Monday, May 23, 2016

Back To School

I love my old high school more than any other high school in the world, which is why I call Towson High the Greatest High School in the universe.  I will admit that I was a stranger to the honor society selection committee during my years there, while on the other hand, I was no stranger to the vice principals in charge of attendance.  There is a connection between those two facts.

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But as the years have passed, I have had many opportunities to visit the school in volunteer capacities...mentoring, conducting practice interviews for juniors, and for the past two years I have been part of Project Citizen, with the American Government Gifted & Talented and Law & Public Policy freshman classes. This program is under the aegis of Mr. Gil Stange, an excellent American Government teacher.   

In Project Citizen, the students get first-hand experience in solving a public policy issues that directly affects the people of Baltimore County.  For instance, in the three classes I heard present, the issues were how to stop people from swimming (and drowning!) in the Loch Raven Reservoir, how to address the problem of litter and trash on the streets of the county seat, and how to go about having a crosswalk installed for the safety of pedestrians on a certain busy street.  First, the students had to come up with their own problems in need of solutions, rather than having them assigned, and then they had to research how to address interviewing affected citizens, contacting public officials and private experts, and arriving at real facts and figures about how one would theoretically solve these and other problems. Then, they put together multi-media presentations showing every step of their work and outlining their findings, and did all this as a Public Hearing in front of their teachers and a panel consisting of people with some expertise in the topic.   

All sorts of people were represented - social studies leaders from the Public Schools, a police sergeant, a politician or two, and others who have dealt with public issues. That's my ticket to the festivities, my career in working with the county government through 3 decades that are still fondly recalled as the time "before Mark retired."

As the students presented their work, I was just thrilled at how well they did!  Instead of those beauty pageant-style, nebulous answers ("I think that people should not swim in the reservoir because of the risk of drowning, which can so tragically rob a person of their future before it even begins!") the students went out and found out how many had been caught swimming. They talked to the rangers who patrol the area.  They took pictures of the (currently inadequate) signage warning against jumping in, and they arrived at suggestions for public education and better signs and even a way to get some more rangers on the job.  And they even checked with a law professor to make sure their ideas were all on the beam.

I wish that everyone had the chance that I had to spend a day with these teachers and these students.  It's all too easy for people who don't get to see modern education in action to think that teachers still stand at a lectern and drone on about the Peloponnesian Wars as students take desultory notes and pass notes asking Jenni to the record hop Friday night.  Nope.  Teachers today are preparing students for a world that little cares that Sparta won the Pelopennesian War (although Athens lodged a complaint and several penalties were overturned.)  

Instead, what I see going on is students getting to practice interview skills, so that when they apply to college or jobs, it won't be the first time they have sat at a desk with someone asking them what is their best and worst quality.  And instead of lecture notes and abstract notions, the students I see now have an idea of how government works in the real world...not in the textbook, cartoon "How A Bill Becomes Law" sense but in the sense of calling the head of the highways division of the local government and asking him what it would take to get things done.

I couldn't be more impressed with the students or the teachers at Towson High, and I appreciate the invitation!


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