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Woog’s World A Westport education now and then

August 24, 2018

A new school year starts soon. Students will charge their devices, ride the bus or drive or be driven to school, study collaboratively, enjoy fine cafeteria food, study for standardized tests, and be followed every step of the way by parents with instant access to every grade they get and each assignment that’s due.

It was not always this way.

I’m not talking about early days in Westport, when one-room schoolhouses dotted the landscape, female teachers could not be married (but had to tend the fire and clear the mud), and Staples High School’s first graduating class consisted of only six girls (all the guys had already left to work on farms and in factories).

I’m talking about back in my day. That’s post-war, baby boom Westport. As the population swelled, new schools were built seemingly overnight. (The results were what you’d expect: Ask anyone what Burr Farms and Hillspoint Elementary Schools looked and felt like.) Staples too bulged beyond capacity, which is why we had open campus (anyone could come and go during any free period), and three students shared every parking space (the key was finding two others who never drove).

The differences in education — what it looks like, feels like and means — between 2018 and 19-whatever are profound. Some changes have come quickly; others snuck up on us, like teachers trying to catch cheaters. Some are good, important, necessary, even crucial to developing the next generation of citizens. Others are strange, silly, perhaps counterproductive to the entire notion of education.

I’m not here to judge. I am glad I went to school in Westport — Burr Farms Elementary, Long Lots Junior High, Staples — when I did. Much of who I am today I owe to my kindergarten through high school days here.

I am well aware, though, that students today have many advantages I could not even conceive of. The education they are getting — and participating actively in — is far beyond mine.

But “doing school” — a recent phrase, one that suggests education is a job, not a life experience — is filled with pressures I never imagined. I would not want to be a student today. My hat is off to them. Students in Westport, by and large, handle those demands with a grace and energy I could never have mustered.

I also could not haul around a 50-pound backpack, everywhere I went. We carried actual textbooks in our hands — how primitive — while not worrying about misplacing (and charging) laptops and tablets. I will not get into the debate over the amazing advantages of constant internet access versus the willingness to accept as true everything one finds online. I do know that interactive whiteboards are far more effective than blackboards, and Socratic seminars engage and involve far more students than the old teacher-as-lecturer model ever did.

At the same time, writing papers that will be evaluated by rubrics, and rushing through AP curriculums so that students can be ready for tests in early May, must take some of the freshness and joy out of the educational process.

When I was at Staples, and even more so today, students can find a passion and pursue it. Courses like TV and music production, astronomy, sports literature, culinary (a far cry from “home ec”) and so many others help guide teenagers toward possible careers.

At the same time, it’s much tougher to “major” in something like music or art. Graduation requirements — mandated at the local and state levels — mean fewer opportunities to take multiple courses in one subject.

But also at the same time (“on the third hand”), math and science have embraced girls much more than in the past. Staples has made a concerted effort to hire female teachers. They make up about half of the faculty in those departments, and are some of the best and most admired teachers in the school.

The Staples faculty has consistently been one of the strongest at any public school anywhere. My friends and I had friendly, informal relationships with teachers. Many were just a few years older than us. Today, students spend much more time than we did in pre-arranged meetings with staff members. And the demands on teachers’ times have escalated enormously — along with many other responsibilities, like posting assignments online and constantly communicating with students and parents. Educators are under constant scrutiny — not the least of which is what happens at college acceptance time.

I don’t think my parents knew anything about my SATs, other than that I took them. They did not worry about college when I was in middle school.

It was a different era. Was it a better one?

Sorry. Time’s up!

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.

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