My Educational Activism

Yarmouth High School (YHS) may look like an ordinary brick high school with parking spaces in the front, the American flag waving by the front door, and the flocks of kids waiting for the buses in the afternoon. But inside, it is a school that strives for excellence in every way.

YHS does not emphasize perfection, knowing it isn’t possible. Instead, Yarmouth’s mission—To Empower all Students to Create Fulfilling Lives in a Changing World—is based on its core values of trust, honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, integrity, loyalty, caring, respect, citizenship, pursuit of quality, responsibility, and, last of all, positive self-esteem. Like the Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools, the core values at YHS help students become active participants in their education.

When I arrived at YHS as a freshman, I was nervous about being around upperclassmen, fitting in, finding my way around, and making a difference. Like any other student, I had the usual first-day butterflies about my classes, where to eat, if I would be late, and so on. I soon discovered that the teachers care about the students and really want the students to take advantage of their education in all the ways possible to succeed. This happens in a variety of ways to suit learning differences.

YHS has helped me personally become an active participant in my education by giving me encouragement to advocate for myself, different ways to assess learning, opportunities for school involvement, and by having good resources such as experts who can reinforce learning.

I was told that one key to surviving high school (and even life) is asking questions and making sure you have the right idea on assignments. Mastering this skill is one reason behind my increased ability to advocate for myself. I had an eccentric teacher who was frequently vague on assignments. The reason I did somewhat well in that class is because I asked about and clarified anything I misunderstood. Talking with my teachers before class also helps because it allows the teacher to know that I am doing my best but have a small issue that can be resolved. An example of this is an issue that came up recently: I had problems with opening my gym locker but emailed the gym instructors and told them my concerns. My gym instructors answered and said they could help me get an easier combination so it would be possible to open my locker. The action of the email was small but went a long way. Voicing my concerns helped open communication with my teachers. I advocate for myself in this way because it helps me, and it helps my teachers understand me better.

As a math-challenged individual, I couldn’t be happier to get out of math class when it ends! It took me all through middle school to admit that I didn’t understand some (well, actually, all) parts of math. With some coaching from a very patient instructional strategist, I eventually figured out that I didn’t want to admit defeat by saying that I didn’t get something. I started my high school career by admitting to my math teacher, learning center teacher and myself that I have difficulty admitting what I don’t get. My first year of high school math at YHS was better in the sense that teachers really wanted me to learn to remember basic math skills such as how to solve an equation using X. I took advantage of the extra help with lots of practice and improved my math skills and grade overall. The challenge required perseverance and hard work but I learned and remembered how to do many math skills. Being involved in the success of my mathematical education and asking for, and accepting, help when necessary not only made math class more enjoyable but also gave me a model for improvement in other classes.

Having students as workers and teachers as guides is the best way to learn, as my math experience taught me. The teacher is coaching the student toward a path of knowledge and the student uses his or her knowledge and ability to go the rest of the way. The teacher helps by asking questions, by being a source of information, and most of all by giving support. It is up to the student to use what the teacher offers.

During my freshman year, I took Physical Science One to fulfill part of my science requirement. The second major unit was on geology, the study of rocks. As the final assessment, each student created a web site with a glossary, bibliography, links page, geology map and timeline, rock and mineral guide, and a piece on the history of Portland Headlight. The project was divided into different parts so that it couldn’t be done in one night before it was due. The first two drafts of geology timeline and map needed to be shown to the teacher for accuracy and completion. Then, it was up to the students to check their work and make sure it was completed on time. Whenever I had finished a draft or a step in the process to completion, I would check in with my teacher to see if there could be any improvements or suggestions. I made sure every step along the way that my work was complete and accurate. My teacher acted as support and a source of information along the way, which helped me have my web site submitted for citywide recognition.

Another way of demonstrating learning at YHS is the Socratic Seminar. Teachers ask students questions that start generally and eventually become more specific. The questions are usually focused around a topic that is being studied in both the English and history classes. Students are expected to talk at least once during the seminar. They can refer to and use examples from web sites visited in their English and history classes, handouts, old homework assignments and other reference materials. The Socratic Seminar, however, is not my favorite way of showing my knowledge. I am often shy, reluctant to raise my hand in class, and this issue shows up in the seminar, which does not work for all people because their talents and abilities may not be able to be used in a more social display of knowledge.

This summer, I was on a committee to help re-design student government at YHS to increase student involvement. I was one of five representatives for my grade. I spoke for my grade as best as possible. Not all people in my grade will have the same opinions, and I honor that. I tried to represent my grade by keeping an open mind and sharing opinions, even when we discussed an idea for a senior project. As a result, we’ve helped draft a new constitution and revised the student government to create a student senate and class council. Despite my shyness, I’ve decided to put up my hand and run for student senate.

At YHS, we also have access to other ways to learn, such as the Career Exploration Program (CEP), a three-day career job shadow for sophomores and juniors to help them get a chance to see what jobs may interest them. The school’s goal is for all students to have a positive learning experience during their career exploration and to connect this with the future. That’s why the CEP is required, regardless of differences in opinions, demographics, backgrounds, and learning styles. As I think about a few career interests such as library science, education, literature, fashion and running a store, I’m looking forward to my first CEP this spring.

Other ways of learning at YHS include a graduation requirement of at least 60 hours of community service, the use of ibooks by students, and honors and AP classes. The teachers’ hope is that the students will participate and take advantage of these opportunities and learn from them. At YHS, students can show their learning in different ways, based on their learning styles and strengths, such as in essays, projects, standardized testing, portfolios, annotated bibliographies, PowerPoint presentations and even web blogs and web sites. Having a mixture of ways to measure students’ knowledge is better and provides variety. Having the variety makes the student more interested in studying and learning; it makes the teacher enjoy seeing the students discover and use their academic talents.

Yarmouth High School
Yarmouth High School, in southern Maine, has 490 students in grades 9-12. All Yarmouth High School students receive an Apple iBook laptop for their school use.

Emma Brightbill is a sophomore: at Yarmouth High School in Yarmouth, Maine. She likes reading, doing yoga, walking and being with friends and family. She wants to be an English or history teacher one day.