What Should Kids Learn in School?

 If you have children, have you ever  thought about what you would like for them to learn before leaving high school? That sounds silly, doesn’t it? Of course in the beginning you want them to learn the alphabet and numbers. You want them to learn to write their names. Later, you want them to learn their colors and eventually how to read. You want them to learn the rules of grammar and how to write neatly, and you also want them to learn how to “do math” well. Finally, throw in a little science and history/government for good measure. You might even say that you’d also like for your kids to learn to appreciate good literature or to learn basic business skills or to study the Bible. Few of your lists would offer many more details than those (unless you knew that someone would later critique your list), but I think this is a question that more parents need to actually sit down and ponder.

If you don’t know exactly what you want your children to learn, by which standards will you evaluate their learning experiences once they have finished? I have taught for enough years to know that, if questioned, almost every parent out there would gladly offer his or her opinion of the school system his or her child attends. I would like to better understand the criteria on which the schools are being judged by the public. I teach in Mississippi, and in our state, we have a teacher evaluation tool called M-STAR. It is a 20 page rubric by which teachers are evaluated twice per year. Here is a brochure, produced by the Mississippi Department of Education, outlining the basics of M-STAR. The goal of M-STAR was to increase teacher performance and student learning. This brings me back to the question I started with, however. What do parents want their children to learn?

As a teacher, I want to make a difference in the lives of the students in my school. Most teachers have this goal. However, I believe that in order to make a difference, we have to teach much more than what is found in the curriculum. The things that students learn from observation will often carry much more weight in their lives than the things on which they are tested while in school.  This is where I think teachers make their greatest impacts upon students’ lives.

Have you ever noticed how a negative attitude can spread like a forest fire? Imagine a classroom full of smiling, happy faces. One student is missing, however. Johnny is running late today. A few minutes pass with pleasant conversation as the teacher begins the lesson. Suddenly, the door opens abruptly, slamming into the wall with such force that the Parts of Speech poster is knocked to the floor. Sally lets out a quick scream and the flying poster hits Susie in the leg, causing her to yell at Johnny. He stomps to his desk, slamming his bag onto it so hard that it tips forward. Billy, sitting in front of Johnny, turns to yell at him. At this point, the room has turned to chaos. The teacher has a choice… she can get angry and escalate the situation, or she can remain calm and diffuse it. The students are all waiting for her response, and although it is not in the curriculum, this is a teaching moment.

Students observe teachers’ attitudes toward their peers and administration, as well. If teachers constantly complain about those around them, the students will begin to view this as acceptable workplace behavior, but when the teachers continue to “put on a happy face” no matter the situation, we can teach a valuable lesson that will help our students in their future careers. Being able to adapt to changing management and workplace standards is a necessary skill in almost any profession. We, as teachers, have a great opportunity to model appropriate behavior for our students.

When we are faced with new principals, changing testing requirements, updated teacher evaluation models, and all the other curveballs that continue to be thrown our way, reacting in a positive manner (at least in front of the students) is an excellent way to teach them to deal with adverse situations in life. Students need to learn to coexist peacefully with people who are not necessarily “like” them. The world, just like our workplaces, is filled with people with differing opinions and lifestyles, and the better we are at getting along with one another, the more peaceful it will be.

Learning the curriculum is important, as is performing well on tests – especially if a student’s path is leading him to college. Higher grades and higher test scores certainly lead to more scholarship money and opportunities for acceptance to “better” schools. Students definitely need to learn to read and write, to perform a variety of mathematical operations, to understand how the body works and the science behind the world surrounding us, and to understand the ways in which our government is run and the historical path which led us here. These are not the only lessons students should walk out of the doors of high school with, however. Of equal importance are all the other things that are not in the curriculum.

In my next post, I will share with you twenty-five things that are not in the curriculum that I hope I am teaching my students, but in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on what you think children should learn in school.

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