Teaching writing is everyone’s job

(c) Can Stock Photo / thepoeticimage

Nothing is more difficult to teach — at least at the K-12 level — than writing.

You can teach kids vocabulary terms and math formulas and scientific principles all sorts of ways, both good and bad. You can lecture, assign reading, assign videos, hand out worksheets, develop experiments, create matching games.

But no one can learn to write by hearing about it, reading about it, watching videos, using flashcards or playing games. Every individual has to actually do it in order to learn how.

What makes this more difficult is that we can’t assess student writing using a multiple-choice test or even, if we’re honest, a finely tuned rubric. Evaluating student writing is always subjective, and it requires extensive, individualized feedback and hands-on guidance from a careful and reflective reader. Talk about time-consuming!

Unfortunately, our response to this challenge has been to assign less writing or to teach students writing through formulas, like the old “five-paragraph essay.” (My editor once told me this format is so widely discredited that no one is teaching it anymore — and yet, my students have all learned it. Hmmm.)

Or the new “claims-warrants” structure — which I honestly don’t even understand.

When I was in elementary school, it was “7 steps to a good report!”

The justification for these methods is “If not this, then what?” But every attempt to break down writing into a formula ends with students asking questions like:

How many paragraphs should my paper be?

And how many sentences in each paragraph?

Seriously? Is that what writing is? (How many paragraphs should a blog post be?)

How many times in your post-academic life have you been asked to write anything that fits this kind of formula? For most of us, the answer is “never.”

So what do we write — and how — once we get out of school and into a workplace?

For most professionals and many non-professionals, writing is a critical skill. At the very least, you have to be able to write a resume, a cover letter and clear, coherent, appropriately toned emails.

In many jobs, you also have to be able to write data analyses, research reports, proposals, contracts, promotional campaigns, persuasive sales talks, job evaluations and complaint letters. You have to be able to clearly express a point and support it with reasoning and evidence, in a whole host of different disciplines and venues.

I’m not arguing here that we should only teach “real world” writing in school. I value the humanities, and there’s definitely a place for teaching creative writing, poetry, and literary analysis. But we can’t only teach English-class-style writing, and we have to help our students learn to break out of that mold.

What’s the answer? I’ll take my cue from higher ed. At the University of Wisconsin, “helping students improve their writing skills is a responsibility for all faculty” (https://www.uww.edu). Similarly, teaching writing in our own disciplines — and helping students understand where writing fits in subjects like chemistry, math and economics — is a shared responsibility for all high school teachers.

I propose we each assign at least one full-on writing assignment each year. And that we be prepared to coach our students along the way, rather than giving them a fill-in-the-blanks formula.

Accept that it’s subjective. Accept that it’s a challenge. Do it anyway.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush 



Why I actually like AP season

pexels-photo-261909.jpegThere are a lot of reasons people hate the AP (Advanced Placement) program.

To start with, the stress of AP testing season, which is upon us. Then the fact that some colleges no longer give credit for passing AP tests, so it feels like wasted money.

Some people hate AP because they don’t believe high school is an appropriate venue for college-level classes. Some say high school classes can’t possibly recreate the college class experience.

Some hate the fact that privileged students have more access to AP programs than disadvantaged students. (I’m with them — I hate that too.) And finally, some people hate what they perceive as outside interference in school curriculum — the same reason they hate Pearson and other testing companies.

I’m not one of the haters, though. I know AP is far from perfect, and we need to make access more equitable, but let’s be honest — it’s one of the few forces driving us to actually provide rigorous high school experiences. Graduation requirements certainly aren’t doing it.

(Caveat: I am an AP grader and also a College Board consultant. I’m not writing this for the College Board, nor will they read it. I sought out these positions because I think AP is valuable — not the other way around.)

So, caveats aside, why do I like AP?

#1 It was great for me. I took 7 AP classes and tests back in the early 1980s, and those classes prepared me for college like nothing else. I felt sorry for my college classmates at Michigan who had to take Calculus I in gigantic lecture halls. I learned it from my high school teacher, Mrs. Duke, who knew her stuff AND cared about me. Same for my introductory bio and chem classes.

#2 It was great for our kids. Both of our sons took a bunch of AP tests, and both of them saved us money on college credits — which is no small thing these days. They also had no trouble moving on to higher-level courses based on their knowledge from high school AP classes.

#3 You might not like the curriculum or the test, but it IS written by a collaboration of college professors and expert high school teachers. These aren’t paid hacks just writing questions for a test bank. They know their stuff — better than I do. And because I trust them to set the right learning targets, I can focus on coaching my students to meet them. (It removes the temptation to water down the curriculum.)

#4 AP teacher workshops are (usually) not a waste of time. Teachers often complain about PD because it seems to focus on the wrong things — technology, grading and differentiation (which no one explains very well) — rather than on how to better teach students in our content area. In AP workshops, I’ve actually learned content and valuable teaching strategies. I’m trying to pay it forward now.

#5 Even if some colleges don’t give credit for AP, many more do, and that’s still motivating to many students. They are more willing to challenge themselves because of that AP score, and that means they build deeper understanding in the process.

I know it’s not a perfect system. I wish AP teachers had as much flexibility with our courses as actual college professors do, so we didn’t have to pack so much into a semester. I wish AP was more like International Baccalaureate, so we could reduce the amount of multiple choice and allow for more nuance.

I wish students were more willing to take challenging non-AP courses, which sometimes get overlooked. And of course, I wish the testing season didn’t cause students stress.

But when it comes to the long list of tests our students take — state tests, common core tests, final exams, ACTs, SATs, and so on — I still think AP tests are the most valuable. And I hope my students crush it next week.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

College admissions IS a mania, but that doesn’t negate the value of hard work

yale-university-landscape-universities-schools-159490.jpegIt’s college decision season, so the internet is filled with chatter about the insanity of the current college application process. The main themes are anxiety and frustration.

Anxiety driven by the fear that nothing short of a perfect GPA, multiple leadership positions, a resume full of volunteering and a patent will ensure college admission and future success.

Frustration in response to the reality that a hard-working teen can take every AP class, get a perfect ACT score, play cello and star on the basketball team and still not get into Harvard — or even a top-ranked state university.

A lot of commentators (for example, this blog from Thera-Mom) are pushing back against the rat race of college admissions and the high-achievement culture, saying it’s a mania, that it sends the wrong message, and that neither your high school GPA nor what college you attend really matters in the end.

The message is: Have more fun, relax, go to more school dances — and stop worrying so much about college.

I’ll be honest — I’m struggling with that response.

My own kids went through this process just a few short years ago — one ending up at a competitive private school, the other at a major public university — and I watch dozens of students navigate it every year, so I get it. The admissions process for elite schools is excruciating, and it creates widespread disappointment and disillusionment.

But have we really failed our kids by asking them to aim high?

Are we really working them too hard in high school?

And is it really true that none of this matters?

I think asking kids to aim high — to take challenging classes and work hard in them — is generally a good thing. We still have far more teenagers in the U.S. who are under-challenged in high school than those who are over-challenged. (The average American high school student does less than one hour of homework per night.)

We still demand much higher commitment from our students for their sports teams than their academics.

And most of those who challenge themselves academically, even if it doesn’t get them into Harvard, will reap lifelong benefits from their effort.

I have 70 freshmen enrolled in AP Macroeconomics right now, and I’m sure many people would consider that insane. Why work 14- and 15-year-olds that hard? Why push them to learn something they could perfectly well wait to study as 18- or 19-year-olds?

If you could visit my classes, you’d see 70 freshmen thriving, learning, talking about important issues — and finding meaning in their work. (And making Keynesian and Classical paper hats for fun.)

Many Macro students come back and tell me later that this class taught them how to study, taught them how to learn. For too many, it’s the first time they have ever been challenged in their K-12 education. Most value the experience, and not just for their resumes.

But what about the pressure they put on themselves to get into an elite school?

This is where the problem lies. The misguided belief that following a specific recipe or formula will get you into the “best” college. This is what we need to address. Of these 70 Macro students, maybe a handful will get into a highly selective college. Most won’t.

The truth is that every year, more and more highly qualified students are applying for college. (Ask anyone who teaches at a second-tier college, and they’ll tell you the quality of their student body is better than ever. It’s a spillover effect.)

There are just more amazing students than there is space at a few prestigious colleges. So what do we, as educators and parents, do?

I don’t think the answer is to tell our teenagers that none of this matters.

In fact, I think it’s disingenuous to say “it doesn’t matter if you go to Stanford” — and students pick up on that. There are advantages to attending a highly ranked college, like learning from incredible faculty members who are leaders in their fields. Getting recruited by firms like Google. Having roommates with incredible life experiences.

But getting into one of those colleges is about as likely as making it into the NFL or winning a free trip to Europe. Even if you’re highly qualified, it’s just not that likely. It’s not you — it’s them. And it’s not the end of the road.

We need to make sure kids know that and don’t make too much of the expected rejection.

Even more importantly, we need to change the narrative around hard work, discipline, and tenacity in high school.

We need to talk more about why building your knowledge and skills — your human capital — is inherently important, not just as a means to an end.

We need to make sure that when our students are working hard, they are doing work that matters to them and feels meaningful, not just as a letter grade on a transcript.

Hard work probably won’t get you into Harvard, that’s true. No one really knows what will. But hard work will take you a lot of great places in life, and that’s reason enough.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

The grading is the hardest part

(c) Can Stock Photo / thepoeticimage

For all the time we spend talking about assessment, we don’t spend nearly enough of it talking about time. I mean the time it takes to grade everything.

In an ideal world, our work would look like this:

Students learn a new concept, like the flaws of Keynesian fiscal policy.

Students have several opportunities to practice with the concept — for example, graphing crowding out, explaining the net export effect, and analyzing the pro-cyclical behavior of state governments — and receive feedback on their efforts.

Finally, students work on an authentic task, like evaluating the U.S. government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis, which the teacher can assess using a carefully constructed rubric.

At every step in the process, students are given multiple opportunities to show what they know and can do, and the teacher can provide meaningful feedback and, ultimately, a legitimate grade.

It sounds too good to be true — because it is.

I’m teaching part-time (four out of five classes) this semester, and I still have 120 students in my AP Macro and AP Psych classes. When on earth would this all get done? I do like to sleep, eat, exercise and spend time with my family.

In the past week (thanks to my commitment to using authentic assessments and problem-based learning), I’ve received 70 final draft research essays, 30 semester-long psych experiments, and 30 student-made videos explaining psychological disorders. That’s on top of daily formative quizzes and a pile of late work and developing new lesson plans — oh, and I’m giving summative tests in both classes next week.

It’s anxiety producing.

Teachers like me are justifiably skeptical of any innovation that threatens to put even more grading on our plates. What we need are sustainable solutions.

Here are a few tips that have helped me, as I’ve worked to make my assignments more engaging and meaningful — and my grading more useful and accurate.

1 – Keep on top of the little stuff. That means grading any quizzes and homework assignments first every day, just to keep the pile down. It’s good for me, psychologically, to check one thing off the list — even if I know it’s a small thing. And it gives students quick feedback.

2 – Don’t try to grade anything complicated during class. If you think you’re going to get two essays graded while students work on problems, you’re wrong. They’ll have questions, and you’ll get frustrated. Don’t try. You’re better off circulating, encouraging them, and offering targeted help.

3 – Do let students “exchange and grade” on low-stakes formative tasks. In AP Macro, at this time of year, we start class every day with an FRQ. Then we grade them together. Working through the scoring rubric as a class is a key part of their learning, and it saves me time.

4 – Figure out where and when you concentrate best, and save it for the most strenuous tasks. The hardest work I do is grading the research essays. I have to immerse myself in each student’s individual argument, evaluate their evidence, review their sources, and think deeply about their logic. I do this best when I’m cut off from any distractions — like when I’m on a plane or at a hotel. Barring travel, I need to read these at home, as early in the day as possible, with no one else around.

5 – Set reasonable limits. When I’m reading first drafts of essays, I can read six each day. That’s it, and then I set them aside. On second drafts, I can read ten each day. I stick to that. I also set time limits — for example, I won’t work on anything that requires focused thinking after 6 p.m.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the burden of grading. It’s easy to fall behind, leaving students with no meaningful feedback for days or even weeks.

It’s also easy to fix this problem by giving our students less cognitively complex assignments — like only multiple choice assessments. But that’s not preparing them effectively for college or the workplace.

We need solutions that work for us. And now I need to stop writing and dig into today’s batch of essays.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Moving to PBL is a challenging (but worthy) task for teachers

DSC01337.pngChanging the way we teach is hard. At times, almost overwhelmingly hard.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I was invited to sit in with a terrific group of New Richmond, Wisconsin, teachers who are using my book (Beat Boredom) for a book study.

The 20 teachers in the book study are meeting for two hours each week (4 – 6 p.m.) to discuss each interactive teaching strategy, then trying new ideas in their classes. The group includes teachers from a variety of disciplines — from phy ed/health to agriculture to social studies to special ed — and they are clearly passionate about their work.

It was fun to listen as they shared how they had implemented new discussion techniques in their classes in the past week. One said that instead of writing learning objectives for a class discussion of a story, she let students generate the objectives — and they ran with it.

Another got his students to have a calm, reasoned discussion about Parkland, walkouts and gun control by asking students to list “what you are afraid of” and “what you really want” first, so both sides were more vulnerable and willing to listen.

But when we turned to the week’s new topic, Problem-Based Learning, everyone had more questions than answers.

What background information do we need to give kids?

What is the teacher’s role?

What if the students shut down?

What if they just want to listen and do worksheets?

How will we address all of the standards they are supposed to learn?

The research shows Problem-Based Learning, or inquiry-based learning, is one of the most effective ways to engage students and create deep understanding.

But the “how” is a major barrier.

How do I take a class where I’ve always lectured on fiscal policy or inflation calculations or graphing monetary policy, and turn it into some kind of authentic, student-run, real-world inquiry?

How do I — even with all of the reading and practice I’ve done in this area — advise a Spanish teacher or phy ed teacher or special ed teacher on how to do this with their unique content?

As I sat and (mostly) listened, I realized again the enormity of the task at hand. Embracing PBL means stepping back from all of our assumptions about what school looks like. It means letting go of our expectations about who leads, who follows, and how learning happens. It means diving deep into what matters about our curricular area, and having to let go of some things.

Honestly, I felt a little panicked when I wasn’t able to immediately offer suggestions. What would Problem-Based Learning look like in a Spanish 1 or 2 class, when students really just need to build vocabulary? I don’t know.

It wasn’t until I started writing this blog post, today, that I realized the irony here. Why would I, as an outsider, be able to easily solve this implementation problem? If this was easy, if it could be packaged into a curriculum and sold, it would already be happening.

Figuring out how to implement PBL is, in itself, a perfect, messy, real-world problem. The teachers involved are the ones who can and must solve it, just as their students must be the ones solving inquiries in class.

That doesn’t seem like much guidance, but I do have a few suggestions for those struggling with how to implement Problem-Based Learning. My first tip is to step back from your day-to-day curriculum and ask yourself the big questions, like:

  • What questions are  professionals in your discipline trying to answer?
  • What are problems facing society (or your school or your community) that students are interested in solving, and how can they relate to your class or content area?
  • How can your students use the skills they are learning in your class to solve problems they’ll encounter in the future?

These questions help us identify and frame problems for our students, like “Should we raise the minimum wage to $15?” and “Do teens need more sleep?” and “How could you explain a medical problem if you were on vacation in Mexico?” And that’s where we have to start.

My second tip? Don’t try to do it all at once. Think of one unit, or even just one lesson that you can build around an inquiry this year.

Try it, see how it goes, and make it even better next year. That’s what this learning process is all about. And that’s why it takes passionate teachers who are experts in their subject areas, willing to stretch themselves — and willing to work together.

If you want to learn more about using Beat Boredom for a faculty book study, contact Hello@NeverBore.org. 

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush




The teacher’s way is rarely the only way


Last week, I asked a few hundred of my former journalism students:

Did you ever feel like you received an unfair grade in high school? If so, why was it unfair?

I asked them to share their stories with me, and I received just one — from Alistair.

His experience is good food for thought, so I asked him if it was OK to share it, and he said yes.

Here’s Alistair’s grading story:

When I was a freshman in high school, I had a very stubborn math teacher who would consistently fail me on every assignment and test. This wasn’t because I answered the problems incorrectly, but because I almost never solved them “her way”.

The main reason I didn’t follow her exact method was that at the time my ADHD was untreated and I only paid attention to maybe 20% of the class. This led to me teaching myself how to do the math problems, which would very often differ from her ways (which in my opinion were often needlessly convoluted as well).

I would always answer the question correctly and show my work, but she would give me a zero based on the work I showed. Towards the end of the semester I was literally failing the class, however, I aced the final due to it being multiple choice without needing work to be shown. This bumped my grade up to a D- and caught the attention of my dean who later on notified the associate principal.

After the associate principal interviewed me, my grade was changed to what it would have been based solely on correct answers.

I was reminded of this experience when my math professor in college took me aside to discuss the method I used to solve a problem. Rather than treating it like my high school teacher, however, he praised my method, calling it “prestigious” and “very impressive” and encouraged me to continue to find multiple ways to solve his problems.

There’s certainly debate to be had regarding both teaching philosophies, but I’ve learned, especially in culinary school, that the teacher’s method is almost never the only way.

. . .

What strikes me most about Alistair’s story is that it exists outside of our conversations about grading practices. None of the popular new grading methods (which I wrote about last week) addresses this fundamental problem.

The issue here — and I don’t think Alistair’s experience is unique — is that his teacher was assessing him on too narrow a set of skills, rather than on the big picture: his mathematical thinking and reasoning ability. He was being tested on his ability to memorize a procedure, rather than on his ability to generate viable solutions to a problem, which is a far more valuable skill.

The grading mechanism wasn’t “unfair” exactly, but its priorities were wrong.

To be fair, there are many cases where specific procedures must be taught. It wouldn’t benefit my AP Macro students if I let them develop (and stick to) their own method of measuring unemployment. It wouldn’t help our English students if they never learned punctuation rules. We can’t have students doing science labs without safety protocols or the scientific process.

But we need to distinguish between these essential procedures and the lessons where we can, and should, encourage students to reason for themselves instead. Provide them the tools, and they can figure out so much for themselves — it’s the whole basis of Problem-Based Learning.

And then, assess students on their solutions and their deep understanding, rather than their compliance with our ways of thinking.

I know, it sounds difficult or maybe even impossible. But teachers are doing it, and they’re seeing incredible results. (You can read about Jose Garcia’s STEM classes and Mary Chin’s math classes in my book, Beat Boredom.)

The first step is just to realize that your method probably isn’t the only way — and open your mind to what works for your students.

The kids, like Alistair, will thank you. And the grade will be a much more authentic measure of what they know.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

New grading schemes seem logical, but do they improve student learning?

pexels-photo-256417.jpegI have one question for anyone promoting an overhaul of their high school grading system: How will it impact your students’ mindset, motivation, and learning?

OK, maybe that’s three questions wrapped in one. But I feel like these are questions nobody is asking, and I want answers.

If we’re investing time, money and teacher energy changing any aspect of our education system, shouldn’t we be confident of its ultimate impact on student learning?

In the past few years, I’ve been swept along in my district’s movement toward “80/20” (80% of a student’s grade is performance, 20% practice), the school-wide implementation of re-learning and retakes, the elimination of Fs (we’ve replaced them with incompletes), and equal-interval grading (reducing the impact of 0s).

I’ve also read a few books and articles on this subject, and two weeks ago at ASCD, I got to hear the arguments straight from Tim Westerberg, one of the gurus of the standards-based grading movement.

Westerberg, a former principal, is a high-energy, no-holds-barred, persuasive speaker. He’s passionate about getting rid of 0s, removing work habits (and extra credit) from grades that are supposed to measure content knowledge, and encouraging re-assessment.

He doesn’t allow much room for dissent in his presentation, accentuating every point with a loud and resounding: “Right?!?”

I’ll give him credit for this: His arguments had an internal logic and coherence. Of course it makes sense not to give kids points for donating Kleenex. Of course teachers teaching the same class should measure learning consistently. Of course we should encourage students to keep learning and let them prove it (by reassessment) later.

Of course we should do our best to measure understanding, not arbitrary point-getting.

But I still left the session with more questions than answers. (I tried to send them to Westerberg, by the way, but his site just keep processing and never sent the message.)

Here are a few of the questions I jotted in my notes, as I listened:

  • How do students react to an overhauled, standards-based grading system, where everything is assessed as a 1, 2, 3, or 4? Does it change their motivation and performance?
  • How do these ideas align with the growth mindset? (Westerberg actually referred to a student who did poorly in chemistry as a “theatre kid” — which didn’t seem very growth mindset-like to me.)
  • Are you confident that this system can’t be manipulated by teachers who still want to reward good behavior, homework completion, Kleenex boxes, or whatever?
  • How is this system manageable, time-wise? (Some of his rubrics for a single assignment were over a page long, single-spaced.)

My first question (at the top of this post) is the only really important one, though.

How will this change impact students’ mindset, motivation, and learning?

Last week in AP Psych class, my students had a socratic seminar discussion about the growth mindset, IQ, and which one has more impact on success in school, career and life. The students frequently returned to discussing our school’s grading system, especially “80/20” and equal-interval grading, which is being piloted in some classes this year.

There seemed to be a consensus that the 80/20 system, with its emphasis on performance, actually undermines the growth mindset and hurts motivation. They were divided on whether equal-interval grading will help or make things worse.

I know this discussion is purely anecdotal, so I don’t want to read too much into it. Instead, I want to ask the experts: Is there proof that changing the grading system does more than just change the grading system? Will it help build a growth mindset and encourage persistence? Will kids learn more?

Let me be clear: I don’t think Westerberg and others are promoting bad ideas. I don’t think our old ways of assessing students were all that great, and I admire much of the thinking in the new systems. I just worry that we’re all jumping on the “change grading” bandwagon because it’s a relatively easy fix — a cheap change — compared to fixing the things that really impact teaching and learning.

Compared to adopting new teaching strategies, for example, changing the grading system is easy to impose from the top down, very easy to enforce, and if it makes it harder for kids to fail, it looks like it improves student performance. 

But if the payoff isn’t great — if a new grading system doesn’t really produce better student engagement, more motivation and deeper learning — then I’m not sure it’s the place we should be spending our scarce educational dollars. Let’s see the evidence.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Let’s get real about financial literacy



  • 11% of 18- to 25-year-olds have more than 10 checking account overdrafts per year.
  • 40% of Americans spend more than they earn.
  • Nearly 20% of African-American and Latino households are “unbanked” — meaning they’re not part of the formal financial system in this country.


Are you surprised by these stats (from The Unbanking of America)? Or not really?

We’ve been talking about the crisis in financial literacy since before the Great Recession, but we don’t seem to be making any progress. Most studies have found that even when teens take classes in personal finance, it doesn’t translate into real-world adult skills. (See this Fox Business article.)

A few weeks ago, I met several young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds and heard a bit of their stories. They are high school graduates, but they do not have bank accounts or savings. They live in a cash-only world. It’s not just that they don’t understand mortgages or the power of compound interest — they don’t interact with our financial system in any meaningful way.

How is this possible in our country?

Maybe it’s because when we do teach personal finance in high school, we treat it like an academic subject, and it just doesn’t fit. Take a look at many of the financial education resources out there, and you’ll find three commonalities:

1 – The curriculum is one-size-fits-all. Every student is supposed to learn about budgeting, saving, buying insurance, buying a car, planning for retirement. The focus is on vocabulary words and calculations, just like many math classes. There are even multiple-choice tests.

This approach ignores the fact that some of our students have zero financial literacy, and our lectures seem as relevant as trigonometry. I’m not disrespecting trigonometry, but personal finance needs to be grounded in students’ experiences.

If your parents don’t use a bank, own a car, or hope to retire, where do you fit in these lessons?

2 – The lessons are written from a voice of authority. You should have a bank account. You shouldn’t use a payday lender. You should never rely on a credit card for major expenses.

Worse than authority, they border on condescension.

Do you know what it’s like for someone at the poverty line to try to get a bank account? Have you checked recently on minimum balances (and the fees for dipping below), wait times to cash checks, and overdraft fees? What makes perfect sense for middle-class income earners isn’t necessarily good advice for all. (Seriously, read The Unbanking of America)

3 – The lessons lack heart. There’s more to managing money than vocabulary and formulas. People don’t make money “mistakes” because they forgot the compound interest formula.

They overdraw their checking accounts because they need to pay a medical bill — or sometimes, just because they want new shoes.

They don’t fail to open savings accounts because they don’t know what they are. They don’t open savings accounts because they don’t have enough money for the minimum balance, or because the interest rate is 0.01%, or because they’re living on $7.25/hour and don’t have any extra.

No subject needs high student engagement more than financial literacy. We cannot afford not to teach our young adults these skills. They cannot afford not to learn them.

But we need to develop meaningful lessons that demystify the financial system without preaching about it. We need to address students’ questions and needs, not talk at them about upper-middle class savings strategies.

We can help young adults learn important skills like saving, but we need to be smarter about it.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

For students, doing beats listening

people-woman-coffee-meeting.jpgA few weeks ago, I wrote about launching my experiment with “no lecture” AP Macroeconomics this spring.

I should note — I didn’t start this experiment because my students were performing poorly. 61 of my 65 students passed the AP test last year, and nearly all of them were freshmen.

It was a pretty successful class just the way it was.

But it’s also always been an uphill battle, because students seemed to forget what they’d learned from one day to the next, they rarely did any homework, and we spent as much time re-teaching and reviewing every day as we did on new material.

Also, a rather large percentage of students were retaking every unit test, and that was frustrating.

I’d read enough about flipped classrooms, whiteboarding and inquiry learning to think that a new approach was worth trying. And so far, results are very positive.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed in the first four weeks:


  • More students are reading the textbook than ever before. In the past, my students took it for granted that I would tell them everything they needed to know. Now they know that’s not the case, and they actually read.
  • Formative quiz scores are through the roof. Last year, students averaged 60-70% on daily quizzes; this year it’s more like 85-90%. They actually remember what we did the previous day, now that they’re solving problems rather than passively listening.
  • Twelve students earned 92% or above on the first test, compared to five last year.
  • The lowest score on the first test was 54%; last year four students scored lower than that.


An added bonus: I feel less stressed. The planning part is stressful — mostly because I have to go through every lesson and rethink how to construct it. Yuck. That means 1-2 hours of work per hour of class, for a class I had pretty well planned out before.

But during class time, there’s a lot less stress. The students know what they need to do — and they are doing, rather than listening — so there’s a lot less off-task behavior. Fewer phones out, fewer side conversations, and a lot more outward signs of student engagement.

Also, more time for me to help struggling students one-on-one, while they’re in class.

When I do stop and interject a 5-10 minute mini-lecture — for example, explaining Okun’s Law and the connection between potential GDP and the Natural Rate of Unemployment this week — the students actually pay attention. They’re not burned out on listening to me — so I’m no longer Charlie Brown’s teacher.

I won’t prematurely call this a success. We’ve still got three more units and an AP test to get through. But right now, it’s looking like a change for the better.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

What can I even say?

pexels-photo.jpgIt feels ridiculous to write about anything but the Parkland shooting this week. It’s on all of our minds in every single high school in this country, even as we try to keep things normal yet again for our too-vulnerable students.

How could we not think about it when we locked our doors yesterday for a practice lockdown drill? Or when 250 of our students walked out at 10 a.m. yesterday to protest America’s gun laws?

How can we not think about it when we scan our students’ faces today, looking for who is paying attention and who looks disengaged or sad or possibly angry?

And how can we not be proud (especially as social studies teachers), seeing teenagers step up to civic action in the days since this tragedy?

Unfortunately, although this is weighing on all of our minds, I don’t think I have much new or insightful to contribute to this dialog.

I side with those who want more gun control. I don’t believe semi-automatic or automatic weapons should be available for non-military/non-law enforcement purchase. I grew up in a staunchly Republican, pro-Reagan, anti-gun family, and I don’t understand why those views are so incompatible today.

I’m idealistic enough that I still long for the pre-Columbine days, when students were free to walk outside in our courtyard between classes. I won’t arm myself; I’d sooner resign.

I hope we will finally see a turning point with Parkland. I’m afraid we won’t.

That’s really all I can say today.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush