Students

9/23/14

Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I only recently discovered “unschooling.” Apparently unschooling has been around since 1977 when it was coined by educator John Holt, who believed homeschooling didn’t allow enough learning freedom. According to the website, http://unschooling.com, unschooling is “a method of homeschooling that puts the desire, drive, motive and responsibility for life—this thing we call learning, or education—in the hands of the learner.”

Reading between the lines, and from blogs and articles on the subject, this means that the student, no matter what the age, is in charge of what he learns, when he learns it, and how he learns it. If he doesn’t want to learn long division, no need. If he wants to design and build things out of hardwoods, so be it. If she doesn’t want to research the Civil War and write up a correctly cited report, no problem. If she wants to plant a vegetable garden and raise chickens, all the power to her. And vise versa on all of the above.

The idea of unschooling is intriguing. Students should be encouraged and allowed to pursue their interests, to go deep into those subjects, and to benefit from hands-on experience. And reading the many blogs and comments on various websites about unschooling, those who have experienced it and parents who have “taught” it, have nothing but high praises for this unusual approach to education.

Here comes my however: I read Huffington Post article from 2013 by Lorraine Devon Wilke that took a close look at one unschooling family, the Martins. Wilke wrote that the Martins allow their children, ages 13, 11, 7, and 4, “to make all their own decisions regarding what they do and when.” Wilke quoted Mother Martin as saying: “We live life like every day is a weekend. The kids have never been to school and we don’t force them to study at home. We treat them with the same respect as adults—there’s no punishments or chores. They can have ice cream for breakfast and go to bed at 4 a.m. if they want. They’re smarter and better behaved as a result.”

The mother goes on to say: “I’m not worried in the slightest that if any of the kids want to go to college they will be behind, as they are as bright as any other child their age. If the kids want to go to college, then they will just have to sit the equivalent of a high school exam, but more and more colleges are actually embracing unschoolers, as they are recognizing how self-motivated most of the children are. For now, we’re not going to obsess about what profession the kids will have and what they are going to do when they’re older—we just enjoy every minute.”

I think it is fair to say that most people would find the Martin’s approach extreme, as Wilke does. Wilke points out that the opposite—parents who dictate everything a child does—is just as extreme. I agree.

I do see the mother’s comments on college as a bit naïve. It takes much more to be successful in college than just passing a high school equivalency exam. Maybe her kids would be self-motivated, but what if they decided they didn’t want to write the papers required for a course? For a student used to being in charge of everything he or she learns, it could be a tough transition to suddenly be expected to adhere to strict guidelines, deadlines, and required tasks. On the other hand, not all students are successful in a one-size-fits-all education system. Unschooling may work for some; for others it could be a disaster. Educational options and diverse learning situations would benefit all students. We’ve got a ways to go.

To learn more about unschooling go to the website mentioned above, or read Wilke’s article at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lorraine-devon-wilke/unschooling_b_2225836.html. And be sure to comment: What do you think about the idea of unschooling?

Aug. 18, 2014

Today my middle kid boarded a plane to Honolulu to settle in and start his last semester of college. He is a geology student and although he has focused on hydrogeology, he has a keen interest in volcanoes—and where better to study volcanoes than Hawaii? This final semester—his semester abroad—is the end of a college career that started rocky, disappeared for awhile, but finally happened. When he decided he was ready for college, he became a serious student and has done very well.

Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?—as the title implies—stresses that students need to be ready, willing, and able to be successful in college. That sometimes means the student’s timetable is not the same as his or her parents. The important thing is not to force a student into college if he is not ready. I think I judged well on my son that I kissed goodbye today.

He had his share of trouble during high school, but being clever, intelligent, and charming he made his way through—a favorite with friends and teachers alike. However, he did get in trouble, oftentimes because he was bored. As his junior year wound down, he had already finished, and gone beyond, all requirements for graduation, save a one-semester government class. For his senior year, he proposed several “interesting,” but not challenging courses. He saw it as a year to have fun and coast; I saw it as prime opportunity to find trouble.

I suggested he finish his senior year mid-term and then do something useful and unusual. At first he was skeptical of my motives, but he eventually came around, but insisted he wanted to leave the country. Thanks to his dad’s connections, we were able to set up an internship for him and his older already-in-college brother with a non-governmental organization working in Peru. They both had a great experience and returned home about two days before graduation ceremonies.

Once home and graduated, he needed a plan. He knew our rule—we offered room, board, and tuition for full-time college students; we offered no financial support for other choices. He proclaimed he would attend the local community college and live with three other friends. I knew he wasn’t ready and tried to persuade him to just get a job and work awhile, but I couldn’t sway him. He went to class, hated it, did okay, and played hard. Toward the end of the second semester, he announced that I was, in fact, right, he didn’t really want to do college at that point. “I’m going to New Zealand,” he said. “Have a good time,” was our response.

And he did. He had a great time, worked when he needed money, played when he had it, and learned a lot about himself. After about nine months, he returned home, broke and needing a job quick. He took the first thing that came along—selling high-end vacuums and air-filtration systems. He turned out to be a good salesman, but hated every minute of it. Two weeks into the job, he announced he was ready for college.

The rest is history. He figured out the best study methods for himself, honestly told us that he knew he couldn’t work and do well in college, and made college his job. He had an internship this summer that paid well, provided him new beneficial experiences, and expanded his networks. He is hoping to network in Hawaii and land a volcano-related internship there. On the way to the airport he told me, “Who knows, maybe I can go to graduate school and focus on volcanology.”

His ticket was one-way to Hawaii—one way to the end of a successful college career, and beginning of the next stage—all on his own timetable.

July 30, 2014

It’s not long before college students will start heading back to their campuses. For freshmen, whether they are going close to home or further afield, it is the beginning of new freedoms, new friends, a new era in their lives. While most incoming freshmen have already figured out what they plan to pack and their class schedule, there are some things for which they may not be prepared—things that can throw them offer and hamper their ability to succeed at college. Although, as Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? advises, all college preparations and discussions should be attended to long in advance of dropping a student off at the dorm. However, here are a few last minute things to think about:

1. Be prepared to feel some loneliness and/or awkwardness despite being in a dorm full of students. Most students do not know their roommates, so it helps to have contacted that person before moving in. An initial telephone conversation can lessen the awkwardness of moving into a small space with someone you don’t know. Recognize that all roommates don’t hit it off, but do your best to make the situation as positive as possible and stick it out. Remember, there is no rule that you have to hang out with your roommate. Also, loneliness and homesickness are normal; it takes time to make friends. Take heart in knowing that college buddies can turn into lifelong friends.

2. Plot a path from the dorm to your class buildings before the first day of class. Whether you will hoof it, ride a bike, or use a skateboard, make note of how long it takes to get to each class.

3. Mark the last drop/add date on your calendar. After that first week of class, it is common to drop or add a class for a variety of reasons. Understand that the final drop/add date is not negotiable. If you’ve already bought books for a class you end up dropping, be sure you know how and where to exchange or sell back the books.

4. Within the first week of class, figure out the best place and means of studying. The dorm room is rarely a good study location. The library is ideal, but can get crowded. Consider forming study groups early in the semester—such groups are a great help not only in studying for exams, but in providing notes in case you miss a class.

5. Take note of your professors’ and teaching assistants’ contact information and office hours. Do not be afraid to seek out your teachers when you have questions. Introducing yourself to your teachers is always a benefit to the student.

6. Find out where the campus medical center is and understand how to use it. Parents and students also should visit the closest hospital and make preparations for parents to be listed as persons to whom medical information can be released. If an emergency arises, such a release becomes critical, particular if the student is a long way from home.

7. Remember that a successful college experience hinges on a student’s ability to manage time and priorities. Go to every class, participate in campus activities, study hard, go out for pizza now and then, pay attention to deadlines and requirements, explore recreational opportunities that the area affords, broaden your outlook, and have fun!

Note: Please check out the new second edition, e-book version of Toward College Success: Is Your Student Ready, Willing, and Able? Visit your favorite e-book vendor or go to “Buy the Book” on this website for links. And please—let me know what you think by leaving a review. Thanks!

July 2, 21014

In a recent Education Today article by Donald E. Heller, the author wrote: “The decision to allow our daughter to become a high school dropout when she approached us with the idea was one that our family debated intensely during the last six months. In the end, we agreed with our daughter that this was the best path for her.”

Finding the best path toward success for your teenager is the primary mantra of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? Yet, choosing to drop out of high school as the best path is tough even for me to follow. Heller, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University, said he and his wife, a public school teacher, did have a difficult time coming to agreement with their daughter. He described his daughter as quite articulate at explaining her reasons for wanting to find a different path to the future.

The Heller’s two daughters had attended a private school in London in their younger years, then an alternative public school in another state before moving to Michigan. The older daughter graduated from the alternative high school, but the younger was enrolled in a local public high school, which had a good reputation. The daughter scored well on state tests and on the SAT, but her school grades were not reflecting the depth of knowledge Heller knew she had. He and his wife noticed the daughter was “not engaged in learning in ways that she had been in other schools she had attended.”

The well-regarded Michigan high school was, like so many of our public schools, “highly traditional in its structure and curriculum,” focused on improving the “performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning.” Heller’s daughter realized, and he and his wife came to see, that the daughter was not being challenged or allowed to explore her curiosity, develop her interests, or learn for the sake of learning—something she had thrived upon at her previous schools. An intelligent student, she was not challenged and was slipping through the cracks.

After reviewing the options, the family decided to let the daughter apply to an early college program, 600 miles from home. Heller acknowledges that public schools are under extreme pressure to prove their students’ ability to meet state and federal standards. That focus, however, results in a one-size-fits-all approach to education that simply doesn’t work for many students. Although she will not experience the traditions of a high school graduation, Heller’s daughter will have a college education. Many other students who don’t respond to standard curriculums are not so lucky.

I encouraged one of my sons to finish high school early because he already had all the requirements he needed, and I knew he was bored and headed for trouble. It was a good plan for him. I have a friend who let her daughter drop out, get a GED, and proceed straight to community college—the young women also recognized the “standard” wasn’t working for her.

The Toward College Success mantra, “help your teenager find the path to success,” still stands. It can be scary figuring out the way, but until there are enough alternatives to the standard curriculum, parents need to remain alert and open to helping their teenager find that path.

To read Heller’s article: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/06/27/36heller.h33.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW

June 5, 2014

It appears that a couple or so years ago, a new concept in teaching high school students about finances took hold. Now in several high schools across the country, students, their parents, and their teachers can walk down the school’s hall to a student-staffed bank branch to make a deposit, a withdraw, or even to get a small low-interest loan. What an idea—teach students about finances by opening a real bank in their school. Understanding finances and how to manage them is a must for success in college or anything beyond high school.

There is a whole chapter in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? that touts the importance of teaching teenagers how to manage money. Unfortunately, it is a skill that students often lack when they graduate from high school. When those students find themselves on their own, whether at college, traveling, working, or whatever, they discover quickly how little they know about finances and how easily money problems can derail their situation.

The concept of a student-run bank branch sounds like an innovative, engaging way to instruct teenagers in finances. Students apply to staff the school banks, are trained by the bank, and earn a salary. They, in turn, help to teach their fellow students about savings, budgeting, interest, and other aspects of financial management.

For example, Capitol One Bank, which has school branches in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, says each of its student bankers works a summer in a Capitol One Bank as tellers and customer service representatives, spend two weeks in formal teller training, take a financial education class, and participates in a week-long college development program to plan their college application process. One of the goals of Capitol One Bank’s school banking program is to steer students toward a successful college experience.

Union Bank, which operates school banks primarily in low-income neighborhoods in California, offers a similar program, including college scholarship monies. One complaint about the programs is that students have no choice of banks if they want to use the school site. Individual banks work with school districts to gain access, and use bank funds to build the banking space and pay for student training and salaries. That seems a minor complaint when it offers so much opportunity to the student bankers as well as their peers.

It would seem that the school bank program is an appealing way to engage students in learning about real-life finances. If they can graduate with reasonable financial literacy, then those teenagers have a better chance of being successful in college and beyond.

To read articles about school banking programs: http://www.npr.org/2014/06/04/318489887/as-banks-open-in-schools-a-chance-for-students-to-learn-to-save, and http://wavenewspapers.com/business/article_c1ea2f78-d7c6-11e3-af6a-0017a43b2370.html.

May 21, 2014

It is graduation time again, and that means smiling families, lots of photos, parties, and questions about the future. Once the celebrating dies down, college-bound students look forward to the last summer before leaving home, while the non-college bound usually jump right into “freedom” and life on their own. Whatever lies ahead, this is a good time for students to consider what they might encounter and, as hard as it might be to admit, what guidance they still may need in order to be successful in school or life.

Finances: Many students encounter their largest learning curve with budgeting, paying bills, and generally managing money—issues that can derail college students as well as those out on their own. Fresh graduates moving into apartments or housing other than dorms will be responsible for getting utilities and garbage pickup set up in their name, as well as signing a lease. Before moving in, figure out if gas, electric, and water are all on one bill or through separate companies, and find out what are reasonable rates so that any spikes in usage can be questioned. Read a lease and understand what it says before signing, and be prepared to pay first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit up front.

Open a bank account and fully understand how it works. Ask about fees, checks, debit cards, and credit cards, and how each work. Pay particular attention to the dangers of credit cards.

Most importantly, make a budget and stick to it. Ask parents for help or look online, but make a realistic budget, pay bills on time, and figure out how to have fun on the cheap.

Be prepared: The summer after high school graduation is often a carefree time spent with friends before heading in various directions for college, gap year programs, certification programs, military, or work. While having the last hooray is important, it is the wise student who is prepared for what is to come. If going to college, research some important deadlines before you start: final drop/add dates, tuition and fee deadlines, and financial aid deadlines. Get into the habit of reading email on a daily basis, as colleges send important messages about deadlines and requirements. Attend orientation to learn more about those deadlines, locate important campus offices and buildings, meet your advisor, and map out the closest coffee shop.

The summer after graduation also is the time to create or update a resume, particularly for job seekers. Contact people who are willing to be references and have their information available before applying for a job.

Be realistic: Leaving home for the first time can be a heady experience, but most students encounter emotions and situations that they were not expecting. Students are surprised when they are hit with a wave of homesickness, are lost when a roommate relationship turns sour, are shaken when they get a D on paper or exam, and can be overwhelmed with the party scene. When loneliness, anger, frustration, fear, or bewilderment rise up, it is okay to contact mom and dad, or school counselors for guidance and encouragement. It’s all part of the process of being successful in college and life after high school.

April 15, 2014

Not too long ago I visited with a retired English teacher who took on a semester-long substitute teaching gig for a middle school English Language Learners class. The school assured that it would be easy for her—only half a day teaching, all lesson plans available, and small classes. In what she calls “a weak moment,” she agreed. To her dismay, she found herself with students who not only have no foundation in English, but little foundation in learning how to learn, and no idea or incentive on how to be successful students.  

Most of this teacher’s students are from Mexico, have low elementary-level reading and writing skills, and know little about appropriate classroom behavior, such as raising your hand to ask a question. Out went the lesson plans; this teacher created lessons to fit the situation at hand instead of trying to stick to a prescribed program that simply wasn’t working.

What was really needed, she said, was an opportunity to give these students hands-on life skills that will serve them well in both school and the workplace. We discussed what that might look like: going to school for half a day, then having some type of vocational training in the community. Such an opportunity would give these students a chance to learn teamwork, learn appropriate behavior in a workplace, build confidence in spoken language skills, and introduce them to various occupations.

What they didn’t need, this teacher said, was to sit in classrooms all day being fed curriculum for which they did not have adequate background. Such situations enforce the fact that they are behind, overwhelm them to the point of giving up, or create an atmosphere in which they act up to overpower their confusion and feeling of inadequacies. Why try when you are so far behind? Why try when you believe you are doomed to fail? Why try when you don’t see the point?

I do think offering outside vocational work is a great idea for students as young as middle school as well as for high schoolers. I also realize it takes a school district with the manpower and funding to create such a program—not obstacles easy to overcome—plus it takes community businesses and industry willing to step up and offer such opportunities. As overwhelming as those tasks may seem, I do believe it would be highly beneficial to all involved: the school district, the community, and the students. It doesn’t do anyone any good for students to do little besides occupy a seat in a classroom.

To really “educate” students, we need a school situation that offers more than a one-size fits all curriculum. Yes, there are some academic skills that all students need to learn, but wouldn’t it be better to give those who prefer “getting on with life,” to learn a marketable skill at the same time they are learning how to write a paper or compute an algebraic equation? Or better yet, turn that paper into a report for the business in which they are training and that math lesson into figuring the accounts receivable.

And as for college—well it will always be there if they decide later to pursue that route. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? states: college is not for everyone, and it certainly isn’t necessary to go straight to college after high school. Our education system needs to help all students find their path toward success.

April 1, 2014

A recent debate between two writer/educators caught my attention. The debate: Should schools prepare students for college or something else? My gross summary of their debate is that they both thought students should be well educated as it enhances and benefits lives, but that college doesn’t have to be the end goal. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? points out, being prepared for college and being prepared for success on one’s own require many of the same skills.

Many of the points that Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst makes in his post, “If Not College, Then What?” supports the premise of Toward College Success. He writes: “…I do not believe that a student has ‘failed’ if he or she doesn’t go to college. There are many ways to live a rich and fruitful life. I do think we have failed, however, if a child remains in our care for 13 years and does not leave prepared to live independently, whether or not they attend college.”

 

But in order to live that “rick and fruitful life,” Pondiscio states that our “big-picture goals for schooling—reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem-solving—depend on specific knowledge”—something teachers and parents need to understand. If they understand, then “a grounding in history, mathematics, science, literature, and the arts would be seen and seen correctly as the route to the outcomes we seek for all learners”—no matter what the student chooses to do after high school.

 

Pondiscio defines adult success partly as “the ability to care for oneself and one’s family. We fulfill our responsibilities as citizens by making our own way in the world, freely and independently.” He concludes by stating that teachers and schools must sell independence and self-sufficiency as strongly as going to college is sold.

 

Regardless of what a post-high school student pursues, that student will need to be mature enough to handle conflicts, resilient enough to find her way through life’s roadblocks, and adaptive enough to find the path to a fulfilling life. While Pondiscio was debating the role of schools in teaching such skills, I believe parents must be even more involved in both modeling and teaching those life skills. Such lessons should begin at home, long before a teenager nears high school graduation.

 

In fact, that is why Toward College Success was written—to drive home the point to parents that it takes much more than academic success to be successful in college or in any aspect of life beyond living at home with mom and dad. Yes, some of it is basic parenting, but once our kids hit the teenage years, it is critical to reinforce those life skills by gradually giving them responsibility and letting them learn from their mistakes.

 

To read Pondiscio’s post, go to:  http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2014/01/if_not_college_then_what.html

To read the post he debates, go to: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2014/01/deborah_meier_continues_her_co.html

March 21, 2014

While giving a presentation a few weeks ago to a local school, I was introduced to a fine program offered by Colorado State University. The Dream Project is a “student-initiated, student-run high school outreach program that focuses on peer-to-peer mentorship.” CSU students give their time and energy to helping first generation and low-income high school students figure out the right-fit college, maneuver the college application process, and successfully make it to higher education.

After I had finished my presentation, a group of energetic CSU Dream Project members explained the program and encouraged high school students to contact them if they had questions. Their enthusiasm and eagerness to help was inspiring, and the Dream Project appears to be a great resource for local high school students.

In its second year, CSU’s Dream Project is closely modeled on the University of Washington’s program, embracing the same mission, values, goals, and name as UW’s Dream Project. CSU’s Dream Project not only offers high school students college application assistance that they may not have at home, but it teaches “CSU students about educational opportunity and social mobility and examines these ideas in the context of Colorado State University.” CSU Dream Project students attend a class that meets twice a week—“once as an entire class as part of the CSU course and once with their smaller group at their assigned high school to work with the students. Since the Dream Project is a CSU course as well as an outreach program, participating students can receive up to two credits per quarter.”

In Fort Collins, Dream Project members have a presence at two area high schools, but they encourage students from any high school to contact them. They begin working with students in the junior year to point them toward courses they should take, encourage them to get involved in community service, research colleges, prepare for the SAT and/or ACT, and help them start scholarship searches. In the senior year, Project members help students through the application process, including getting letters of recommendation, writing entrance essays, and filling out financial aid forms. In addition, Project members will take high school students around the CSU campus to give them a feel for college life, and they hold social events to build community.

Because the CSU Dream Project is relatively new, it is still building its program, but one goal is to offer scholarships in the future. UW’s Dream Project offers small scholarships from monies raised entirely by UW students.

The Dream Project model appears to be a win-win program for both high school and college students. So far, the model has been adopted only by CSU and Rutgers University—I do hope other universities will join in to promote this program of students helping students.

To read more about CSU’s Dream Project, go to: http://accesscenter.colostate.edu/dream

For UW’s, go to:  http://www.washington.edu/dreamproject/about/

Feb. 18, 2014

Education articles that spark debate are my favorites, so I perked up when I heard NPR reporting on a recently released study that shows high school grades are better indicators of how successful a student will be in college than are SAT and ACT results. This issue has been kicking around for quite a while, but the study seems to offer concrete evidence that our emphasis on standardized testing is not as valuable as it has been touted.

In the study, “”Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions,” main author William Hess, former dean of admissions at Bates College in Maine, said: “Human intelligence is so multifaceted, so complex, so varied, that no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it. My hope is that this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores. And the answer is, if they have good high school grades, they’re almost certainly going to be fine.”

Hess’ study looked at over three dozen schools for which submitting an ACT or SAT result is optional for admittance. He found that there was “virtually no difference in grades and graduation rates between test ‘submitters’ and ‘nonsubmitters’.”

The NPR report deduces from this research that high school grades matter quite a lot. NPR reported: “For both those students who submitted their test results to their colleges and those who did not, high school grades were the best predictor of a student’s success in college. And kids who had low or modest test scores, but good high school grades, did better in college than those with good scores but modest grades.”

I believe that more emphasis needs to be on what kids are learning in the classroom as opposed to how well they perform on standardized tests—particularly the ones our kids take in elementary, middle, and high school. However, I also recognize that there has to be some way to measure what and how much a student learns. I don’t have that solution, but instinctively I believe that if more emphasis was placed on creative, innovative teaching that students would have access to more meaningful and useful education. As one high school student said in the NPR story about taking SAT or ACT: “They’re not exactly a fair way to show our skills. I wish they could find some way to really show what we can do.”

And, of course, this study is looking at only the part academics has in a student’s success in college. Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? will tell you that, indeed, academics is only one part.

To read the NPR article, go to: http://www.npr.org/2014/02/18/277059528/college-applicants-sweat-the-sats-perhaps-they-shouldn-t. Be sure to read the comments following the story.