Can You Choose Your Own Adventure At MHS?

Can You Choose Your Own Adventure At MHS?

Middleton High School can be compared to a choose-your-own-adventure story.

You start with your avatar at the beginning of freshman year. Throughout your four years at MHS, you pick courses based on your interests, make different choices that have ripple effects in your social groups, and grow and develop as a person.

However, like a choose-your-own-adventure story, the options for an ending at MHS are limited. There are only so many courses to choose from and only so many ways to diversify your educational experience.

While that may not be a problem for many of the academically-minded, college-bound students in our school, not every Middleton student wants to take AP science classes or learn how to formulate critical-analysis essays. Some teenagers value cultural education and want to learn about the injustices that are happening in our world today. Others love the stage and want to hone their presenting, directing, and performing skills as much as they can. Yet other students have even more unique interests that our school sidetracks in favor of the classes that lead to better ACT scores and better-standardized testing results from their students. Many educators and students love that academic-heavy system, and wouldn’t want to emphasize other areas – but there are also many people who wish they could change that system.

With Human Rights Week behind us and Fine Arts Week rapidly approaching, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding about the staff and student perspectives on the way that various types of education are treated in our school. To do this, I asked interviewees to rank four types of education based on what was most important to them: physical education (sports), academic education (core classes), artistic education (ex. Fine Arts Week), and cultural/social education (ex. Human Rights Week). Then, I asked follow-up questions to assess how well they thought the school taught these subject areas.

The results both reinforced some of my assumptions about the types of education that are valued at MHS, as well as surprised me with new insights into the perspectives that students and staff hold on what is important to them.

Unsurprisingly, almost every interviewee ranked academic education as their number one choice. The reasons why, however, provoked an interesting question: is academic education emphasized because it is important, or is it important because it is emphasized?

AP Psychology teacher Brian Byrne said he chose academic education as his most important because “[The importance is,] I’m assuming, you finding a job or moving on later in life. [And] even if you’re a mechanic, you should know something about physics. You should. A little bit about math, if you’re fixing cars. How to use a computer. Stuff like that.” Akshay Kelshiker, a sophomore, had a similar view. He said, “In terms of jobs you’re going to need in the future – you’re going to need to know the sciences to do medicine. If you want to be a teacher, you have to know all these, obviously, like social studies, [etc.]….I think they’re all just general knowledge things you’re going to need.”

These two quotes would suggest that academic education is heavily emphasized in school because it’s important. But Megan Schwartz, a sophomore, had a different view. She said, “There’s just kind of a lot of emphasis on academic education, and I feel like if there’s a lot of emphasis on it, then it must be important. And plus, like, it’s for jobs [and] college.” So, at least some students think that academic education is important because of the emphasis placed on it, and not the other way around.

But this chicken-or-the-egg conundrum didn’t affect what interviewees thought about the amount of emphasis placed on academic education – almost everyone agreed that it was too much. When I interviewed another teacher at the high school, he ranked academic education as his most important choice. As a follow-up, I asked him, “Do you think the school places an appropriate amount of emphasis on academic education?” Confidently, he replied, “Yes.” Then, he wavered. “Probably – no.” The teacher clamped his mouth shut and looked at me. “I can quote you anonymously,” I said. Immediately, he burst out, “Probably too much emphasis on the academic piece….Just the school culture. And less emphasis is placed on the creative [and social/cultural] side of things. There’s no focus on those two places. Because it’s all about just trying to get into college.”

Almost all of the students reiterated versions of that statement. In her interview, Schwartz said, “Everybody at this school feels so pressured to take a bunch of AP classes – I know that I was almost thinking of taking an AP class just to have an AP class on my transcript, and not because I was interested in it. And luckily, I didn’t, but [that’s the pressure you feel].”

Another common theme among interviewees was that physical education (sports) was always ranked as the third or fourth-most important field of education. Chad Ophime, a math teacher, and soccer coach said he ranked physical education last because “You don’t need a structured environment to join a team, or get a diet planned out or something. That’s all stuff you can get externally. Not necessarily from someone.” To clarify his point, I asked, “So just because it’s easy, that means it’s the least important?” Ophime responded, “Yes.”

Nicholas “Raindrop Droptop” Berthalon-Lathrop, although he ranked physical education as less important, had a different view of the situation. He said, “Physical [education] is really important because you need to live a healthy life in the long run. And for me, [that is a] really important thing for your life past school.” Berthalon-Lathrop also mentioned how outside of school, it is very hard to enforce personal healthy physical habits. To illustrate his point, he used the example of how many people make New Year’s resolutions to go to the gym more but often fail. Applying physical education in a school environment can teach students healthy habits that will last a lifetime – and indeed, healthy habits that will allow students to have a long lifetime.  

Artistic education (ex. Fine Arts Week) also produced mixed views from the interviewees. Two people ranked artistic education as their most important field: Chase Harless, a sophomore, and Lily Pritchard, a freshman.

Harless admitted his own bias in an interview, saying, “That’s kind of where I want to go with my life and pursue in school and stuff.” But, after thinking for a moment, he had more concrete reasoning. He said, “[Take, for example,] theatre. Having a basic knowledge of how to perform in front of people can help with public speaking skills and making connections with other people.”

Pritchard said she ranked artistic education as her most important because she has been involved with music for six years. “It has definitely enhanced my creativity and my imagination, and it has helped me to not only find friends within my artistic education, but it has certainly helped me to find a different perspective on my academic education.” She wishes that more people could be exposed to the artistic education that has helped transform her as a person. “I just think that it should be more evenly balanced between students,” Pritchard said. “Because there’s a huge emphasis [on the arts for] students that are in music, or involved with choir, and stuff like that. But people who aren’t have no exposure to artistic education. And I think that that should change.”

On the flip side, Taylor Huber, a sophomore, ranked artistic education as his least important. “I think artistic education is actually really important…[and] severely underrated,” he said. His ranking was due to his belief that Fine Arts Week is not a good way to share artistic education with a large group of students. “It’s more of a talent show than actually a learning opportunity,” he said. Huber told me that he wished that instead of just having students perform during Fine Arts Week, the time in the PAC could be used for education as well by teaching the students about why the arts are important in school and beyond.

Finally, cultural/social education, although it was occasionally ranked as second-most important, was most often ranked as one of the less important fields of education. Emma Rozum, a sophomore, ranked cultural/social education as her least important field. She explained that she thought cultural/social education was extremely valuable, but Human Rights Week was a very poor method for executing it.

Rozum said, “No one really goes because they’re interested. They really go to get out of class….It seems like most of the time kids either go on their phones or they just zone out for the entire thing.” She pointed out that people aren’t going to learn if they don’t want to. “Maybe [the school] could have a poll for what people want to see,” she offered as a potential solution. “Like, if people want to see more immigration, or more other things…other things that are more interesting to the general public rather than just having the teachers decide who goes.”

Berthalon-Lathrop also agreed that cultural/social education was important – just not in school. “A lot of times, in my experience, people can learn a lot of the cultural/social stuff at home from their parents,” he said. “I mean, that can also be a bad thing, if they’re not raised well, but I feel like the [other fields are] more important for school because [they are] not emphasized outside of school a lot.”

Different types of education, ranging from academic to artistic to physical to cultural/social, are treated differently in our school system. Some argue that that’s for the better, while others argue that it’s for the worse. There will always be people that agree with the current education system, and people who want to change it.

But the truth is, our high school will never be able to please everybody. There will always be that email from a pissed-off parent loitering in an inbox, or a student struggling to fill out their course selection form because there are not enough classes that they feel interested in taking. The best that we can do is strive for progress in our education system. If we strive for perfection, we will always fall short of expectations.

MHS may not have an infinite number of endings for each student’s adventure, but when you multiply the possibilities out, there is still an astounding number of paths to choose from.