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The Onus of Learning, part 5: Students


(I recognize that the reading level of this post is far above that of the typical elementary-age student. Although I believe that the onus of learning should be embraced at all ages, it isn’t until middle school that most students have the maturity to truly recognize the connection between their effort and their future. If you are a student reading this blog post, grab a dictionary. I will not make this easy for you. Thank any teacher who makes you work harder in school. They are making you stronger).

Dear Students,


The onus of learning, whether you are taking your first steps into formal education as a kindergartener or gracing the halls for your last hurrah in high school as a senior (and for everyone in between), is solely on you.


The onus of learning, meaning the responsibility of learning, is yours and yours alone.

Ignore the politics of learning, the cacophonous voices of all of the adults involved in your education (parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, vocal advocates of pick-your-issue, and anyone else). Students, regardless of the myriad of factors that will shape your education, at the end of the day, you are responsible for your learning and you will forge your future.


It is true that we all start out with vastly different circumstances. You may grow up in a lovely home in suburbia, crowded in an urban multifamily apartment with cardboard boxes for furniture, or isolated in a rural community with your nearest neighbor miles away. You may have the latest technological resource on the market along with subscription services to anything you desire to learn, a flushed schedule of extracurriculars, or you may struggle to find something to read. You may spend your off-school hours with nothing but time to binge-watch television, play video games, or do whatever you choose. You also may spend your after-school hours quietly pretending to be invisible while your parents worked because they had no other place for you and could not afford to make other arrangements or discreetly work alongside your parents to help the family make ends meet. You may even be a latchkey kid, spending hours on end after school unsupervised.


I recognize that this is not fair, but it doesn’t matter. Whatever your circumstances, overcome them by taking charge of your learning.


(If you’re curious, my school-aged home environment varied tremendously when I was in elementary, middle, and high school. I would never describe my upbringing as affluent; my parents were divorced and I shuffled back and forth between very different environments. My point is you don’t always know the economic realities of people, especially proud students. I know what it’s like to experience foreclosures and to stretch an extremely limited grocery budget and it has heavily influenced my perspective on the value of education and the capriciousness of life’s fortunes).


I’m not about to tout some Horatio Alger-inspired adage of rags-to-riches, a belief that “anyone can pull themselves up from their bootstraps” mentality that reinforces many of the disparities that plague education. If you look up zip code and student achievement, there are a slew of well-researched articles that clearly indicate that a student’s zip code is one of the greatest indicators of future achievement. Specifically, the zip code is an indicator of both community wealth and poverty. The numbers speak for themselves and so should common sense and basic empathy. For students residing in zip codes rife with poverty, can you really expect them to care about Algebra when they are struggling with the worries that should only consume adults? If rent can’t be paid, if food can’t be bought, if Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs isn’t fulfilled, do you expect a child with an immature brain and minimal impulse control to be capable of putting that aside to learn, especially if learning is presented in ways that seem utterly irrelevant? Likewise, is it unfair for parents who have the means to not use them for the advancement of their own children, such as providing supplemental educational services or outside programs?


Although there are notable exceptions, those modern-day rags-to-riches stories should not be considered the norm. For students, is it truly fair to do a side-by-side comparison of student achievement with or without these factors taken into consideration? The truth is, once you leave formal K-12 education, society will not care what zip code you grew up in, whether you had an IEP or 504 accommodations plan, whether you got along with your teachers, or if your parents were involved with your education. Fair or not, none of these factors will matter once you leave school, regardless of whether your next steps include college, trade school, or a job.


In school, many common practices would set you up for failure in the real world. These days, many schools prevent teachers from issuing zeros for not completing assignments. Many schools require teachers to accept late work, no matter how late it is. Many grades are inflated and teachers (usually under pressure from parents or policy) will pass a student with substandard quality of work for simply turning something in. I could go on about these types of policies, but the bottom line is, in the real world, all of the practices would get you fired. If you do not complete your deliverables, you’ll get fired. If you turn in your work late in a job, you’ll likely get verbal or written warnings (if you're lucky), and if you miss enough deadlines, you’ll get fired. If your work is poor quality, that’s also grounds for termination. Even if you come from a school culture of participation trophies and accolades for simply showing up, that’s not good enough to keep even the most menial of jobs, let alone a career path with the potential of financial security. Yet, the habits you instill during your school years are the habits that you’ll default to once you’re out of school. Regardless of the policies of your school or the efforts of your classmates, work and learn as if your future depends on it because it does.


What this means is you are responsible for figuring it out when you don’t get it. Whatever the subject, develop study habits at home to master content. Too many students breeze through K-12 education but then fail at college because they lack the study skills to do the work outside of the classroom. If you are struggling in a class, talk to your teacher first. Your teacher is the best resource to at least point you in the direction of supplemental resources, tutoring, and other options to help you catch up and master content. If that doesn't help, look up local tutoring programs (libraries often host free tutoring sessions) or online videos. These options don't need to cost a fortune, but they do cost time and effort. If your school offers free tutoring, do it and do it with a grateful heart.


The world is changing by leaps and bounds and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. A hundred years ago, (mostly) women worked as telephone operators and connected phone lines. Those jobs became obsolete. The invention of the calculator, the computer, and countless other innovations not only replaced jobs but created a cataclysmic shift in how the world operates. Today, Artificial Intelligence has the power to complete your assignments, think for you, and create for you. AI has the power to make you obsolete if you don’t learn to think for yourself.


So learn. Learn to ask questions and seek answers. Learn to find solutions when you come across roadblocks. It doesn’t matter if you dislike your teacher or your parents can’t help with your homework or whatever situation you are living in. Take the onus of your education and find a way. I do believe that anyone has the power to accomplish nearly anything, but I also believe that this requires grit, the perseverance to keep on keeping on even in the face of frustration and roadblocks.


Hands-down, the most important skill you can develop in school is reading. Simply reading. From kindergarten to second grade, the focus is learning to read. From third grade and beyond, the focus is reading to learn. If you master reading skills, you will be able to literally teach yourself anything. Read books that are too difficult, and do so slowly and intentionally, taking the time to decode unfamiliar words and improve your fluency. Too many students approach reading with trepidation, dread, and shame. Frankly, this is not your fault, but it is still up to you to fix. Literacy is the key to your future opportunities. Literacy will open the doors of employment, of college, prevent you from being swindled by contracts, prevent you from being manipulated by legalese, and help you be an educated voter when you come of age. You deserve an equal opportunity and it starts with the power of reading.


A special note to you students in Florida… I literally know where you come from. I recognize that Florida has become a dystopian wasteland depleted of the literary treasures that introduced me to love and hope when I was a lost and confused student. I not only grew up in Florida (Miami, mostly), attended public schools in Florida, graduated college from F.I.U., peddled books during my college years at the now-shuttered Borders Books, and taught high school for three years in Florida back in 2006. As much as I believe in education, as a teacher, I would never work again in Florida out of sheer principle. I believe emphatically in the power of reading and that the Spirit will guide readers to what they should read and when. I think back to when I was an awkward teen skimming the shelves and falling in love with so many titles that I would not wish to draw attention to in hopes that others are not robbed of the opportunity to read them. I am certain that most of my treasured favorites would be banned for reasons I would deem political.


If you are a student in an area depleted of resources to learn, grow, and thrive, take back your power and learning. Find the power and autonomy to forge your own path and learn what you lack. It is difficult for me to advise specifically what to do, where to go, and how to find whatever you’re looking for. So much of that will depend on your own gumption and imagination. Be resourceful. Be creative. Don’t let others dictate what you can and can’t do. Take charge of your learning. Remember, the onus of learning is yours and yours alone.


Good luck, our future leaders.

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