Will later start times = more sleep? We’re going to find out.

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Will a later start time help our high school students get more sleep, foster better academic performance and reduce rates of anxiety and depression?

I think so. But a few weeks ago, I was championing our school’s new start times — the first bell now rings at 8:35 a.m. instead of 7:25 a.m. — and an anonymous (but local) Twitter follower challenged me.

S/he responded: I’m highly skeptical: A) that the majority get more sleep, B) that its enough to make a difference. c) prepares students for College/real-world expectations.

Also: How about as a class project this year you have students track the times they go to bed and wake up. I’m more than confident that the results will show a net-gain of ZERO additional sleep time.

I responded with a few comments about the research and my sons getting more sleep in college, and s/he responded with concerns about laziness and divisive change before we agreed to disagree.

But the good news from this story is that I already have such a project — and two years of baseline data.

In AP Psychology, my students track their bedtime, total night’s sleep, caffeine use, and sleepiness ratings for 11 days, starting on a Thursday in January. They submit their averages to a Google form, so I have the numbers on 110 students from 2017 and 2018.

And here’s what the data says:

  • My students’ average bedtime was 11:22 p.m., with 7 reporting an average bedtime before 10 p.m. and 40 after midnight.
  • My students’ average night’s sleep was 7 hours, and this included two weekends.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Nationwide Children’s Hospital says exactly 9-¼ hours is best. While 36 of my students reported an average of 8 hours or more (again, including four weekend days), only 11 reached an average of 9 hours during the sample period.

In short: Only 10 percent of students were getting the recommended average amount of sleep over an 11-day period. That’s horrible. It sure explains the glazed-over eyes in first hour.

Does the new start time mean anything will change? That’s the million dollar question.

It’s possible, of course, that students will just stay up later, as my detractor argued. But let’s consider what we were asking of them, under the old start time.

Last year, buses picked high school kids up at 6:30 a.m., so most were getting up around 6 a.m. to shower, dress and grab a bite.

Do the math. To get 9-¼ hours of sleep on a school night, they would have had to go to bed at 8:45 p.m. Say what you will about how late teens stay up, but that’s laughable. High school sporting events on weeknights seldom end before 9 p.m. And we know adolescent bodies aren’t ready to fall asleep that early.

We were setting them up for failure.

I hope this year’s students realize what a gift they’ve been given — and don’t take it for granted. I hope they are willing to turn off their devices and sleep the extra hour, so they reap the benefits in focus, mental health, physical health and academics.

If not, at least we know it will be their choice now, rather than the inevitable consequence of our policies.

I’ll share the results in January, when we finish this year’s Teens & Sleep lesson. It’s a small sample size, but it’s a start.

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

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Relationships: Necessary but NOT sufficient for student learning

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“They don’t care what you know until they know you care.”

“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

“Great teachers focus not on compliance but on connections and relationships.”

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

It’s that time of year when the teacher-web is heating up with inspirational reminders that we have to build relationships with the kids we teach.

Well, duh.

But what does that mean, exactly?

It’s easy to define the opposite — a lack of relationship. Here are a few illustrative examples of what NOT to do:

  • Don’t bother to learn kids’ names, or mispronounce them
  • Ignore children in distress
  • Never allow students to question you or your methods
  • Tease and belittle kids who don’t meet your standards

You get the gist. If you behave like this, you shouldn’t set foot in a 21st Century classroom. Find another career.

But knowing what not to do doesn’t mean we therefore know what to do.

Building authentic, supportive and (to quote Zaretta Hammond) “warmly demanding” relationships with our students is hard work. Just like building real adult relationships. It takes time to build trust, establish clear channels of communication, clarify expectations and learn from one another.

Unfortunately, many teachers — feeling pressured by calls to simply “build relationship first” — slip into “get students to like me” mode. After all, they’ll learn from me if they like me, right? (Again, the transitive property doesn’t apply here.)

Here’s what we do in a misguided attempt to build relationships by currying favor:

  • Neglect to hold students accountable for behavior or learning
  • Spend class time chatting and socializing rather than fostering learning
  • Offer too-easy, feel-good assignments to inflate student grades
  • “Friend” students on social media

These teacher behaviors can make you popular with students, and they do build a kind of relationship, but they are not what our students need from us.

Our students need us to model curiosity and enthusiasm about learning. They need us to challenge them to take on increasingly difficult tasks, so they will build important skills like writing, calculating, reasoning and public speaking. They need us to unlock access to future careers, by helping them set goals and work toward them. They need us to hold them accountable.

When we forget our critical role and become our students’ friends instead of their teachers, we miss the opportunity to expand their knowledge, ignite their passions, build their resilience and create more opportunities for themselves in the future.

I know many of us become teachers because we like kids. That’s good. But our job is so much bigger than getting them to like us in return.

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

Let’s stop emphasizing ‘nice’ for girls

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What is your first response when someone makes an unreasonable request of you?

  • Hell no!
  • With all due respect, a firm no
  • No, but… (feeling guilty)
  • OK, I guess I’ll do it

Be honest. Is it easy to stand up for yourself, or do you hem and haw and feel guilty later?

This might surprise people who know me, but I’m in the “No, but…” camp. I’ll say no, but I’ll stew about it and question myself and wish that I could somehow find a way to appease the person. I think this is part of growing up female in this culture.

To be clear, I’m not talking about #metoo situations or anything that rises to the level of harassment. Just irritating requests, like, “I can’t come to parent night Thursday, so can I just meet with you Wednesday at 6 instead?”

My ambivalence annoys me — why would I feel bad about saying no to this? — and it worries me when I think about young women in our culture.

Objectively, I can look at these situations — a parent demands that I make a ridiculous exception for her son, a company offers me unacceptably low pay for contract work, a family member asks for a truly inconvenient favor — and see that the only rational response is “no”.

But like many women, I grew up wanting to be “nice”, wanting to please people — so voicing my refusal causes agony. I don’t remember my mom or dad ever telling me to be this way, but I also never saw my mom confront anyone or assert herself.

In any case, I think this goes well beyond our individual parental role models. Even if my mom had encouraged me to take a stand, never undervalue myself, and refuse to feel guilty, I’m not sure her message could have overcome our societal preference for niceness in girls. Just last week, a colleague shared this article with me, revealing that likeability matters more than GPA or alma mater for women job-seekers. Argh.

Being a nice yes-person has its advantages, of course, especially in the education field. Teachers are not generally rewarded for being confrontational, and it’s not like we ever have to ask the boss for a raise or a promotion. Go along and get along, and you can survive a long time in public education.

But despite the research on new job seekers, an overwhelming desire to be nice doesn’t work very well in business (as I’m learning) or politics, and it’s not a great mindset to pass on to our daughters.

You don’t become a successful entrepreneur by letting people walk over you. You don’t become an effective lawyer by backing down in negotiations. You won’t make a medical breakthrough if you’re not willing to step on a few toes.

I don’t have a daughter, but if I did I would talk about this with her all the time.

Instead, I’ll keep working to instill in my female students the self-confidence that I don’t feel in myself. And I’ll hope that when some future boss, friend, or family member make ridiculous requests of them, they’ll be able to say “no” without feeling a twinge of guilt.

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

 

Our students want to do work — when it’s work that matters

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I love this story from last week’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune about North High students presenting research on social issues at a recent University of Minnesota symposium.

One student presented his research on police brutality. Another her work on disparate maternal mortality rates for black women. Other topics included domestic abuse, poverty and immigration.

The students surveyed their peers, researched the problems, and proposed their own solutions.

The article points out: This was “a rare opportunity for the students — mostly freshmen — to make their work for an audience rather than just for a grade.”

This is incredibly important and far too rare.

One of the best ways we can hook students — especially adolescents who feel disenfranchised — is to give them the chance to do authentic work, tackling real-world problems they care about. Then let them share their work with the world.

In research for my book, Beat Boredom, I found many incredible examples of this kind of work.

Students conducting their own inquiries into the quality of their local soil and water supplies.

Students (even in youth detention facilities) learning farm-to-table food preparation.

Students creating documentary films, collecting community history through interviews, founding their own service-learning ventures, developing underwater robots that can remove oil from a shipwreck.

In every case, the students were deeply motivated by the chance to do “authentic” work. And yet, these learning experiences still merit newspaper headlines because they are too few and far between.

If you’re not convinced this kind of work is valuable, consider the Academy of Information Technology and Robotics in Florida. The school recruited low-performing students and taught them all of their subject matter through six-week team challenges.

In one challenge based on the television series CSI, students learned about DNA, as well as learning trigonometry to help with blood spatter analysis, physics to help with bullet trajectories, and the history of the FBI.

At the end of every unit, students presented their findings to community members who work in related fields. By the end of freshman year, these students were surpassing their peers in other county schools; 97 percent scored in the midrange or above on the ninth-grade biology exam.

So don’t just read the North High story and smile and think of this teacher in isolation. Think about what we can do every day in our classrooms to make student learning both relevant and real. Think about how we can design science experiments, writing assignments and research projects that get our students out of the classroom and into their communities.

If we want our students to care about learning, we need to give them important problems to tackle. Not some day – but now.

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

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

 

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  • 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

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

Not giving up on homework yet

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When I first started teaching in 1994, assigning homework was a no-brainer. It was part of the Madeline Hunter model — “independent practice” — and part of preparing high school students for independent learning in college.

It’s also how I was taught. In high school in the ’80s, I spent hours each night doing math problems, reading literature, writing up lab reports and doing whatever else my teachers had cooked up.

I always had homework, and I can’t say I liked it — but I didn’t really question it.

Fast-forward to 2018, and homework is no longer as popular or universally accepted. In fact, it’s under assault from many directions as “pointless,” “anxiety-provoking,” “inequitable” and “an infringement on family time.”

Some school districts are even banning homework (although most of the extreme efforts are focused on elementary classrooms).

Yet, the most comprehensive study (from 2006) found a positive correlation between homework and student achievement. And my anecdotal classroom observations suggest that high school students do, in fact, learn from the effort they put in at home.

How else to explain that my “Hybrid” AP Microeconomics students can succeed on the AP test (and intermediate college classes), when 80% of their learning is literally homework?

I can’t really wrap my head around the idea that homework isn’t beneficial, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

The three major critiques I’ve heard about homework during this school year are:

1 – Homework is contributing to a growing epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression among high school students.

2 – Homework worsens the achievement gap, since disadvantaged students are more often unable to complete homework, thus falling further behind.

3 – Homework is not effective practice, because the gap between learning the material and doing homework is too long. (See last week’s post on forgetting.)

These are all potential concerns, enough to make me rethink homework. So let’s look a little more closely at each one.

#1 (stress) may be true, but I have not seen enough evidence that homework is a major factor causing higher stress levels. (See my previous post on mental health.) Brookings Institute research shows that high school students today aren’t doing any more homework than earlier generations did — and the average amount is just one hour per night. A massive survey of college freshmen found they spent more time socializing, playing sports and working during high school than doing homework. And let’s not even talk about the time they spend on phones and social media.

#2 (equity) is almost certainly true, but it’s evidence for both sides. The reason homework worsens the achievement gap is because it helps the kids who do it learn more. This is a thorny issue. We need to provide equitable opportunities to students, but if our efforts cause all students to learn less, that doesn’t seem right. It also doesn’t seem like a good idea, when we face global competition. We need a more nuanced solution than just “no homework.”

#3 (forgetting) is certainly true for some students, especially those who do not take notes. If I introduce a concept like “supply shifters” in class and assign practice problems, but some students have already forgotten the shifters eight hours later, then it’s not really effective practice. Still, research on learning shows that the more times you retrieve new information, the stronger connections your brain builds (see Make it Stick). So we really should be giving our students multiple opportunities to review and apply new material in a day.

So what should we do? What kind of guidance is there? 

I don’t think the answer is to ban homework, or even to place arbitrary time limits on it in high school. (If students procrastinate, which most do, some nights it is going to pile up.)

I think the answer is to think deeply about what we are asking students to do outside of class and be careful that we’re not piling on busy work, just to make ourselves feel “rigorous.” We need homework assignments (like lessons) that are thoughtful, engaging and manageable — and that actually help students meet our goals for them.

A few challenging (but not impossible) problems, a written reflection on the day’s learning/activities, a video introducing a new topic, a step in the process of a larger project, a review of new vocabulary words — these all seem like worthwhile uses of students’ time at home.

So I’m going to go into the new semester next week continuing to assign homework — but being more mindful of not overwhelming my students or wasting their time. I suspect the benefits will continue to outweigh the costs.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

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Living the 1970s dream: A lesson in critical thinking

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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.