorts of in depth learning. Most schools do not have such teachers, and not all students are willing to do the extra work it takes to make learning enthralling. I did not skip classes or have a part time job, but worked late into the evening most school days exploring literature, history, physics, chemistry, philosophy, and art.

    As a homeschool mom I want to encourage my children to learn as much as possible. Because I know and love them, I think I’ll be able to do as good a job as my great highschool teachers did for me.

  5. Susan, I’m not up on the finer points of truancy, but what you say rings true. Still, the trend is to play hooky….

    Karen, my older kids each skipped a year for the same reason, and one did go to community college for a few years and loved it. Now #3 has had some cc classes as part of her homeschooling and will go full-time this fall. Definitely a better use of time than the traditional senior year in high school!

    CW, I’m finding it interesting how many homeschool moms had non-traditional senior years….or wish they had!

    Annie Kate, you were fortunate to have had such a good public school education. And yes, I think you will do as good a job as your teachers did, because you sound highly motivated 🙂

    Thanks, everyone, for weighing in!

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