I took time yesterday to drive to Homer to see Project Grad’s Summer College Institute’s closing ceremony. This culminating event showcased the institute’s activities by having the students take turns sharing their work. The presentations ranging from a Lego robot walking a dog to poetry on threatened species, not only provided a glimpse into what the students did for two weeks, but also gave them a chance to shine in front of their parents and peers. The exuberance of the students and the obvious strong bond that they had with the staff and one another quickly led me to conclude that the institute was a success. I was most impressed by the confidence of the students and by their casual and respectful relationship with each other and with the staff. I don’t always see this when I observe groups of our teenage students. I often see a social tension that bottles up some of the adolescent energy that I saw yesterday. On the drive home I thought about why this is so.
Certainly the short response to why this is the case is that a summer camp bears little resemblance to school, that it is not fair to compare two weeks of field trips and cool activities to regular school. And while this is valid, it suggests that perhaps we do not spend enough time thinking about what an optimum learning environment for our students looks like. Clearly, the Project Grad kids thrived in their learning environment. It is also appropriate to point to barriers such as the myriad of regulations and the shallow definition of school attendance as reasons for what may inhibit the environment that affects students’ learning. But, I am not convinced that the lack of the more typical school routines is what caused the Project Grad students to be so confident, secure and apparently distant from the social tension that can overwhelm teenagers. My take is that the relatively small number of students and the ten or so adults allowed for relationship building among the group that does not always happen at school. I think another reason for this is the students interacting with the adults in a multiple settings and not just in math class. As we examine how to ensure that all our students are gaining the most that they can from school, it may make sense to review how we structure our high schools with more effort spent creating interdisciplinary opportunities for cohorts of students and not just setting schedules for the school at large. Some high schools separate their students into houses to promote better relationships among the students and the staff assigned to that house. The teenage years can be hard for students as they strive to be comfortable with who they are and not overwhelmed by what the peer group expects them to be. We all need to be sensitive to this need by creating an environment that is welcoming. This can only be achieved if we can maintain a relatively personal school experience.