Making Connections with Words A Powerful Tool in Education

My Alma Mater, Brockton High School, has been in the news recently.

In a time when the news about school is usually depressing (murder, suicide, school shootings, bullying, failure, etc) this was good news: with a lot of hard work and commitment the school was able to turn around from being the lowest testers in the state to the top 90%.

Many people suggest that this is somewhat miraculous because the school does not represent the so-called ideal that people argue for today. It is not a small school. It’s huge! When I went there, there were around 6000 students. Numbers have dropped, now they have only 4300, but that is still larger than my college.

So what did they do that was so drastic? It is simple really (in its logic, not in the amount of work). They added reading and writing to EVERY SUBJECT!! Yes folks, a radical change, encouraging people to read and write actually helps them learn.

This story has really been resonating with me since I heard it. Not just because it is my school, or because the principal Susan Szachowicz was one of my favorite teachers in high school, but because of my own experiences in the classroom. For the past 5 years, I had been teaching Freshman Composition classes at a small Liberal Arts College. I enjoyed it, except for the fact that so many of my students were not good writers (even though I wasn’t teaching the lowest level classes). Even more of them were not good readers. They could read, but they had no interest in it, and found it difficult to understand or find meaning. Some of them did not know basic grammar.

Now, this is not an attack on the public school teachers. I know that they work hard under trying circumstances. Rather, I think this was a symptom of something greater–the idea that we as a culture are not making young people understand the value of learning or the connections between what they learn and real life.

I usually began those classes asking if anyone thought writing was unimportant. It never failed; I had several students who would argue that they would never use it, because they were accounting majors. or business majors, or science majors, or physical therapy majors or whatever. My goal was always to prove them wrong. We would talk about how reading and writing would play a role in almost any job or just in life in general. Of course, someone would always come up with a couple of examples where they could function without writing–like a porn star.

When possible, I tried to have at least one assignment where the students could choose a topic that interested them to research, read, and write about.  Usually that was pretty successful. One of my accounting students chose to explore how research and writing might fit into accounting. She was very surprised at her results, when she discovered that writing does play a role in accounting.

Back to Brockton High School. By incorporating writing into every subject I believe they are doing several things: 1) encouraging reading and writing, a valuable skill;  2) showing even the most reluctant students that communication is important; 3) making subjects interconnected in a way that they truly function in the so-called real world. You need math as well as words to function in our society.

I believe that when you connect the material to the interests of the students, and show how everything is interconnected you create an education program of true value. Our world functions on the connections we make between what we know and what we don’t know.

John Dewey said “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” By allowing the students to see how language plays a role in sports, in math, in science BHS has allowed them to become thinkers and to grow as learners. They may not all succeed, but they are being given the tools to succeed.

The lesson to be learned from this is not that big schools are better or all schools must do this program to succeed. The lesson to be learned is that, through hard work and focusing on the true needs of the students, education can succeed. Kudos to Dr. Szach and BHS for understanding that low test scores does not give educators the right to give up, but rather creates the mandate to try something new.

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