School: Not a Conveyor Belt

I am fortunate enough to be homeschooled — which provides lots of opportunity for personalization in itself — and that my mother allows me to customize my education as much as possible. For example, during my junior year of high school, instead of fulfilling my English credit with a standard writing or literature course, I chose to write my own novel. While I was writing, I got to spend my school year working on my writing craft and pushing towards my dream of being an author. When I finished, I spent time researching how to get published and learned lots of the mechanisms of the publishing industry. Writing my book was an amazing experience, and I’m currently in the process of trying to get it published. This was possibly the most personalized, deepest learning activity I have done in the span of my education career. This experience, in particular, has shaped me as a student by showing me the importance of individualization in learning and has led me to seek deep learning experiences in the future.

How many other students would be able to say they’ve participated in similar projects? I’d wager the number is small. But more students should have opportunities like this.

But what is deep learning? In this context, it’s the right of students to have “an education tailored to their individual needs and that prepares them for life beyond high school,” Quite simply, it is the right of students to dive into necessary skills and their passions. Deep learning — accomplished by writing a book in this case — is just one of the rights in an array of student rights.

Another right is civic participation. For the sake of full disclosure, as a homeschooler, I have no examples of civic participation from school. Still, I do have opinions on civic participation involving my peers. Admittedly, people my age have a less than stellar record in civic participation, which is to say we don’t vote. Although there are definite moves by certain groups to suppress minority votes, a lot of the lack of voting comes from a level of apathy. So many of my peers, even if they are dissatisfied with the contemporary political environment, do not show up at the polls.

Unless a particular politician ignites a spark in them, count them out. Because of this, I’ve taken it upon myself to start a campaign encouraging my peers and other members of the community to vote. Schools have student governments, but the schools themselves don’t encourage voting or civic participation. Essentially, the people who participate in school politics are mostly people who would already vote. Plus, lots of students find student government fun, but not its real-world equivalent. Hopefully, I’ll ingrain in some people who might not otherwise be politically inclined what it means to be a responsible member of society, civic participation, and why that includes voting. Schools should stress the importance of civic participation both in schools and beyond.

Okay. All of you are probably on board for how these previous two examples from my life fulfill certain student rights. Now, the question is where would students and schools find time to participate in all these valuable experiences? Fortunately, there are experiences that combine students’ rights and maximize time and learning.

One activity in which I’ve been able to exercise multiple student rights is my work as a receptionist at Volunteers in Medicine (VIM). VIM is a free clinic that services underinsured residents in the area. This activity covers both deep learning and civic participation. The deep learning aspect of my VIM experience begins with the fact that the main ethnic group that the VIM in my area caters to is Latino immigrants. As part of my work, I spend time conversing with patients in Spanish.

Although lots of high schoolers take Spanish in middle and high school, they primarily learn “textbook foreign language.” That is, they don’t learn lots of the practical usage of the language like in a work setting, least of all in a medical setting. In my volunteering, I spend time calling patients to confirm and set up appointments and check patients into the waiting room, often entirely in Spanish. This deep learning allows me to further master the Spanish language in a way most students do not get the opportunity to do.

Besides that, most high schoolers do not learn how to work as a receptionist at all, which is a valuable skill. I know being a receptionist might not be most of my peers’ dream jobs, and I admit, it’s not mine either, but sometimes life does not follow the foreseen path. Especially in recent years, the competition is stiff and it’s hard to land your dream job. Even with perfect credentials, it can be hard to find white-collar employment, so it’s good to have expertise in other skills that are useful to employers. You can live off a job that isn’t ideal, but you can’t live off of no money at all. Students deserve this deep learning to make themselves more marketable for the future.

And the civic participation? As previously mentioned, VIM patients are often newly immigrated Latinos who do not have quality insurance and have not yet mastered the English language. By choosing to volunteer there, I am exercising my right to civic participation. I am extremely satisfied with my participation in helping to support minorities and underserved populations and find nothing lacking in my own education in this area.

These are experiences that the education system owes my peers and indeed all students. These are the skills that will make a successful generation.

Since I’m homeschooled, my position is different from most. Finding opportunities for myself is part of my schooling experience. Part of the purpose of homeschooling is allowing students to lead by forging their own paths and thanks to that, I’ve had amazing school experiences that fulfill my student rights. But most students aren’t homeschooled. Most students don’t get the opportunity to write a book as their English for the school year, set a goal to increase voter turnout in their area, perfect their foreign language in a practical setting, or even learn skills like working as a receptionist.

You could argue that all students should be more involved in their education, but the purpose of public and private education is to provide learning experiences that students could not easily get otherwise. The educational system should carry most of the weight of finding learning opportunities for students. Rather than having to look outside of school, traditional students should be offered experiences as personalized as mine within the setting of a formal education. To do any less than that is nothing short of a violation of student rights. I urge schools and students to join forces and change the status quo of education from standardized for the masses to tailored to the individual students’ needs and goals.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh once addressed Elizabeth Bennet, saying, “Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.” Lady Catherine was expressing astonishment when she said this. I am lucky enough that one could say the same of my mother that Lady Catherine said of Elizabeth’s. But this kind of care should not be specific to a few; all students’ schooling should be shown such slavish devotion so that students are offered the opportunity of deep learning.