How Stuyvesant Fails Its Quiet Students
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For my entire academic life, every parent-teacher conference has ended the same way. The teacher, after praising my grades, would summarize their commentary with: “She’s a great student, but we wish she would raise her hand more often.” I never understood why there was a qualifier to “she’s a great student.” If I am a great student, and my work is of good quality, why is there a “but”?
Stuyvesant High School places high value on traditional forms of participation, such as verbal engagement and group work, thus failing to recognize the numerous reasons why someone may not be comfortable or able to contribute in these ways. Introversion, neurodiversity, and mental illness can make it difficult for many students to participate. Teachers often assert that they are helping students by forcing them to face their fears, with the viewpoint that these conditions fall under the umbrella of shyness. By doing this, they suggest that these students choose not to participate, but these students often are participating, just in their own way. Though hand-raising can help teachers track engagement, so could written responses, note-taking, and classwork, all of which should be alternatives for students who struggle to verbally participate. Teachers will also argue that jobs in the “real world” are becoming increasingly collaborative. While this may be true for some professions, there are still plenty that are more independent, including roles in academia, visual arts, and medicine. It isn’t a teacher’s or school’s job to predict what field of work their students will enter, and while many would agree that group work can build social relationships and help students learn to work with others, it is unfair to evaluate our participation grade solely on these skills and ignore the contributions that different types of students bring to the classroom.
Most scientists agree that introversion is caused by the brain’s chemical makeup, backed by studies that have found introversion or extroversion to be a result of how sensitive our brains are to dopamine. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is at the forefront of a movement seeking to recognize the importance of introverts. In her 2012 TED Talk, Cain points out that an estimated third to a half of our population is introverted. And yet, our society insists that louder is better—that one must be assertive, sociable, and charismatic to succeed in all aspects of life. By grading us on characteristics that are intrinsic to some and unnatural to others, Stuyvesant upholds the standard that favors extroverts over introverts. This is deeply unfair. Instead, it should consider why so many of its students struggle to participate rather than perpetuating the false idea that some students need to “come out of their shell.” A teacher or administration should not encourage students to fundamentally change who they are to succeed academically. In fact, introverts might just be the students that Stuyvesant needs.
Teachers seem to believe that the ideal student is extroverted, and current teaching methods suggest that group work produces the best results. However, as Susan Cain said, “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” Additionally, many studies prove that introverts are valuable students (as they are shown to be better decision-makers, more attentive to details, and more creative) and highlight the many ways in which extroverts can learn from introverts. While group work can be beneficial, it can also create “lower quality ideas,” whereas time spent working alone can be more productive. None of the above should imply that I believe introverts are better than extroverts or that Stuyvesant should eliminate all activities that extroverts thrive in, but most courses at Stuyvesant currently ignore the value of introverts. Therefore, by combining activities that work to the strengths of extroverts and introverts, we can improve our quality of work and productivity while making Stuyvesant a place where all students can excel in the process.
Other often unacknowledged barriers to participation are race, gender, and queerness. We are taught from a young age that white male voices hold value, while minorities must struggle to be pretty, smart, and interesting enough to be heard. In media, this is sometimes called tokenism, or the Smurfette Principle. Tokenism describes minorities being included solely for the illusion of diversity, while the Smurfette Principle is a common occurrence in movies and television, where there is only one woman, and often her sole purpose is to aid the white (or occasionally blue) male protagonist. Therefore, women and minorities are led to believe that there is never enough room for all of us and that when there is, it is reserved for only the best. After being told by every facet of society that they are not enough, very few would be willing to raise their hand to be heard.
Our participation grades, as they are now, are discriminatory against women, minorities, and neurodivergent people. Ultimately, it boils down to how our society emphasizes traditional, more aggressive, “masculine” values. People are taught to believe that success in a competitive school or work culture is to be loud and assertive. Instead, we should value the knowledge and creativity that introverts bring to the table. Neurological diversity in our classrooms should be valued, and students’ different ways of learning should be celebrated. We should uplift those who are traditionally ignored, not by forcing them to do what makes them uncomfortable, but instead by rewarding them for how they do contribute. Students should tell their teachers when participation is making school difficult for them. Plenty of teachers likely don’t realize the effect that the current participation system has on some of their students. By bringing it to their attention, you can help yourself and others have a more equitable school environment while improving your grades in the process.