School is about learning in the whole sense of the word, and electives are a vital part of that experience by allowing students to look for interests and insights beyond the core curriculum. However, they are often passed up at M-A in favor of supposedly more academic courses. In pursuit of taking the most “rigorous” course schedule, students are missing out on significant opportunities to learn in new and interesting ways.
Drafting & Architectural Design and Woods teacher Mark Leeper believes his students are given a well-rounded education and wishes more people would have the chance to take his classes. The diversity of Career Technical Education (CTE) courses has decreased considerably with changing graduation requirements, as many students now prefer to take a college-required fine art as their elective.
Leeper explained that his classes have remained full largely because of the growing population of M-A as a whole, but his Woods class is now predominantly male. Leeper expressed particular regret for the lack of female students in his Woods class, as “they [often] thrive in an environment they never would have been exposed to otherwise.” Now, students who might not consider Woods to be their first choice are never given the opportunity to explore the subject.
Many students choose not to take non-academic electives because they do not fit into the mold of a competitive college applicant. College admissions officers often say they prefer to see a second science class over non-advanced placement (AP) electives, despite the fact that when taken seriously, these courses create students that are better informed about their interests and better understand different approaches to a subject. As Leeper described, “We do science, and English, and math [in Woods], but in an applied way, so you don’t think of them as separate subjects. You’re still using math to do your measurements, and you still have to understand the biology of how the wood performs so you cut it properly. And we don’t have to try, it’s just part of the class.”
Despite the preference for fine arts and AP electives, AP Art History teacher Liane Strub described how some of her students simply take her course because it’s an academic fine art, rather than out of genuine interest for the topic. Not only does the resulting disinterest hurt those who are truly interested in the class, the students who don’t care are essentially wasting a class period that could have been spent learning a more personally enriching subject. Popular attitude towards electives creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where students enter a class expecting nothing more than a finished requirement, and therefore do not take much from the experience. However, Strub believes that when students are engaged, her class “feels fulfilling [to students] on a personal level, rather than simply something they have to do to be prepared for college.”
The idea that only certain courses are academically valuable erroneously assumes that all students should be able to learn the same concepts in the same way.
Although having a core curriculum is important in ensuring a baseline of knowledge, emphasizing a few subjects over all others seems too much like trying to fit every student into the same mold. Since no two students are alike, we should be allowed to choose the courses that will best enhance our education, to better become independent individuals with diverse interests.
Learning from different perspectives also helps students understand other paths of life. As Leeper stated, “If [students have] never experienced it, it’s very hard to not be judgmental about something you don’t understand. I think our goal should be to develop well-rounded people, and I think the electives are where that really happens.”
School expectations perpetuate the idea that the number of electives taken should decrease as academic rigor increases; M-A’s sample education plan allows for up to eight electives in the “career preparation” track, but only two to be a college-bound “distinguished scholar.” For some students, taking Woods is much more beneficial than a second AP science, regardless of their plans after graduation.
As a community of learning, it is time that we give electives the place in our curriculum that they deserve. Perhaps the solution is to fund a seven-period day so that students can choose to take a zero period regardless of which classes they are taking. Strub has long been a proponent of this idea, and asked, “Why shouldn’t you be able to take two science classes and woods? Or two science classes and ceramics?”
While elective requirements and more periods are a start, the most important change should come from how we individually view these classes. If taking a CTE course seems more interesting than another academic one, we shouldn’t be afraid to follow what interests us. And when we are enrolled in electives, we should seize that opportunity and make the most of it rather than see the class as an easy A, regardless of whether or not the subject is a primary interest. Our education is the future, and it is our responsibility to seek as many perspectives and ideas as we can in order to become more educated and understanding people.