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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lack of Extracurricular Participation

Recently my school sent out a brief survey to students in leadership positions. The survey was in response to a dramatic decrease in student participation in extracurricular activities, of which they wanted to discover the cause. So I asked myself: why do students not participate in clubs anymore? Below was my response if you care to read it. :)

First, let me disclaim that I apologize for the length of my comments, but whenever I make a point on a subject I like to be comprehensive. Below are my feelings on the motivation of high school students in the Staten Island Technical High School environment and what could be improved upon to help dramatically and quickly resolve the situation before the school and its students begin to feel adverse effects. I should also note that all observations made herein are not intended to insult any specific students, but are merely generalizations based on limited observations. There are many students in all grades whom I consider some of my closest friends, so what I say below does not apply to absolutely everybody.

It should first be observed that the reason for the significant drop in extracurricular population is not entirely to blame on the school and its infrastructure. As Co-Director of Tech Crew, I have taken in new recruits each year of my high school career, and it is clearly obvious that each grade level has their own sort of generalized personality that is inherited throughout the class. In other words, each grade has its own unique features. While we cannot know for sure, one can postulate that the reasoning behind this generalization in student behavior has to do with the collective experiences of each grade, most notably their transition into high school and external social forces. For example, I have observed that the current senior class is highly motivated, and quite a number of students take their school work and extracurriculars very seriously. (It is noted that there are a number of specific exceptions, but deeper analysis should reveal that these exceptions are not entirely disconnected from the generalized personality as aforementioned.) The junior class, however, is slightly less motivated, tending to prefer informal social communication to organized activities. Furthermore, there are a significant percentage of students who tend to overvalue their accomplishments, which may lead to a decrease in participation. Diving further off the cliff, the sophomores just do not care as much, are extremely immature, and seem to have no sense of loyalty or dedication. (Again, this does not apply to everybody; it is just from my own limited observations.) Finally, the current freshmen class is substantially more dedicated, so it looks like there is still hope, but as they are still early on in the high school acclimation process, to decide this conclusively would be premature.

Moving on, as said, each class has its own unique characteristics, and thus is motivated through different techniques. I find it highly unlikely many sophomores would register and attend a College Now class at 6:45 in the morning. Furthermore, juniors would already have too much on their plate and seniors simply do not care since College Now can no longer help them with their resume. When the student body advances a grade level or two, and they are filled by new, hopefully more academically dedicated classes, College Now registrations will definitely go up. In other words, the recent situation with College Now is a matter of circumstance, not protocol. (However, it should also be noted that another reason students do not register for College Now is that many students believe their only motivation for registration is so they can obtain college credits, but since many students aspire to go to colleges that do not accept College Now credits, the program is near useless. It should be reinforced that College Now classes are also for expanding one's knowledge and experience, rather than just something on your transcript.)

Other than improvisation, there is really not much you can do to anticipate each grade's individual generalized personality. However, there are still a number of general problems circulating through the school environment that seem to dull students' attitudes and confidence in our school, which then leads to decreased participation in local extracurricular activities. A good way to view these problems is in the form of a triangle: the first corner represents a lack of confidence in our school (passive environmental discouragement); the second: a lack of motivation to participate (passive situational discouragement); and the third: an increasing number of external activities (active situational discouragement).

Dealing with the first of those points, passive environmental discouragement means that students have a lack of confidence in our school, and because of that they have a general dislike for being in the school environment, which thus leads to decreased participation. The obvious resolution to this is to make the school environment more fun and enticing, but to do that you must first find out what made it dull and lacking excitement in the first place. For one, students are not represented in our school whatsoever. It seems there is no battle a student can win, and no way to fight for student rights, and to feel like you are the prisoner of a barrack of dictatorial adults is not the most pleasant feeling (note that this is not my personal feeling, just a general observation). If students were given more choice and flexibility as to their curriculum, school policy, etc., the school environment would be much more exciting. Take the library, for instance. The reason game-playing, talking, and other similar activities are not allowed in the library is because the school administration intends the library to be a place solely for quiet, non-collaborative studying. However, just because the administration wants this does not mean that is what the students want. Students go to the library to make up homework they forgot to do last night, study with friends for a test the next period, or escape the rancorous cafeteria for forty-one minutes so their school days has at least a little excitement in the seemingly continuous boredom that is a nine period schedule. Note that the only activity in that list that involves silence is number one. In other words, the students want the library to be more of a social venue than an academic venue, because if a student has one period free for lunch in between eight other periods of classes, the last thing they want to do is a non-mandatory academic activity. The library situation is not the primary thing affecting participation in extracurricular activities, but it is simply this paradigm of the school administration not seeking to even poll student opinion before determining important policy decisions that leads to the feeling of entrapment and lack of choice. Teenagers are in a range of years where rebellious behavior is of our nature. Development of the prefrontal cortex allows students to think comprehensively about decisions rather than take them on command; as adolescents progress into stage four of Kohlberg's stages of moral development, their motivation for determination of ethics and morals becomes fundamentally altered, allowing them (including myself) to question directives that were previous unquestionable. And as much as it may seem like the right thing to do, stifling this development by refusing to allocate any authority to students is not the right path to proper social development, and it is definitely not the right path to getting students to stay in school so they participate in activities and clubs.

Another cause for dislike of the school environment is a general disrespect for the environment. For example, for the most part our school is technologically-impaired, which leads to the idea that Tech is outdated or not modernized. This thus causes a nonspecific discouragement from participation in events that take place in our school. I could go into an entire separate essay on how our school has no technological intuition whatsoever, but that is a topic for another day. Just realize that the more valuable resource for the administration to learn about technology is the very students to whom they are providing it.

The second corner of the theoretical triangle is passive mental discouragement; even if students are in an entirely open mental position to extracurricular participation, they will not do so unless there is some type of active motivation to draw them into the activity. This primarily has to do with the lack of interesting programs available to students; of the clubs that may even remotely interest our student body, those that do have no easy way of finding when they meet, what they do, or who is in charge. I myself have found that I have been participating in fewer and fewer extra-curricular activities because either there is nothing interesting going on, or I have no way of finding out who is meeting where in the first place. Furthermore, from what I have seen, most extracurricular activities in our school end up being student-initiated, and while there is nothing better than an entirely student-led program (Tech Crew, one of the more independent organizations of our school, being a perfect example), when there is a lack of such initiative, there must be some sort of backup in order to assure that there are still a significant number of available activities in which students can participate. To summarize, when there are not enough interesting activities, the school administration should attempt to start some of their own so that later on students can take over.

The final, and probably the most important, part of this decrease in participation, is the active mental discouragement, i.e., the events outside of school that are replacing the activities inside of school. Now naturally the first thing that comes to mind is socialization and external community service activities, but one of the biggest things that discourages students from staying in school is the necessity to do homework (furthermore, this is also a passive environmental discouragement as students associate school with homework and thus are discouraged from remaining in school because they associated the environment with the assignment of tough and time-consuming homework). Now I am not arguing that homework be eliminated, because that would all but destroy our school's infrastructure. However, there is no enforceable policy that limits the length of homework assigned by teachers. Sometimes I go home to more than an hour of homework from one class alone, whereas the next day that same class's homework takes only five minutes. If students are constantly insecure about how much work they are going to have awaiting them when they get home, it is no wonder they choose to leave early rather than spend their time in extracurricular activities. In addition to the issue of homework, we have now entered a new generation of online social interactions, where students prefer a technological method of communication over more conventional methods when not absolutely necessary. The point of stating this is that with the school's apparent lack of technological intuition, it is hard for school activities to compete with online social alternatives. Why would any child of Generation Z choose to come to a "boring" school activity when they could immerse themselves in a complex online world? It is exactly this appeal that has made online communities so popular in recent years, and if physical communities were to follow suit with online communities, they would make much more progress in emulating their participatory success.

To sum up everything I have explained, the primary points of interest the school administration must deal with if they hope to ensure a continuing supply of extracurricular participation is:

  • Find out what students want, and try to meet their expectations to a reasonable accuracy (and do not assume the Student Organization already meets this need, because that is an entirely different essay).
  • Make it easier to find out where and when clubs are meeting, how to contact who is in charge, and how to join. Announcements are never heard and today’s teenagers never check email, so our current system simply does not cut it.
  • Come up with interesting events and programs that can be initially teacher-led but eventually taken over by students, e.g., more social events such as Winter Wonderland or something exciting such as a handball tournament (do not use these examples specifically as I am not an expert in coming up with successful extracurricular activities as can be shown from my history of doing so).
  • Put closer regulations on the amount of work students get, and create actual methods of filing complaints when these regulations are not followed. Students and Teachers should be regarded as equals. We are not in a school that needs to excessively worry about maintaining a conventional student-teacher relationship.
  • Talk with the students about technology, because there is a lot to learn. Just because our school uses a "cool" online service like Data-cation does not mean we have redeemed our name as a technical school.
This is only a partial list of what should be done to fix our school, but hopefully it will shed some light on the problems students face when posed with the choice between spending more time in school and spending more time casually hanging out with friends. Also keep in mind that while targeting specific populations in an attempt to involve the less participatory students may seem like the right path of action, you do not want to lose the students who are open and waiting for something to do. In any community, those that have time and resources they want to give are the most valuable resource, whereas the outliers that the community is trying to pull in are merely secondary.

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