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FIRST PERSON What's wrong with high school today? Teaching by the books stifles the learning process, argues one student who's been there. BY JESSICA decouncv HINDS Americans say education is their No. 1 concern, according to recent polls. This story is one of a series in which USA WEEKEND reports on key issues facing the nation's schools. MILLENNIUM 'I I 'M TERRIBLY SORRY," an English teacher said, "but I'm going to ask you ..." she looked pained "... to write something." As a high school student who actually liked to write, I was frustrated with this teacher's assumption that writing was beyond me and my classmates. Today, adults around the country often debate about how the high school program can be improved. I've just been through it, and I think that some answers are clear. In my public high school — which ranks as one of the best in Pennsylvania and, therefore, the nation — the program is surprisingly lacking. Kids are bored, in part, because teachers don't expect enough of us. And national studies show that the high school blahs are epidemic: 70 percent of high school students say that they would be more interested in learning if standards were higher, according to a new survey called "Getting By," conducted by Public Agenda, a non-partisan research organization in New York (especially familiar to me because my father works there). "Open your textbooks to ..." With this refrain, we slide, listlessly, into automatic pilot. The main problem I've had with high school is that I could always do ray work and get kudos for it without investing much of myself. "Busy work" was a catch phrase for students and teachers alike. I remember history classes in which we wasted class time writing line-by-line summaries of textbook articles. We'd copy the sentences from the book, except we'd try to change the verbs and find synonyms for the nouns. One time, a classmate thought that the text oversimplified its description of Native American beliefs and, in writing his argument, added three "extra" sentences to his summary. "Whatever you do," the teacher admonished us, "do not stray from the text!" So we didn't. We learned to work quickly, assembly-line style. Biology should be full of life, right? When studying photosynthesis, I had to memorize pages of little circles with G's and O's inside them. I'd cram them into my head before unloading them — permanently — onto the test. A year later, I remember nothing of those lifeless formulas. Adults can be unsympathetic when kids complain about having to learn the boring basics. But it's all a matter of timing. One enlightened adult, Leon Botstein, president of | Bard College, puts it this way: "When you teach someone baseball, they get invested in knowing what the rules are because they have enjoyed the act of hitting and catching. You don't sit them down and teach them the rule book." High school is too much of a rule book. I think high | school kids are ready to have a more active part in creating I their curriculum and in being involved in their own education, instead of passively watching it take place. High school could be more effective if it were more engaging, challenging the individual to discover where his or her tal-1 ents and interests may lead, I remember liking high school the most when we were trusted to work independently, led by our curiosity, in I more open-ended assignments. For example, we got 18 U8A WEEKEND • Opt. 5-5,1887 "Kids are bored because teachers don't expect enough."