Real Talk with Caitlin Plummer: Real-world lessons that should be taught in school

plummerBy Caitlin Plummer

Growing up, I had always vaguely understood that I was considered “lucky.” I’d been born into a middle class American family with a nice, two-story home and the funds to enroll me in dance classes and sports teams. However, I don’t think I ever understood the true alternative to the “lucky” life that I had been given.

However, recently I’ve began to see my life in a different light. There is a black hole where my future is supposed to be, because I don’t know where I am going to college next year and how that will change me. I have no goals, because I don’t know where to put them; no meaning in my life except staying up too late, watching too many television show marathons, and reluctantly drudging through schoolwork every day.

Now, we’ve all heard the kids in class who sassily ask the teacher, “How are we ever going to use this in real life?” Frequently, there’s not a very valid answer, except that the repetition of the basics of math, reading and writing will make us better at them and knowing a little bit of history and science will prevent you from looking like an idiot in daily conversations. I always just accepted that some things in high school may be irrelevant to the rest of my life and there was no way that could change.

Then, last week, I attended Meadowdale’s first ever Hunger Banquet, a senior project that raised money for the nonprofit Oxfam. I heard a retired teacher speak, who had created a “real life” class at Edmonds-Woodway High School. It was an international relations class, where he brought in speakers from around the world living in the Seattle area. They inspired his students with their stories and the students became active in raising money for different causes, beginning to make a difference in the world.

So why don’t many other schools have classes that are inspiring like this? Imagine if school was an inspiration for students instead of a necessary chore. The sad reality is that although schools are great at teaching you what happened around the world two hundred years ago, they don’t really ever teach you what is happening the world now.

I am embarrassed to admit that I am not a very well informed 17-year-old; yet, compared to most of my classmates, I am probably one of the most informed. I don’t watch the news because I can hardly stand the depressing stories and I don’t have time to sit and read the newspaper every day. I signed up for emails from the New York Times months ago and although I read all of their news alerts, I sometimes fail to place the significance in a real-world context. Even less often am I able to understand how these important developments relate to me.

Isn’t that what schools should be teaching, our place as young Americans in the context of the world? I realized this for the first time last week, when Meadowdale had its annual Care Week and focused on raising money for various charities. Free the Children, the organization that is putting on America’s first ever We Day in Seattle this March, gave us pins to sell, each with a different slogan about love. Each pin contributed money to a different cause, such as clean water, enough food, education, and opportunities for women. We raised money with the pins, but I think the most important thing about selling them was the increase of awareness. The “First World Problems” trend may be a joke, but it’s a valid concept to think about. Here we are, upset that our skin is breaking out right before the big dance, and there are kids our age across the world who don’t even have clean water to drink.

I believe schools need to focus on inspiring their students in addition to teaching them basic knowledge, whether it be through an international relations class similar to the one mentioned before, or just through integrating current event conversations into class periods whenever applicable. As much as students like to gripe about never using any of  what we learn in high school in the “real world,” the fact remains that we are being taught math, science, history and English because those subjects do relate to the real world on a daily basis. How hard would it be to talk about new developments in NASA in Physics, or the history being made every day in the Middle East in World History?

Before we know it, teenagers will be the new generation in power. If we have never been exposed to the injustice in the world and the beauty of giving back our “luck,” how are we ever going to change it when our time comes?

Give purpose and inspiration to the young people, and maybe the world will begin to change.

Caitlin Plummer, a senior at Meadowdale High School and co-editor of Meadowdale’s newspaper, The Maverick, enjoys writing about a broad range of topics that are on her mind. She was born in Lynnwood and lives there with her parents, her younger brother and her golden retriever, Cinnamon. Her future aspirations include earning a degree in journalism and writing for a major news source.

  1. You seem very dialed in. I believe about half of my experience at Edmonds Woodway was pointless. If they taught us more about what is going on around us, maybe we would have had a chance to make a bigger difference in the world.

  2. Caitlin, I agree with Peter Gibson. You do seem very dialed in. Are students allowed to suggest such programs as the one you are referring to that was done at EW? If enough students who are aware of what they really feel they need were to get together to decide what is out there that could be more helpful, then maybe the powers that be for the school district would listen.

    I graduated back in 1962. It was the same thing then, as now, apparently. I never felt that many of the classes I took had much relevance to the future, either. It was just the same old boring stuff. But you have apparently learned some other things along your way . . . to try to think for yourself, not to accept everything we were taught in high school. Once you get to college/university, things will be better, I hope. You will be able to choose more of the classes you take and have more control over what you really want to know so that your future will be less of a black hole for you. I think you can start with the journalism classes and go from there, not necessarily continuing in that area, but branching out into others, so that you can have more to offer the world as you get more experience and learning.

    If you want to connect your history stuff with now and you in it, try doing your own family history. That will certainly get you wondering more about how history had an effect on your parents and grandparents, and how current events can also have an effect on you. You can also get involved with current events by participating in some things that you care about around you. If I still lived in Edmonds, I would get ME involved n some of the political issues or the environmental ones facing everyone.

    May your future be a great and wonderful one with successes and failures, both , so you then understand what life is all about. Strength comes from the failures, too, more so than most of us ever realize.

    Good luck!!

  3. Well put, Caitlin.
    I am glad my project was an inspiration to you.

    What is most depressing, I find, is that this International Relations class, which changed the lives of the students who took it, raised $40,000 one year to bring 80 cows to a small village in South Africa – the effect of which will carry into perpetuity, de-mined a school so that kids no longer lost a leg playing soccer in a field, was cut due to the budget. Nor could they find another teacher as passionate as Daun Brown to carry it on like he did.

    We have so much potential as People on this planet to affect and inspire change, yet it is all too often muddled away by our lack of exposure to the utter strife that others live in.

    Hopefully the inspiration of the Hunger Banquet will carry on into your life and into the lives of all others who attended. That is how, eventually, through a long and passionate process, we can change the world for the better.

  4. Caitlin,
    I agree with you that school often appears like a waste of time and that schools should focus on informing students of applicable current events; although, I do no think it is the school’s responsibility to do so. Inspiration is not given as easily as a homework assignment is given–self motivated students should take the initiative and become informed on their own. Yes, it is challenging with a busy schedule, but the individuals who truly care will rise above the expectations of their peers and will not rely on a school or an institution to do that for them. The educational system has a broad range of room for improvement, but I think the world will improve a great deal more quickly if student’s self responsibility improved.

  5. I agree with Sara that researching your family history can make some of our American history come alive. Last year we visited several Civil War Battlesites and knowing that I had Great Grandfathers fighting in that war made it much more meaningful. Also traveling in Europe and visiting the cemeteries of WWI and WWII make you more appreciative of the freedom that we have here in this country. I care much more about history and politics now in later life than ever before. I wish my interests had started much earlier. You are doing fine and I enjoyed your article.

  6. Caitlin, you make a good point, to which I would say:
    When schools became institutionalized, they developed a curriculum across all schools and all the big concepts were broken down into little bits that are easier to teach but with the larger meaning removed. It creates standardization which ignores the individuality in a student and instead applies a grading system similar to what you would find for an industrial product; likes eggs, or lumber.

    So there is no room for making the real life connections in this system. After all, how would you grade students based on how much they were inspired or how meaningful a subject became or how excited they were about pursuing it on their own, perhaps as a lifelong pursuit?

    Although it’s a great idea, great for the individual and society, in the current system it appears as an unnecessary expense that we can’t afford. Something extra-curricular that should only be done by volunteers with their own money.

    All your life your elders have been telling you what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right, with good intentions. However, that may create the image that the they (we) really know how to make the meaningful real-life connections and the right decisions toward a better life for future generations. That may be a false assumption.

    Lucky we have you to fix all this! 🙂

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