“When you ask American teenagers to pick a single word to describe how they feel in school, the most common choice is ‘bored.’ The institutions where they spend many of their waking hours, they’ll tell you, are lacking in rigor, relevance, or both.They aren’t wrong.” J. Mehta and S. Fine, The New York Times
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer KeyCredit Ping Zhu, New York Times
“Studies of American public schools from 1890 to the present suggest that most classrooms lack intellectual challenge. A 2015 Gallup Poll of nearly a million United States students revealed that while 75 percent of fifth-grade students feel engaged by school, only 32 percent of 11th graders feel similarly.
What would it take to transform high schools into more humanizing and intellectually vital places? The answer is right in front of us, if only we knew where to look.
When the two of us — a sociologist and a former English teacher — began our own investigation of this question several years ago, we made two assumptions. Both turned out to be wrong.
The first was that innovative schools would have the answers. We traveled from coast to coast to visit 30 public high schools that had been recommended by leaders in the field. What we saw, however, was disheartening. Boredom was pervasive. Students filled out worksheets, answered factual questions, constructed formulaic paragraphs, followed algorithms and conducted “experiments” for which the results were already known. Covering content almost always won out over deeper inquiry — the Crusades got a week; the Cold War, two days.
The result? In lower-level courses, students were often largely disengaged; in honors courses, students scrambled for grades at the expense of intellectual curiosity. Across the different class types, when we asked students to explain the purpose of what they were doing, their most common responses were ‘I dunno’ and ‘I guess it’ll help me in college.’
Our second mistake was that we assumed the place to look for depth was in core academic classes. As we spent more time in schools, however, we noticed that powerful learning was happening most often at the periphery — in electives, clubs and extracurriculars.
Intrigued, we turned our attention to these spaces. We followed a theater production. We shadowed a debate team. We observed elective courses in green engineering, gender studies, philosophical literature and more.
As different as these spaces were, we found they shared some essential qualities. Instead of feeling like training grounds or holding pens, they felt like design studios or research laboratories: lively, productive places where teachers and students engaged together in consequential work. It turned out that high schools — all of them, not just the ‘innovative’ ones — already had a model of powerful learning. It just wasn’t where we thought it would be.
Consider the theater production that we observed at a large public high school in an affluent suburban community. Students who had slouched their way through regular classes suddenly became capable, curious and confident. The urgency of the approaching premiere lent the endeavor a sense of momentum. Students were no longer vessels to be filled with knowledge, but rather people trying to produce something of real value.
Coaching replaced’professing’ as the dominant mode of teaching. Apprenticeship was the primary mode of learning. Authority rested not with teachers or students but with what the show demanded.
What we saw on a debate team in a high-poverty urban public school was similar. Monthly debate competitions gave the work a clear sense of purpose and urgency. Faculty members and older students mentored the novices. Students told us that ‘debate is like a family.’
Perhaps most important, debate gave students a chance to speak in their own voices on issues that mattered to them. Inducted into an ancient form of verbal and mental discipline, they discovered a source of personal power…It should come as no surprise that when we asked students to reflect on their high school experiences, it was most often experiences like theater and debate that they cited as having influenced them in profound ways…The more we can create similar opportunities in core subjects — giving students the freedom to define authentic and purposeful goals for their learning, creating opportunities for students to lead that learning, and helping them to refine their work until it meets high standards of quality — the deeper their learning and engagement will be.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming
Directions: Place students in groups, ask students to think about what they already know about the topic. Next, have students look at the pictures in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the article. Regroup as a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use a brainstorming chart for assistance.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- Debate, drama and other extracurriculars provide the excitement.
- What would it take to transform high schools into more vital places?
- Some innovative schools might have the answers.
- We traveled from coast to coast to visit 30 public high schools, what we saw, however, was disheartening.
- In lower-level courses, students were often largely disengaged.
- We assumed the place to look for depth was in core academic classes.
- As different as these spaces were, we found they shared some essential qualities.
- Students who had slouched their way through regular classes suddenly became capable and confident.
- The truly powerful core classes echoed what we saw in extracurriculars.
- Most important of all, high school students need to be granted much more responsibility and choice.
Grammar Focus: English Pronouns
Directions: Students choose the correct [Subject pronouns] to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.
English Subject pronouns: I, you, he, she, it, we, they
When ___ask American teenagers to pick a single word to describe how ___feel in school, the most common choice is ‘bored.’
___traveled from coast to coast to visit 30 public high schools.
Across the different class types,___asked students to explain the purpose of what ___were doing.
As ___spent more time in schools, however,___noticed that powerful learning was happening n electives, clubs and extracurriculars.
Reading Comprehension : Fill-ins
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
Before the___bell, we treat ___as passive ___of knowledge whose interests and ___matter little. After the final bell — in newspaper, debate, theater,___and more — we treat ___as people who ___by doing, people who can ___as well as___, and people whose passions and are worth cultivating.
WORD LIST: learn, learn, identities, final, students, students, athletics, ideas ,teach, recipients,
Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the following questions/statements. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.
- Describe your high school experience. Did you find the experience satisfying? Fun? Boring?
- With your group members describe your idea of a good high school curriculum.
- The article states,“Schools need to become much more deeply attached to the world beyond their walls…Some use project-based learning to engage students in their local communities; some collaborate with museums, employers and others who can give students experiences in professional domains; still others prioritize hiring teachers who have had experience working in (and not just teaching about) their fields…”Do you agree/disagree with this statement?Why or why not?Provide examples of how project-based learning would work.
Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading,two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.