My New Learning Plan

Yesterday, I spent about an hour working on something called a Learning Plan. At the school where I work, we use Learning Plans to record where each student stands in relation to their education.

A good education doesn’t just happen to a person. Education and learning are activities to be worked on. A student has to want an education, and they have to be willing to put some effort into it (incidental learning is all well and good, but incidental learning should not be a goal; active and engaged learning should be the goal).

To accomplish this, my school puts the student in charge of their own education. The school is there to provide resources — the time and the space to work on projects; the support of caring and curious adults who actively want to see them succeed; access to a network of community partners eager to collaborate with them on a mutually beneficial internship; material support in the way of computers, books, paper, and pencils; and, not the least, the opportunity to receive financial backing for well-researched investments in their future — but (and this is important) the school itself is not there to provide an education.

Only the students, themselves, can do that.

The Learning Plan is one resource we use to help them. The product of several conversations between the student and their advisor, the Learning Plan records the student’s long-term goals and short-term objectives.

It starts by asking them to identify their passion. This is a tough-ass task to accomplish. We use all kinds of tools to get at possible answers, but unless the student wants to seek their passion, coming up with the right answer is all but impossible.

So next we ask the student to consider their interests. They may not know their passion,  but they can almost always come up with something that fascinates them: sharks, battle-axes, tornadoes, etc. If they can’t come up with a detailed answer, they can come up with a broader genre: video games, science, blowing stuff up.

Between their passions and their interests, we can come up with a project or a class that has some real teeth to it in either an academic and/or skill-building sense, something that the student can enthusiastically say “Yes!” to (the best ideas come out of the student’s mouth, of course).

But that’s not the whole Learning Plan. Because a student can’t just come to my school, do whatever they want to do, and then graduate with a high school diploma. It’s not that easy.

As a school, we decided that it means something to earn our high school diploma, and it’s not the same thing as earning a diploma from one of the state-based high schools (and when I say “we decided as a school,” I mean “we” in the broadest sense because my school is completely democratic: staff and students have equal say in the way the school runs, provided they show up to make their voices heard). As a school, we decided that our diploma means the student has accomplished not only the development of basic or college-ready academic skills (which is what most diplomas signify), but that the student has also developed their social and emotional skills.

Every student who graduates from my school must accomplish a suite of over 100 different goals, spaced out over the lifetime of their career. These goals range from the development of their reading skills to the development of their ability to cope with adversity. They not only have to know how to write and do  algebra, they have to know how to build and maintain healthy relationships and understand and manage their moods.

The Learning Plan is where this progress gets recorded. It’s completed on a quarterly basis and attempts to stand true for a period of nine weeks. The students use the Learning Plan to record which specific goals they’re going to pursue and how that pursuit fits into the long-term development of their passion and/or interests.

(Sometimes, because of a failure of either time or imagination, the student and the advisor fail to succeed, and nine weeks pass with very little progress. That’s okay. We don’t penalize either the student or the advisor for that. Students do not “fail” or “stay back” at my school — we refuse to place a label on their progress — instead, students give and receive honest assessments of their work. Education isn’t a race with winners and losers; it’s a craft, requiring patience and discipline from both the apprentice and the master, and its method of assessment should respect and reflect the time and effort put into it.)

But the Learning Plan attempts to capture all of that, and to do so in a single document. That was my job yesterday afternoon. To imagine a bureaucratic form that could best entomb such a living and dynamic process.

We kid ourselves when we tell the students that the Learning Plan is a living document. It’s not. It both captures and kills a whole lot of effort on everybody’s part.

There’s a superstition among creative writers that says it’s bad luck to talk about your works in progress because telling someone your story tricks you into thinking you’ve written it.

The Learning Plan has that danger as well. It sometimes takes so much effort to create a Learning Plan that it saps all of the student’s inspiration and energy, and the rest of the nine weeks may pass with little to no movement. This sets them up to feel like a failure as they neglect to get any real work done.

But here’s the thing: When a person has a Learning Plan, they know what they’re supposed to do, which means they also know when they’re not doing it. This can be a lot for the teenage mind to handle, and it can lead to feelings of depression and guilt, which then can manifest in behavior that looks like anger or aggression. Make no mistake: It’s dangerous goddamn work putting effort into the education of an American teenager, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

Of course, one of the goals of the student and the advisor is to either avoid or learn to cope with such feelings and/or behaviors by making steady progress on an academic and/or social-emotional level.

But how can a bureaucratic form do that utterly humane and naturally chaotic process any real justice? It’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If you want to know exactly what direction a thing is moving, you can’t also know exactly where it is in space. A Learning Plan can show us where a student is right now, but it can’t show us how quickly they are moving.

That’s why my form needed to strike a balance between long-term goals and short-term objectives.  It can’t tell you how they got here or when they’ll get there, but it can tell you where they are right now.

What’s hilarious to me is that when all of this thinking is going on in my head, my students just see me with my feet up on a chair focused on my computer screen. If they actually come around to look at my screen (as they often do), they see some new form on Google Docs with spaces for things like “Name” and “Today’s Date,” and bulleted lists with placeholder text that reads “Select here and start typing.” It must look so friggin’ boring to them.

Little do they know that the Learning Plan I pursued in my twenties and thirties led me to a job where every day I get to utilize my passion for systems-thinking, further my drive to constantly extend my knowledge and comprehension, and act on my desire to make a difference in my community.

It may look boring to my students. But when it comes to my career, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Did I finish the form? I did. And then I assigned it to my students. The due date is Friday.

Seriously, doesn’t the completion of a form like that seem like a full time job, yet at the same time, so rewarding? As if it would take a lot of hard work and serious thinking to provide honest answers to its questions, but also and at the same, be totally worth it in the end?

But no, my students won’t see it that way. They’ll see it as homework. And homework is something you do at the last minute, if you do it at all.

Goddamn, it’s frustrating to work with teenagers 🙂