Last night, I hosted a book group who read Robert Epstein's The Case Against Adolescence. I came across this book in the spring when it came out and wanted to get together with other English teachers to talk about his ideas.
It is a long book and I'm sure my summary will not do it justice, but here goes ... Epstein argues that adolescence as a time of angst and turmoil is a construct which is particular to western, post-industrial cultures. In other cultures and in our history, adolescents were not treated as children, but given a multitude of responsibility for themselves and their families. Epstein cites several research studies to show that adolescents have the cognitive, physical, and emotional capabilities of adults. As a culture, we infantilize them and it is as a result of this infatilization that adolescents are angry, depressed, and rebellious. He gives many examples, but to me the most interesting and telling is that when a young woman under the age of 18 has a baby, she is responsible for making medical decisions for the baby, but because she is under 18 cannot legally make medical decisions for herself.
I was reading this book in the last few months of the school year and I was reconsidering my relationships with my students. I sent out a few e-mails seeing if anyone else was interested in reading the book and discussing it with me. I met with four other ELA teachers last night to discuss the book.
There was some criticism for his ideas, especially those which advocate for a series of competency tests which teens could take to earn the right to marry, drive, drink, etc. This seems to be quite a big shift in our culture. Despite this and other criticism, we had a good time talking about what happens when we treat our adolescent students more like adults - giving them choices and giving them responsibilities. We discussed practical ways to do this in the classroom. Some of the ideas that came forward were that students should be in charge of the bulletin boards, certain paperwork, and keeping the room clean. We shared examples of students who had been having negative experiences in the classroom begin to turn their performance around when they were given meaningful responsibility to the classroom community and curriculum.
I shared with the group some of the work that I've done with self-assessment, teaching students to be more reflective about their learning. I've gone as far recently to give students the responsibility for grading themselves, explaining why they deserve this grade, and defending that grade to me and a small group of their peers. I maintain a veto power, but rarely use it. When given that responsibility, students shine. They set goals for their learning and begin to take a stake in their learning. This, along with incorporating choice into the curriculum, is one of the themes I hope to explore in my doctoral work.