Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Elective Choices In Middle and High School

Kids today are forced to make very important choices at younger and younger ages in our society.

In my school district, 6th and 7th graders have two exploratory (as they are called in the Middle School concept) classes each day.  One of those two periods, is a rotation of Art, Computers, Physical Education and Spanish, each for one nine week marking period (which already sounds limiting).  Their other exploratory period gives them a choice of Band, Choir, Orchestra or a non music offering that is usually another PE, Computers or Art class, depending upon who is available to teach it.  Approximately 90% of 6th and 7th graders in my school district elect to take a music class.

About halfway through the school year, I begin the discussion with my 7th grade students on what the choices are that they will face as they select their two elective classes for 8th grade, as the options are MANY!  Predominantly due to increased High School graduation requirements, my district (and basically all neighboring districts) offers High School credit for Spanish I as a full year 8th grade elective and also High School PE/Health as a one semester 8th grade elective.  Band, Choir and Orchestra are all full year options, as is Dance, which is very popular in our district, especially with our girls.  Other options are to take another nine week rotation of courses including the ones from 6th and 7th grade like Art, Computers and PE.  But also a course called Choices which was originally part of the Home Economics curriculum (something that was completely cut from my school, due to budget restraints).  It's amazing how many 8th graders willingly quit a music program that they've spent two years building skills in to take the 9 week Choices class because... wait for it... they get to job shadow for ONE DAY.

But, the Choices class is far from the biggest issue at hand.  The biggest part of this conundrum is the fact that classes are being offered for High School credit at the Middle School level.  That's what's killing the arts.  I have had SEVERAL parents (and kids) tell me, "we are so sorry.  She LOVES your class and we LOVE the concerts, but she just cannot fit choir into her schedule for next year."  For many of these 13 year olds (YES, THIRTEEN), taking a HS class in 8th grade is the carrot.  It's a symbol of prestige and honor.  Especially for the high achieving academic kids.  The ones who also do VERY WELL in Music and the Arts.  And, the sad reality is that 90% of the time, once a kid opts out of an Arts program, rarely do they return.  Also at issue is the two year Foreign Language requirement for HS graduation in Michigan (although there is an easy way to opt out of the second year).  So, for the kids who take Spanish I in 8th grade, guess what the counselors will INSIST they take as one of their electives in 9th grade?  Why, Spanish II of course!  No student would want to wait a year, or two, between foreign language classes.  They'd forget half of it!  But wait... don't most colleges also require a foreign language credit or two?  If so, wouldn't it be most prudent to take your two years of foreign language in the Junior and Senior years, right before needing to take it at the college level?  And... this is assuming that ALL kids will go to college, which is silly!  There should be a one year foreign language track for non-college bound students. And, don't the Junior and Senior years have more elective choices and less required classes??  Why are kids cramming more classes with homework (and stress, and anxiety) into 8th and 9th grades (when they are less mature and ill-equipped to handle additional stress and anxiety) when they can take them in 11th and 12th grade when they only have three required courses!

When I have that discussion with 7th graders that I mentioned earlier, I do my best to explain to them that what they elect to take in 8th grade can, and often does, have a significant impact on what they can, or cannot, take as electives in 9th grade.  Invariably, a hand will go up into the air and the question always asked is, "But Mr. C. you're talking about 9th grade and we're picking classes for 8th grade.  I don't get it."  That's because they're 13 years old.  It's complex.  I typically have the same discussion in class, with many questions and answers, about four or five times during the second semester with both my 7th and my 8th graders.  Some get it.  Many do not, unfortunately.  Last school year I had NINETY students in 7th Grade Choir.  This school year I have FIFTY-TWO students in 8th Grade Choir (see the italicized comment above).  Understand my concern?  We have NINETY kids taking Spanish for HS credit in 8th grade at my school.  That's the equivalent of having another HUGE 8th Grade Band, or Choir.  Or, BOTH!!

What's most important is that kids get SOMETHING from their experience in school, other than a report cart.  Kids need to be a part of SOMETHING!  Sports accomplishes that for MANY kids and those that know me know that I played multiple sports all through school.  I was always a part of a team.  But, especially if your child doesn't participate in sports, encourage them to stay in music and the arts.  Encourage them to participate in after school Drama and Musical activities where they can be a part of SOMETHING, rather than just being a kid, floating down the stream of Middle School and then High School.  In the late 1980s (granted, graduation requirements were not as demanding) at my High School, there were 200 kids in Band and 150 kids in Choir with a total student population of 850.  Today we have over 1500 students in High School and we have about 215 in HS Band and about 100 in HS Choir (but that number is up by 30 for next year!!).

Friends and parents of current MS and HS students, please make the right decision for your children. Please STRONGLY consider, and reconsider any decision that replaces an Arts class with an academic class in a schedule where they already have at least four academic classes. Arts classes are about RELEASE!  Kids need a little of that during their school day.  It promotes good mental health.


Disclaimer:  I am clearly biased toward Music Education (especially if it's FREE and offered in a Public School!).  I am NOT an opponent of ANY other elective choices.  I feel they are all great and should be given MORE time in every student's daily schedule!  As an Art teacher just posted on my FB page about this, "More Arts, less Math!"  heh heh