Overwhelmed by exceptions


Cartoon from http://theprocessconsultant.com/ 

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.

Late work IS still a problem


A good friend recently returned to teaching high school, after a long hiatus. Now she’s kind of like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to see how the world around her has changed.

The biggest shock so far, she told me, is the idea that due dates don’t matter much anymore. She can’t wrap her head around it. Why wouldn’t we expect kids to do work on time? How is this better for anyone? Won’t they have to do work on time in the real world?

One of her new colleagues tried to sell her on it, telling my friend: I’m not teaching the standard of their being able to submit things on time.

My friend responded: But can’t there be a reasonable time frame?

Yes, work has to be done by the end of the semester.

With no consequences for being late?

No, not if they met the standard.

Unlike my friend, I’ve lived through the evolution of this policy. But like her, I’m still stumped.

It’s not that I want to penalize kids for late work, and I get that mastering mean, median and mode in November is just as valuable as mastering them in September. I also admit that my old policy — 10% off per day late — was embarrassingly arbitrary.

But it wasn’t completely irrational. I penalized late work because I understand one of the core principles of economics, which is that incentives matter. People respond to incentives, and our students are no exception.

If there is no penalty for turning in work late, then why turn it in on time? My students freely admit that procrastination is one of their biggest problems. They’d always rather do work tomorrow.

There are a few other key problems as well, without even getting into the “real world” argument.

  • We’re trying to instill a growth mindset in our students, trying to encourage them to learn from their mistakes. But there is nothing to learn from if no work is done in the first place. We can’t give valuable feedback on unwritten papers or untaken tests.
  • Let’s be honest. When a student turns something in at the last minute (like in January or June), we are only ever going to give it a cursory read-through. Looks great, looks OK, doesn’t quite cut it. We can’t appropriately attend to student progress if it all happens in the same week.
  • Finally, I think these policies assume a level of pointlessness to our work. If I’m making my students do busywork, then sure, who cares when it gets done? But when I assign my students to design a mock psych experiment, it’s because I know it will help them master terms like “correlation” and “confounding variable” — and they will perform better on their assessment as a result. If they don’t do the assignment until months later, it loses value.

I think we can all agree that meaningful assignments are a whole lot more valuable to students and teachers when they are done on time. The real question we should be wrestling with is: How do we incentivize students to get things done on time?

If we aren’t willing to do it by punishing lateness, then fine, we need a new strategy. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard a good one yet.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Coming soon: Beat Boredom (Stenhouse)

Not your normal school project


Picture a room packed with 35-40 high school students eager to start working on a project, except you, the teacher, have no idea what the project will be.

Will they create pencil cases? T-shirts for school teams?

Will they design an app or a bot or an e-book?

Or will they make jewelry? Car safety kits? Coffee coozies? Public service announcements?

Maybe they’ll make nothing at all.

This is not your typical school assignment. Guiding teenagers — or anyone — through the process of launching a startup is one of the least predictable and most useful things we can do as teachers.

We have no idea where they will end up, and most of the time, their ventures will probably fail, but they will learn much more than they ever could from a textbook or lecture.

In the past few years, my students have started businesses selling the above-mentioned pencil cases, T-shirts, apps, bots and e-books, but that’s no predictor of what this year’s group will do.

At this point, their assignment is simply to interview potential customers and ask questions like:

  • What wasted your time today?
  • Who needed help today?

Next week, the students will narrow the survey responses to a few problems that sound interesting to tackle and begin brainstorming solutions they could develop. It’s all part of the Lean Startup method of entrepreneurship, and it incorporates skills like collaboration, communication, and problem-solving.

It also teaches resilience and a growth mindset, because unlike most school activities, there is no built-in expectation that you have to do it right. It’s all about failing fast — and learning from failure.

For many students, learning entrepreneurship is the most valuable experience they have in high school, and it shapes their outlook on the world. One of my students, Amy, is so sold on entrepreneurship that when she saw senior citizens at her grandma’s residence lacking a sense of purpose, she decided to start an entrepreneurship program for them.

She’s hoping the “seniorpreneurs” she meets though Skyrocket (her brochure is pictured above) will be as motivated by the chance to solve community problems as she is.

Other former students are working on medical devices, apps, fashion and food. There are some limits on what they can do in high school — we don’t let them sell medical products, for example — but once they graduate, the sky is literally the limit.

If you’re interested in cultivating entrepreneurs in your school or community, join NeverBore.org. More information about Teen Startup Trainers — and a sample lesson — will be available to subscribers soon.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Coming in November: Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers

What makes teams work? Ask Google


Google has spent 1000s of hours trying to figure out how to make people work better in teams.

The answer? Teams are most effective when there is “psychological safety” — in other words, everyone feels safe contributing ideas, questioning others (even the boss), and sharing problems.

In the best teams, people feel free to offer the most outlandish, ambitious ideas — and they are not shot down. Also, everyone contributes more or less equally.

The same holds true in our classrooms. If we create “psychological safety” for our students, they are more likely to contribute to discussions, more likely to ask questions and more likely to seek help — and they will be more effective learners.

How can we do it? Many students have a natural adversity to speaking up. They don’t want to be wrong. They don’t want to be laughed at. They don’t want to be the center of attention. And often, they lack confidence that they have anything meaningful to say.

And we teachers have a natural reluctance to embrace teams — because we assume students learn best alone, like we did back in the day.

We can overcome these barriers, but we have to start early each semester, and we have to be consistent. Here’s how:

1 – Involve every student right away. Call on every student by name as often as possible — the ones you don’t call on will automatically feel less valued and engaged.

2 – If students are shy about answering, let them discuss questions with a partner or in a small group first. Then, when they answer, they know someone has their back.

3 – Seat students in small teams of 2, 3 or 4. Individual seats all pointing forward does not create a collaborative environment.

4 – Encourage divergent thinking. Ask questions that have multiple answers, rather than one right answer. Start class with a question each day — not something irrelevant like “what’s your favorite TV show” but something related to your content, like “what’s the worst survey question you can think of?”

5 – Create a playful environment, where it’s OK to laugh at and even celebrate mistakes. It’s actually more fun and more productive to be in a workplace where people are comfortable enough together to laugh, but that means everyone has to be vulnerable — starting with us.

By the way, Google also found that an effective team of medium-skilled employees will outperform a dysfunctional team filled with superstars.

Our students don’t learn in isolation; they learn in a social setting. We need to create the setting that lets them shine together.


Do SMART goals limit teachers’ vision?

canstockphoto19982029Writing SMART goals — “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound” — is now a fall rite of passage for public school teachers, right up there with crafting a syllabus, assigning seats and putting up bulletin boards.

This process always strikes me as perfunctory. Do SMART goals really get us anywhere? Or is this just another exercise in jumping through hoops?

As it turns out, SMART goals aren’t as useful as we are led to believe. The funny thing is, GE pioneered SMART goals in the early 1980s, and by the late 1980s — long long before they made their way into public education’s acronym collection — GE already knew there were flaws.

When specific GE divisions were having problems, setting SMART goals did not help.

What is good about SMART goals is that they force us to make plans, rather than just hold vague aspirations like, “I want all my students to be self-disciplined and successful.”

The bad news is that they produce a lot of trivial goals, and they don’t push us to think outside the box much. By 1990, Gary Latham (who helped create SMART goals) wrote that they “can cause [a] person to have tunnel vision.”

In other words, we become obsessed with checking off our short-term goals, like 1% improvement, and lose sight of the big picture, like our massive achievement gap.

In 1993, Jack Welch decided GE needed to embrace “audacious” goals in addition to the smaller, process-oriented SMART goals. These audacious goals are, by definition, so ambitious that you can’t possibly set a timeline or describe specific steps.

These are goals like “I’m going to get these struggling readers to read and understand Shakespeare” or “The students in the remedial math class will make two years’ progress this year.”

How are goals like this even useful? It seems to contradict we’ve been told about goal-setting.

Audacious goals can work because they force us to rethink everything. For example, at one GE plant described in the book Smarter, Better, Faster, the aircraft manufacturing division set a goal of reducing errors by 70%. It seemed impossible, but within six years they had up-ended their processes — changing organizational charts, rewriting job duties, revising the hiring process — and reduced errors by 75%.

Audacious goals can drive us to make serious, lasting improvements if we sincerely commit to them, even when we’re not sure how or when they will be attainable. Once we set them, then it’s time to set smaller SMART goals — always with an eye to the “audacious” end game.

This is what we should be talking about at the beginning of the school year. Not little goals that let us off the hook, but audacious goals that might force us to rethink what we do.

Intimidating? Yes. But so much more powerful.

Let’s get serious about stereotype threat


It’s been 20 years since Steele and Aronson first published their work on “stereotype threat,” demonstrating that we are profoundly influenced by internalized cultural stereotypes about ourselves.

Since then, more than 300 peer-reviewed experiments have found similar results. Time and time again, we find that individuals perform worse in school, limit their career options and often make bad decisions – in reaction to stereotyped expectations about their race, gender, age, nationality and other characteristics.

Reading the book Mindwise (Nicholas Epley) this summer reminded me of stereotype threat — and made me wonder why we as educators don’t talk more about it when we work on strategies to overcome the achievement gap.

I suspect it’s because we don’t really believe it’s true, no matter what the research tells us.

If you never read the original research, or don’t remember, the quick version is this:

When researchers called attention to race, African-American college students did worse on a test than their white peers. When race was not emphasized, they performed as well as white students. Calling attention to race was as simple as asking the students to fill out a demographic survey before taking the test — or even telling the students it was an “ability” test, which triggered stereotypes about “inherent” intelligence.

I remember reading this in 1995 and being shocked. If you’re not similarly shocked today, try this study (quoted in Mindwise):

“[The study] measured the aging stereotypes of 229 volunteers who were 18 to 39 years old and then tracked their health histories for 38 years. At the end of the study, 56% of those with negative stereotypes about the elderly (measured 38 years before) had suffered a major cardiovascular event (mainly heart attack or stroke) compared to only 18% of those who had positive elderly stereotypes.”

If you’re tempted to minimize the impact of stereotypes on students — “Oh, surely they can overcome it!” — it’s humbling to realize that our internal stereotypes about aging are this powerful. You can literally stereotype yourself into having a heart attack.

If stereotype threat is that powerful, we really need to start addressing it in our schools. The million-dollar question is: How?

One way is by confronting it head on — making sure students understand how negative stereotypes impact them, so they can cognitively confront them. (We talk about this in AP Psych.) But that alone is not enough, because our minds aren’t tricked that easily.

Another way is to be intentional about not triggering stereotypes. While we need to recognize students’ individual differences, we must take care not to make students self-conscious about their race, gender, age, cultural background, etc. — a delicate balancing act for teachers.

We can also avoid triggering stereotypes about academic ability by assuring our students that all of our tests (even the ACT and SAT) measure effort – not inherent ability. This fits with our effort to develop a growth mindset in all of our students.

We also need to provide role models and student exemplars that reflect our diverse student bodies. This way, we can subtly show our students that people “like them” have achieved success in our disciplines. If all economists are white males, what young woman thinks she has a chance? (Yes, this has been studied, too.)

Finally – it goes without saying – we can help overcome stereotype threat by building relationships with our students and treating them all as individual human beings. When students know we see them as individuals, they are less likely to think of themselves in stereotypical terms.

What we cannot do is continue to ignore the power of stereotype threat or the impact it has on our students or ourselves. We need to believe what the data is showing us — and act on it.

Are we ready for student speech?


“Do you think high school students have the same right to free speech as adults?”

This warmup question, which I used for years as an introduction to teaching Tinker v. Des Moines to my Civil Liberties classes, sparked a heated discussion among teachers at a workshop I led earlier this week.

No issue is more on teachers’ minds right now – as we head back to school — than how to deal with the fallout of Charlottesville and the increasing exposure of neo-Nazi and white supremacist speech in our public spaces.

What do we do if a student shows up in class displaying a swastika?

What about a Confederate flag?

How can we facilitate conversation in social studies class, when one student’s “political” opinion is that other students don’t belong here?

How do we require tolerance and sensitivity toward other students, when parents might accuse us of a “liberal agenda”?

There are no easy answers. I’ve always believed student speech in public schools deserved broad protection and that we benefit from talking to people whose opinions are different from our own — rather than silencing them — but I’ve never been in a situation like this.

I’ve spent countless hours over the past 20 years explicitly teaching teenagers how to have civil conversations about sensitive topics like abortion and same-sex marriage and religion, but I’ve never had to deal with a student claiming a free speech right to express hatred. For the most part, until now, social norms were enough to stop them.

What do we do? How do we treat student speech in this new climate? I think Tinker is exactly where we should start.

When we immerse students in the facts of that particular case, which involved high school students (Mary Beth and John Tinker pictured, plus three others) wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War in 1965, we give them the opportunity to engage in a valuable meta-conversation about the power of speech itself. It forces them to step back from the highly charged public shouting match and think.

In my lesson, students are arbitrarily assigned to represent the Tinkers or the Des Moines public school district, and each side is provided with enough facts and court precedents to make effective points. They have 10 minutes to prepare, 3 minutes to argue, and 2 minutes to rebut (which, of course, requires listening to the other side).

In that short time, students quickly realize that the issue is much more complicated than “It’s my right to say what I want!” They realize they have to consider the school’s obligation to protect all students and promote education, the potential disruption speech can cause, and the responsibility that comes with a speaker’s rights.

When we read the court’s opinion – the second part of the lesson — they also realize that a school isn’t the same as a public park or street, that what is acceptable in one venue (what we see on TV) isn’t necessarily OK at school – no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on. These are important starting points for shaping our discussion norms in class.

As we head back to school this fall, we need to make our classrooms safe places for students to discuss ideas, but we also need to make them safe places for all of our students to be. It’s going to be difficult to achieve both these goals, especially in schools with diverse student bodies.

We need to be ready.

My lesson on Tinker v. Des Moines will be distributed to NeverBore.org subscribers tomorrow. If you’re interested, go to NeverBore.org and sign up.

A solution – or a new problem?


Yesterday, I received an email from “R” saying a parent was requesting that I join 55 other teachers at my school who are “already using Remind.”

This struck me as odd. Was the request really from a parent? (“R” came with no last name or email address.) Are parents demanding this, or is it clever marketing? Will it become an expectation at my school?

I know about Remind. It’s not a scam. It’s a relatively new app that makes it easy for teachers to text reminders to parents and students about upcoming assignments and tests – as well as text specific parents when their kids are struggling. It’s a smash hit in the ed tech world.

A few months ago, I heard an NPR report explaining how student attendance, assignment completion and even test scores improved in trial high-poverty schools when they used Remind. I don’t remember the details, but my overall impression was favorable.

Remind seemed to work – where websites, online access to grades and other forms of communication did not – because it did not require email or internet access, which many of the families did not have. That makes sense.

But what about in schools where students and parents do have email and internet access? Is there really an added benefit when kids and parents can already access this information with a few keystrokes? I’m already using gradebook-generated email, Gmail, a Moodle site, postcards, letters, phone calls and, of course, face-to-face conversations to communicate with families.

I can already hear the groundswell of support: Why shouldn’t we also use Remind? What could possibly be wrong with over-communicating? If there’s even a chance it will help, why not?

That sentiment is persuasive, and yet… I believe there is a real risk in over-supporting our kids.

Last weekend I had a long conversation with a friend who is a college professor; she was lamenting the number of college freshmen she sees crash and burn when the high school supports are removed. The more we do for them, she says, the less they learn to do for themselves. Eventually, that is a problem. An expensive one, when it means failing college classes.

I’m not denying that teenagers need help with organization, assignment tracking and so forth. Of course they do. What I am saying that we need to teach them these organizational skills, rather than just taking over and bypassing this learning opportunity.

When I was in high school, I learned how to record assignments and test dates in a planner. I also learned to write especially important stuff on my left hand. Today, kids can still do that. Or they can set up a Google calendar with reminders for themselves. Or they can check online class calendars. Or text a friend. Or check their class Facebook group. Or snap a picture of the assignment board.

Instead, we keep creating ever more passive mechanisms to allow them to get through high school without having to organize themselves. I think that’s a bad idea.

At some point in the next few weeks, I’ll have to make a decision about whether to use Remind. The easy choice will be to say yes – because, honestly, why fight it?

But I think we need to proceed with caution. We have to figure out how to ease our teenagers off of these supports as they move through high school, not just create more of them.

Maybe freshmen need this, but by the time they graduate, students don’t need Remind. What they do need is a system to “remind” themselves. And they will never create one if we keep doing it for them.