Discarding Assumptions

In the passageways at a local mall, there are seven-foot-high structures, called “monuments,” that display mall directories and advertisements. One monument displays a large poster that depicts a young African-American woman working in a fast food restaurant. The lighting in this photographic poster is, I assume, purposely poor to add to its grim depiction of this young woman’s situation. Her face does not stand out, but her expression can be seen. She’s not smiling or looking happy, but it’s otherwise difficult to discern her mood. She might simply be focused on what she’s doing, or unhappy, tired, or in some other state. The wording on the poster is: Heather, 10th grade. Worked 45 minutes on term paper. Worked 9 hours on night shift. I’m sure that the intention here is to create sympathy for Heather, relying on the cultural assumption in our society that young people should make schooling their priority, and that spending much more time at work than on school assignments is not a good thing.

These assumptions may not be warranted. But before considering this, there’s the issue of inferring that the reported division of Heather’s time is typical. It’s possible that she has on other days spent a great deal of time on her term paper, and/or has set aside future times to work on it. Maybe she’s a part-time employee and works just a few days a week. Perhaps she seldom works the night shift; it might even be that she’s substituting for someone else, and night shifts are never part of her own work schedule.

If the time division is typical, there are several possible reasons why Heather is giving her term paper short shrift. It may be that she is in distress because of her work/school schedule. But there are other possibilities. We don’t know what class the term paper was assigned in, so let’s assume the class is U.S. History. It could be that:   • Heather simply isn’t interested in history. • Heather’s personality and the teacher’s clash. • Writing is not one of Heather’s strengths. • Heather is generally bored in school and prefers working. • Heather is a hands-on person, enjoys being on her feet and active, and has a hard time sitting still at desks. • Heather is hard-working and ambitious, and is destined to become the CEO of the company she is now working for. She knows that if she needs a college degree, she can earn one without a strong high school record. We all live in various societal and institutional cultures and experience pressure, often unnoticed, to absorb and adopt the beliefs and practices of these cultures. I taught in public schools for 31 years, left the system 21 years ago, and in many instances since then have had to work to consciously resist traditional assumptions. For example, for quite a while, I felt that when a student had spent some time in a traditional school, I was obligated to transcribe all of her coursework when I wrote a transcript. But I came to a point where I felt I needed to reconsider this, and decided I could list previously completed course work selectively as long as I made it clear on a transcript that I had done this.

One student, Anna, prior to enrolling in my school for her senior year, had received an A- for her first semester of AP U.S. History in a public high school, and an F for the second semester. I left the F off her transcript and instead gave her an A for the second semester of U.S. History on the basis of her test scores, using University of California (UC) criteria. Anna earned a 5 on the AP test in this subject, and a 740 on the SAT Subject Test. The UC minimums for course credit were 3 and 550, respectively.

The preamble on Anna’s transcript includes these statements: “Courses taken at Oakland Technical High School are listed selectively. Anna’s lower grades at OTHS reflect her understandably unenthusiastic response to unchallenging work. She has demonstrated her knowledge and abilities in other ways.” Anna applied to two universities and was accepted by both of them. She is now a graduate of American University.

There are many ubiquitous and false cultural messages about relatively small matters, like what a high school transcript has to represent, and about important issues such as how to begin a productive adult life. The central message is that if a young person doesn't jump through a series of hoops set in place by distant strangers, he will face a life in dead-end, low-paying jobs and will not prosper. Homeschooling provides an opportunity to examine cultural assumptions, beliefs, and practices, including those of traditional schools, and, where state laws allow, to discard them and think creatively about how to design educational paths that allow young people to pursue their genuine interests and develop their talents. It could be that working in a fast food restaurant or at another low-paying job for a while would be the most useful thing for a young person to do. One of my former students spent part of her last homeschooling year working as an intern in a restaurant’s kitchen. This internship was credited on her transcript, and it continued into the first part of a gap year, after which she went on to St. John’s College, where she is now happily studying.

Wes Beach worked in public schools for 31 years and now directs Beach High School.  He is author of Forging Paths: Beyond Traditional Schooling and  his newest work, Self-Directed Learning: Documentation and Life Stories available Spring 2015!