Compassion alone is not enough


In high schools nationwide, and mine is no exception, we are seeing more and more teenagers suffering from mental health crises. Students at my school are talking openly about this – trying to raise awareness by making videos, creating T-shirts, and even speaking to the faculty.

This is good. We need to be made aware of these issues. We need to understand how anxiety and depression make it difficult for our kids to learn and form relationships, and we need to treat them with compassion.

But it’s not enough.

We also need to get serious about figuring out why so many students today are suffering, and what we can do to turn the tide.

According to one article I read this week, teenagers are more stressed out than adults in our society right now. And it’s not just teenagers in trying circumstances who are suffering. We’re talking about teens living in safe neighborhoods, in permanent housing, in stable families with middle-class incomes.

Their futures look bright to us, so why does the world feel so bleak to them?

There are a lot of possible reasons. Maybe it’s social media — and with it, cyber-bullying. I certainly believe these are both factors. The correlation between smart phone usage and depression is undeniable, as I’ve written in previous posts.

Maybe it’s the growing academic pressure some students feel, as expectations about college and the cost of college keep rising. A growing number of students feel pressured to make the perfect application, to excel in academics and sports, to rack up leadership roles and find time to volunteer. They don’t feel like they can ever make a mistake.

Maybe it’s also due to better reporting and less stigma around talking about mental health issues, which have always existed. Adolescence wasn’t easy for most of us.

But I think there are a few other factors at work, too, factors that merit our attention.

First, I think our broader culture is creating a sense of despair. We all feel it. The constant negativity in the news, the anger in our politics, the fear created by mass shootings and terror attacks – these all play a part. We can’t necessarily change that, but we need to help adolescents learn how to filter it and when to turn it off. (I know I have to, to maintain my sanity.)

The lack of nature is a problem, too. Children today spend less time climbing trees, roaming through backyards, camping and fishing. We know being indoors all the time – even if it’s in a gym, getting exercise – is bad for mental health. We need to give our teenagers more time in the natural world, more opportunities for adventure, without their devices.

Woven through all of these reasons, I believe, is another huge problem: the lack of a sense of purpose. Too many teenagers are just going through the motions – studying because we say it’s important, playing sports because everyone is doing it, posting to Instagram because it’s weird if they don’t.

But none of it is giving them deep satisfaction. None of it makes them feel needed or makes them excited about the future.

If we want to help our teenagers, we need to help them develop a sense of purpose, and this is something we can do.

We can help by treating them like capable young adults and giving them responsibilities – like fostering rescue animals, helping with household maintenance, cooking meals, caring for siblings.

We can also do it by enlisting them to help the less fortunate – through serving at food shelves, building or repairing houses, taking care of an elderly neighbor’s house or lawn.

We can do it be involving them in purpose-driven activities, like political action, social action and mission trips.

We can do it by encouraging participation in fun activities not tied to their college applications – like hiking, snowshoeing, rock-climbing, dancing and cooking.

I’m not saying these steps will cure our teenage mental health crisis. I don’t want to oversimplify a complex problem, which has both neurological and social causes.

But I do think we have a role to play, even if we are not certified therapists.  We can all help adolescents realize that life doesn’t have to be a constant, serious pursuit of social and academic perfection. It can be fun and rewarding, even if we make mistakes along the way. Especially if we make mistakes along the way.

Let’s try to send that message to the teenagers in our lives this holiday season.

Are you interested in student engagement? My book Beat Boredom is now available at Beat Boredom | Stenhouse Publishers



What can they do besides ‘school’?


One of my favorite lines in Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? is when he points out that schools are really really good at preparing students to become professors. And, I would add, teachers.

Academia is nothing if not self-perpetuating.

We teach students to write papers and lab reports in styles that professors will value; to memorize scientific principles and mathematical theorems that they can apply to abstract academic problems; and to memorize a simple legislative process that exists only in textbooks.

We value what we do, so we pass it on.

This creates a host of problems, including:

  • Many students don’t see why learning any of this stuff matters
  • Most students won’t become professors or teachers
  • Graduates leave our schools not knowing what else they could do with their lives

Worst of all, it creates a kind of existential crisis for many teens and young adults, who feel like they must go to college if they want to be “successful” but have only a vague idea of what success would mean for them — and no real interest in studying more.

Welcome to the real student debt crisis: the students who drop out of college with thousands in loans, no diploma, no passion for any vocation, and no clue what to do next. Only 46 percent of Americans who start college actually graduate, according to the OECD.

If you ask a typical high school student what jobs they are aware of, they’ll come up with a list like this: teacher, police officer, military, sales clerk, construction worker, waiter, chef, doctor, lawyer, banker, Uber driver, maybe software coder, and whatever jobs their parents have.

It’s frighteningly limited.

What about: glass blower, screenwriter, dog trainer, home stager, fashion designer, outdoor adventure leader, entrepreneur, cabinet maker, astronaut nutrition specialist, translator, Amazon reseller, video game designer, craft brewer, resource mapper, food tour operator, trauma nurse, professional speaker, and sea lion trainer?

I know people who have all of these jobs, some of them my former students. They seem to like their jobs — and some of them are also very highly paid.

How can we open students’ minds to these possibilities (and many more), in a system that values “common” education and college for all?

One example is offered by Finland, which has a world-renowned education system.

I was startled to learn, from a colleague at this week’s Reimagine Education conference, that more than 50% of Finnish 14-year-olds are now choosing their country’s Vocational Education Training over traditional high school.

They are rejecting the college-bound path we hold so dear.

Finnish vocational programs (which are currently being revised) include hands-on training in hundreds of fields, including: forestry, landscaping, automotive engineering, graphic design, 3D printing, circus arts (!), shoemaking and aviation.

There’s no stigma attached; it’s not a “second choice.”

Can you imagine how much anxiety and frustration we could alleviate if our high school students could actually choose to pursue their interest in school, knowing it would lead to an apprenticeship and a job?

The biggest danger in emulating this system is that we, as a much more diverse and divided society, would likely track students, so that lower-income, nonwhite students would be disproportionately steered toward non-college options, whether or not that was their desire.

It already happens — I’ve heard from many African-American friends that they were told they weren’t “college material,” even though they clearly were.

The key is to find a way to let students figure out what they want, without social pressures and biases pushing them toward or away from the college path.

But that’s much easier said than done. So what can we do?

At the very least, we need to talk to our teenagers about all of their options and help them see that there are great career pathways outside the purely academic one. We need to help them envision where they fit in the world, with their unique set of talents and preferences.

We need to keep the college pathway equitable open to all — but we need to stop making it the only socially acceptable alternative.

Beat Boredom now available from Stenhouse.

Living the 1970s dream: A lesson in critical thinking

My parents’ home, circa 1979.

Are Americans’ lives getting worse? Or does it just seem that way?

One of our core responsibilities as high school teachers is to help our students develop critical thinking skills, learn to question assumptions and challenge “common sense”.

It’s something we humans are bad at — as a rule — for all sorts of complex psychological reasons. We’re much too easily influenced by what other people say, and we tend to seek information that supports our biases.

Still, we can and must do better. As teachers, we need to incorporate critical thinking into all of our lessons.

What got me thinking about this challenge this week was a quote in this New York Times story. The mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, stated what many believe to be true of our economy today: People are working similar jobs to what their parents did but are not able to maintain the same lifestyle.”

This is taken as a given in our political discourse, that our standard of living has fallen from our parents’ generation. It’s practically part of our national mythology. It wasn’t questioned in the article.

But has our standard of living really fallen?

Every year, I explain to my econ students what life was really like for my family in the 1970s (and for typical American families in the 1950s), but it would be interesting to take that lesson one step further.

This year, I’m going to have them calculate: What would it cost to replicate my parents’ (or better yet, their grandparents’) standard of living today?

Do today’s households really need to work two jobs to do it?

Let’s start with a few basic facts — facts we seem to have collectively forgotten.

When my dad was my age (50), it was 1979. Here are a few things you might remember about that time, if you grew up in a similarly middle class, college-educated family in the 1970s. Let’s take off the rose-colored glasses.

  • We had no computer or internet
  • We had no videogame system
  • We had no stereo system, just a simple record player
  • We had no cell phones
  • We had one house phone, with no fancy features (like call waiting)
  • We had one TV, but no cable (and no fancy surround sound)
  • We had no central air conditioning
  • We had no microwave
  • We had one car, a late model Chevy Impala with broken AC
  • Our house, which seemed large at the time, was 1900 square feet
  • My brother and I played rec league sports — we had no “traveling teams”
  • We ate basic ’70s meals, meaning no fancy produce — never heard of kiwi or cilantro — and usually ground beef or chicken, not steak or fish. (I didn’t know you could buy spinach fresh! And organics?? Forget it!)
  • We rarely ate out, even at McDonald’s, and it was a BIG DEAL when we did
  • We only used long distance to call our grandparents
  • We went to the mall once a year to buy a handful of new clothes; the rest of my clothes were hand-me-downs (and no designer stuff)
  • Our vacations were once a year, always by car, and usually to a rented cabin on a lake
  • We thought we were living large when we got a color TV and a dishwasher

So what would it cost to live at my parents’ standard of living now?

I ran the calculations, based on buying their house at its current market value (about $500,000) with 20% down, buying a new Chevy Impala, and budgeting $800 a month for groceries (for a family of four). And yes, I included property taxes, heating bills and basic health insurance.

My best estimate: It would require a pre-tax income of around $60,000 a year. Yes, despite the huge increase in housing costs: $60,000 a year.

That’s just $1000 more than household median income in this country, meaning the typical American household could probably afford my parents’ 1970s lifestyle.

And they could afford it on much less in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where you can buy a 1900 square foot house for about $70,000 (Zillow).

So why are we so convinced that our standard of living has fallen?

I think it’s because we are simply incapable of making these kinds of comparisons on a casual basis. We can’t fathom what it would be like to live without the conveniences (and extravagances) we have today.

No cable TV? No cell phone? Are you asking us to go back to the Dark Ages?

If we’re going to have honest dialog about our economic problems and potential solutions, we need to acknowledge that the typical American standard of living has improved dramatically, at least in terms of “stuff,” compared to our parents’ generation. It’s our expectations that have changed.

We’ll be doing our students a service if we help them learn to ask these kinds of questions and seek the supporting facts for themselves, rather than just accepting what people assume to be true. Hopefully, they’ll find it interesting too.

*This article originally stated that $60,000 was individual median income. It is household median income.


Sleepless in Psych


Yesterday in AP Psych, I tried to illustrate the difference between “effortful” and “automatic” processing by asking a student what, if anything, he ate for breakfast.

Normally, that’s a pretty easy question. No one has to intentionally encode it. No flashcards required.

He looked at me, a little confused, and said, “I’m so tired, I don’t really know.”

That’s what happens when our students don’t get enough sleep.

And if they can’t remember breakfast, how do we expect them to retain complex new vocabulary, concepts, or equations?

Fortunately, my school district is joining the long list of schools moving high school start times back — next year, 1st hour will be at 8:35 instead of 7:25. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that later start times do result in more sleep — not just later bedtimes.

But we still have a big job to do in selling our students on the value of sleep. How often do we hear teenagers bragging about being up past midnight, whether they’re finishing a project or playing video games? How often we we hear them talk about sleep deprivation like it’s a competitive sport? “I’ve got no time to sleep!”

Precious few teenagers get the recommended 8-10 hours they need.

I don’t blame parents. When our sons were in high school, we couldn’t stay awake late enough to see when they went to bed, but I know they often got 5-6 hours at most. It’s not enough.

Last year, I decided my psych students should conduct their own inquiries into the value of sleep and determine whether their habits are a problem. They kept sleep diaries, recorded alertness stages during the day, and answered survey questions about their attitudes toward sleep.

Then, we used that data (from about 75 students) to explore the larger question: Do teenagers get enough sleep? That required them to do their own research — to find out what sleep is for and why they need so much of it.

The students discovered that nearly all of their peers are sleep-deprived — there were just a few outliers — and they produced posters and PSAs touting the value of sleep to others. Some of them were awesome; they targeted their peers’ sense of humor in a way that I never could.

One of the students told me afterward that she appreciated the assignment. “I learned that sleep can affect more than just school performance, which is why most high schoolers are encouraged to sleep,” she said. Her group emphasized the connection between sleeplessness and acne.

This weekend, I’ll be presenting the Teens & Sleep lesson at the National Council for the Social Studies national conference, and it’s been downloaded more than 100 times from my website,

I know it’s not going to change things overnight, but I hope by encouraging students to build their own understanding about sleep, through an open-ended inquiry process, we can begin to chip away at this problem. Any amount  of extra sleep will help.

My book, Beat Boredom, is now available for pre-order from Stenhouse.

Next week, I won’t be posting due to Thanksgiving. I hope you have a wonderful holiday.


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Kids can’t stop themselves – time for the adults to step in

cant stop 2

How often do you check your smartphone?

Every hour? Every five minutes? Multiple times per minute?

Stop and think about why. Are you really waiting for an urgent call — say, from a doctor, a family member or your boss?

Or are you just hoping there will be something cool or funny there? A bit of gossip. A humorous meme. A viral video. A breaking news update. Anything to distract you from the monotony of real life.

This week, my AP Psych students were learning about behaviorism, and we watched a video of one of Skinner’s pigeons maniacally pecking a disc for food. It looked just like many of us, maniacally swiping our phones, hoping for just a little dopamine boost.

Here’s the thing: Those pigeons in Skinner’s boxes really didn’t have anything better to do.

But we do. We have lots of better things to do — like learn new things or enjoy nature or form real-life relationships — but too many of us are living like addicts, always distracted by the allure of the phone.

And it’s worse for our kids.

According to Nicholas Carr’s Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal article, one study found that  “students who didn’t bring their phones to the classroom scored a full letter-grade higher on a test of the material presented than those who brought their phones. It didn’t matter whether the students who had their phones used them or not.”

Even when we’re not using our phones, they cause a “brain drain” that diminishes “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”

This New York Times article explains that smartphone use is also correlated with increasing rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers. It’s no wonder, when kids are one-upping each other (or worse yet, bullying each other) on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram 24-7.

These smartphones that rule our lives are not just making learning harder; they’re making growing up harder.

I think most parents agree that this is a problem — and they expect their children to put away the phones during class. But putting them away isn’t enough. According to the WSJ article, phones have to be physically removed from the room to stop distracting — and most teachers can tell you it’s a losing battle anyway.

“They Snapchat in my class,” one friend told me. “I’m going to snap.”

“They’re a constant distraction,” another said. “If you allow a little use, a little turns into a lot of use really quickly.”

He has a very strict policy on phone use now because he was “nickel and dimed to death” with infractions, like kids walking out of class to take calls (from their parents) and posting to Instagram during class.

What are we going to do about this? Clearly, it’s not enough to trust kids to make good decisions about smartphone use.

First of all, we need parents to either turn off their children’s data plans during school hours or refuse to pay for data plans altogether. (We didn’t buy either of our children a smartphone until they were out of high school, and I’m really glad.)

Second, we need secure places at school where kids can lock their phones up during the day. Kids don’t want to leave them in lockers, and teachers don’t want to take them and be responsible if something happens. We need separate free phone lockers, like the free mini-lockers at the gym where you can lock your keys and ID (and yes, phone).

Third, we need to have parent meetings, where we help parents understand what a crisis this is for our students and get them on board.

And finally, we teachers need to be good role models for our students. We need to keep our own phones out of sight and out of mind during the school day.

When I told my AP Psych students about the WSJ article — after watching Skinner’s pigeons — they expressed no surprise whatsoever. It’s like a drug, they said. It’s so hard to stop checking.

That’s why we have to step in and stop for them.

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The one skill all grads need


If you’ve ever remodeled your house, you know that nothing goes as planned.

Last year, bathroom remodelers taking out old shower tile accidentally cut through a pipe (that was installed the wrong way) and flooded our kitchen, directly below.

This year, kitchen remodelers removed old soffits and discovered they were not just decorative — they were hiding bad electrical wiring, as well as some weirdly shaped air vents.

Sitting in the other room, I overheard a lot of discussion about what to do.

     Will the new cabinets reach all the way up?

     Should we reroute the vent into the ceiling?

     We’ll need to cut circular holes through these 2x4s.

Lucky for me, these contractors are problem-solvers, not just builders.

I couldn’t help but compare their ability to troubleshoot, brainstorm solutions, weigh alternatives and execute a plan — without instruction by a supervisor — with my high school students’ inability to do so.

Too often, when our students encounter a barrier or surprise, they give up or expect someone else to fix it.

For example, I assigned my Psych students to watch “Picking Cotton,” a 60 Minutes video about false confessions, not realizing the link on my website was broken. A few students emailed me, letting me know it wasn’t working. Most just didn’t watch it, figuring they would be excused — since it was hardly their fault.

Only one or two realized they could just google the name of the program and find the video for themselves.

Another, more intentional example: After teaching supply and demand, I asked my Micro students some problems like this:

Demand: P = 21 – Q

Supply: P = 3 + 2Q

What is the market equilibrium price and quantity?

They’ve all had algebra, so they know how to draw the lines (or deal with systems of equations). They know that equilibrium is where supply and demand are equal. But I’d never explicitly told them to combine basic algebra with “supply and demand” this way, and about half missed it the first time.

Why? I think it’s because we don’t expect them to reason out problems this way, at least not often enough. We don’t expect them to draw on prior knowledge (from other classes even!) and really think about new approaches and strategies.

We tell them what to do, and we ask them to practice it, but we don’t expect them to “figure it out for themselves.” This needs to change.

If our students were going to work in mid-20th Century factories, then telling them what to do and expecting them to merely follow directions would probably be good enough. But those jobs are being done by robots now.

In nearly every modern work environment — from high tech industries to surgical wards to craft breweries to schools to the construction site in my kitchen — workers need to be flexible problem-solvers. They need to be able to figure things out for themselves and deal with the unexpected.

If we want to prepare our students for the future, we need to start expecting this from them now.


Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Coming in November: Beat Boredom

How do you talk about ‘intelligence’?


Thanks to Carol Dweck’s work on the Growth Mindset, we know it matters how we react to student performance.

Compliments for “being smart” help foster a fixed mindset and a reluctance to embrace challenge, while shout-outs for “working hard” foster a growth mindset and a desire for challenge.

That’s all well and good, but what are the implications for talking about “intelligence” — or responding when kids inevitably do?

It seems like we should avoid using that term at all. But unfortunately, our students have already absorbed this message…

Intelligence = IQ = good grades = successful future

… and it often overrides whatever we say about the growth mindset. Ignoring is not enough.

Also, as an AP Psych teacher, I can’t avoid this topic. We have an entire unit on “Intelligence and Testing,” and IQ also came up yesterday in our discussion of nature v. nurture. A research article I shared with students reveals that variability in IQ test scores at age 50 is mostly due to DNA — by a large margin. They were shocked, assuming their own effort would have a bigger impact (and they could be “smarter” than their parents).

So how do we respond? And what does it signal to our students about their own perceived intelligence and potential?

This has become more challenging for me over time. I’ve become convinced of the power of mindset, emotional intelligence, and divergent thinking, and I believe they are critical to our students’ future success, but I still know that Lewis Terman’s work showed intelligence isn’t a throwaway concept. It is also powerful.

I’m not alone in this quandary. In a touch of irony, this week’s Education Week Special Report notes that PSAT scores are the strongest predictor of AP test scores — in the context of an article promoting the growth mindset. The PSAT isn’t measuring effort, folks.

What I try to do is always, always add nuance to this conversation and steer my students to think critically about the construct of IQ. If I say the word “intelligence” or “IQ,” I immediately qualify it by pointing out that intelligence is broad and ill-defined, and IQ test scores are imperfect measures.

I also try to break the link between IQ and future success by telling a lot of stories about personal friends and former students, people who struggled with academics but found success using their people skills, street smarts and creativity. (Many of the biggest income-earners I know were not straight-A students, but yes, they are “smart”.)

I also acknowledge there are real differences between humans when it comes to our processing speeds, our stores of knowledge, and our expressive capacities. These differences make learning easier for some of us and more difficult for others.

I think struggling students are more likely to buy what we’re saying about mindset if we at least acknowledge these differences — and the fact that some kids seem to unfairly sail through classes with easy As. They’re also more likely to persevere if they know we don’t put too much faith in a single test score.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

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Overwhelmed by exceptions


Cartoon from 

If you’re not a teacher, it’s easy to think a teacher’s job is three things:

  • Design and deliver effective lessons
  • Check students’ understanding through daily work, and
  • Evaluate tests and various sort of papers, like essays and lab reports.

But that’s just the easy part.

Our job is really about managing ambiguity, trying to address the dozens of small and large requests that come at us every day, the stuff that no one else ever sees.

Our job requires striking a balance between what society expects of our schools (rigorous standards, high achievement, instilling a good work ethic, etc.) and what parents and students ask of us (exceptions, accommodations, forgiveness, etc.)

For example:

Student A suffered a serious concussion and cannot access online materials, watch videos, read the textbook, or come to class. Can you help him catch up on his work?

Student B isn’t comfortable speaking up in class. Please do not call on her or expect her to participate in discussion. If a speech is required, please give her an alternate assignment.

Student C is anxious about writing free-response questions in a school setting. Can he do them all at home?

Student D does not do well with group work. Please assign her only individual work.

Student E cannot manage calendars or timelines. Can you talk to him individually each time an assignment is due?

I don’t mean to sound negative — it is what it is. Our students are, in fact, individuals with different needs, capacities and concerns. And while some of these requests are unreasonable, some are perfectly reasonable. No one with a concussion should be watching videos.

What I want non-teachers to understand is that the exceptions themselves command the bulk of our attention many days, and they often drive our decision-making.

Any teacher reading this is thinking, “duh” or “I’ve got better examples than that.”

But non-teachers are often surprised by this. They see the other side — the workplace side — and think it’s obvious we should hold firm and just say no. Won’t our students need to be able to write under pressure, work in groups, manage calendars, etc. in the real world? Aren’t we concerned that our graduates will need remediation when they go to college or work? How can we make so many exceptions?

They don’t realize that when the pressure is on, and no one is supporting you, the easiest response to an exception request is yes, yes, yes.

I’ve been thinking about this balancing act all week, after reading the thought-provoking New York Times article about rising anxiety in teens. Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist and expert on anxiety, is quoted explaining that sometimes our willingness to accommodate makes things worse for our teens.

She said: “Kids are being given some really dangerous messages these days about the fact that they can’t handle being triggered, that they shouldn’t have to bear witness to anything that makes them uncomfortable and that their external environments should bend to and accommodate their needs.”

She’s talking specifically about anxiety, but this could be true for many of our parent/student requests. When a student is struggling, it’s tempting just to make things easier or more accessible for them. The problem is — we may be doing them a disservice in the long run.

If I exempt a student from speaking in class because speaking is too much for him, how will he ever master this skill? If I don’t expect a student to work with classmates, how will they function in a workplace with teams? How will they navigate in college without these supports? 

Unfortunately, many parents and students are in crisis mode, and these concerns are just not on the table for discussion. And as mere teachers — not psychologists, not psychics — how can we be sure there is any long-term harm?

I know we are not going to turn the tide on this issue right now, but I would like to see us start focusing on long-term issues of student learning and mastery of critical skills, rather than on short-term fixes that help students “pass” a class. We need to help students overcome their barriers and develop their skills, not just be accommodated.

If we are serious about educating students to be responsible citizens, thoughtful problem-solvers, and well-prepared workers, we have to keep that as our True North. And every time we are asked to make exceptions and exemptions, we have to stop and ask how these are serving our students for life — not just for now.


Kids can learn online, but they often don’t

canstockphoto19146585Is Khan Academy or Crash Course (or something like it) going to drive public schools out of business?

Online competition has already dominated our traditional ways of doing almost everything –planning vacations, looking for jobs, watching TV, playing games, meeting dates, talking to friends, consuming news. Just ask my former colleagues in the newspaper business.

It seems like a no-brainer that online access to most of human knowledge is going to put teachers out of work as well.

But I don’t think so, at least not any time soon.

Both of the high school classes I’m teaching right now are hybrids – meaning, the students do the majority of their work online. In both of them, too many students suffer from an inability to keep themselves on track.

Every week, I pull aside students during our face-to-face meetings to remind them about missing (and upcoming) work, which is clearly listed on the class calendar. Every week, I send out email blasts, call parents, talk to deans, leave blanks in the grade book.

Ultimately, all (or nearly all) of these students will successfully complete these classes, but it will take a large amount of prodding and handholding.

Why? Because most high school students just don’t have the maturity or motivation yet to organize and pursue their own learning. If they did, they could master almost any subject from the comfort of their home already — without us.

To be fair, when I’ve taught all-online courses to adults, the completion problem is even worse. Many never finish at all – and never explain why.

Most of us, it seems, have trouble sticking with the discipline of completing an academic course on our own. We like to dabble; we like to find answers to immediate questions (what is the speed of light?) or find DIY solutions (how can I remove wallpaper?) but when it comes to mastering a challenging subject like intro-level microeconomics, it’s just too hard to keep ourselves on task.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. We are social creatures, and we learn best in a social context. Our relationships with our teachers are a large part of our motivation – they are the ones who spark our interest, who make us care, who give us real feedback about our progress, who help us overcome challenges. (Teachers — this is our advantage, so we need to make the most of it.)

Without a real human being deeply invested in our learning, we just don’t care quite as much.

Khan Academy – and dozens of other tech startups like it – may have great content and increasingly clever and engaging presentations, but until they have a way to connect students with other human beings who care deeply about them, I don’t think our jobs are going anywhere.

Why do we let kids give up?

IquitI hate it when a student drops my class.

At my high school, the beginning of the year is a revolving door of adds and drops, as students try out different classes and re-evaluate the schedules they selected six months earlier, when they were feeling ambitious.

This system has a lot of drawbacks — class sizes end up very unbalanced, and it’s hard to create a classroom culture with effective norms and clear expectations when everything is in flux — but we are very customer-focused, and we are sympathetic to kids who realize they have taken on too much.

Unfortunately, this sympathy sometimes results in discouraging a growth mindset.

Here’s what I mean:

In the spring, teachers and deans encourage students to take an appropriately challenging schedule. For some kids, that means saying, “Don’t take five AP classes, take three.” For other kids, that means saying, “You should try one honors or AP course — I know you can do it!”

Many of the students getting the latter message are teens from underrepresented groups, kids who often get left out of the college-bound culture (or, let’s be honest, the college prep track) for a host of socio-cultural reasons, even though they are ready for more rigorous work.

We want these students in our advanced classes.

But when fall comes, the reality of advanced classes becomes too much for many of our students — not just for disadvantaged kids, but kids across the board. They suddenly realize they will have to change their work habits to earn the As and Bs they are used to, and they panic and drop.

And we let them.

Now I don’t object when a student with multiple AP classes realizes they need a more reasonable load, or when students who don’t have time to sleep between homework, sports and work decide they need a break. Figuring out this balance is part of growing up (and staying sane).

What bothers me is when students who are not overextended drop just because they think a class will be “hard,” because an A won’t come easily this time.

We say we are teaching kids perseverance and grit. We say we want students to change their minds about “failure,” to see it as an opportunity for growth. We say we want all of our students — not just the high-achieving, already college-bound, middle class ones — to be challenged and ready for post-secondary work.

But when is that supposed to happen, if they quit — and we let them — just because something seems hard?

When students come to me with a drop slip for AP Psych or AP Micro, I basically beg them to stick it out. You can do it, I tell them. You’re going to learn valuable skills for the future. I will help you. Everything will be easier after this. It will be worth it.

I think what I’m saying is true. I saw my own children go through this process — encountering their first really difficult class and learning how to study, how to learn, how to persevere. I know this was one of the most valuable lessons they learned in school. The struggle was worth it.

But I can’t make other kids do it. I can’t even make them try. All I can do is plead and try to persuade, and too often that doesn’t work. If we are serious about instilling a growth mindset and grit, we need to stop letting kids give up on themselves.