On the recommendation of a couple of Twitter friends I watched Shawshank Redemption for the first time (yeah I know), and I am glad I did. The majority of students I teach and have contact with are seniors and the scene below struck me as how students come to depend on the walls of the schools.
This line by Red particularly struck me. Red: “These walls are funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
For most of our students, it works a different way. When students enter the school walls, in kindergarten they love them, then they get used to them. Then for some students, they depend on the walls. Sadly, for others, they grow to hate them and want to find a way to escape. Why shouldn’t they? A majority of schools around the country are concrete and brick structures, and, in recent times, are being locked down daily. Their lives are controlled by a clock and bell routine, and, they get fed at least one- if not two- institutional meals. As Steve Jobs stated in his biography he went to Homestead High and “it was designed by a famous prison architect…they wanted to make it indestructible.” Many of our old and even newest schools- high, middle, or elementary- are still built on these same principles.
Some educators say the students have learned to play the “education game.” I believe that it is more that we- are institutionalizing our students. Through their 12-13 years in school they see every hour of every day the same type of teaching. And in this time of high-stakes testing, we are so worried about the outcome that we “teach to the test.” The routines and sameness help the students for the most part feel safe. These same things make the teachers feel comfortable and safe, and makes them either unwilling to change or are scared to change what they do in the classroom. Students in our classrooms are still sitting in rows with the sage on the stage. However, when some teachers start to change the way they do things and make the classroom learner-centered, both students and other teachers (and even administrators) get scared and start asking “why are we/you changing?” At this point- we start breaking the institutional mindset.
“These walls are funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.”
This brings me back to the seniors as they approach the end of their last year of school- I start to see many different emotions. Two of them are: stress and fear. All of a sudden they see that they are being paroled to the “outside” world and are not sure of their futures. Some are headed to jobs (or they hope they can get a job) or they are headed to college and hope they are prepared. Some don’t know what they are going to do. We are taking away the safety of the walls from them and it scares them. Some of them will exchange the walls of the school with the walls of the colleges or the military. Many are sounding happy to be leaving high school, but as our seniors did their final walk-through, in the halls at the end of their last day, many were in tears at the reality and some showed quiet fear. However, it is not all doom and gloom. Most will succeed in one way or another, but others will struggle. Are we doing enough in this new day and age of education to create learners that are ready and excited to get out and take on the world? This task is usually delegated to overworked and understaffed counseling departments. But I say it is the job of all us- including the support staff.
I believe I work in a school that is making great strides in trying to break this institutional mindset. I base this on what our senior class President Caleb Jenkins said this at the closing of the graduation ceremony:
“Not only have we created a graduating class of professional standardized test bubblers, but also people who want to make a difference. People who see an issue and want to help solve it. People that see someone in need, and want to help them. People that see smoke and fire coming from the athletic end of the high school…and are smart enough to book it outside!”
What is your school or district doing about institutionalizing?