Column #12, posted 10/12/00

The Students Respond

My mail is usually full of comments by teachers applauding what I have to say, but the other day something very special arrived from Michael Sullivan a teacher at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Illinois. My new book, Coloring Outside the Lines: Raising a Smarter Kid by Breaking all the Rules, was reviewed on the front page of the Chicago Tribune book section recently. This month's column consists of a letter I received from Mr. Sullivan and excerpts from letters his students sent me in response to the review of my book. I included something from every letter I received (except two that seemed to be about something else entirely):

Dr. Schank:

My name is Michael Sullivan and I teach English at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Illinois. I was intrigued by the recent book review about your work in the Chicago Tribune. I was also interested in how my sophomore students would react to some of your ideas that were expressed in that review. Yesterday I gave them a copy of the review along with an assignment to write you a letter with their honest response to the review. I told them only to be honest.

Later today the students will hand in their letters. However, I won't be grading them. Instead I will drop them into the envelope you just opened. I thought you might find this feedback interesting. Naturally I can make no claim about the content of these letters since I haven't read them. I can tell you that this class is "average track." I should add that many of the students are not scoring well in my class so far.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.
Michael Sullivan

Here is a piece of what each student wrote, in their own words (and spelling):

I agree that in public school failing becomes a humiliation when it should be a essential part of life. Students often find ways around failure, when all children need to experience failure. I think many people may benefit from public schools but a lot of people would learn better by themselves or in an one-to-one situation. In public school students often loss the drive for education. They continue just because they are required to. I think if students had the chance, they would want to learn and seek education.


I think that schools and administrators focus to much on test scores and paperwork instead of seeing whats really going on. I can understand that everyone wants you to learn different things but, majority of the things that they teach you you aren't going to remember or your never going to use it. And it's nice to know that there actually is someone out there who thinks about other things and just not all the scores and tests and there's more to school than just all that.


I think schools are boring and are a waste of time in some aspects. No student really wants to go to school. Most teachers just share useless information. The students don't listen and it defeats the whole purpose. If teachers really want students to learn and get something out of the class they should relate topics to real life situations.


I think school doesn't teach most of the things you need for college. Then there's Algebra. What do we need Algebra for? It's useless, nobody's going to use it in the future. I also think the teachers should only teach the things you personally need for college or the profession you are choosing to be. Basically, school is useless.


I think schools are good for some people and bad for others. Like for all the smart people, it's good for them to learn and have good careers. Then there's all the kids that go and do nothing but get in trouble and do nothing. Their parents are just wasting money and it can be spent on better things like a TV or something good. Sometimes I think that we spend way too much time in school. I learned that we spend more of our lives with teachers than our own parents.


And one of the stronger points I hold is that I would not be caught dead wearing one of those cheesy uniforms that most private schools require you to wear. Yea, I understand the fact that your trying to eliminate distractions and Glamour so that the students all look the same and can concentrate better on there schoolwork, but I believe it's a lot healthier if students can reflect there Individuality-even though it may also cause problems.


I truly agree with you saying that kids grades can drop because the classes are that boring. Teachers really need to communicate during class with their students. That is a major problem now-a-days. And another one is having a really boring teacher, because the kids will fall asleep or write notes…etc. And that leads to failing grades, because they are not listening!


The school systems got it all wrong. All they do is spit out facts at you. This makes your grade more about memerization than actual thought. There is surprisingly little thought in school at all. In Geometry we have to remember postulates and formulas, when they are simply common sense. In physics we learn acceleration formulas, and they don't teach us why its that formula. In English we tape stuff and write verbatim from books in our "Journal." To me, learning isn't writing stuff down and memorizing pointless facts. I agree with you about education 100%.


I agree with your opinions. I have recognized this before, sometimes I find myself sitting in a class and I am having trouble. I want to ask a question but I am scared that someone will make fun of me. I don't ask the question, I fall back. It is hard to do things without failure. You correct yourself through failure.

When you're learning to drive a car, what do you do? You make mistakes, but you correct yourself. This all happens after failure. I've found that all that teachers do is talk. And if I need help, it never really helps me understand. I have to figure out a different way to get around the problem. I do get around it, but it would be easier if they just let me get something wrong. Most of the stuff we learn, we'll probably never use.


I think you are 100% right about everything. I wish someone would be the gruff, pirate-like guy and make this an issue. The way the mass-produced curriculum is designed, I think makes it hard to learn. Not everybody has the same ways of learning.

I also think you are right about what you said when students fail in school. It is like humiliation. I think it is a big part of the learning process. When we fail, we get help and try to solve the problem, but from personal experience, in school we don't want to fail because of fear of being made fun of. It shouldn't be that way. I think we should be comfortable with failing so then we would learn more.

It is true about what is taught is essentially useless to the student and is quickly forgotten. Also, the teachers sometimes just keep on talking all period and it is boring for the students. This keeps us from listening. Also, from learning anything.

Personally, I learn by hands on experiences. I don't learn by listening to someone talk for a long period of time or taking notes.


It is true that parents and grandparents should spend more time and raise their own child. If a child goes to school and spends eight hours with a teacher he/she is learning from them some things their parents should have taught them. I also support your idea on one-on-one learning. I do believe that many children would be smarter if they were taught by one person all their life.


I used to hate school and I never learned anything until this year. I love my teachers and I am learning a lot more. I have noticed that teachers are relating topics w/stories or things that have happened to them. They give more examples, explain things better and are more involved w/the students. I found that I am learning a lot more and remembering most of it. Last year it was notes after notes, lecture after lecture and a lot of homework. This year there is note taking, explaining, labs, stories. School is more fun and I find that I'm more enthusiastic about going to school. I also find that I am getting more envolved during class and am getting good grades on tests and in class. The teachers have done things, like telling funny stories about what has happened to them, that make class fun. I enjoy school a lot more than I used to.


I think schools can be good and bad to kids. They are good because it is a type of environment that kids love. Being with all their friends in school is the best thing for them. They are more eager to learn with a nice atmosphere they can be comfortable in although some kids might feel uncomfortable in it. Sometimes it is just better that way. They can solve problems easier maybe.

Public Schools can also be bad for kids. Although they might feel comfortable in class with their friends, they could easily get distracted too.


Honestly, I'm glad that someone is finally voicing their opinion that is against the administraters! Students have never been able to teach the teachers and parents what really happens and what we go through. It is great that you tell what happens in reality. Thank You for speaking out!


I think school is important only to the ones who plan to use what they learn in the future. For example if a student wants to be a mechanic, then he would take classes that teach about cars. But if that same person tried to get a job as doctor, he probally won't get the job. First of all he didn't have any experiences working with medicine etc. And second he wouldn't be good at it because his interests would be in repairing cars.


Many times in class I wonder why teachers are feeding us usless information. Why do we have to lern what a transcendental number is or memerize the elements. This makes little sense to me. Often times in class I wonder how this will help me in "the real world." When I apply for a job such as an accounent, will they ask me if I know the periodic table? I think not.

Many times I day dream in class because I know what is being taught has no significance to me. It would be much easier for me to learn if I knew that the subject applied to me and was interesting. I enjoy classes in which we have group discussion, because like you said, the learning process consists of both parts of the exchange: taking in information and offering information in response."

I am also bothered by the type of memorization we have to do in class. I am not saying it is bad to learn how to memorize things. But the way the ciriclum is taught, you memorize it and remember it for a week, then completley forget it. The memorization should be applied to everday life.


I am really glad that you are telling the rest of the world about the reality that's going on in school, so parents can find out what we really have to do in school. It is much harder than our parents think it is. Kids our age get much more homework than our parents did, but our parents don't think that's true. Another thing I like is how you're open-minded have a different view than everyone else, including our own parents. It is great how you open these issues so in the future or not that far away in time, these issues may be debated and the rules may change in the school, or there might be less homework for kids our age in the future. Finally, I am glad you wrote about this subject and brought up the issues of school. Just because I am entrigued, I'm going to read the book.


And I just want to say I read your article and I think it is great.


It's not always the students who have the problem learning, but you suggest it could be the way the teachers are teaching it to us. I also beleive we should be able to choose our own destineys. Classes should be run at our comfortability level, not the teacher all the time.


I think what you are trying to teach about teaching kids is absolutly true. People do tend to get knowledge on a need to know basis. When people fail they do tend to get help and learn about a subject because they had failed. In school, like you said we want to avoid failure.

I feel in school kids don't need to know everything they are taught. Children do most of there learning on their own. So I agree with what you are saying in the book. You bring up some great questions about how schools are teaching. Thank you for writing a book that probably agrees with every kid when it comes to how schools are teaching. Most kids will agree they taught themselves most of what they know.


My name is Danielle Knopp and I read the review about your book in the Tribune. I have spent 10 years in public schools and 3 years in private school, and this is what I think about this whole article.

First of all, I am in 10th grade attending a high school in Illinois. I fully agree with what the so-called "pirate" is saying about the whole learning process, but I know that it will not change. I think the education that we are learning in today's society can't be changed to the most important subjects that we should be learning or need to be learning because it's just too late. Tell me, how could we change the meaning of education? Or the basic education that is being passed on to us?

I have also never understood certain things about teaching. In so many classes, so many teachers, they teach us something that not only will you have some little quiz on it, but it really makes me think, "Why do we need to know this? Will this actually help us to succeed in the future? But not only the future, your future. We are the future, so why don't we learn the important things that we need to know for the future ahead of us?

I really do agree that we learn best on our own or one-on-one. It is very true when you say that everything a teacher says slides off our brain when they keep talking and talking. I also believe your advice on encouraging your child to participate in a sport is a very good idea. When putting your child in an activity, they form responsibility for it, and sooner or later it forms into their school work.


I fully agree with your opinions of school. School is a repetitive process in which students do not learn but attempt to end each day as soon as possible. I agree that students do not need school because it does present real life situations and the only way students will receive this is through sport and a social environment. Also, I agree with your statement of accepting under performance as the best reaction to boring, irrelevant classes. The problem in most classes is probably the class itself.

I also agree with you on your opinion that you sometimes need to fail to learn and in schools failing is so looked down on. As you said failing is a matter of humiliation.

The answer for all of this is to make schooling optional or make the choice of classes optional. This way people don't have to waste so many years on unnecessary things such as trigonometry and symbolism of things in stories, as u stated.


And there you have it. The students speak out. Are these kids different from your average kid? I don't think so. Most kids find school to be awful. Schools would have gone out of business long ago if they actually were businesses with clients who so hated the product. Compulsory schooling and its lack of reasonable alternatives keeps the system intact.

We need to invent new models of schooling, which, as it is now, is clearly of waste of everyone's time.

Education Outrage Archives

Return to Archives index