The Final Entry

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I regularly watch the first thirty minutes of Sunday Morning on CBS while I prepare for church each week. It’s generally an informative and upbeat program  with interesting human interest stories that make me think or laugh or even cry. This past Sunday featured a segment on a young girl named Alexandra who had committed suicide by throwing herself off of an overpass bridge. After her body was found her parents also became aware of journals that she had kept that were filled with vivid descriptions of the angst that drove her to kill herself.

Up until the moment of the gruesome discovery of Alexandra and her diaries nobody, not even her parents or her closest friends, had any idea that she was so troubled. She appeared to be a happy successful high school junior with a sweet smile and a joyful laugh that filled her parent’s world with a feeling of being especially blessed. She was an A student who was so well liked by her classmates that they had elected her to one of the class offices. She wanted to major in engineering in college and to that end she belonged to the school robotics team that had only recently qualified for the international finals. She was a favorite of her teachers, one of whom indicated that she was possibly the number one or number two student that he had ever taught in his twenty years in the classroom. What nobody seemed to know was how desperate and worthless Alexandra actually felt.

She had a checklist of things she needed to accomplish to get in M.I.T., her dream school. She was striving to be the valedictorian of her class and to score high on entrance exams. In her journals she confessed that she felt as though she was a failure, valueless, unmotivated and unhappy. She hid her worries and her depression from her parents even though she spent time lots with them and talked openly with them about her life and her aspirations and her feelings, only what she told them was far different from what she recorded on paper. Everyone saw her as one of those extraordinary teenagers that every parent and educator hopes to have, while she saw herself  as a hopeless loser.

Alexandra’s English teacher, like her parents, was stunned by her death. He still wonders what signs he might have missed that would have allowed him to help his beloved student. So also was the school counselor who had never sensed the depths of Alexandra’s desperation. Her best friends were also left wondering how their pal had managed to hide her feelings from everyone. She was a golden girl in everyone’s eyes the lines in the notebooks described how overwhelmed she actually was.

I have spent the majority of my life advocating for care for those afflicted with mental illness and for the students that I have taught.  I have often uncovered problems with my pupils before they escalated to a point from which there might have been no return. I used my observational skills to ascertain that one of my students was self harming herself. I saw another student’s outbursts not as disregard for authority, but a cry for help. I was particularly good at ferreting out the truth behind student behaviors of all sorts, but there were still moments when I missed all of the signs. Those times were particularly difficult because I truly cared for all of kids, even those who gave me grief. They were like my children and I wanted to be a person of understanding and compassion for them, but sometimes my they were hiding the truth of their feelings from me and everyone else. They put on Academy Award level performances designed to hide the pain that they were feeling.

I suppose that the key to really knowing a person comes in keeping the lines of communication wide open. Teens and young adults need to know without reservation that it is safe to ask for help, admit mistakes, discuss worries. Adults need to ask themselves if even the students who appear to be handling challenges are pushing themselves too much. As parents and teachers we must continually have discussions regarding how much work/life balance our youngsters have. As a team we can indeed work to alleviate some of the pressures and fears that plague their journeys to becoming adults. We can start with very frank discussions and a willingness to really listen between the lines to what our kids are telling us. They need to know that we do not expect perfection and that erring is not failure but an opportunity to learn, We must be certain that we are not making them feel trapped in a whirlwind of unreasonably high expectations.

Years ago Rice University, sometimes known as the Harvard of the south, was the suicide capitol of universities. The numbers of students killing themselves was so dramatically high as to cause the board of directors to ask what the reasons might be. They found that the university in general focused almost exclusively on competition and grades with little or no regard for social skills and psychological health. Brilliant students were continually made to feel inadequate as they were quantified and ranked and pushed beyond their endurance. It was only after dramatic efforts were made to help students to achieve a realistic balance of work and pleasure that the rate of self inflicted deaths began to drop. Not long ago the university was even named as one of the happiest  campuses in the country, an honor that spoke to the hard work of truly concerned educators who had worked together to find ways of developing the whole individual.

Alexandra’s parents have made their daughter’s writing public. They lecture at high schools  and parent meetings. Their advice is that we must be watchful of every young person for signs that our systems are devouring them. They believe that if their daughter’s tragic story saves even one more life her words will not have been in vain.

Alexandra’s final entry was addressed to her parents. She insisted that they not blame themselves. Of course as loving parents they do, as is also true of everyone who loved this precious girl.

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When the Rich Get Richer

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I’m livid about the college admissions scandal that is rocking the nation with its accusations of cheating by moneyed parents in order to obtain spots for their children. As an educator I am appalled but not really surprised by the idea that wealthy families are buying their way into prestigious universities. The whole affair speaks to monumental problems with the way things work in the acceptance process for schools and it addresses the pressures that our college bound students are facing, particularly when they lack influence or financial backing. As far as I am concerned this story reveals only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg and a societal problem that we have generally refused to discuss openly. There is something very wrong with the way things presently work and it is hurting everyone of us.

Right now suicides and attempts at suicide are at an all time high among high school and college age students. It’s a complex issue with so many facets that narrowing it down to just one thing is ludicrous. Nonetheless we have to consider the pressures to attend the top universities as one of the reasons that our kids are so anxious. The almighty class ranks and test scores are dominating their teen years. High schools are no longer ranked just by the number of graduates but also by the number of students taking advanced placement classes, the scores of students on the various tests, the number of students being accepted into universities and the supposed quality of the university admissions.

To get to the pinnacle of their high school careers students are carrying almost impossible study loads and being urged to compliment their academic achievements with participation in sports, extra curricular activities, and community service. Our kids are leaving their homes before dawn, arriving back home after dark and studying into the wee hours of the night so that they might receive acceptance letters from the most coveted schools. They are continually challenged  and ranked and asked to perform better and better. The idea of personal bests pushes them to the point of exhaustion and steals away time with their families. Little wonder that so many are crashing and burning. Few adults work as many hours without relaxation as so many of our high school students presently do just so they will rank high enough, score high enough  and perform well enough to one day gain admittance to one to a top university.

We’ve always known that wealthy families buy buildings, support athletic programs and serve on collegiate boards expecting payback in the form of special treatment for their children. I suppose I don’t have to mention the names of famous people who graduated from Ivy League universities without seeming to have had the intellect to do so. Money has always talked, but the new schemes are particularly egregious. How many worthy students have languished on a waiting list while a less qualified but rich son or daughter of a scion has been welcomed to a big name school with open arms?

Given the revelations of cheating what are we to tell the students who are genuinely attempting to demonstrate their worth? How do we convince them that the deck isn’t stacked against them before they even try? Furthermore, why are we as a society so convinced that the diplomas from the more highly regarded schools are worth more than others?

I’m a graduate of the University of Houston and quite proud of the education that I received there. I had the grades and the chops to attend the more elite schools but as the child of a single parent I did not have the resources or connections to be able to afford attending such places. I happily commuted from home each day and learned from some incredible professors who worked hard to inspire me. I was a Summa Cum Laude graduate who had won several academic honors. I quickly learned after landing my first job that what counted most was the quality of my work. No body ever again wanted to know where I had earned my degree, what my GPA had been, or whether or not I had earned honors. As far as my employers were concerned my performance each day was of the most importance, and I worked hard to earn their respect. That was all that really mattered.

There have always been individuals whose lives were set for success even before they went to school. The influence of their families has been their key to getting and staying in high paying jobs. The rest of us have to work our way to the top, but I wonder if starting that grind too early can have devastating effects on the overall development of our young. There is a time and a season for everything and if we join the rat race too soon we will eventually burn out. We have to learn how to find balance in our lives, so why are we pushing our students to levels of dedication that are unhealthy both physically and mentally? Do we not understand that wide scale cheating is a symptom that should tell us that something is very wrong?

I recall conversations with high school teachers about preparing students for college and beyond. What few high school educators note is that university students are not stuck in a classroom for seven to eight hours a day and then given enormous amounts of homework, research projects, and papers to write in the hours when they are at home. In college there may be three or four hours of class time each day with many more hours to complete course requirements. If the students wants to participate in extra curricular activities they can, but that is not forced on them. In other words, college presents a far easier schedule than most of today’s high schools do.

It’s time that we adults speak up for our young, and speak out against the practices of testing companies, admission policies, grading systems, continual ranking and other processes that are wreaking havoc with our teens. Learning should be our focus, not competition. The experience should be joyful and meaningful, not a source of stress. Until we repair the damage that has been done we no doubt will continue to see greedy individuals taking advantage of the gaming nature of the system. So far fifty people have been implicated in the latest scandal. Something tells me that the real number is in the thousands or perhaps the hundred thousands. We are sending our young a horrible message and we have to change that now. 

Learning Is A Beautiful Thing

img_0026A young woman that I know rightly noted that learning is a beautiful thing, and in the same breath wondered why our methods for conveying it garner such anxiety. We have somehow managed to take one of the loveliest aspects of being human and turned it into what is often an onerous competitive blood sport. In today’s world education is all too often a numbers game in which young people who are still developing are ranked and classified in life changing rituals that sometimes have the effect of changing the course of their destinies. It is a process that affects not only our students but also our teachers and our society. The attempts to quantify the learning process has ignored the more subtle aspects of people, and instead stamped them with life changing numbers that have the power of affecting where they will eventually work and how they will live.

The idea of joyful learning has become secondary to test scores and grades, often wringing the joy of schooling out of the equation. The message that we send our young is that education is a numbers game overseen by mega testing corporations and the College Board. The test is the thing, and those who learn in ways contrary to mastery of often trivial and subjective standardized questions need not apply. All too often the difference between an opportunity to follow a dream and condemnation to a lifetime of frustration is found in a rigid reliance on numbers, even as we somehow know that such things are incapable of truly determining the worth of someone’s talents.

As a small girl I was repulsed by situations that ranked me and my fellow students. The teacher who created a bulletin board with rockets bearing our names to identify those who were soaring to the moon versus those who crashed and burned at takeoff became loathsome in my mind. I understood that I knew how to please her, but that others also had great but different gifts to offer. I suppose that living with my brothers had taught me about the ways in which we grow and develop, not at a constant and linear rate, but in a kind of spiral with stops and starts. One of my brothers had a brilliant mathematical mind that was far advanced over the rest of us. He knew what he wanted to do with his life from the time that he was five. My other brother and I drifted here and there. As a people pleaser I was able to convince my teachers that I was indeed quite intelligent, but only by towing the line that they required of me. My little brother was more rebellious and thus often considered less likely to be successful. The truth was that he had a complex and creative mind that would eventually prove to be exactly what an entrepreneur needs.

Today the pressure to conform to the numbers game is more intense than ever. Students are ranked from the first day of high school. They are told that class standing and scores on entrance exams will determine whether or not they are allowed to enter the most prestigious universities and majors. They battle for the top spots by adding premium points to their GPAs with countless advanced placement classes. They worry about every little test, every rise or dip in their grades. They take courses to learn how to be better test takers. They eschew subjects that sound interesting or fun because they might cause them to fall in the ranks. Often they lose the joyfulness of learning in the process of pursuing their goals. School becomes an odious task that must be endured so that the future will be bright.

Even when they reach the hallowed halls of a favored university they may find themselves once again being sorted into the stars and the also rans. Competitions for internships and jobs are based more on grades than personalities and the kinds of traits that cannot possibly be measured with numbers. A single point difference shuts doors and opportunities. It is only after entering the real world of work that things like effort and creativity become marketable skills. An ability to work with a team is often more important than making the highest score on a test but such things are rarely considered in the world of academia.

People often ask me about my experience as an educator. In that capacity I literally taught people of all ages. My initial foray into the life of a teacher began with four year olds. By the time I retired I had worked with virtually every age group including adults. The one constant that I observed is that we each learn and progress at a different pace. Those who are the quickest to master a topic are not necessarily the ones who will ultimately do the best with it. My eldest daughter was fifteen months old before she walked, but on the day that she took her first steps she literally ran and then became a beautiful and graceful dancer. The fact that she took so long to walk upright had zero effect on the rest of her life. Thus it is with each of us. Learning is very personal and should be cause for joy, not anxiety.

One of the finest teachers that I have ever known devised a grading system that allowed for differences in the learning curve. If a student initially failed to master a skill he offered additional tutoring and then retested the individual and eliminated the failing grade, replacing it with the mark that celebrated success. His students adored him and often reported that they not only walked away from his class filled with knowledge, but they also felt more confident and willing to take new risks. They learned how to be resilient from him, and they found great joy in learning about topics that might have earlier terrified them. This is the way education is supposed to be but all too rarely is.

The young woman that I know is so right. Learning is a beautiful thing. Let’s hope that one day we will find a way to universally bring the joy to those who embark on the journey of becoming educated.

Where Were the Chaperones?

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My head is filled with so many thoughts as I sit here on a chilly morning attempting to focus on one topic rather than the variety of ideas that are racing through my mind. It’s a holiday today so the sound of children chattering as they load onto the school bus that stops across from my house is missing from my usual routine. I’m often inspired by those little voices because more than anything my life has been devoted to preparing our young ones for the future. Hearing them is always music to my ears and I often long for the days when their journey in the big yellow bus might have brought them to me. Like the mothers that hover over them as they depart, I too became thoroughly engrossed in concern for their well being, so it is only natural that even in retirement I think of what they need to know and learn if they are to have the strength and determination that they will need to navigate through the challenges of life.

I had to learn how to be an observer in my work, someone who rarely missed a single thing that was happening or about to happen in my classroom. Mine and that of all teachers was an exhausting job. I had to wear “Granny Gump” shoes because I rarely sat down. My bladder stretched to an unhealthy volume because I did not have the luxury of attending to it right away. Every minute of every day I assumed the role of a guardian angel for each of my students. I believed that I had a responsibility to provide them with more than just a knowledge of mathematical concepts. I was indeed responsible for their very safety and I took that charge quite seriously.

I had a love/hate relationship with field trips. I enjoyed the times when my students had opportunities to learn more about the world in an up close and personal fashion, but I also became hyper vigilant in such circumstances. I was about as relaxed as a secret service agent whenever I was out and about with them. I counted heads and watched every movement, listened to every word. I learned from experience that bad things might happen in the blink of an eye. For that reason I enlisted the help of multiple chaperones and stressed the importance of each adult keeping track of their designated group. I despised occasions when the leaders of the trips allowed the students to run freely even inside a contained area. I felt the need to watch over them every second, not so much because I did not trust them, but because I did not trust what kind of bad situations they might find themselves in if no adult were guiding them.

I’m saddened by the stories of last weekend regarding the group of young boys from a Kentucky High School who found themselves in the center of controversy in an incident that occurred near the Lincoln Memorial. The full details of the what happened vary depending on whether or not the context of what occurred is taken into account. That being said I find myself thinking of how easily this entire situation with the students might have been avoided if only adult chaperones and a set of rules had been followed. I find myself wondering why nobody was in charge.

Rule number one would have been to break the large group of young men down into manageable groups of five or six students assigned to one reliable adult who was either a teacher, administrator or parent. That individual needed to be instructed to keep his/her group in sight at all times. After all, most of the kids were minors and even though they may have thought of themselves as being perfectly capable of navigating through Washington D.C. alone the school ultimately was responsible for them while so far away from home.

Another little trick for keeping the boys safe would have been to coordinate the clothing for each day of travel. This can usually be done with special trip shirts or uniforms. One day might be all blue shirts, another white and so forth. In such circumstances it becomes quite easy to spot the members of the school even in a crowd. Extraneous items like baseball caps and such might be purchased as souvenirs but not worn in the public excursions. With such rules there would be no worry that someone might be offended by the appearance of the students because they would all look the same.

Any teacher or adult who has ever been on a trip with a group of high school students knows that even with the best possible planning things can and do go awry. Nonetheless, with a good procedure and lots of instruction regarding what is and is not permissible things certainly go more smoothly than if the youngsters are left to their own resources.

What happened on the National Mall was unfortunate. A large group of boys was allowed to tour on their own and instructed to meet at the Lincoln Memorial at a certain time to wait for a bus. With protestors lurking around every corner and some of the boys wearing political caps leaving them without adults to supervise was negligent. As minors they were almost certain to find trouble in the highly charged atmosphere. They may have reacted badly but we have to remember that their adolescent brains still don’t work as well as we might wish. It was naive and dangerous to leave them to their own resources.

I suspect that everyone over the age of thirty can point to something that they did as a teenager that was foolish and perhaps even brutally wrong. In retrospect we may wonder what we were thinking, but the truth is that we probably were simply reacting rather than forming any rational ideas. Very few people can honestly say that they have been perfectly perfect particularly in sticky situations. I suspect that these boys got caught up in something that they did not know how to control and I blame a host of adults for both agitating them and not properly being there to help them.

The take away from this story should be the acknowledgement that the adults dropped the ball. They were not around to guide and protect school boys who might have learned some valuable lessons if things had been handled properly. There were many teachable moments during the confrontation. Sadly the people who might have guided them were nowhere to be found. As a former teacher and a parent I would be demanding answers from all of the adults who failed our young on so many levels regarding what seems to have happened. Where were the chaperones when they were needed?

Anyone Can Do It!

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In all of my years of teaching mathematics the refrain that heard most often was, “I’m no good at math.” My job became to convince my students that anybody has the ability to learn the algorithms and fundamentals of math given a willingness to invest time and effort.

We all know someone who has a natural ability with all things mathematical. In my own case it wasn’t me. It was my brother. I had to go home from school each evening with my math book and my notes and work through problems until a light bulb lit up inside my brain. Sometimes that took just a few minutes and other times it took a couple of hours, but in the end I mastered one concept after another.

Most of my students have insisted that it is impossible to study for a math test. They are accustomed to memorizing facts for their liberal arts classes and they tell me that one will never know what problems will be on the quiz. Therefore they assume that working sample problems is fruitless, but I insist that it really helps. Just as doing reps in the various sports generally brings about improvement in muscle memory, so too does practicing mathematical ideas help imprint problem solving methods on the mind.

It took me several years before I understood the value of homework in math. I used to grudgingly do the problems as quickly as possible and I was unwilling to ask questions about things that I did not comprehend lest I be regarded as being not so bright. I was literally in college before I understood the value of asking my professors for help. I not only became more enlightened, but I also became known by them which was a big plus in my large university. I encourage anyone who is struggling with anything, particularly mathematics, to take full advantage of tutoring opportunities with teachers. It is one of the keys to mastering skills that may at first seem far too difficult.

I like to think that my own struggles with mathematics in my early years led me to being a better and more understanding teacher. I know how it feels to read a word problem and draw a complete blank. I recall tearful sessions with my mother after school when I would insist that I was never going to be good at solving problems. She taught me how to first work with the words, taking them apart enough to discover what I was being asked, and then applying the knowledge that I had learned. With pictures, highlighters and diagrams I now find that I am able to tackle any challenge, but it wasn’t so until I followed my mom’s advice.

I have a granddaughter who used to think of herself as being a bit slow on the uptake when it came to math. It bothered her that her brother never seems to have a problem to immediately understand even the most difficult concepts. She and I talked for a long while about my own struggles when I was her age, and she took my advice regarding the value of hard work in mastering her math lessons. Last year she was anxious about the end of course Algebra I exam that she would have to take. She spent hours studying definitions, processes and different types of problems. Whenever she came up with an incorrect answer she found out why and then worked dozens more until she was consistently getting the correct answers. In the end she received one of the highest scores in her class, but more importantly she learned that it is not only possible to study mathematics, but preferable indeed.

Confidence is usually the element that is missing whenever a student who is bright in every other way does poorly in math. At some point in time he/she has become convinced that it is useless to even try. Such students truly believe that they are missing some gene that would allow them to do better. They take tests feeling defeated before they have even lifted their pencils. It’s up to their parents and teachers to help them to find the good feelings that they need to do well with mathematics, and to show them how to work hard to get there. That means eschewing a temptation to tell the young ones that they come by their dread of mathematics naturally because difficulty with math runs in the family. There is little worse than instilling such fear.

We have to be certain not to create self fulfilling prophecies in our young. It is possible to master mathematics slowly but surely and often with a great deal of work. It is no different than practicing a butterfly stroke or learning a new techniques for drawing. It takes patience and determination in some cases, but it can be done. I have watched hundreds of my students become adept in a subject that had previously been terrifying for them. My job was not to trick them, but to show them the way.

The best mathematics teachers that I have known all rejoice when someone who has struggled finds the light. There is no better feeling. If I were able to accomplish one thing in my lifetime it would be to replace comments like “This is too hard. I can’t do it. I’ve always been terrible in math.” with ideas that speak to the value of practice, asking questions and being positive. One day I hope to hear more of “I don’t get it now, but I know I will. I know that anyone can do it.”