Par Anaïs N
Who has never wanted to be an American student? The beautiful campus, the lockers in the corridors, the high school mascots…, all that sort of thing that you see on your TV screen make you dream, don’t they? Indeed who has never wished to have the same things in his/her own high school? Thus, after discovering the German and the Spanish school system, today, you will be able to travel to the other side of the planet, more exactly, to the United States! Drew Johnston, 32, stayed 2 years in Reunion Island so as to teach in Vincendo high school, but now he currently work for Air France as a Customer Relationship Executive for VIP clients in the United States. He went to Virginia High School when he was younger. So here is the testimony of THE man that we obviously need to share with us his experience of the American education system!
The American cinematographic culture gives the entire world some preconceived ideas about their high schools: school buses, sexy cheerleaders and quarterbacks, proms, graduation, you name it! But are these stereotypes the reality? What can you tell us about that? Do you think that the films give us the real aspect of your high school system?
This is a very good question. I think there are aspects of certain films taking place in high schools that are certainly accurate ₁ to a point. Yes, the yellow school buses are a real thing, but the high school campus is almost NEVER as nice as it looks in a movie. Cheerleaders do exist, and sometimes they date the quarterback. Prom is a big deal, and getting the courage to invite a girl is REALLY HARD! Graduation is a big cultural deal and family may cross the country to go to the ceremony (my grandparents, and some of my aunts and uncles took a three hour flight from Colorado to Virginia to attend my high school graduation ceremony). On the other hand, the films almost always portray a highly glamorized version of reality. What’s really important to understand about high schools in the United States (as for high schools in La Réunion or in France), is that there is a tremendous diversity in size and culture across high schools. Just for example, I went to a high school (9th grade thru 12th grade) that had about 500 students. My sister, who lives in Wisconsin, is currently a senior in a high school with about 5,000 students.
I’ll be able to speak most accurately to my own high school experience. One common theme in many high school films is the idea of « cliques » or groups of students who don’t associate with others (or only with specific others) – the jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders, the theatre geeks, and so on. At my high school there were certainly some social divisions, but they didn’t closely follow students’ activity sets because we were all involved in quite a few things. My senior year, for example, I was the social secretary for the student government, I was in two school plays, I played basketball and baseball, I played percussion in the school orchestra… American film typically depicts students and teachers in a very stereotypical way.
Drew, you were a student not so long ago, what can you tell us about the general school organization?
There’s not necessarily a uniform school calendar or way classes are organized. Each state in the United States has most of the responsibility to organize school calendars and programs, not like in France where the national government takes more of the lead.
At my high school, the day began at 7:45 a.m, and ended at 2:45 p.m, Monday-Friday. The school year began at the beginning of September, and lasted through the middle of June. We had three days of vacation in November for Thanksgiving, a week and a half at the end of the year for Christmas, and 1 week in April for spring break. There were seven class periods, but only four classes were taught per day, on an alternating « A, B » schedule. A day saw periods 1, 3, 5, and 7. B days were periods 2, 4, 5, and 6. Period 5 was a 50-minute class, since it was held every day. All other classes were 100 minutes long.
In the different films that we can watch, the students have to change class and meet new classmates at each hour. Why do not you stay in the same class the whole year?
In US high school there isn’t an equivalent of « L, S, ES » or things like that – schedules were mixed for everyone. There are general education requirements (foreign languages, maths, history, English), but it was up to every student to choose the difficulty level of classes they wanted to take based on their skills and goals. Every class period included a different mix of people. You might have someone who takes advanced courses in biology, English, and history, but who takes a lower level of a foreign language and mathematics. Any number of combinations can come from this, so it’s likely that the mix of students in each class will be different. Of course, you can also include courses including theatre, music, art, and other liberal subjects into the set of choices.
Do you think it is a great thing? How about friendship? I mean, does it make it difficult to have friends?
I am fascinated by the French system of grouping students into common classes that they generally stay with through the course of the school day and the year. I think it is a great benefit to have a more constant blend of students in each class.
Concerning the difficulty of making friends, I admit to often asking myself the same question about the French education system. I wonder if spending so much time with the same people day in and day out might prevent students from making enriching social relationships outside of the group of 20 or 30 that they sit in a room with, to the exclusion of others. I suppose with an hour and a half for lunch French students have opportunities to connect with people outside their scholastic network, but at my high school the lunch period was 24 minutes. Varying class groups and the large number of after school activities are a great opportunity for students to make friends with whom they share common interests and passions. To be fair, we’re not supposed to be socializing in class anyway, are we…?
Now let’s talk about the time table! In Reunion Island, we start school at 8 am, and we finish it at 17.30. Also we have class all week, even on Saturday and for some students during the noon break! This is a real inconvenience for some of them. What about the American students?
I honestly find the idea of school on Saturday absolutely scandalous, especially considering that not all students (or teachers) actually take part. I think it’s a real shame. Students deserve a weekend to do their homework, play sports, and be with their friends and family. As I mentioned before, my high school began at 7:45 and ended at 2:45 Monday-Friday. Extracurricular activities filled up many students’ days until at least 5 or 6 p.m. A very important point though — considering my school lasted seven hours and yours lasts nine and a half — is the actual amount of instruction time. I think you’ll be surprised to know how similar they are. Every day we would have three 100-minute periods and one 50-minute period, for 350 minutes of instruction time. We had 7 minutes between classes, a 24 minute lunch, and a 15 minute morning break (something like that). If memory serves, classes at Lycée Vincendo were 50-55 minutes long, and there were 8 periods a day. So that’s about 400 minutes of class a day. Throw in the open periods that some students have, and we’re in class about the same amount of time. You just have a REALLY long lunch, and a couple nice breaks after 2nd and 6 hour.
Emilie, a young girl of Vincendo High school is speaking about what she does after school: “Unfortunately, I arrive home at 6 p.m, I’m very tired so I can’t do anything, I can’t go out, I can’t do sports. The only thing I do is my homework. Most of the time, I go to bed really late because there are so many things to do for school. It’s the same thing each day! As for me, this is not a life!!”
What do you think about this testimony, Drew? Did you feel the same thing when you were a student?
As stressful and frustrating as the workload in high school often is, it is good practice for a future education and career. That said, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in class until 5 o’clock. Granted, I would rarely get home from school before 6 or 7 because of sports practice, clubs, or other things, but these extracurricular activities were a good physical and social outlet. It was really great when I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, so I could drive home from school when it was all over! Of course, that meant once I got home it was a quick shower, dinner with family, and then homework until very late… but I always looked forward to my weekends. Time management was very important. A piece of advice for, students: You can’t let school be everything – you’ll burn yourself out.
Usually what do the American students do after school?
Sports, student government, various clubs (debate, chess, math, gardening, woodworking, community service, etc. etc. etc.), theatre, tutoring, HOMEWORK, and many, many other things. What’s important to understand is that the school day was not over for the vast majority of students after classes ended at 2:45 every day. There are numerous after school clubs, committees, teams, and other activities that many students take part in.
What place did the American students give to the sports?
That really depends on the student, and the school. Sports — whether watching or playing — are a very important part of life to some people, and not so much for others. Some schools (typically larger ones) have an important sports culture running through the whole school. This is particularly true if the school has a very successful team. My school had a phenomenal boys’ basketball team and girl’s lacrosse team. But we also had an internationally successful Model United Nations team, and a popular theatre program. These were all important parts of our school’s identity.
Tell me more about your first impressions of the French School system. Indeed, you have spent time in the two different systems, how was the atmosphere from one school to another?
To be fair, I was in the American educational system as a student, and in the French system as an educator, so I don’t think I am a good judge of the difference in atmosphere between the two from a student’s perspective. I will say, as a teacher in a French high school, I was constantly impressed by the level of seriousness, dedication, and passion my students brought to lessons. This wasn’t only demonstrated in their command of English and various subject matter, but by their willingness to take risks with their language or with their understanding of a theme.
I would have appreciated more opportunities to engage students in extracurricular activities; I think it’s a valuable aspect of the American education system that teachers and students are afforded those opportunities to relate on a more personal level in environments outside the classroom.
According to you, what system is the best?
The American and French systems both have their benefits. They also both have their shortcomings. The most pronounced difference is the concentration of students in common classes by theme throughout the school year in France, whereas in the US people move much more fluidly. I find it odd to expect children to classify themselves into a more narrow range of subject matter when they are 16 — a decision that has strong potential to affect the rest of their lives. Speaking personally, I likely would have been disadvantaged in this system, as I became serious about school later than some. I also consider it a heavy burden on children to be in class until 5p.m, and to sometimes have to go to class on Saturdays. With the demands of homework and the need to have social experiences and physical activity, being in school until 5 maybe fills too much time. BUT! My French friends are by and large more well-spoken, have wider cultural knowledge and are better conversationalists than my American friends. So I guess you all must be learning something important in school!
In a nutshell, you can say that students from one country to another have different ways to learn things, to acquire knowledge. A lot of French students and above all students from Reunion Island might dream about the American school system, which is really idealized in the different films or series. Here, thanks to Drew Johnston, you are able to have a real testimony about the differences and similarities between both of these systems. Of course, it allows you to make your own point of view about what system is the best. But, rather than concentrate yourself on the drawbacks of your own school system, why don’t you focus on the real good advantages that your school proposes to you? After all, each school system wants the best for their students, don’t they?