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Tapping the energy and passion of teens

The weakest part of America's educational system is located at the juncture between adolescence and schooling. For all income classes, races, and regions, the junior and senior high school years, from ages twelve and thirteen to ages seventeen and eighteen, mark a time of trouble. Adolescents rapidly lose interest in learning and become hopelessly distracted. Despite the energy, passion, courage, and curiosity that come naturally to this age group, it is all too rarely that these qualities are channeled into intellectual development. Our schools fail to compete for the attention of young people who mature earlier and are given adult freedom sooner than they did a century ago.

We must find ways of teaching adolescents to make constructive use of this unique time period in their lives and enjoy the assumption of responsibility. In the classroom that means treating adolescents as young as thirteen and fourteen more the way we do college students and adults.... The curriculum, the teaching materials, and the manner of teaching must be serious, significant, and committed.... Class sizes for teenagers, for example, must be smaller, not larger, than in elementary school.... The virtues, once associated with the college years from eighteen to twenty-one, must be made part of the school experience of young people between fifteen and eighteen.

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The challenge, therefore, is to find ways to engage the early onset of adolescence and its attendant freedoms and habits.... The irony, of course, is that all these new realities, which only seem like problems, are themselves very powerful educational opportunities. The very qualities we deem destructive can be the sources of the motivation to learn. The juxtaposition of chronological youth and maturation suggests that offering a genuine opportunity for young people to take responsibility for serious adult learning may work. The capacity to feel like an adult and move about freely and assume the poses of freedom can inspire discipline and ambition."

- From 'Jefferson's Children' (Doubleday, 1997), by Leon Botstein

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