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We just wrapped up one of my favorite activities of the year - course selection. When I think of my experience as a student, it was very different from how we do it at school. My school counselor was there to take my form, and no one advised me on what to take or what that may mean. I selected courses based on what looked interesting, and my parents, not having studied in the US, weren't involved. I loved the few courses I was able to choose on my own - I had fun learning statistics and I really enjoyed my CAD class. I had so much fun learning French all four years and German for one. My goal at the time was to be able to travel through Europe and speak with the people I met. I had English and Spanish down, I could converse in French, I was learning German, and that left Italian and Portuguese to explore.
In college I had so many choices that I hadn't been presented with before, and I would read and reread the Course Bulletin and circle all of the classes that I wanted to take (this is before electronic course selection). I think that there was 10+ years of classes I wanted to take, and I had to condense it down to four years. I continued studying French and German whenever I could, and quickly (and sadly) realized that there were some college courses that I wanted to explore that I was unprepared for. I felt that I couldn't make the time to build the skills in order to not embarrass myself in the class. Mostly, these were writing courses. I didn't consider myself a "bad writer", and in high school I had done great in most of my writing assignments, but problem solving was just easier for me. That said, problem solving classes in college were really difficult and time consuming for me, so writing intensive classes had to take a back seat.
Long story short, when we counsel students and their families on course selection, we like to bring up the concept of skill development. There never seems to be a good time to work on a skill that is difficult for a person. When kids are in elementary school, they're too little, they should have fun. When kids are in middle school, it's "the teenage years" and with so much is already going on families adding another stressor is hard to do. Finally, in high school, the thought of college admissions makes students and families nervous to take classes in areas that are difficult. Ms. Sheri, our counselor, does an amazing job of encouraging students to "eat their (skills) vegetables" and sign up for non-preferred classes to build those skills.
What does skill development mean? For students heading to four-year universities who want to study one of the pre-professional degrees (engineering, business, pre-med), a natural or social science, or one of the liberal arts, I think of the necessary skills as reading academic texts, reading literature, writing for different audiences (e.g., case studies, history papers, analyses, journalistic writing, etc.), studying for different types of classes, time management, problem solving, and taking notes.
Our high-school curriculum as a whole presents the opportunities for students to work on these skills. Learning is a process and one can think of learning as stretching our muscles, and just how muscles are uncomfortable when you stretch them, skill development can be uncomfortable as well. The kids who I have seen be most successful enjoy the process of learning. They want to do well, and grades are not the driver; their grades are a byproduct that follow. They are curious to explore new areas of knowledge and are open to working on skills or exploring new ways to learn. There are different levels at which students can challenge themselves, and we advise them to choose courses to develop their skills and develop breadth. We also share how their course selection may be viewed as part of the college admissions process and a way to explore subjects that may teach them about themselves. Course selection is a multidimensional conversation that works best when viewed from an aspect of exploration of knowledge and skill development.