Thursday, March 29, 2012

Creating Community: Reflections of a BCA Senior

Community exists at BCA, but it’s hard to spot under the piles of homework and intense pressure to perform. The task of the BCA student must be to unearth it.

There is a whole host of phrases someone like me – a senior with his eyes towards college – could recite to students who have another couple of years to go at BCA. Phrases like “hang in there!” Or “learn for the sake of learning!” Or “take the classes you enjoy!” And while all of these phrases are partly true, there is something else that gets lost amidst the platitudes: community - to give and teach as well as to receive and learn.

At a highly competitive school it is hard forge a sense of solidarity with fellow students. We are told, even before we know if we’ll be attending this school, to approach our peers as challengers. From the morning we walk into the auditorium to take the entrance exam to the evening we celebrate our graduation, the educational model in which we learn teaches us to think of our classmates as adversaries. This logic permeates every aspect of school life. Students begin to think: my acceptance to the college of my choice is predicated upon the rejection of my classmates by that college. Yet, it isn’t just the sinister college process that pits students against each other. The hyper-competitive ethos declares: getting an A on a test means that my peers cannot get As too. Praise of a student from a teacher must come with the censure of another student. Such an educational environment makes community impossible and construes collaboration as anathema, or even something subversive.

This kind of educational environment is oppressive, not because it is coercive or limiting, but because it demands from students constant vigilance. Every moment, every test, quiz, or project is a competition – one small battle in the fight to obtain the treasured acceptance letter from an Ivy League school. These stakes are high, so we are constantly desperate and always striving to outdo even our closest friends.

It is true that the teachers and administrators do not want us to live with such rivalry. And I’m sure they frown, just as anyone would, when students refuse collaborate out of malice – like when someone refuses to tell a friend who has just been absent what the homework was. I know the administration shudders to think that on occasion, students attempt to sabotage their peers out of fear that cooperation will limit their chances for academic success. But only the students can really change the school environment; all teachers and administrators can do is help.

For those of you with time left at BCA, the opportunity to create an intellectual community still exists. I encourage you to reject the educational paradigm that forces us to work against our peers and I urge you to promote the values of cooperation and camaraderie instead. If I knew what I know now about the college process and the rigors of BCA, I would have worked harder, not on my studies, but on cultivating a sense of community within my grade and in the broader school environment. It turned out, after all I was told by college emails, parents, test-prep books, and teachers, that my success was not at all contingent on my classmates’ failures. We all, especially this year’s senior class, did quite well. If anything, imagine what could be accomplished with greater cooperation between students. Just think: working together on homework would provide us with a ready-made social forum and a better understanding of the lessons taught in class. Study groups would make large, high stakes tests seem lest daunting and the process of studying less isolative. Sharing information about due dates for assignments and questions would alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with taking a rigorous course-load. Discussion groups for readings would enliven class time, and sharing notes would make difficult subjects less mystifying. There would be more time for wonder, research, and independent inquiry – the pillars of an intellectual community.

We achieve more, not less, when we work together. We are happier when friends and classmates aren’t enemies or teammates on an opposing team. When you are in class, look at the student next to you – friend, acquaintance, or stranger – not as an obstacle or challenger on your path to success but as a potential intellectual partner of even a confidant. Think of your fellow student as someone who can share in your journey through high school. I no longer have the ability to make this happen. But you still do.  


This post was originally published in the school newspaper, at BCA stands for the Bergen County Academies, a public magnet high school in New Jersey.

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