How many times have I heard students ask me that question? I’ve asked my own teachers plenty of times, too. As educators, can we do more than talk an answer? Can we show/do/live the answer with our students?
I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I gained consciousness of the world in 1970 in the midst of Kent State shootings, Vietnam War protests, and the aftermath of the assassinations of three idealist leaders in this country. Social change was what I wanted to do. Now what did that mean in terms of what I wanted to be?
I went to college. Got a degree in Psychology. Then I followed my heart – right into being a park ranger, an outdoor educator, a sailor, a climber, a fire builder, a navigator. Those were the jobs that tested my skills and where I could solve problems. It helped that most of the time, I was teaching others how to do these things as well. This work put a sparkle in my eye, woke up my heart, and gave me knowledge and awareness of the world in a way that college – or any schooling experience never did.
Schooling was important. To really grow in these roles, I needed to be organized, a good communicator and writer, have some contextual understanding of history, literature, and language. All of this knowledge deepened my curiosity and gave sustenance to my desire to connect to others who had similar deep spiritual experiences in the natural world.
Most recently, I’ve been working with fifth graders in two urban public schools. Their school’s test scores haven’t been so good so there is a big emphasis on “improving skills in math and ELA”. These schools don’t have a lot of options – the curriculum aligns in ‘scope and sequence’ (what you teach and when, exactly, you teach it) across the district, time is short, tests are high stakes.
Kids are unimpressed. One said, “Reading makes my eyeballs itch.” But what if she were reading directions that will help her get a boarding pass at the airport? Following a recipe? Or trying to solve a technical problem to get email working for her family? These are the kinds of practical reasons reading is important. Calculus interested me for the first time when I realized it could be used to measure the distance a boat is from the shore. Celestial navigation relies on mathematical constructs. Safe passage is the high stakes test.
I want to help kids understand the why of their education. Why something is important. Why learning to read will not only bring you great pleasure but will also make the world less confusing, puzzling, and overwhelming.