A Lesson on Integration

As a high school senior, I was encouraged to enroll in one of two classes to fill a mid-day opening in my schedule. Either a “build your vocabulary” course or an “improve your writing” course. Both had been added to the catalog out of concern that students from my high school were unprepared for college. This was in the early 1980’s and the rhetoric around failing schools (which has continued unabated since) was gaining momentum in reaction to A Nation at Risk.

I noticed another course offered at the same time: “The 20th Century: The World at War.” I was interested in the course, but my guidance counselor tried to dissuade me. (The next sentences seem apocryphal looking back, but I record it as an accurate reflection of the times, and I assume the good intentions of the participants.) That course was scheduled to coincide with the return of the bus from the local technical center and it was considered a general track course. The vocabulary and writing courses were intended for students like me who were off to college. (The issues surrounding this course, its scheduling, and my guidance counselor’s reluctance to enroll me in it is rife with indicators of systemic and individual bias, but I’m going to ignore those in this post.)

One the first day of class, I found two friends were there too. We had gone to the same elementary school and had remained friendly (but not close friends) in high school. Our distance likely came from the fact they were in the honors track and I was in the college preparatory track. “The 20th Century: The World at War” was not intended for us, but we were there. I don’t recall ever asking if their guidance counselors objected like mine. What I do recall, however, was the teacher’s reaction to the three of us in his class.

Within a few days of the start of the class, the teacher called us to his desk before class started. He gave us the task (if we wanted it) of going to the library to research a topic and write a paper rather than staying in class. I recall we accepted the task and spent the day in the library. For the remainder of the term, we were “excused” from class and spent time reading, researching, and writing. I still have the papers I wrote during the term. They are not terrific, but they had a lasting impact on me for several reasons.

First, I expect the writing my friends and I did during that term was far more meaningful than the writing we would have done in the “writing class.” For me, just writing about history and getting the history teacher’s feedback was far more valuable than learning the shortcuts to good writing that comprised the “writing class” my guidance counselor wanted me to take would have been. (At least that is the story I am telling myself.)

Second, I understand what “integration” can mean for a learner; I have first-hand experience that one need not be formally instructed in something to learn it. I developed my writing skills by writing about meaningful content (I had chosen to attend a military college after high school—a bad decision but that is another story); at the same time I learned some history. I cannot tell if writing was integrated into history or history into writing. That is the point of integration; boundaries are blurred.

Third—and this is only looking back—I wonder how many students who stayed in the classroom would have enjoyed and benefitted from reading and writing about history. I am unsure what they did, but I’m very curious about it now. The segregation of the honors and college preparatory students from the general students bothers me. If I have learned only one thing in my decades as an educator and student of education it is that “good teaching is good teaching;” it doesn’t matter what or who you teach, there are certain things that tend to be true. In my case, the label applied to me resulted in me getting a valuable experience. While it worked out well for me, I cannot condone the action… even if it was long ago.

I am at the age that one read the newspaper with trepidation. In the last two weeks, I have read the obituaries of two high school acquaintances, a 25-year neighbor, and a teacher. The teacher happened to be the one who taught “The 20th Century: The World at War.” When I took the course, I had decided to study education (science education). I’m not sure if he knew how meaningful the course was to be. I’m not sure I knew how meaningful it was to be. But meaningful it was, and I am thankful for it.