Why "Just" Fulfilling Requirements Does Not a Complete Education Make
One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to post a monthly column on the goings-on in our media studies department (and in education technology in general) to our online parent bulletin. This is one such column.
This winter, as our students were in the throes of course selection for 2010-2011, I had a number of conversations with my students about their plans for the coming year. Of course, they are my students and I like them, and I would be delighted to see them continue in media studies (and have the opportunity to continue teaching them). Almost without exception, my students talked about how excited they were in their classes with me (which is very flattering, and taken with a grain of salt), but also about how they were concerned about fulfilling all of their graduation requirements. And when we talked about others who were planning to continue, they asked — uniformly — “why are they taking that class? Just because they like it?”
I teach in the media studies department — a department that is unusual at the secondary level, and doubly unusual at [Jewish Day School] in the richness and depth of its offerings. Of course students take our classes “just because they like them.” The prospect of getting to work on a weekly TV newscast, or of building interactive computer games or producing animated movies is, on the very face of it… pretty cool (or hot, or sick, or whatever it is that students are calling the things they like these days). But they’re also more than that: they are classes that provide authentic learning, allowing students to wrap their minds around incredibly nuanced and complex concepts in design and media and information literacy. That this happens in middle and high school, at a time when students are undergoing drastic social, moral and personal development, provides a rich and fertile environment for lasting learning.
I have taught high school students since 1998, and my classes have never been graduation requirements. The frustrations of convincing the NCAA that Advanced Placement Computer Science AB was actually an “academic” subject are best left untapped; suffice it to say that I have always taught “niche” courses. But what I have seen in my students has been astounding: the students who choose to pursue a course of study for lishma, for the joy of learning, “just because they like it” — these are the students who find success, both in high school and afterwards. I love to see what my students are doing, be they aspiring screenwriters, Ph.D.s in information management, automotive engineers, or crew coaches. In each case, having first discovered a passion and then pursued it in high school, they are now able to do the same again and again in their adult lives: they understand what it means to be lifelong learners.
The stereotype, of course, is that media studies and computer science courses are “filler classes” that are available for the especially gifted — or the especially ambitious — student to add on top of their graduation requirements; these classes are a way to impress prospective colleges. In fact, what I have found is that teaching media studies and computer science is much more about teaching students how to be effective teammates and leaders on complex projects. It is about teaching students to instinctively apply formal problem-solving techniques to difficult personal problems. And it is about teaching students to apply their critical and analytical information literacy to the world around them. In short, these are classes that focus on teaching students to think, and to think hard, about the world around them and how they live in it and communicate with others.
These are the courses that transform a high school experience from college prep to an outstanding, lasting education. At a time in their lives when they are undergoing profound social, moral and personal growth, the students in media studies classes are not taking these classes “just because they like them”, but because they recognize — or are starting to recognize — that the process of identifying, pursuing and achieving a passion is not a goal for other people “just because they like it”, but is, in fact, a key skill for living their lives. The students who take these classes are able to point proudly at them on their college applications, and on their resumes, as a signal accomplishment, and one that they can and will replicate again and again throughout their lives.
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