Free to learn

By Pearl Benjamin | Sep 13, 2018

It’s the beginning of a brand new school year. Teachers are swamped, parents are relieved, and students are already stressed, fatigued, and overwhelmed. This time of year is when high-school students in particular feel like they’re thrown into a washing machine of essays and lectures and algorithms they didn’t remember, with a cap-full of depression added in as the detergent. For me, this year is different, and for once I’m not feeling nearly so tossed about.

Recently I had the privilege of staying on Hurricane Island with my classmates for a few days. I had an amazing time — I connected with new friends, faced fears, worked in a team, and just had a lot of pure, hard laughter-inducing teenage fun. Post-trip, I actually feel for the first time like I’m excited to begin the school year. Three days on Hurricane Island gave me a clear view of what motivates students regardless of learning style, and what prevents the ominous stress and depression all high-schoolers face at one point or another.

Time and again I’ve seen that freedom can be the most important component to a student’s motivated mindset. On Hurricane Island, the most educational and memorable moments were those when we were given the freedom to do whatever we wanted. During those times I learned new card games, observed bioluminescent algae, and located constellations in the night sky. I discussed this with a new friend on the island — about how a lack of instruction doesn’t actually prevent a student from learning. My friend said, “I just want to be able to do it my own way.” I think this applies to most activities, whether in or out of school. Activities and assignments become far more appealing when we can run free with an idea, add our own creative twist to it, and possibly learn something from it that wasn’t set in a curriculum.

Freedom is also important to a school’s culture and essential to the relationship between student and teacher. For most of my high-school career, I had the sensation of being guilty until proven innocent. I felt like I was constantly being watched, and like my privileges had been taken away before I’d broken any rules. Every time I even asked to go to the bathroom I would get the teacher’s suspicious stink-eye. This culture exists in most schools — where the student is the naughty toddler and the teacher is the irritated babysitter. Shouldn’t it be common knowledge by now that people who are treated like convicts are more likely to assume the role than prove themselves otherwise?

It should also be common knowledge that students are more likely to retain information and get help from a teacher if they are respected by that teacher. It takes a lot of trust to be able to maintain a friendship between teacher and student, and teachers need to trust that their students will gain interest on their own and focus on the subject. It’s time to stop worrying about students getting distracted and trust that these “distractions” may actually work to help student learning in the long run.

Social interactions need to stop being treated as an outlawed activity. Through deeper connection with my classmates, I’ve realized that most of what I learn on a daily basis comes from them. Kids these days are smart, and often tutor each other in subjects, help each other remember assignments, and provide a positive energy that increases motivation. Why do educators try to stop this? Students are silenced from the moment they begin their school days. Plenty of high schoolers can remember those elementary school lunches when we weren’t allowed to talk, or times in the hallway when teachers would order students to remain in a single file line. “Eyes on me!” The teacher would say.

All of this forced silence is a remnant of the outdated “children should be seen and not heard” mantra that discourages social confidence. Why is the word ‘socializing’ so commonly used in such a negative way? “This is a time for learning, not socializing.” Man, if I had a phone call for every time I’ve heard that sentence I’d call all the teachers in America and tell them that socializing is learning. Side conversations, as distracting as they can be, are helpful. Laughing is helpful. Cracking corny jokes and making awful puns is helpful, because if it’s not about the topic being discussed in class, it most likely lightens the classroom mood that is commonly so very gray.

Here’s a way to think about it that sums all of this up, and I can’t ever say this enough: teenagers want to be treated like the young adults we are. We want to be respected. We want to be given choices and have a say in how things are done. We don’t deserve to be treated like irritants. We deserve to be treated like people who are generally interested in their education. If we are treated this way, chances are we will be.

Pearl Benjamin is an 11th-grade student at the Watershed School.


Comments (1)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Sep 13, 2018 14:46

Am pleased to see that David Grima and Pearl Benjamin are still on board at Village Soup. They both have positive insights and solutions that create understanding and HOPE.  Peace. :)  When I was doing Yokefellow House a middle aged gentleman; who was always very quiet; spoke up and I mentioned how nice it was to hear his input. He said, "Ever since I was a boy my parents said, "Be quiet, no one wants to hear what you have to say.'.  It's nice to have people willing to listen.".  

As you can see, his words stuck in my mind. People deserve to be respectfully heard. All people.

If you wish to comment, please login.