An Ideal High School Education


Fundamentally, our education is fine.  In fact, I’m not sure what I would do all day (as I’ve learned during this time called my “gap year”) if I didn’t go to school.  At school, I have the opportunity to learn about different subjects and figure out what I hate and like, to converse and laugh with friends, and to have a solid structure supporting and comforting me as I grow.  As one of my friends often will tell me, he doesn’t understand why everyone is so eager to get out of here and go to college; he loves high school.  But there is something to be learned in being independent and being thrown into a situation that is uncomfortable.  High school (at least private ones) lack the scary factor.  I’m going to Berkeley next year, and everyone tells me that besides the inherent independence that comes from leaving home and going to college comes another independence which arises from now going to a public school where there is no hand holding and if you get off track, there is no safety net to catch you.  It’s scary.  Things could go extremely wrong and that’s extremely scary.  But things could also go extremely right.  It’s scary, but it’s the type of scary that is exciting.  I’ve been told that in order to make the most of the school, I’m going to have to actively look for opportunities instead of being handed them like at a school such as Menlo1.  I don’t believe there is anything wrong with some hand holding, the question really is when do you take off the braces and hope your legs will stay up?

I don’t think I have enough experience to appropriately answer the last question so I’ll close that part with the statement that I believe in should happen sometime in high school.  Scott Adams wrote a fabulous article called “How to Get a Real Education” where he boastfully speaks about his education and how he got where he was today.  His point was that life experience was the only way to prepare you for life.  Valid for sure (as any opinion usually is) but holding the assumption that everyone is homogenous and learns the same way/needs to learn the same things.  If you want to have a job in corporate America, you don’t need to be intelligent; you need to be hardworking.  Most companies are like beehives that operate with mindless automatons working to fulfill the dreams of a more intelligent being.  I’m not saying that’s ideal; I’m merely pointing out that in order to be successful (in sense of having a job and being able to support a family), it’s more important to be hard working than be smart.  A sad but honest truism.

So the better question is how do you become the hive-queen.  That type of success requires constant brilliance.  But the point of this is not talk about what will make you a CEO or however you measure success; it’s to speak about the ideal education, which done right allows you to understand exactly what success means to you.

High school in terms of classes lack two requirements.  Every high school student should be obligated to take a Moral & Ethics class (though I doubt how well something like that can be taught) and a Finance class.  Based on my experience in high school, people have very dubious ideas of what is right and wrong.  In high school, you don’t have much independence, but you have enough that you can make a right or wrong decision (especially when you learn to drive and have a car).  People talk a lot about college being about experimenting (in terms of classes, drugs, and people), but a lot of that happens in high school.  People are put into uncomfortable positions and don’t know how to act, for example, what to do when someone trolls2 you.  While most issues aren’t deep, they are issues nonetheless, and issues that people in high school would love to have some help solving.  Advocacy3 is supposed to help solve those issues, but a more direct attempt would be appreciated.  I understand the difficulty in teaching something only experience can usually teach, but I strongly believe exposure to problem solving and to proposed solutions would help guide people my age through this foggy period.  The other class I mentioned is a Finance class and that is because most people have to begin managing their own finances when they get to college and it’s important to be able to understand how to do that.  You learn a little bit about that in AP Economics, but the focus of the class is different.  Both a morals class and a finance class would provide intrinsic life knowledge.  While perhaps difficult to teach to high schoolers, I believe it’s better than not teaching it at all.

I now am going to address each subject, starting with foreign language:

Foreign Language

I’m no expert (obviously) but I’ve heard it’s easier to learn languages at younger ages, which intuitively makes sense.  (Imagine how much better Russell Brand’s English would be if she had learned at a younger age.)  Thus I believe in pre-school and kinder garden, students should be taught more different languages.  I additionally believe in high school, you should be required to take 4 years of language because at an older age you can grasp some of the more fine points of languages like the meaning behind the differences in two synonymous words, in pronunciation, or in translated works.  Having taken only 2 years of Spanish, since I qualified to not have to take a 3rd year by school and by my parents standards, I can definitely say that I missed out on an opportunity to understand another culture and to be fluent in the language.  I still read Spanish works, but I wish I continued studying the language in school.  At the time, I couldn’t see the point in taking Spanish junior year when the teacher disliked me (or rather I disliked the teacher), and there were so many other math and science classes I yearned to take.  In any case, I believe 4 years should be a requirement (if not 4 at least 3).

It really comes down to personal preference when you are deciding which to take because as I mentioned above, you really are going to learn the same sort of things.  Since we live in California and a majority of people speak Spanish, I think Spanish would be a great language second to English.  Latin would be nice since it can help get you that 2400 on the SAT (a milestone in any Menlo student’s career) or help you understand new words without context.  I don’t think French would be bad either so that when you eventually burn out and take a year off to “go study” in France, you know how to ask for directions.  I have an affinity for Hindi since my whole family speaks it, and I’m Indian.  I don’t think it is particularly useful since as most people who have had traveled in India know; everyone speaks English.  I can’t say this for sure, but I bet the same is true in most developing (or “emerging,” is the new politically correct term?) countries.  Though despite most people knowing English, it always gives you an edge if you are talking to someone in their native language.

Mathematics

I love math.  One of Menlo’s strongest programs is their honors math program with teachers like Chou, Aiyer, Steinberg, Lax, and Thibs.  The way math is taught or at least the way Chou taught was by teaching you the fundamentals through self-discovery worksheets and then throwing students into solving problems that you have no idea how to solve but know you probably could if you applied yourself.  Menlo students go into a test spend twice the amount of allotted time and get back the test and don’t get an A, but more importantly, you don’t care since you know it will all work out in the end.  When you have Menlo students who don’t care if they get an A on a test, you know you are doing something right.  In math at Menlo, you are taught how to think critically and creatively.  There is very little memorizing and much more understanding and being able to derive everything from fundamentals.  People who don’t like math tend to hate this way of learning since it requires you to think and be confused for possibly days or weeks.  Others who either take bad notes, loose their notes, or don’t take any notes at all prefer having a textbook since you can then look back for formulas and examples when doing homework or studying for a test.  It was a huge change in math going from junior year to senior year.  This is because I had never experienced so much structure in a math class; something that is inherent to every AP class.  I rarely if ever did the homework because it was monotonous and dull, but whenever he assigned an extra credit problem I would be all over it and that’s because Menlo math taught me to embrace challenging and exiting and scary.

While calculus is extremely fun and causes physics and economics to make sense, it’s difficult to see the application of it outside of academics especially if you aren’t interested in math, economics, science, or engineering.  Everyone should take two years of the standard track of Math (Geometry, Algebra, etc) and then junior or senior year, everyone should be required to take statistics.  While most mathematicians hate statisticians because statistics is boiled down formulas, relies too much on almost-never-true assumptions, and is not math, statistics can be applied everywhere.  It helps you when you read the newspaper or any scientific paper.  It aids you in critically thinking about numbers on poster or ones you hear in speeches.  It also helps you in everyday life with grocery shopping or any other numerical endeavor.  Statistics comes up a lot in daily life and would make a lot more sense to take then Calculus which is really only helpful to a small Nerdy set of the population.

English

All in all I was extremely lucky in the English classes I took throughout high school.  Freshmen year I gained confidence in my writing and speaking in discussions (pivotal for any insecure Freshmen girl).  Sophomore year was a disaster more or less.  Junior year I became a good writer and learned that I’m not bad at creative non-fiction.  Senior year English has allowed me to explore and learn about sex, blogging, and humor.  The goal for high school English in my mind should be similar to how I found each year (minus Sophomore year).  Freshmen year should be all about learning the fundamentals of analyzing literature, writing, and speaking in class with an emphasis on confidence boosting.  Sophomore and Junior year should be taught exactly like my AP American Literature class with Ms. Gertmenian.  For each work, students should write 1-3 in class essays,1 take home essay, 1 creative project, and 1-2 non-fiction pieces where each night there is a reading assignment or writing assignment that is either analytical or non-fiction.  Each year the amount of reading should build up so that by the end you are reading as much as you would in a college level class.  In class, there should be discussions led by the teacher.  Two years of this rigorous form of study would improve students (and AP scores). The two years should be split into semesters of English where students can opt to take American, British, Russian or Middle East/Asian Literature for either a semester or a year.  This would offer each student a diverse learning experience and prepare them academically.  (An aside: The Great Gatsby should be taught; it’s one of my favorite books and a classic, and I’m appalled it’s not part of the American Literature curriculum.)  Senior year should be about discovering different types of writing and literature and honing in on what really interests you as a student.  I believe senior year English is already done pretty well, but like Irony and Satire, offer extra reading opportunities because I love reading and discussing but few of my friends read the same books as I do and enjoy discussing them: that was a wonderful excuse to do both.

The way students learn to do anything is through mimicry.  This most easily seen in writing where you see an Orwell structured sentence or a Tolkien description and mimic it in a different setting.  For me, learning to write has been as much about writing as it has about reading.  And that is what is fundamentally wrong with the English at Menlo: we read translated works or ones in Ebonics early in high school when you are still learning to write and are still mimicking language.  In a translation, you would loose Dumas’s omnipotent voice and the way he describes the painting of the lovely Mercedes.  You think you love Márquez until you read a piece in his native tongue, where his word choice and simplicity makes the sea alive.  With Ebonics or epics, you can’t copy the style or vocabulary because it’s not appropriate in most writing settings. By reading works written in languages, you become more cultured and understand the world a bit better, but when you are still bereft of words and blindly writing, dollops of Wilde ease the hunger and help sow the mind.

History

One of the issues with history taught at Menlo is the fact administrative teachers who all just want to teach one class, teach history.  While these teachers may be great at their administrative job, they don’t make for ideal history teachers (I’m not saying that is true with all of them).  I was lucky enough to have 1 good history teacher during my 3 years of history at Menlo (not counting Economics).  Despite my Sophomore Year World History teacher never giving us back anything we turned in, he was a fantastic history teacher.  He was passionate towards the material and made us what to learn the most boring material.  He read relevant works alongside our class and had a lot of life experience that he used to supplement our class in the form of anecdotes.  He taught history the way history should be taught.

So how then should history be taught? History should be taught by having a textbook that focuses on the right details and gives students a good whole understanding of what’s going on in term of cause, change, and effect aka Brinkley.  Students should also be given first and second hand sources that supplement textbook reading.  Students should learn as I did sophomore year how to read primary sources.  Homework should comprise of reading or analytical writing, and, in class, there should be lectures or reading of primary documents and discussions.  Each unit should comprise of 1 in class essay, 1 take home essay, 1 project, and one in-class test with multiple choice and free response.  The year should culminate in a research paper about a relevant topic.  Students should be taught skills learned in APUSH in all 3 (or 4) years of high school history.

I like the class World Religions and believed it did a good job exposing students to different religious beliefs and cultures.  But it should more strictly follow the format I laid out above, except should culminate in a philosophical paper (as it already does) about your own beliefs.  I also think that AP Government should be a semester class that can be taken alongside AP Macroeconomics since the two are so intertwined.

Science

I think the way Menlo taught science is perfect.  Perhaps Dr. Dann shouldn’t teach AP Physics C though.  He’s amazing project teacher making ASR so much fun and so interesting, but he’s too much into self-learning to teach an AP class.  Having said that, everyone I know scored pretty well on the AP test and enjoyed the class.

It’s easy to look back on high school with graduation goggles and only see rainbows, butterflies, and –well- palm trees.  I’m not saying I regret anything I did or didn’t do; just that some changes would make high school, for a lack of a better phrase, more bearable.  While I’m not planning on publishing a book (yet), I’m glad at least one person now knows how I feel about high school education.

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1 Menlo was the high school I attended.  Read more about it by visiting their website, the Wikipedia page, or the Urban Dictionary definition.

2 Definition: To say something deliberately provocative with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument (usually without the other party realizing they aren’t being honest). Used in a Sentence: Paul Krugman was trolling when he wrote an article complimenting the Republicans.

3 Advocacy is support group that every Menlo student takes part in.  There are about 10 people in it with one teacher mentor.  The group meets every week to discuss different issues and hang out.  If a student is having a problem, they are encouraged to go their teacher mentor for advice.

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