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Learning at its Best, School Stories

The Kids Are Alright

Lily and Sam shoot the gap.

Yesterday my two youngest children graduated from high school.

Unlike many of the parents cheering and hollering on the lawn on that beautiful June day, I was not deeply grateful to the institution that had just processed them through four years of standardized testing, sorted and tracked them, assessed their “readiness” for honors and AP courses, carefully measured them in relation to their peers and recommended them to colleges and universities.   I was not moved to tears by the speeches of various deans, assistant headmasters and superintendents, who in applauding graduates on a job “well done” were also justifying their own continued employment and reinforcing their own sense of self worth, while making the audience complicit in a culture that is passionately attached to competitive, individualized, high-status attainment.  I did not feel moved to chuckle at the small-bore insider jokes among administrators about who’s now allowed to have a doughnut, who’s leaving whom by retiring, and who had planned to ride into graduation on a horse and in cowboy boots.

Instead, I had a cautious, wary, somewhat dispassionate view of the institution through which my children had just passed, one filled with the paradoxes that currently characterize my relationship with the educational sector. Graduations are ceremonies of self-congratulation, moments when the fierce need for institutional justification are most nakedly on display, and when the educational values of Darwinian selection are reified and reinforced, while at the same time paradoxically, the net is cast wide and we are all one big happy family.  In the high school graduation ritual, some are chosen especially, while simultaneously, through the apparent generosity of diploma awarding, another symbol of institutional branding and enfolding, all differences are momentarily forgiven, all past arguments, family squabbles and formerly serious infractions are set aside, at least for a few glowing weeks until it all starts back up again.

At this high school, and throughout their years in public school, these two children have had some extraordinary individual teachers, teachers who are fierce and quirky and kind and powerfully interested in things.  By virtue of a small, democratically-run academic program within their conventional, high-attainment upper-middle-class public high school,  these children have had opportunities to develop as writers, critical thinkers, and social activists.  Without that, I think they might have been crushed on the rocks of conventional high school culture, or certainly ground down to a finer grain of quarry stone.  This little program acted as a breakwater within an institution in which students are fodder, to be processed and spat out, to be hazily remembered at alumni events if they do well, but mostly forgotten–like the many thousands of students who have passed through its halls and out its doors. For the teachers with whom my children came into contact during their four years of high school who saw them as unique, uniquely passionate, and beautiful young people, I am profoundly grateful.

On the other hand, the larger school culture in which those relationships occurred was one that tended, even among the most enlightened, to prize intellectual performances that accrue towards building academic capital:  grades, test scores, prizes, and an extraordinary number of extracurriculars.  Consumed by its own (adult) dramas and desire to protect its sense of specialness (a liberal, “diverse,” mostly White, meritocracy), the institution would go to dramatic ends to describe its wonders to the outside world:  constantly highlighting its “inclusive” culture while looking the other way at class and race incidents and enrollment patterns; proclaiming its high test scores while also purporting not to be test-obsessed; reinforcing among teachers that they were the best of the best, but rarely holding them accountable for their classroom practices or engaging them in serious professional development.  My children were often bored.  In her AP Environmental class in senior year, my daughter bemoaned four lost weeks at the end of the year spent preparing for the AP exam (high scores are very important to teachers and help determine teacher status);  she loved the material but, “learning just stopped, even though most of us could already get a 4 or a 5 on the test.”  Long ago my son determined exactly how not to let the institution of school get in the way of his learning, and had explicit plans for choosing courses carefully so that he had ample time to attend local university lectures and participate in arts events.  Both have come through the institution with real interests intact, but each has wasted a tremendous amount of time in high school.  Finding intellectual challenges primarily in those classes that were a part of their small democratically-run program, they learned little of great consequence except how to tolerate the endless sea of demands and counter-demands of performance that the large comprehensive high school requires, and how to shoot the rapids of an institution like school without swamping the boat.  They are out, and I am glad they are out. I am relieved.

My children are White, upper-middle-class, and amply provided for.  The system in which my kids go to school is set up to make kids like them feel very special and successful.   They are not “school dependent,” in the words of my new friend Yvette Jackson, the author of The Pedagogy of Confidence. Unlike so many kids with whom I work, my children did not have to rely on their school system to ensure their success.  And yet, high school should and could have been so much better, for them and for all kids.  I am not relieved.

About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


13 thoughts on “The Kids Are Alright

  1. life is too short.

    we can do better than alright.

    Posted by monika hardy | June 6, 2011, 5:14 pm
    • Hey Monika, This is one of the reasons I’m so excited about your program–so much better than alright. So can you relate to this with regard to your twins? Sound familiar?

      I wonder what conditions on the ground are for them.


      Posted by Kirsten | June 7, 2011, 7:59 am
  2. The crowning achievement of a public education should be more than students’ awareness of the systems’ shortcomings, failures, and harms. I’m glad your kids found ways to break their dependence on their school. I’m glad you shared this brave post. I’m glad to be learning about my own school’s attitudes toward “graduation” as we bid our first class of 8th graders adieu this Friday evening.

    In reading this post and in thinking of RiShawn’s post earlier this week about the lack of a parent union in Virginia, how do we parents, our children, and their teachers all get access to one another and “permission” for intra-public-school R&D on better alternatives? How do we, in effect, motivate administrators and school boards to let us start schools and programs with our kids and other educators?

    How do we stop being the canons and start being the shipwrights, sail-makers, and the wind?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 6, 2011, 7:33 pm
    • i like this Chad.. let’s be the wind.

      stuck is a state of mind:

      Posted by monika hardy | June 7, 2011, 7:43 am
    • Hey Chad, Maybe you can put a link to RiShawn’s post up here? We really haven’t focused too much on parental activism here, except glancingly, and it may be the moment to start. Many parents, in my experience, don’t know where to start–how to start to take action or to feel effective.

      I guess another post for me is about my own journey of decisioning about whether and how to educate my own children, and the strengths and weaknesses of those decisions. I am not sorry they’ve participated in this critically important democratic institution, but feel so fiercely how much better these experiences could be for the vast majority of kids.

      How are you and your wife going to navigate this with your children?


      Posted by Kirsten | June 7, 2011, 8:03 am
      • Here is RiShawn’s post:

        So far, to offer more than school does (which seems to be, right now, essentially what offers) we’re relying on summer experiences (with family and friends as mentors) and supporting eclectic hobbies outside school as the kids’ interests wax and wane. Perhaps we’ll re-assess after next year once our school goes through his first year of state testing and we see what kinds of work he’s offered once we make it clear that we don’t want him test prepped or coerced.

        As a parent of kids in a system outside the one in which I teach, I share in not knowing exactly how to start, especially in an especially non-progressive part of a non-progressive state.

        With more thinking to do, clearly,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | June 7, 2011, 8:23 am
  3. Dear Mrs. Olson,

    I am a student at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. I am currently in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class and as an assignment I was given your blog to comment on and post on my blog.
    I really enjoyed your post. As a future high school math teacher, it made me think about my past experiences and what I want to bring to the table. How long have you been teaching? Do you have any advice on how to not get caught up in the “hoopla” and be a great teacher?

    Bobbi Jo Nelson

    Posted by Bobbi Jo Nelson | June 7, 2011, 12:31 pm
    • Hi Bobbi,

      It’s great that you’re writing a blog and I applaud Dr. Strange for requiring students to get out into Net World and be a part of conversations about teaching. I hope this will become a habit all your life, and that the colleagues and connections you make here become part of your personal and professional learning network.

      I have been teaching and consulting and writing about education for about twenty-two years. I work with teachers and teams of school leaders who are trying to do large scale transformational change in their districts or schools, usually focusing on how they teach, and how they think about instruction and students.

      My advice about not getting caught up in the hoopla–in other words, having a self-questioning and growing attitude about your work and your own growth–is to put yourself into situations where you are constantly having to question your assumptions about how high school is structured, why the institution structures and defines learning in the way that it does, and whether this serves students well. (And which students does it serve well? Whom does it not serve well? This is an especially important question in math departments and math instruction.) I also recommend that if you don’t like the answers you discover to these questions, you gather a group of colleagues around you and raise holy hell. Become a trouble maker to change the school you work in and make it better. You have a lot of colleagues here at this blog and all over the internet who have gotten fired for what they believe in, are consistent trouble makers in their departments, and are working to make education better.

      Come back and tell us more about what you’re up to!


      Posted by Kirsten | June 8, 2011, 8:59 pm
  4. One of the changes we made to the grad ceremony was the addition of a social hour before the ceremony, an addition of a highlight reel of the graduates and the elimination of big Whig speakers. Our grads give all the speeches. Because it is their school I speak very little at the ceremony. We rotate the mc around with different staff filling that position. It really feels like a community of leathers celebrating a rite of passage with our kids. For me graduation always lifts me up, knowing that these kids have move from dependence on us to having a plan for independence. Yet we leave the door open for them to always come back for advice and guidance. Once you are grad of NWPHS you are always a students.

    As a funny side note, the day after graduation we have a brat bash (WI bias) and former grads always are welcome and we typically draw 10-15 of them on that day. School should be a place where we are stronger because we come together to ensure we all succeed.

    Just a note NWPHS, we issue no grades, no class rank, yet 60% of our kids attend post-secondary after graduation. Check out our video and blog about graduation at Look for the grad speeches in a few weeks, they WILL make you cry, I did.

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | June 8, 2011, 6:56 am
  5. Jamie, Thanks for this link to your graduation, and IDEA has on its radar NWPHS for an innovation school tour for the coming year. It would be great to gather a whole group of educators together to spend a couple of days seeing what you are doing more intensively and collectively, and tweet and blog about it.

    Just on an ironic note, the small, democratically-run program that 3 of my 4 children attended within the high school described in the post above, has a graduation ceremony similar to NWPHS. Kids “confer” degrees on each other, after they write speeches about each other, and make all the remarks about graduation. There is a lot of hugging and crying. It’s lovely, very homespun, in a small local gym. “Take A Load Off Annie” was the theme song of graduation.

    Take a load off Annie, and and and you can put the load right on me.


    Posted by Kirsten | June 8, 2011, 9:05 pm


  1. Pingback: The Kids Are Alright | Pedagogies of Abundance - June 6, 2011

  2. Pingback: The Kids Are Alright « Kirsten Olson - September 24, 2014

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