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.

→ "The Growth Mindset : Telling Penguins to Flap Harder?"

When I read psychologist Carol Dweck's now famous book Mindset, much of it rang true to me personally. I could certainly see myself in many of her examples of a fixed mindset, and I've written about that before. And teaching our students to be more receptive to challenges is, in my mind, a valid goal.

As Dweck's book has become more popular, so too have critiques against those with an overly-simplified takeaway for schools from her research, namely the idea that "grit" (hard work and perseverance) and a mindset that sees failures as positive are all students need to find success in school. I've been dismayed in my own position by teachers who use the phrase "growth mindset" as a cover for claiming that students simply need to work harder. There's a subtlety to Dweck's claims that seems to be getting lost.

I think "Disappointed Idealist" does a good job expressing some of my own concerns about those who are using the growth mindset in a way that harms students.

For all the reasons above, some children will be penguins in an education system which values flight as the ultimate goal. And when they flap their wings as hard as they can, repeatedly, and still fail to take off, they are then hit with a double whammy: firstly they’ve failed to fly, and secondly they’re being told that the only reason that they’ve failed is because they’re not trying hard enough.

→ "Teaching Kids 'Grit' is All the Rage. Here's What's Wrong With It."

Good counterpoint at New Republic to those advocating more formal "character education."

There are three major problems with the new character education. The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.

"Grit" may be important, but there's still a lot of work to be done researching how (and if) these traits can be taught.

"Should I take AP Latin?"

It's that time of year again, when my Latin students are registering for their courses for next year. At my school, Latin is just one language offered, and the school requires only two years of the same language. Thus my colleagues and I spend a good amount of time convincing the students to continue their Latin career.

We hate to make an argument from utility. Sure, we're happy to espouse those pitches when the students are in eighth grade, choosing between Spanish and Latin, but they are all pretty shallow arguments.

  • "Latin will help your SAT and ACT scores." Sure, Latin students do score better on standardized tests. Maybe that's because Latin helps (it certainly doesn't hurt), or maybe it's because the type of kids who choose to take Latin would have done well on their standardized tests anyway. And any English teacher worth her salt can teach non-Latin students some helpful word roots in about a week of lessons.

  • "It's a great idea if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer some day." I nod patiently when parents suggest this, because I don't have the heart to tell them that it will take a lot more than some Latin roots to be a good doctor. Yes, knowing Greek did help me pass Anatomy in college, but I couldn't tell you the last time I met a doctor who actually knew Latin. I would argue that studying Latin can make one a better doctor or lawyer (as evidenced by this piece in Harvard Magazine claiming that Classics majors had the highest success rate in law school), but not because they know what quid pro quo means.

  • "Latin is the root of the other Romance languages." This is one "practical" benefit of studying Latin that I'm not ashamed to use. Studying a language in high school is really a way to get introduced to another culture and language, and thereby be a better citizen. To really learn a language you need to go live with native speakers. And while my Latin students probably won't do a semester abroad at the Vatican (I teach all girls, after all), they almost certainly will study somewhere outside the US at some point in their college careers. Alumnae often come back and tell us they are studying French, Italian, or even German, and how thankful they are that they took Latin as an introduction.

So if our pitch to sophomores and juniors considering dropping their Latin study isn't about the utility of learning the language, what is it?

(N.B. This pitch is really a composite of numerous rants from both me and my colleagues. We think alike though, so any instances of plagiarism are really just because it's hard to tell where one of our quotes ends and another's begins.)

It's fun.

OK, this is subjective, but really, it is.

It sets you apart from the thousands of college seniors applying to the same prestigious schools.

OK, this argument may be utilitarian, but it's true. Every year the seniors in AP Latin will come in and tell us that they were asked in their scholarship interviews why they chose to take four years of Latin. Why were they asked? Because it sets them apart. At the top-flight public and private schools to which our students are applying, GPAs, test scores, and National Honors Society memberships are what it takes just to get their application considered. But studying something relatively unique tells that admissions officer: "Here is a student who values a rigorous education and learning for its own sake."

In one class, you can learn more about Western history, culture, and literature than in any handful of electives.

If a student likes history or literature or philosophy or government, they will enjoy AP Latin. I might quibble with the contents of the AP syllabus, but reading Vergil (and yes, Caesar too) is a perfect entrée into those topics. There's a reason why I still enjoy reading the Aeneid, even fourteen years after I was first exposed to it in high school. Every student has distinct tastes, and I do wish the AP syllabus gave us more freedom to explore the breadth of Latin literature, but there really is something for everybody, from the student who geeks out about literature (and Latin definitely attracts literary types), to the one who loves reading about ancient warfare, to those who have always enjoyed a good mythology story.

It's useless.

Latin is not useful. There, I said it. But that's precisely why it's still worth studying. I used to hate the argument that Latin should be studied because it "trains the mind." That argument was often used as a defense of a Classical education that was far too elitist. But as technology changes the nature of learning, there's something to be said for focusing on skills over content, and I think Latin is a great place to hone those skills. Why is it that Classics majors are successful law students? Again, there's some self-selection going on there, but still, plenty of very educated people go into law from other fields. What makes Classics different?

I think it's obvious to anybody who has studied Latin that the type of skills required to succeed are vital, in any field. On the one hand, there are some very "left brain" aspects of studying Latin: the language is very orderly, with a clearly defined logic to it, not unlike math. Critical thinking and reasoning are essential to translating any language, but especially Latin. At the same time, there's a creativity required to read Latin, beyond simply the mechanical skills. (Perhaps that's why there's not yet a good computer translator for Latin.) Reading Latin poetry in particular requires not just the logic and reasoning skills, but a creative and nimble mind to see the whole picture from those component parts and really feel the breadth of emotion being presented. I could spend twenty minutes in class on the language, content, and complexity of just these two lines from Book VI of the Aeneid:

nec minus Aeneas casu percussus iniquo

prosequitur lacrimis longe et miseratur euntem.

What other subject engages so consistently these different skills and multiple intelligences?

It's hard.

Taking a fourth year of a language, any language isn't easy, and AP Latin is no exception. With all apologies to President Kennedy, we choose to read the Aeneid next year and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Each of my students has lofty ambitions. Whether they want to be a doctor, lawyer, businesswoman, or mother, they're going to face their share of challenges. The best way for them to prepare for the rigors of life is to challenge themselves as much as they can. And AP Latin–generally a small class with students they know well and a teacher they've had before–is a great way to prepare for life. A lofty statement perhaps, but true.

There's an insidious trend we've noticed among our students lately, especially the older students. They are so worried about their GPA as they apply for college that they feel pressure to take "easier" courses. Why take AP Latin, where they might work hard to earn (gasp) a B, when they can take Underwater Basket Weaving and not risk losing their precious 4.0 GPA. As I told a group of students last week, if they expect to eventually take Organic Chemistry or apply for an Ivy League law school, they can't be scared to try something mildly challenging now. Some day, whether in college or in real life, they'll be challenged. Life ain't easy. And that college professor or boss probably won't care if they succeed or not. If they screw up, they're replaceable. AP Latin gives them a chance to practice that resilience they'll need later, in an environment that actually supports them. Seems like a good deal to me.

So does this pitch work? Well, it works often enough that I'm still employed. My colleagues and I try to instill these values in the students all throughout their career, but every year they still need some encouraging. I've been doing this long enough that I know not to take it personally if they opt out, but I can't help it feeling like I've let them down somewhere along the way if after three years of Latin they don't see the value in the fourth year of study. So we continue to try and summon our inner Don Draper and pitch them, hoping they'll trust us.

Aeneid I.203

Aeneid I.203


Seth Godin just wrote a great post called "Red Lantern" in which he argues that we should reward kids who persevere at least as much as we reward those who have more natural talent. Winning the gene pool is one thing, but persevering is a skill that can and should be encouraged.

The whole article is brief and worth reading, but here's the anecdote that begat the title:

At the grueling Iditarod, there's a prize for the musher who finishes last: The Red Lantern.

Failing to finish earns you nothing, of course. But for the one who sticks it out, who arrives hours late, there's the respect that comes from finding the strength to make it, even when all seems helpless.

The solution here isn't simply to give out more "participation" ribbons. This piece in New York sets out the dangers of giving out unwarranted praise. The key is to somehow recognize, foster, and reward grit, that trendy personality trait) getting so much attention lately. It's not just about effort, but perseverance even when they fail the first time or the first three times.

I think my school generally does a decent job of rewarding a variety of students, not just the ones with the most natural talents. But what can I do in the classroom to foster grit–a trait I would not say I personally have in abundance? It's the same challenge faced by video game designers: it's easy to make an impossibly hard or incredibly easy game. The challenge is getting that balance–difficult enough to be worthwhile, but with opportunities for growth and success to prevent frustration.

If I go too far towards the "Challenging" side of the spectrum, I will lose a lot of students who simply get frustrated and do not see any payoff (especially since I teach an elective and they can simply quit). But if there are too many rewards just for effort, there won't be any meaningful growth.

There are a lot of complicating factors, not the least of which is a culture that often expects an A for effort. I'm not sure yet how to navigate all this. Maybe new technology can make students' effort/progress more visible to them, in a way more meaningful than a spreadsheet of grades? I'm not sure, but I do want to help form gritty students.