Yeah, but we will always need ditch diggers!

When talking on the topic of citizenship, workforce, and college readiness with a group of other educators recently, some one asked, “But what about the argument ‘Yeah, but we will always need ditch diggers!’?”  Being the graduate school educated daughter of a truck driver and a school cafeteria lady, that hit me hard.  I hopped up from my chair and went to a poster displaying our Vision, Mission, and Goals and pointed to the statement, “All learners believe in their power to embrace learning, to excel, and to own their future.”  I asked something like, “How do we ensure the student owns the choice to become a ditch digger and isn’t handed the choice because he was in the ‘low reading group’ in kindergarten?”

Our Vision statement is powerful in my mind, but it conflicts with the notion of “ability grouping” (which is most often actually “achievement grouping”) and other tracking practices.  The conversation didn’t move to this at all, despite my physical movement and “in your face question”.  The conversation went back to citizenship, workforce, and college readiness, driven by the question “What of our lifelong learner skills don’t apply to a ditch digger?”

ACPS Lifelong Learner Skills

  1. Plan and conduct research.
  2. Analyze data, evaluate processes and products; and draw conclusions. 
  3. Think analytically, critically, and creatively to pursue new ideas, acquire new knowledge, and make decisions. 
  4. Understand and apply principles of logic and reasoning; develop, evaluate, and defend arguments. 
  5. Seek, recognize and understand systems, patterns, themes, and interactions. 
  6. Apply and adapt a variety of appropriate strategies to new and increasingly complex problems. 
  7. Acquire and use precise language to clearly communicate ideas, knowledge, and processes. 
  8. Explore and express ideas and opinions using multiple media, the arts, and technology. 
  9. Demonstrate ethical behavior and respect for diversity through daily actions and decision making. 
  10. Participate fully in civic life, and act on democratic ideals within the context of community and global interdependence. 
  11. Understand and follow a physically active lifestyle that promotes good health and wellness. 
  12. Apply habits of mind and metacognitive strategies to plan, monitor, and evaluate one’s own work.

So, what of our lifelong learner skills don’t apply to a ditch digger or a truck driver or a school cafeteria lady?  I know my dad, who we refer to as “the original GPS” (granddaddy positioning system) because he has the map of the major highways in the lower 48 memorized, constantly evaluated routing, fuel consumption (there were financial bonuses for achieving fuel savings), safety (there were financial bonuses as well as the obvious benefits from accumulating “safe driving miles”), time of day, weight of the load, and made adjustments as needed. That’s at least 1 – 6 and 12 above, don’t you think?  The fact that dad would park his truck, after ensuring he had the time to spare, and call a cab to take him to visit sites like the Space Needle in Seattle or other places he couldn’t imagine taking his family to on vacation may partially illustrate 10.  I could go on and on about how my parents, neither of whom has a single college credit to their name, exemplify the lifelong learner standards.  And, I challenge anyone to sit in the living room while Jeopardy! is on!

So, to what extent did my high school educated parents “own their future”?  Dad started driving a coal truck when he was 16 because he didn’t want to be a coal miner.  He finished high school, went in to the Army for a short stint, and moved on to bigger and better trucking jobs.  When he and mom had been married for a while, he “left the road” to become a dispatcher for a few weeks and was miserable.  Mom and he decided it was better for him to be happy on the road than miserable in an office.  He went back to the road until his retirement.

Once my youngest brother went to kindergarten, Mom looked for a job that would allow her to be on the same schedule that her kids were on.  She found one as a substitute cafeteria worker and eventually worked her way up to being a cafeteria manager in a new school. She retired from that job and began substitute teaching and eventually took a job as a part-time special education teaching assistant.  She retired from that job and is now vice president of Dad’s company, Nap Incorporated (named by my niece who tends to call while Dad is napping.  Actually, everybody tends to call while Dad is napping.)

The message I got from my parents about my career path was to “use your brain and not your back.”  They wanted more for me than they had and they saw a white collar job as providing this.  I also heard over and over again, “We don’t care if you are a ditch digger, just make sure you make enough money to do what you want to do, love what you’re doing, and are the best at it.”  What is it about ditch diggers?

Do kids grow through school wanting to be ditch diggers?  Absolutely!  But, they go through school.  How do we ensure school prepares them to be citizenship, workforce, and college ready AND that they “own their future”?  I didn’t play well in school and DOZENS (yes, dozens) of educators recommended moving me down a level or from this academic program to that non-academic program.  It’s not that I couldn’t do what they were asking me to do academically, it’s just that I found no compelling reason to.  My Mom fought over and over again to keep me in the highest level of classes possible even if my grades were not very good (not doing homework does that to you when homework counts 20 – 25%).

Some may say that I “owned my future” when I chose not to do homework.  I say, “give me homework worth doing.” Regardless of how a student presents in school, we must be committed to connecting them with the most engaging experiences possible to develop skillsets and mindsets necessary to be citizenship, workforce, and college ready.

So, about two weeks in to the school year, walk around your school and look at how students are grouped.  Can you predict the next generation of “ditch diggers”?  How does their experience compare to the next generation of doctors you identify?  Who is getting the worksheets that require rote recall of useless facts?  Who is getting the Socratic seminar that challenges thinking and develops communications skills?  Who has your best teachers?  Who has the greatest access to technology?  Who gets pulled out more?  Who gets more or less time in Art, Music, PE, and other “specials”?  To what extent do your kids “own their future”?

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9 Responses to “Yeah, but we will always need ditch diggers!”

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