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.)