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Academic Proficiency & Strong Character: Making the Mission Relevant for Students
Written by Rob Terry
Proficiency is a provocative word given the prevalence of high-stakes testing in modern American public education. But it’s not up to test creators to identify what students must understand. Educators must define what it means for students to be academically “proficient;” that is, what should they know and be able to do after 180 days of instruction? And remember, the mission is two-fold. In addition to being academically proficient, our young people must know the principles of proper conduct and understand the difference between right and wrong, acting not only in accordance, but also influencing those around them to do the same. Our students will punch the clock in a world of Ponzi schemes, insider trading, and predatory lending. There is no denying the originators of these schemes and scams were academically proficient, what they lacked was strength of character: a commitment not only to do their best, but also to be their best - and in so doing leave a positive legacy on the world around them.
Where does this leave our students? As educators, we know that, in order for this mission to be relevant, students must understand more than the definitions academic proficiency and strength of character. They must also have an explicit
value. In order to truly resonate with young people, these two critical goals, this mission, must be connected to a desirable outcome that they can relate to. That desirable outcome is a quality life. This is an easy conversation to have; all you have to do is grab a dry erase marker and a whiteboard and ask a group of students what it means, to them, to live a quality life.
“Uh-huh,” you say, “I already know what I’m going to hear: mansion, money, ten cars, airplane, jewelry...” Give it a try. You might, no, you will be surprised. Sure, those things make the list, and they often come up first; no surprise since they are indicative of economic security (something any of us would likely include on our own grown-up lists of what it means to live a quality life). However, for kids, the list does not end here, as many adults may assume that it will.
Given time to discuss and share in a non-judgmental, supportive environment that encourages them to open up, young men and women will say beautiful things about what it means to live a quality life. According to one seventh-grader in Memphis, TN it means “having a family, not just making babies.” The list will go on, and on, and on, touching on subjects such as the safety of neighborhoods, the importance of supporting the less fortunate, the value of education, the strength of meaningful relationships with friends and family, and more.
Once this list has been made, it becomes an artifact that students can refer back to as a way of reminding themselves what they are striving for, both now and the future. It becomes a manifestation of their mission, and educators can expand the conversation to help them connect their vision of a quality life with academic proficiency and strength of character. One way to do this is to lead a follow-up conversation in which students are asked to describe a quality school. As before, students will likely give those answers that most adults expect: nicer teachers, better food, less homework, more sports. However, as with the quality life conversation, given time and space students will come up with insightful responses here too. Even students who are not in a healthy school environment can describe what one would look like, right down to the behaviors of administrators, teachers, and even students.
One of the most powerful aspects of this conversation is the follow up to the quality school question: “What is the connection between a quality school and a quality life?” If facilitated effectively, this question can be the single best classroom management tool there is. When students, on their own, make the connection between what they have to do to make their school a quality school, and how the experience they have at a quality school will help them live a quality life now and in the future, there is a marked change.
In a classroom where students have explicitly made the connection between their actions, a quality school, and a quality life, the seemingly omni-present (and oft dreaded) question: ‘why are we doing this, what’s the point?’ has been answered before it has even been asked. With this knowledge in mind, students feel a sense of ownership that changes the very way in which they approach school. As a result of this change in mentality, students tend to be more likely to participate in discussions, take ownership of their work, and behave in a constructive way.
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