“Friends and Frenemies” touched on a point that has become a popular topic this week: social interaction in school.  I think one of the reasons that it has become an issue, and not just in our class but in the larger academic community, is because there has been a substantial increase of non-academic activity in educational settings.

As time goes on and successive generations become more emotionally aware (e.g. more self-help books, therapy sessions, political correctness, acknowledgment of others’ differences) there grows a greater and greater recognition that we, as a society, should focus our efforts not only on academic intelligence but also on emotional well-being.

I witnessed the demonstration of this awareness and the cultures it created in the two different high schools I attended. Although the student bodies of the high schools were almost identical in demographics, the schools’ dissimilar approaches led to a distinct culture in each school.

In the first high school I attended, which I will abbreviate as HY, there was definitely an attempt to make school seem more nurturing and less punishing. The administration split up the curriculum so that there were easily distinguishable types of classes. Biology may have been right after “Healthy Choices” class on the schedule, but everyone knew which one “mattered” and which one was “fake.” Biology was clearly important.  The class had quizzes, tests, midterms, and a final. Students were expected to take notes and study. And so they did. In Healthy Choices, however, the expectations were entire different.  Any form of examinations was unheard of. The goal of the class was to generate group discussions and work on projects that would promote a healthy lifestyle. The reality though, bore no resemblance to that vision. The class was perceived as a joke by the entire student body. The classroom culture was one of utter chaos. It was almost like a 45-minute stretch of pandemonium scheduled into the day. No matter how many punishments and lectures the HY administration doled out, all attempts to convince the students to take the class seriously ended in failure.

In the summer right before junior year of high school, my family moved to Brooklyn and I was forced to switch to a new school, which I shall name YF. In YF, things were run very differently. The school had a much more rigorous curriculum and aside from extra-curricular activities (which were sometimes just as intense,) there was very little opportunity for goofing off. In YF too, there was a class for healthy choices. But even the name that YF chose to call the class indicated a different approach. Instead of HY’s feel-good, happy-sounding “Healthy Choices,” YF simply and straightforwardly named their class “Health.” The no-nonsense title reflected the attitude that the school had towards the course. They equated Health with all of the other required classes, from Biology to Writing. The classroom culture, although a bit more lax, was by and large similar to that of the other classes. In Health, there were reports and quizzes interspersed with discussion and projects throughout the semester. The tests may not have been so challenging and the reports so demanding, but they ensured that students understood the nature of the class and learned something. Needless to say, I learned a lot more from Health at YF than I did from Healthy Choices at HY.

As the importance of students’ emotional well-being gains more and more attention, it is critical that educators and administrators do not lose sight of their objectives. In HY, not only were the goals of Healthy Choices not met, but in addition, students associated the class (and the issue as a whole) with disobedience and mayhem. In YF however, although the class was more demanding and even stressful at times, the more serious atmosphere enabled thoughts, ideas and information to flow more freely. Both schools recognized the significance of a health class. Yet the manner in which each one presented the class had a strong effect on the classroom culture. It is clear that schools must strive not only to identify the needs of their students, but also to address these needs in a way that enhances rather than disrupts classroom culture.