Dear Students: Who’s in Charge?

by Mark Pontoni  April 11, 2020



Dear students,

I need you to try.

As I write this in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I tried to imagine what you must be thinking sitting at home. I realized that for more than half of your biological lives and almost all of your conscious lives, you have been part of a system that’s very good at telling you what to do and how to do it. We bring you to the same building, along the same route, picking you up in the same order, and dropping you at the same door.  We ring the bells at the same time and you listen to the same teachers in the same order delivering lessons that are supposed to meet the same objectives as every school in Michigan, so that at some point you can all take the same set of tests that are supposed to measure something.  You do this on the same days of the week for the same months each year and when you’ve each had the same core courses, for the same number of years,  striving for one of the same five letter grades, regardless of the course, we hand you all the same piece of paper and we call our jobs done.

And while looked at this way, the system looks horrifyingly the same, you all learned over the past few weeks that there is a lot of comfort in that sameness.  You always knew what was expected and when. Granted, not all of you chose the same attitude toward school, but if you did, you all pretty much had the same chance at making it through.

I also tried to imagine how you have been assessing the adults in your world, who, you always assumed, would provide you the structure you readily relied upon to get you through your day.  As teenagers, you’re obligated to squawk about your parents and you rattle your sabers of discontent just so that the adults around you know you’re there.  But in the end, most of you put those sabers away long enough to eat, borrow the car, and go clothes shopping.  And as much as it outwardly bugs you, you always know that if those almighty grades begin to slip, the adults in your life are there to put you back on track.  After all, they went through the same system in the same way that you do.  They know the path.

And then there’s the government.  Like most people, you didn’t really have to think much about the government.  Beyond the faces that show up on the news, almost all of the government is really the institutions and the people whose job it is to make and then enforce the rules that make most of your life so reliably the same.  You all go through the same process to get your driver’s license so that you can drive your cars manufactured under the same set of rules on the same streets governed by the same set of laws so you can drive to a job where limits on hours, wages, and working conditions are at their base the same for everyone.  When the government is functioning well, you don’t really know it’s there.

In the last few months, however, you have gotten to watch a government that we all know is there. There’ll be plenty of blame to go around once this is over, and countless books will be written on who should have done what and when.  It’ll all be so clear to us.  For now, we get to watch a wide range of people trying to manage a crisis that doesn’t want to be managed.  And as you sit at home, it must seem like all the adults outside your of family have gone totally off the rails.

So what to do?

As a teacher, I am certain that I am going to do whatever is necessary to keep you engaged in your education.  As a human, I’m going to be shoving that same square peg into a new round hole.  And I’ll keep shoving until I throw my hands up and say “The kids just won’t try.”  And that will excuse me from any failures we might encounter over the next couple of months.

None of the things that you grew up knowing would be in place are, in fact, in place.  No bus. No building. No bells. No classmates. No grades….wait…no grades?  What will motivate you to do anything?  How will I get you to write that essay, read that paper, and practice for that test?  No grades??

And then it hit me.  In the absence of all the routines that have governed almost every part of your lives since you could first remember, an opportunity has bloomed.  For the first time, you can participate in your education without the incentive or the threat of a grade over your heads.  There is no test at the end of the semester.   There are no standardized tests that will represent you as a single point on a curve to measure you against all the other students in your state and in the country.  There’s nothing.

Nothing except the opportunity to be the only judge of your efforts.  Nothing except the chance to be really proud of accomplishing something without the stress of waiting for some teacher or some computer to tell you how you did. You can really be what you have always been without realizing it.  You can be in charge of your own education.

All I need you to do is try.

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2 Comments on “Dear Students: Who’s in Charge?”

  1. Rory April 11, 2020 at 11:59 am #

    Well said, sir. Keep grumbling.

  2. Nolan Fletcher April 16, 2020 at 11:59 am #

    I have been reviewing my notes and trying to as many as the review material that you have been posting on google classroom

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