Q&A: Is School Even Important?

Today’s post comes from an email I received from a fellow English teacher. I’m sharing our conversation with her permission and honoring her request to change her name for privacy.

Hi Laura,
I’m a second-year English teacher, and I just got dragged into the inevitable “Why is school even important?” fight with my students. Their argument was that with smartphones, the need for actual knowledge is obsolete. This attitude drives me crazy; I know I probably shouldn’t have fallen for that one, but I couldn’t resist. However, I don’t really feel like I made a good impact on those students, and I came away from it feeling pretty frustrated. Do you have any tips for dealing with the “too cool for school” attitude? I’m at a loss with how to deal with these kids. Nothing I try really seems to work with them.

Oh, Cassie, we’ve all been there. I even share some of their frustrations, especially when it comes to the lack of efficiency in the school’s management of the limited amount of time we’re given to teach our students all of the things they need to know. The need for public education is obvious – we need a literate population to participate in government and to solve the problems facing our society. I’m sure there’s no real argument there from your students.

Instead, their point about all of the information they need being on their smartphones and, therefore, “the need for actual knowledge is obsolete” is where they lose me. In one way, they are correct. All of the facts, dates, formulas now live on our phones. In a much bigger way, they are incorrect – knowledge is not the random accumulation of facts. Instead, it is the ability to gather those facts from reliable sources, reflect on them, find a new way of viewing them, see a solution to a current problem, write down that solution, and then communicate in a way that others are able to absorb and build upon those ideas. Student need to know how to present their new ideas in a variety of communication modes, from spoken words to visual/art/infographics to written words.

In English class, we’re not interested in creating human encyclopedias. We should be driven to create better readers, writers, listeners, speakers, and – most importantly – critical thinkers. If our students aren’t able to discern truth from fiction and if they aren’t able to think logically during emotional times, I fear for their (and our) future.

In addressing these concerns with a group of students, I would do the following:

1. Acknowledge that they are right to be frustrated with the disconnect between a lot of the academic work they’re given and their actual daily lives.

2. Ask them what they want to learn in English class that they haven’t yet been taught.

3. Admit that you’ve been hired to teach English and you need to meet certain standards that’ll allow you to keep your job and continue to buy food for your family. After all, Cheerios aren’t free.

4. Find a way to fold in some of the skills the students request, which are probably real-world business communication/email language, resumes, YouTube scripting, current events, etc. Privately, I’d also examine what I’ve been teaching them and what is not essential or lessons they view as “fluff.” Be forewarned – you might find yourself cutting some stuff you love to fit in the stuff your kids are asking for.

5. Use 20Time, a student-selected passion project. Frame it as a direct response to their complaints/class discussion about the value of education when you launch the project. It’s getting a bit late in the year to use the full 12-week program, but you could modify the project to fit the time you have available. Lots more info. about 20Time and free forms/slides here:

I know it’s hard, Cassie, but try not to take these complaints personally. The fact that they’re complaining to you is actually a compliment (I know, I know…) because they believe you’ll hear them. That’s more than many adults get from them. If you walk the campus during your prep period and peek into classroom windows, you’ll likely see a lot of kids sitting zombie-like as they are talked at by adults for most of the day. Have mercy! One of the most exhausting days of my teaching career was when I shadowed a student through a typical school day, navigating the strong personalities of seven teachers and sitting for w-a-y too long in a series of uncomfortable chairs.

Finally, you also need to remember that teenagers complain. A lot. About everything. These years are a distinct stage of psychological development; they think most adults are stupid and that they know best. (Actually, some adults I know still haven’t moved out of this phase, but that’s a discussion for a different day.) The trick is knowing which complaints are just noise and which ones have merit. If we really listen, we’ll see that there is some validity in their criticism of our education system.

We can’t fix that whole system, but we can make things better in our classrooms. Hope this helps.

Okay, English teacher friends, what advice would you give Cassie? Why does school matter, anyway? Leave your ideas, comments, commiserations in the reply box below. And, as always, teach on.

Image credit: Pixabay, Public domain

6 thoughts on “Q&A: Is School Even Important?

  1. Susan L Hyde says:

    Laura, I think your answer is very thorough and covers many of the points I would make (and have made — Cassie, you’re not alone!) Knowing that this attitude is out there is actually good for us, in a way. It forces us to make what we teach relevant to their lives, which is what we should be doing anyway (but, as English nerds it’s easy to get carried away doing what we love, which in my case is analyzing characters and themes and symbols and a lot of stuff that is not always real life applicable!) Everything we teach is important to their lives; we just have to figure out how. Turns out all of that novel discussion is relevant after all because book characters are facing problems and issues that are common to ALL human beings. Seeing how these characters respond, either correctly or incorrectly, helps us either emulate or avoid their behavior in our own lives. When possible, don’t forget to ask students what THEY would do if they were in the position of the characters.

    Right now is great time to teach and learn persuasive rhetorical devices, like ethos, pathos, and logos. I always use as many real world examples as possible and the current political arena is providing a plethora of illustrations. It’s also an easy time to discuss and illustrate rhetorical fallacies, emphasizing how important it is to recognize fallacies when candidates or political leaders are trying to persuade us to vote for them or go along with their ideas. Then of course, Animal Farm is a great example of what happens when we DON’T pay attention.

    As you said, Laura, it’s the perfect excuse to reexamine your curriculum and do what we should do anyway, which is figure out how what we teach is relevant and necessary in our students’ lives. Our students are only verbalizing what we probably thought ourselves when we were students suffering through seemingly pointless lectures in classes we still don’t know why we needed! The only difference between them and us is that they live in a culture in which teens are more empowered to speak up, and that’s not a bad thing.

  2. Thanks, Susan, for this wonderful contribution to the conversation! YES! The novels/plays we study give our kids a chance to try on the robes of adulthood without the pain of real-life consequences. Learning from the examples of others – both real and fictional – holds great value. And, I agree, today’s teens are much more empowered to speak their minds than we were a generation or two ago. I had some of these same thoughts even as a pre-internet student (one torturous senior-year history class comes to mind), but I didn’t have the courage to speak up. Things have definitely changed, mostly for the better. Thanks again for reading and commenting. Love that you’re here with me! 🙂

  3. Theresa Simoneaux says:

    We had this very discussion in Room 5 today as we read Captain Beatty’s “speech” when Montag wanted to call in sick. Why read? Why learn? My class is 99% male who were in my remediation course last year and now in English I this year. I asked them to make list of school appropriate topics they wanted to cover. They had a hard time doing that because they just want to “hang out, know whut I’m sayin?”

  4. Ha! So funny! Your boys just violated my #1 rule, Theresa. You’re not allowed to complain about something unless you can offer a good solution, folks. Hang in there, my friend. 🙂

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