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This week’s show was inspired and mostly produced by our summer intern, Caryn McKechnie. She’s a senior at Grinnell College this year, majoring in education and English. Caryn and my daughter Katie went to high school together — West High in Madison — and back then I knew that with the exception of a few classes and teachers, Caryn disliked high school, attending "selectively" in her terms. When we reconnected, I was mildly astonished to discover that she now plans to become a teacher. She'll graduate this spring ready to begin student teaching.
Caryn tells us her own story in the first segment of this week's show. From truant to teacher is quite a transformation, involving at least one gifted high school teacher who got her thinking about what education could and should be. That's the question that animates this week's show.
There's another piece to Caryn's story. In February 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced a bill to end collective bargaining for public employees. Among those hardest hit were teachers. Thousands of protesters occupied the state capitol for weeks — including many students from West High. In the end, teachers lost, and morale has never been the same. Six years later, many have quit — including the teacher who inspired Caryn.
This is not, of course, just a Wisconsin story. As the daughter of four generations of teachers, I know that education has always been a relatively thankless profession — although I've never really understood why.
Caryn left us in August, before school started, so she didn't have time to gather all the sound for her piece. I wanted us to hear at least a bit of high school ambience, so I stopped by West High one morning this week and stood in the entrance hall with a mic just before the first bell.
It was chaos. A river of sound and motion. Seething rapids of adolescent energy and emotion. The volume alone was off the charts. I couldn't imagine being a teacher there and trying to channel all that chaos into some kind of order, let alone actual learning. It was fascinating — equal parts scary and awe-inspiring — and I'd recommend it to anyone. Before you form any kind of opinion about public education, you owe it to yourself to go visit your local public high school. Spend a half hour or even just 15 minutes there between classes. Watch and listen to the life surging through those halls. Then see if you still think you know what makes schools work.
In the meantime, here's three minutes of an average morning at Madison West High. Enjoy.