by Richard Lakin
The Complete Guide to the Gap Year
by Kristin M. White
Reviewed by David B. Cohen, NBCT
High School English & Counseling (CA)
Teacher Leaders Network
Newspapers (for those of us who still read them) and online reports provide a steady flow of stories that might induce stress in teachers and students. I find I can immerse myself in this constant stream and become dizzy — or step aside and feel marginalized when the education policy conversation is dominated by talk of data systems, national standards, and racing to the top without leaving a single child behind.
Meanwhile, the juniors and seniors I advise at my high school, and their families, are looking at the spiraling costs for public and private higher education and reacting with anxiety as they hear about increasing competition in college admissions.
With that backdrop, I’m glad I took the time to read a pair of books that were recently sent to me. Richard Lakin is a former teacher and principal whose self-published collection of anecdotes and reflections seems almost provocatively titled in this educational climate. Teaching as an Act of Love (iUniverse) provides a variety of vignettes and affirmations that span 40 years of educational experience. For the high school student and family, Kristin M. White’s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year (Jossey-Bass) provides plenty of information and resources to encourage students to look into other options besides heading straight to college after high school — options that can lead to greater confidence and maturity.
It’s sad to think how it almost seems trivial, if not frivolous, to talk about caring or love in education today. Richard Lakin challenges this trend toward emotional detachment in education by illustrating what teachers know and what so few non-teaching education reformers seem to realize: When relationships of caring and trust are in place, pedagogy and curriculum are much more likely to achieve the results that reformers demand. Without those relationships, there is no perfect system, no foolproof textbook or software, no scripted curriculum that will yield the broad and lasting effects we all want for our youngest citizens.
The bulk of Lakin’s book focuses on his experiences as an elementary school principal. His approach to problem solving and school improvement featured an admirable balance of practicality and humility. Small stories about seemingly inconsequential matters like a class pet may seem uninspiring at a glance, but as the parent of a third-grader and a first-grader, I am often reminded that Carmel the Guinea Pig and Jake the Snake figure much more prominently in my sons’ minds than do any state standards or publishers’ pacing guides. Thus, when Lakin describes how he negotiated with students and their teacher to reach a mutually acceptable solution to a problem with pet mice, we can see the benefits that follow from his willingness to change his mind and to consider the children’s feelings as a relevant factor in running a school. Lakin continuously asserts that his success in this situation — and in the larger context of promoting goals like conflict resolution and school literacy — came not from having guidelines or standards that were handed down “from the office,” but from remaining faithful to a belief that we must educate from the heart.
Lakin’s commitment to parent-school partnerships also resonates. He recounts the efforts that went into transforming a school culture of distrust into one of caring and communication. After describing what it took to be successful — detailing both the improvements and a few mistakes along the way — he concludes by noting that the effort took three to four years before really taking hold.
I paused for a few minutes after this chapter and reflected on the current climate I see and hear about in education. First of all, in those three to four years, many of our struggling urban and rural schools might see more than a 50 percent turnover in staff and families. Yet we know that building trust depends largely on stability. Secondly, I’m concerned that our systemic obsession with data actually becomes an obstacle to trust. While it is true that we must rely on more than feelings to measure educational outcomes, my trust in a school or teacher is rooted in my belief that they know more about my child than his test scores. When we churn through teaching staff and make a fetish of test scores, we do not arrive at a system that knows and cares about children as people.
The rush to college
Fast forward eight to ten years, and you’re looking at high school graduation. If you know any college-bound high school seniors, or remember being one, you know that there are three questions that dominate the senior year — questions that you may not want to ask but can’t help yourself. Where are you applying? Where did you get in? Where are you going?
I wish more of our high school seniors were able to subvert this ritual of interrogation by answering those questions in unpredictable ways. To help out, I’ll be recommending Kristin M. White’s book on gap-year programs. Maybe we’ll start hearing: “I’m spending a year in AmeriCorps to support local non-profit groups and gain some job skills.” Or, “I’m going to do a field research expedition in Brazil.” Or perhaps, “I’ll be earning credits at Portland State, but living, working, and studying in East Africa.”
For most students and parents, the idea of a gap year between high school and a traditional college experience is relatively new and full of uncertainty. White is an experienced academic advisor and counselor, and her book provides a concise examination of the reasons to take a gap year, and many different ways to go about it, depending upon the student’s goals, personality, and financial situation.
White has anticipated all of the main concerns that I would have and would expect to hear from students and parents. She cautions that a gap year is ideally not a “year off” to hang out or to travel without some aim, purpose, or structure. But what if students lose academic momentum and be less successful in college, or not even return? Will colleges let a recently admitted student defer matriculation? Will admissions offices look favorably on applicants who have taken a year off?
White supplies ample information to reassure readers on every count. The book is full of positive comments from students, parents, gap-year program staff, college admissions staff and instructors. As one of her final thoughts, White offers that “I never came across anyone who expressed regret over doing a gap year. Even students who had a traveling disaster or a challenge abroad or went on a program with a difficult community service all reflected on their year positively.”
Parents seem to be the main group in need of some convincing. After all, she writes, “Parents have spent the last eighteen years saving and sacrificing for their child’s college education. They have evaluated every cultural and extracurricular opportunity with a view toward college. They may even feel that their success as parents is measured by their child’s acceptance (or lack of acceptance) to a good college.” This particular comment seems aimed at a particular demographic – middle and upper-class families – but it rings true in my experience and shows that White understands why parents might resist the idea.
While she does caution that a gap year is not for everyone, White clearly suggests that more students would benefit from trying it. Why? “The generation that is in high school today is going to need more than a college degree to be successful. Developing a worldview is crucial to being able to thrive and prosper in a global economy. A gap year experience can set you on a path to seeing your world in a different way.”
I might not couch the argument simply in terms of economic prosperity when talking to my own students or family members, but it’s hard to disagree with the final part of the statement. Achieving a broader world view can help a student mature, which may also aid the transition to college in social ways. White invites readers to “imagine how the independence and self-esteem building of a gap year would positively affect the maturity and confidence of those who were likely to be influenced by the college party culture.”
The second half of the book is made up of listings and resources for every type of gap year experience or program you might think of, and many that you would not have considered. A few options are free to participants, covering all expenses and providing a modest stipend or education award, while some others are essentially private school or international study programs with costs in the neighborhood of $40,000. However, the majority of gap-year options entail costs nearer to the middle of these extremes, and they tend to offer experiences that last weeks or months rather than a full year.
Kristin M. White’s book is an outstanding resource for high school students and their families, and would be an excellent addition to high school libraries and counseling centers. Whether the student’s goal is academic maturation, cross-cultural immersion and language development, volunteer work, community development, or career skill-building, there are opportunities worth considering for those willing to venture off the traditional educational track in search of something more.
David B. Cohen is a National Board Certified Teacher at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto CA. He is a co-founder of the Accomplished California Teachers leadership network.
[NOTE: David Cohen received a complimentary review copy of Teaching as an Act of Love from the author. Kristin White's book was sent to TLN Teacher Voices. See our book review disclosure here.]