→ Responsibility vs. Compliance

I've written about homework before, and it's a topic I consider often.

Over at The Teacher and the Admin, the two authors have written several posts lately on the this very topic. In one post, Gary Armida decries what he sees as the false notion that homework is necessary for students to learn responsibility.

We now give more work to kids than ever before. That “more” isn’t developing responsibility. That “more” is developing compliance.

I think the distinction between "responsibility" and "compliance" is a key one in schools today, and applies to more topics than just homework. How often do we teachers reward compliance over genuine learning?

Drowning in Information

Twenty years ago, noted biologist and author E.O. Wilson wrote:

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely. (Source: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge)

I think this has only become more true over time. That's why all this debate about STEM vs. the humanities has been so exhausting to me. If we don't give students the opportunity to learn both, we end up with billionaires building rockets... to shoot their sports car into space.

Then there are studies like this one, that indicate STEM majors are less politically active:

An analysis that we conducted shows that college students studying STEM disciplines — that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics — were among the least likely to vote. STEM students appear less interested in other forms of political and civic engagement, too. One study found that students who took more science and engineering courses were less likely to participate in politics by donating money to a campaign or attending a political meeting. Another found that engineering majors were less committed to social activism than their non-STEM peers.

As Fareed Zakaria wrote a couple years ago (emphasis mine):

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.

Instead of such a singular focus on a relatively narrow field of topics, we should be spending our energy on how to integrate all the subjects that have been kept in such distinct silos for too long.

→ "Ten Ways to Leverage Student Choice in Your Classroom"

The longer I teacher, the more I look for ways to empower my students to make choices the direct the class. I enjoyed this list of simple strategies for giving students more choice in the classroom, while still respecting the role of the teacer:

When we incorporate choice, students own the learning process. We honor their agency and empower them to become the life-long learners we want them to be. At some point, they will leave the classroom and they won’t have a guide right there by their side. They will have to take charge and make decisions about their own learning. This is why student choice is so critical.

The Heroic Work of School Counselors

Recently, I was asked to put into writing the role our counselors have in our school, as the school leaders are discussing staffing. As I am wont to do, I probably wrote more than they intended to read and they regret asking my opinion. Since this week is also National School Counselors Week, I’m going to share that email below.

Cura personalis. That phrase is uttered often by administrators here, stamped on the admissions brochures, and posted throughout the school. It is at the core of everything we do here. One thing I have learned is that the work of cura personalis doesn’t really scale. If we add ten more students to the community, the daily workload of the Registrar or the Asst. Principal does not change significantly. But if a counselor has ten more students, they don’t suddenly have more time in the day to meet with those students. They can only be present for one student at a time.

The work of cura personalis is messy. It is slow work, getting a student to go from failing her classes, to passing them, to getting As and Bs. To help a student grieve for a lost friendship or a lost parent is a process full of stops and starts. The timeframe is not measured in 60 minute meetings, but often in semesters or years of the students’ time here. That work is simply not possible without our counselors. Period, full stop.

The needs of our students are not declining. In fact, there is much evidence that the mental health of adolescents nationwide is as precarious now as at any time in our nation’s history. Depression, anxiety, social isolation, addictions, perfectionism—our students have very real struggles. We are fortunate that many of our students come from homes with very supportive parents, but that is far from an inoculation against these challenges. In addition, the school is actively looking to bring in a more diverse population, to be a school for all students who want to be a part of our mission. Many of these students have even more external pressures, and our counselors are a vital source of support for them.

What would additional staffing in the counseling department mean for our community? It would mean making a commitment to live out the mottos that are so frequently bandied about. It would mean making a commitment to our students that we care about their well-being, not just their grades. I could go on for pages about the students in crisis who are still here only because of the tireless work of our counselors. One need only to attend a single retreat to hear of the times our counselors have literally saved the life of a student. However, just as important are the names I don’t know, the students who passed through here or transferred out without having made a connection.

Our counselors are not the only ones responsible for our students’ wellbeing, of course, but their role cannot be understated. I'm fortunate to work at a school with a focus on the students' whole person, and that mission is embodied in the work of every adult here. But if you are a teacher or administrator, give your school counselors an extra "thank you" this week for all their tireless work.

Media Diet: 2017

Because I am a broken person, I track every book I read and movie I watch. Astonishingly, despite finishing my second graduate degree this year, raising an infant who has become a toddler, and the usual 60-hour work weeks, I managed to read more books and watch more movies than I have in a long time. Since I have so much less time available to me, I value the time I do have differently. As my friend Paul Cumbo wrote on this topic:

The most striking discovery I’ve made since becoming a dad is the shifting economics of time and productivity... A sneaky little irony about parenthood is that you suddenly have less time but you get more done than ever before. Since becoming a dad, I’ve become a lot more productive. And the irony here is that I have far less time to myself.

For me, that means that when I'm finally done for the night, I tend not to stare mindlessly at my phone, reading whatever new horrors Twitter presents. Instead, I more consciously choose to read or watch a movie.

So below are some of my favorites from 2017 (whether or not they were released then):

Movies

According to Letterboxd, I watched 46 movies this year (which doesn't count all those times I'd sit down and see The Dark Knight or A Few Good Men on TV and watch until the end). Some of the highlights:

  • John Wick and John Wick 2: I watched the first movie when I was home with a fever. What a fun, classic action movie–and the sequel is just as good.
  • Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok: The annual slate of comic book movies had some pleasant surprises (Logan, Thor, and Wonder Woman), as well as some reliable, if unremarkable, hits (Guardians and Spider-Man). While I think Wonder Woman was overrated by most, anything new is good.
  • Children of Men: I'd seen this movie before, but not in ten years. Watching it again in 2017, with everything going on in the world and being a new parent, it felt like a brand new experience (though the cinematography was just as gorgeous as I remembered).
  • Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan's movies had become a bit overstuffed lately, at least in terms of plot. The simplicity of this story really let the craftsmanship of the film shine through.
  • The Vietnam War: This Ken Burns documentary is just as good as everybody has said.
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi: I could write a whole post about this, but the world doesn't need that right now. I'll just say that this is a Star Wars movie that really tries to be about something–and I think it succeeds marvelously.
  • Get Out: Another movie that tells a taut story well. Deserving of its inclusion on all the end-of-year lists.
  • Lady Bird: Set in an all-girls Catholic high school in 2003 (I graduated from a Catholic high school in 2001 and now work at an all-girls school), this movie got just about everything right.
  • Honorable mention movies I saw either again or for the first time in 2017 that I enjoyed or made me think: Silence, Pulp Fiction, No Country for Old Men, Baby Driver, Logan Lucky

Books

I somehow managed to read almost 12,000 pages in 2017. That's a lot, even for me. The ones that stuck with me:

Fiction and comics

  • Irredeemable, Mark Waid: I devoured this series from Mark Waid. A fun subversion of the usual tropes: what if Superman turned evil?
  • Saga, Book 2, Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples: Still the best comic series out there, and one of few that I still look forward to monthly.
  • The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett: I'd been scared away by the sheer size of the book, but I was looking for something long I could really sink my teeth into, and this didn't disappoint. For such an expansive work, it actually focuses on relatively few characters, so by the end I felt very invested in them.
  • The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller: I loved everything about this novel, and can't wait to read Circe. Rare is the writer in this genre of historical fiction who has a grasp of the history/mythology and is also a strong writer.

Non-Fiction

Stress

Every year that goes by, I find myself increasingly worried about the amount of stress that students are under–and the impact of that stress on their health and well-being. A recent New York Times article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis focused on the increasing number of students in high schools and colleges who suffer from severe anxiety. From that article:

In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year.

When I first started teaching, I would often blame the parents. And certainly I've heard from plenty of students who feel a lot of (undue) pressure from their parents to succeed. But more and more, the parents I meet are not the primary source of anxiety; rather, the students are putting this pressure on themselves. From that same New York Times article:

It’s tempting to blame helicopter parents with their own anxiety issues for that pressure (and therapists who work with teenagers sometimes do), but several anxiety experts pointed to an important shift in the last few years. “Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back,’ ” recalls Madeline Levine, a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit that works on school reform and student well-being. “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”

It's not just anxiety or depression–there are many ways in which stress impacts students' physical and emotional wellbeing. From a 2015 article in The Atlantic by Alexandra Ossola:

But too much stress has many effects on the body and mind, [Mary] Alvord says. In the short term it can cause anxiety; over long periods of time, elevated levels of stress hormones can degrade the immune system, cause heart problems, exacerbate respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, and bring on chronic anxiety and depression. That’s bad for anyone, but it can be especially bad for high schoolers... And since everyone has a different psychological capacity for stress, it’s hard to know when a student is pushed to the point of degrading his or her health.

As educators, we can't fix all these issues, but we have to be attentive to them and do what we can to help our students succeed without sacrificing their physical, mental, or emotional health. As writer (and writing teacher) John Warner puts it:

Increasingly, I think there’s a barrier I haven’t previously considered that needs addressing if my students are going to succeed: anxiety... We need to build a pedagogy that removes some measure of that anxiety and that allows students to practice–and see the benefits of–resiliency.

And you don't have to take my word for it. Ask the students, as they're acutely aware of the different stressors in their lives. In 2015, a junior at Palo Alto High School wrote about "the sorrows of young Palo Altans," and much of it sounded very familiar to me. Ms. Walworth may have only been a junior in high school, but I can't say it any better than she: "Effective education does not have to correlate to more stress."

So what do we do?

Earlier this spring, the New York Times covered some attempts to address this issue in Lexington, Mass.:

Elementary school students now learn breathing exercises and study how the brain works and how tension affects it. New rules in the high school limit homework. To decrease competition, there are no class rankings and no valedictorians and salutatorians. In town, there are regular workshops on teen anxiety and college forums designed to convince parents that their children can succeed without the Ivy Leagues.

There's a trend to say that schools should focus on teaching "grit," but to quote John Warner again, "Simply demanding greater resiliency isn’t going to work. We don’t badger people suffering from depression to be happier." I have little patience for teachers who justify policies that exist primarily to cause stress by saying, "I have to teach them a lesson," as if by simply living in a state of anxiety or stress for long enough is enough to help them learn to cope. As Alfie Kohn writes:

But people don’t really get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. In fact, it is experience with success and unconditional acceptance that helps one deal constructively with later deprivation. Imposing competition or standardized tests or homework on children just because other people will do the same to them when they’re older is about as sensible as saying that, because there are lots of carcinogens in the environment, we should feed kids as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they’re small to get them ready.

So the key is to give students some experiences where they feel challenged, while maintaining an environment that is unconditionally supportive. Alfie Kohn again writes about the importance of "unconditional teaching":

One study found that students who felt unconditionally accepted by their teachers were more likely to be genuinely interested in learning and to enjoy challenging academic tasks—as opposed to just doing things because they had to and preferring easier assignments at which they knew they would be successful (Makri-Botsari, 2001). To provide this unconditional support, we must actively oppose the policies that get in the way, such as those that encourage us to value children on the basis of their academic standing—or, worse, merely on the basis of their test scores.

Mr. Denizet Lewis' piece spends some time discussing the use of exposure therapy, an important piece of cognitive-behavioral therapy for those suffering from anxiety. We teachers are not clinicians, of course, but those same principles could perhaps inform how we aim to challenge students while still supporting them unconditionally. How can we help students have challenging experiences, while still making it clear to them that they are safe?

If teachers are challenging our students, stretching them to try new experiences, learn new skills, and think in new ways, it's not inherently bad that they feel some stress or anxiety about the process; those moments of discomfort can be where the growth happens. At the same time, we teachers can make sure that students feel entirely supported throughout that process. For example, do my classroom policies make students feel stress or anxiety about valuable things, like trying to write the best paper they can, or do I cause them to feel stress about extraneous details like unnecessary deadlines? Many times I worry that the entire process of assigning grades to student work is counter-productive to this unconditional support, but if grades are a necessary evil, how can I minimize the damage? I can say to my students, "Don't worry about grades," but if only the students with the highest GPAs are recognized, what message does that send?

I have my own experiences with anxiety, and my heart goes out for these kids who find themselves feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Life is challenging enough, and if we in schools make it unnecessarily difficult for our students, that's not some kind of vaccine that will protect them later. We can't make their world completely free of stressors, nor should that be the goal. But I do think we have a duty to support them–in many cases, better than we have done.

→ "5 Dumb Things I Used to Think About School"

This is a thoughtful post, but I really liked the point the author makes about deadlines and late work (a topic I've mentioned before):

“Deadlines in schools are for adults. We adults have so many things to do by a certain time that we need deadlines. The fact is, there are very few drop-dead deadlines in life, and most things in life can be handed in late. May there be a monetary penalty? Yes, and that is the lame rationale for paying students with lower grades for late work, because again, grades are currency, not feedback.”

→ "Why I Threw Away My Rubrics"

Professor Jennifer Hurley writes about her struggles with rubrics, and why she's ditched them (emphasis mine):

The real reason I think we’re attracted to rubrics is because we like the simplicity and efficiency of them. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make giving feedback into a scientific process? That would be so efficient and so less fraught with uncertainty! But why are we so afraid to admit that the evaluation of writing is subjective and depends much upon the individual reader? I think it comes back to grades. We’re frightened that if we admit that good writing is sometimes a matter of opinion, then we are no longer the authority, and we no longer can defend our grades.

I've struggled with rubrics myself, for exactly this reason–good work, especially complex work like writing or a presentation, is impossible to quantify into any manageable number of categories. Too often, I think in my head, "This is a B+ paper," and then I look to reconcile the rubric with that grade. Yes, the rubric does sometimes keep me on track while grading, making sure I look at each different area and don't forget to give credit where it's due. When the rubric isn't tied directly to the grade, it's slightly more useful, but only slightly.

→ "The Emotional Weight of Being Graded, for Better or Worse"

Yet another good post about the impact of grading, this time from the always thoughtful KQED MindShift blog. (As always, emphasis mine.)

The trouble with these extreme emotional reactions to grades is that students’ knowledge of a subject is tied to their experience of the grade, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Powerful emotions attached to grades drown children’s inherent interest in any given subject.

“Whether the grade is good or bad, you’re taking the student away from focusing on intrinsic interest and tying their experience to grades,” Immordino-Yang explained. Under such circumstances, genuine interest in learning for its own sake wilts. “Grades can be an impetus to work, and can be really satisfying,” she said. “But when emotions about the grade swamp students’ emotions about a subject, that’s a problem.”

I've certainly seen this in my own classroom. Now matter how much I try to preface an assignment with comments like, "Don't worry about the grade," their emotional reaction trumps everything else. I've tried to do small things in my classroom to reduce that focus on the grade, but so long as grades are the primary source of feedback in the school, there's not much I can do.

“Your Hand’s Not Raised? Too Bad: I’m Calling on You Anyway”

I first came across this article by Alfie Kohn on the practice of cold-calling students last year, and I felt embarrassed that I had never really questioned this aspect of my own pedagogy.

Should teachers call on students who haven’t indicated they want to talk and, in fact, have tacitly indicated they don’t want to talk?

I’ve never been too much of a jerk in the classroom, but I’ve certainly used cold-calling on students whose hands are not raised as a way to keep them “on their toes” or even to shame those who were very visibly not engaged. So what’s the alternative? Mr. Kohn suggests:

What we need to develop — with students, not just for them — is a model of discussion that encourages everyone to speak up when they’re ready without forcing anyone to do so, and that supports the community in becoming self-governing rather than giving one person in the room the sole authority to decide who talks when.

I have not successfully created this kind of atmosphere, but it sounds like a goal worth working towards. I do think there's a way to build a rapport with my students such that I can call on them in a way that is still respectful, as part of a "self-governing community" like he describes.

The closing statement from Mr. Kohn sums it all up quite nicely:

But the general rule is that treating students with respect — which means we neither compel them to speak nor determine unilaterally who gets to do so — is ethically appropriate, educationally beneficial, and practically realistic . . . as long as we’re willing to give up some control.