Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Letting kids be

In my working life I guide kids through the process of searching for and applying to colleges, and we're smack dab in the middle of essay-writing season. Seniors have to generate the perfect essay, you know, a 600-word distillation of their character composed with wit, originality, and verbal precision.

No newspaper account of the stresses and anxieties of college admission is complete without an arch comment by some admission officer about not wanting to read any more essays about kids' service trips to Ghana or Biloxi. Apparently admissions officers are tired of these essays.

I suppose I can sympathize. Some of these poor people are reading hundreds of application folders and expected to make sensible and internally consistent decisions about each student in a pool that is probably remarkable for its own internal consistency. These folks want, need, to be hooked and to some degree enlightened and entertained by the essays they read, which must be their only relief from tables of SAT and ACT scores and grade-point averages, and I can't entirely blame them.

As a progressive educator in a school with a string commitment to advocacy and social justice, I get to know, and know well, a whole lot of students who have gone on service trips, to Biloxi, to Kenya, to Costa Rica, to many other places ravaged by the pain of the post-industrial and post-colonial globalized economy, and even to the socioeconomically ragged edges of their own communities. When essay season comes around, many of these kids want write about their experiences, and often I really want them to. What they believe, and their teachers, families, and I know, is that these trips can change kids--that they really can be and often are the transformative experiences that educators and kids themselves hope for them to be. I want to go on record as saying that kids should be encouraged to write about these experiences, to testify not only to their power but to the power of an educational philosophy that connects students to their world in ways that matter.

Students steeped in non-triumphalist, unvarnished ways of looking at history and society will experience genuine and immersive work among people of different cultures and different ways of knowing as true, personalized educational experiences. Students whose education has involved authentic and honest exposure to a variety of ideas and the necessity of examining everything from multiple points of view are ready and able to internalize the lessons they learn from experience in the field in ways that are both compelling and inspiring--as just the kinds of experiences that college essays are designed to embody--and just exactly the kinds of essays that kids are told, for the sake of application readers, not to write.

I will be continuing to tell my students, the ones whose lives have been rocked and perspectives changed forever by working on the farm in Costa Rica or reading to homeless children in a shelter, that if this is the story they need to tell about themselves, they should go ahead and tell it. I am more than satisfied that, in no small part because of their experience in a New Progressivist school, their education in and out of the classroom has provided them with the intellectual and cultural tools as well as personal depth to write 600 words about themselves that will make even the most jaded admission officer sit up and take notice.

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