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

 

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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.

 

Overwhelmed by exceptions

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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.

Are we ready for student speech?

marybethjohntinker

“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.