Great Expectations

I’m sitting at my desk today setting up lesson plans for this coming school year. One of the *ahem*joys*ahem* of working at a small private school is that I have yet to teach the same set of classes two years in a row so I wind up doing at least some intensive lesson planning each year.

This year, I plan on emphasizing expectations in each of my classes. Now, this isn’t a goal for my students as much as it’s a goal for me as their teacher. Here’s my thought process.

We (every teacher I’ve ever met) spend countless lunch duties, hall duties, and breaks around the fictional water-cooler complaining that they just don’t make students like they used to. The current crop we’ve been given can’t write, can’t multiply, do the bare minimum to get by, are barely literate, and are making us blind with their handwriting. The complaints are endless.

I think I’ve found something interesting. In my experience there is a huge difference between “can’t” and “don’t”. My students will find out exactly what the bare minimum I require is and do that; every time. Why would they do more? If my reaction to a paper turned in with terrible handwriting is to roll my eyes and then complain to the teacher next door about their handwriting, why should they change? I read it and grade it anyways, they might as well not put as much time and effort into it.

A while back I read through a copy of the New England Primer and was impressed beyond words. The complexity of what first graders were expected to read and understand astounds me. I teach junior high and high school exclusively (I stay away from elementary classrooms on principle) and would be impressed if my students could understand most of that book.

Now I know that part of what you’re dealing with is a change in the vocabulary of the culture. I get that. Still, I can’t help but think that the children of yester-year were capable of reading and understanding words like exhort, zeal, and glorious because they were expected to learn them and there was no excuse for not doing so.

It’s a fact that what we now consider to be a high school education was completed by the eighth grade not that many years ago. Granted, a lot has changed about education in that time. I really don’t believe that much has changed about children in that time. What’s changed is what we expect of them.

From this line of thinking I’ve derived two plans. Well, one plan and an interesting idea for an experiment.

First is the emphasis on expectations and excellence that I was talking about earlier. I’m setting the bar just that much higher in my classroom and I’m taking the time to make sure it stays there.

Second, and more interesting I think, is the idea that in educating my own children they could easily work at the level of a previous century if that is what is expected of them. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about pressure or discipline. I’m simply talking about changing from expecting children to understand, “Dick and Jane will run and have fun”, and instead expecting them to wrap their little minds around, “As runs the glass, our life does pass”.

Wouldn’t that take more time, effort, leading, and time invested in helping your young children understand concepts that our culture would consider beyond the grasp of a child? Of course it would. Isn’t that what education should be?


2 responses to “Great Expectations

  • Melanie

    I agree that we get out of them what we expect. Kids will do the minimum on most any project. Up the minimum and they’ll have to perform at a higher level. Good luck to you! I will be interested in your approach and results.

  • Grams

    Way to go, Jonathan! I agree, the kids today graduate with less than an 8th grade level education, especially here in California. Keep up the good work. See you soon!! Love, Grams

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