Becoming an 11th Grader…

[ December 07, 2008 ]

I became an 11th grader for two days in November. It was a fascinating experience. I went to a Trigonometry class, a Spanish class, an “Introduction to Theater” class, a “Constructing America” class, and AP Chemistry class and a PE Class. I managed to keep up with the homework to some degree, although it was astonishing how much I had forgotten, especially in math and in chemistry. For example, in chemistry I could not remember Avogadro’s number. This is what A.N. Whitehead, the noted philosopher, called this “inert knowledge”–knowledge that you have somewhere in the head but is impossible to apply to an actual situation.

I had several reactions to the day: 

– I think that I am becoming more and more attentionally challenged as I age. It is hard for me to keep focus for more than 25-30 minutes. I was amazed how engaged and focused the students remained throughout the day. Certainly, walking a bit between classes and having a PE class helps this. 

– I was much better off in the humanities classrooms where I had an understanding of the broader essential questions and disciplinary frameworks so the readings and discussions made sense to me. This was less apparent in the math and chemistry classes. 

– The teachers were universally committed, humorous, engaged and attentive to individual students. What a great environment in which to learn. I really enjoyed the challenging but warm environment in all of the classes. On the other hand, I did not have to write a paper nor take a test. Grades certainly change this element of the school community. I am interested to think more about this idea of how one can have a culture where there are high standards that are objective, but there is not this rather odd notion of grades being so central to the educational experience. 

– I really thought a lot. It was great to be tested to think across different subjects. All the teachers prodded and cajoled students to think beyond just filling in a formula or giving a pat response. I really appreciated how everyone was collectively thinking and asking questions of each other. I also really appreciated how the faculty members made students think about how the content is linked to current issues. 

– On the other hand, I could have seen some of the discussions and questions continued in class until there was a deeper level of understanding. It was interesting, in hindsight, to think about how difficult it is to balance the necessity of rich, interesting content with the concept of deeply understanding sophisticated concepts. 

– I found it difficult to take notes, listen and find time to reflect on the work in the classes. I needed more time to do some writing and thinking after each class or in the evening. It was difficult to find time to do this in the evening. There is an interesting dynamic between learning material, thinking and writing about it. It is also interesting how this relates to the structure of the day, student engagement and the way classes are organized. 

– I ended the experience with so much respect for our students and our teachers. The work is intense and there is much to do. Everyone engages with such good spirit, curiosity and good humor. 

I really enjoyed this experience and found it tremendously illuminating. In the New  Year, I shall become a 7th grader and a 4th grader for a day. I am so looking forward to those experiences.

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