“Rip Your Hair Out” Pressure

That’s a Los Angeles, California Harvard-Westlake high schooler describing her Advanced Placement heavy course load. HW is L.A.’s preeminent private high school.

A recent article in the LA Times described it as a place “. . . where some families view anything short of an Ivy League admission as failure.” Next week in my graduate sociology of education course, we’re watching a documentary titled “The American Dream at Groton”. Groton is the East Coast version of HW. Check out the tuition at Groton.

HW thrives because even very wealthy parents suffer from economic anxiety. Consequently, they’re desperate to extend their privilege to their children. They think HW = highly selective college = a high paying job = a comfortable life. But not necessarily a meaningful one. Parents don’t send their children to HW to ponder what makes life most meaningful.

But to HW’s credit, apparently students sometimes end up doing just that in classes like “Ethics: Philosophical Traditions and Everyday Morality”. After fourteen students dropped out two years ago citing depression—some at the school have “pulled back”.

Like Matt LaCour, the baseball coach. Recently a player of LaCour’s told him he wanted to try out for the school play, “Hairspray.” Lacour encouraged him to saying, “I’ve got to allow a kid to find himself in high school.”

Theater arts instructor, Ted Walch, said he would like to see more time for his students “to be bored and to daydream and to be kids.” “We are a powerful enough school,” he explained, “that if we pull back just a bit it’s not going to hurt anyone’s chances to get into Harvard, Yale, or Brown.”

The school is planning a workload study this year to determine whether demands on students have become excessive. HW limits homework to three hours per subject per week—more time than most college students spend studying in a typical week. The school’s new president, who was at Groton previously, has identified “academic pressure and stress” as a recurring theme and tension needing more attention.

Private elite schools always do a better job preparing students for selective colleges than the larger, much more economically and intellectually diverse world. But HW, and the new president in particular, deserve credit for recognizing that, in his words, “The great challenge. . . in schools where excellence is a value is to simultaneously have balance as a value.”

It’s important to have some ambition, the problem is when students become hyper-competitive and sacrifice their integrity and health in pursuit of especially ambitious goals. To razzle-dazzle college admission committees, many high schoolers think they must push themselves endlessly, and in the process they often end up cheating and ignoring mental and physical warning signs.

We need to rethink and redefine ambition as fulfilling one’s potential to effect positive change in some small corner of the world. Instead of striving to do well in school in order to graduate with honors, earn lots of money, and gain social status, do well to become the very best nurse, social worker, businessperson, teacher, writer, plumber, and citizen as possible.

Schools should define ambition more broadly and encourage alternative, healthier, more selfless forms of it. Don’t just single out the National Merit scholarship winners and those accepted at Ivy League schools. Pay equal attention to students who serve others on or off campus. And those who show improvement or demonstrate excellence in the whole gamut of extracurricular activities—including the arts and minor sports.

That’s one way to keep students from ripping their hair out.

Celebrity Charter Schools

Given our tendency towards celebrity worship, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that athletes and rappers are starting charter schools. Turns out your own charter school is the new status symbol.

Like Pitbull, who has started one in Miami. If you don’t know Pitbull is a rapper, you’re not keeping up.

Like Jalen Rose, who has one in Detroit. If you don’t know JRose was a part of the FabFive and played in the National Basketball Association, you’re not keeping up.

Like Dion Sanders, who has a charter school in Dallas. If you don’t know Neon Dion is a former professional baseball and football player, you’re not keeping up.

Like Andre Agassi, who has a charter school in Las Vegas. If you don’t know Agassi was once ranked #1 in the world in tennis, you’re not keeping up.

And in 2010, the celebrities celebrity, Oprah, gave $1m to six different charter schools. If you don’t know who Oprah is, call 9-1-1.

How are these schools doing? Well, Dion Sanders was strangled by an administrator at one of his school’s recent board meetings. And despite some fawning press reports, here’s a critique of JRose’s school:

Problems the Academy wrestled with in its first year were a classic mix of start-up mistakes and a focus on glitz over substance. They ran out of money because they set a 10-student class size limit. There were costly monthly field trips (including one to Olympic basketball camp in Las Vegas). No science labs (students left fetal pig detritus in restroom sinks), no locker rooms, showers or air-conditioning in summer heat. Fights, expulsions and a security guard who had to be fired. A teacher using his own media equipment for instruction took his technological tools and skills with him when he left mid-year. A heavily promoted on-line curriculum couldn’t be accessed, due to broken laptops. Test scores started and remained in the basement.

Here’s the most telling fact, however: there was 100% turnover in teaching staff–not a single teacher returned–and as the school’s second year opens, they’re on their third principal. Changes for fall include sending staff for workshops and training, mandated weekly student assessments, doubling class sizes, and returning to a more traditional curriculum and delivery. So much for new and different.

Despite the absurdities, celebrities like Agassi, who have been in the game for awhile and done their homework, deserve credit for wanting to “give back” and improve their communities. And for being so generous with their money. I suppose, IF celebrities hire the right teachers, administrators, and board members, and then get out of the way, their schools may not hasten the end-of-the-world.

But it’s worth pressing pause and thinking about what we’d do if celebrities decided to open dentists’ and doctors’ offices. Or hospitals. Or law firms. If being legally represented by someone from Lohan, Cyrus, and Swift, is a frightening prospect, why does anyone cheer celebrity charter schools?

[Correction: I got it exactly backwards. Dion Sanders allegedly grabbed the throat of an administrator at the charter school he co-founded.]

What College Professors and Adminstrators Get Wrong

In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students? That’s Colleen Flaherty’s question in Inside Higher Education. The larger question is what expectations should any of us have for privacy?

Flaherty tells the story of Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who was. . . 

stunned earlier this month when what she thought was an innocuous. . . email to students about why they couldn’t access Census data to complete an important course assignment became national news.

Her email. . . blamed the “Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives” for the shutdown and consequent U.S. Census Bureau website blackout. Then it appeared on Fox News, the Daily Caller, and in her local paper, after a student posted a screen shot on Twitter. It also caused uproar on campus, prompting numerous calls and emails to Chancellor Joe Gow, who sent an email to students, faculty, and staff distancing the university from Slocum’s ‘highly partisan’ comments.

Slocum said she probably wrote the email too quickly upon hearing her students couldn’t access the site, without sufficient explanation of her political reference. But the chain reaction was hard to believe, given that she never intended—or thought—that her email would be seen by anyone outside of her geography course.

Stunned, really? Michael Phelps can’t smoke a joint inside a dark fraternity house without smartphone pictures of it appearing in major newspapers. Why was it “hard to believe” your email was tweeted? It could’ve just as easily been forwarded, uploaded to Facebook, and blown up and pasted on the side of La Crosse’s busses.

Another tenured professor of creative writing at Michigan State University had his teaching duties reassigned after he embarked on “. . . what’s been described as an anti-Republican ‘rant on the first day of class in August.”

And Facebook helped Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, make headlines last month, when a student he invited via email to a study session for “students of color only” posted the message on her page. Almost instantly, the invitation, which many said discriminated against other students, went viral.

Timeout while I replay in my peabrain what I said in class yesterday afternoon. Yikes! When discussing education reform I took shots at Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, and 44. When those deets are made public my university’s administration will probably throw me under the bus of public outrage too. If this blog goes dark sometime soon, don’t be surprised. Know that I cherished you dear reader.

Slocum said she saw close monitoring of professor’s words by watchdog groups as potentially chilling to free speech, and as a means of waging the nation’s current political battles on a new front, to the detriment of higher education overall.

Fear is the lifeblood of watchdog groups. And spineless administrators. That’s why tenure is so important. Slocum shouldn’t retract what she wrote, instead she should explain it to any upset students. Granted, they probably won’t agree with her reasoning, but their only concern should be whether Slocum’s politics prevent her from fairly assessing their work.

Gow, Slocum’s chancellor, said that. . . he would have responded “exactly the same way” if Slocum’s email had blamed Democrats or any other group for the shutdown. Both he—a longtime communications scholar—and La Crosse value free speech and academic freedom, he said, but now more than ever the actions of faculty and staff can influence public support for higher education.

Ultimately, Gow said, the Internet has “greatly blurred” the line between what’s public and what’s private, “and we do need to remember that what we’re saying to students may be shared more broadly.”

Come on Gow, “greatly blurred,” really? Try erased. “Blurred” might make more sense if Gow had actually come to Slocum’s defense. Read Gow’s words again. He’s saying maintaining public support trumps free speech and academic freedom.

Gow said that ideally, a student who was offended by a professor’s speech would try to settle the matter internally, first through a conversation with that professor, then through more formal complaint mechanisms as needed. La Crosse also takes student evaluations seriously in personnel decisions, he said.

Could Gow be any more out-of-touch with college students? This generation doesn’t do direct interpersonal conflict. For shitssake, they break up with one another via text messaging. Then there’s Gow’s mind numbing student evaluation hammer. All these years I thought student evaluations focused on whether students learned anything of value in their courses, but I guess they’re at least partly designed to determine whether students are ever made uncomfortable by a professor’s politics. Note to Assistant Professors at Wisconsin La Crosse—wait until you get tenure to express anything that could be deemed the least bit political.

Slocum expressed similar views, saying that taking complaints to the Internet before the institution “seems a breach of trust” and removes them from their context.

Of course that would be preferable, but it’s naive to expect it. Wisconsin La Crosse can update their student honor code, and implore students not to take their complaints to the Internet, but some still will. This generation lives on-line. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

At La Crosse and other institutions . . . Gow suggested that professors make up their own rules and include them on course syllabuses—as some faculty at various institutions. . . already do. But, the chancellor said, enforcing those policies could be another complicated matter. “That’s kind of uncharted territory there, isn’t it?”

Now I’m starting to feel sorry for Gow. And this excerpt heightens my sympathy for Slocum:

This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience, Slocum said in an email. And I didn’t expect it because my emails to students are the boring stuff of ‘Why didn’t you turn in that’ or ‘Here are some important points to remember,’ rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet.

Here’s some unsolicited advice to my syllabi writing brethren whether Packer fans or otherwise: Do not expect the Internet Generation to come to your office to discuss their concern with your politics. And don’t be surprised if they take surreptitious screen shots of you* and your communication. Or tweet something you’ve said or done. Or post about something you’ve said or done to Facebook. Express partisan political views at your own risk.

* I was a recent victim of surreptitious screen shoting while Skyping with the college senior. Told her about a fun Saturday night out where her mother and I watched Flamenco dancing at a downtown Olympia pizza joint. To give her a little flavor flav of the evening, I demonstrated my pretty astounding flamenco skills. Unbeknownst to me, she took a screen shot midway through the demo. Within a few minutes some of her friends on Facebook were eating it up. The worst part of that whole infringement of my privacy? You need video to fully appreciate my mad flamenco skillz.

Lighting Candles

Sometimes, when the early morning running conversation turns too negative too long, one member of the posse reminds everyone else it’s “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

People tilt towards pessimism, which spreads upon contact. Pessimism is a special challenge in the Pacific Northwest in late October because daylight, and Vitamin D, dwindles.

Ancient Stoics knew gratitude didn’t come naturally, so they practiced negative visualization and voluntary deprivation. Negative visualization is taking time to imagine worse case scenarios—no longer having enough healthy food, having one’s bicycle or car stolen, losing one’s home to a natural disaster, losing one’s job or savings, or the unexpected death of a loved one—to better appreciate the impermanence of everything and everyone.

Voluntary deprivation is practicing living without those things we tend to take for granted for the purpose of appreciating them more. Examples include fasting, bike commuting for a month, or traveling solo. Absence always makes the Good Wife and me even fonder of one another.

Since others’ attitudes influence our own, another strategy is to purposely seek out hopeful, creative, funny, positive people, while simultaneously steering clear of permanent pessimists.

Staying active throughout the winter helps keep the candle light burning bright. Invest in the necessary clothing and lighting to stay comfortable and safe. Spend more time outdoors than in the gym. Saturday morning’s run was incredible. It didn’t matter that everything was soaking wet because of dense overnight and early morning fog. The streets, sidewalks, and trails were lined with colorful leaves. God’s carpeting.

The photographer I’m currently shacking up with captured one especially beautiful thread of that carpeting.

P1000522

Fall Without Football?

Last week I watched Public Television’s Frontline documentary based upon the recently released book “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and The Battle for Truth.”

Because ignorance truly is bliss, the vast majority of football fans will pass on the book and film. And you can be damn sure the NFL suits are working overtime to pressure ESPN and other media outlets to suppress the book’s findings. In this drama, the NFL is Big Tobacco in the 1980s. The book was a story immediately after its release, but since then it’s been the proverbial tree in the forest.

Despite knowing much more about the detrimental long term effects of playing football, I still watched a lot of it last week—a little Washington v Oregon, UCLA v Cal, and Seattle v Tennessee. Yes, I’m part of the problem.

Not that anyone should generalize from me, but I think I could kick my forty-five year old football playing and viewing habit if there were substitutes on television on fall weekends. I haven’t learned to eat lunch on Saturdays without some sporting event on television. We used to get a cable station, Universal Sports, that was made for me. It broadcast major marathons, triathlons, and related endurance events around the world.

If the Chicago Marathon and Ironman Hawaii World Championship were on television last weekend, I would have happily watched them instead of my beloved Bruins (especially since they were taking it to the Golden Bears). At first glance, those appear to be poor substitutes because there’s zero physical contact, but upon closer review, they’re excellent ones because they’re physically demanding in their own way, often equally dramatic, and in the end, tremendously compelling.

When I watch cyclists attack in the Alps during the Tour de France, and then the chaos of the shattered peloton, I get just as excited as when a hard hitting safety lights up an unsuspecting receiver on a crossing route. I get similarly fired up when watching a sprint at the end of a long distance run or open water swim. Last summer, after watching a stage of the Tour marked by a steady stream of attacks and counter-attacks, I told the Good Wife, “It was like watching a heavyweight fight.”

Speaking of which, it’s been decades since I watched a professional fight. Truth be told, I think boxing is barbaric and have zero interest in it. Don’t tell my 20-something male students, but I’m even more repulsed by mixed martial arts.

I won’t be surprised if some fall day in the not too distant future I find other things to care about besides whether UCLA beats Stanford and wins the Pac-12 South. And if I end up thinking about football the way I think about boxing and mixed martial arts.

[Postscript—Here’s a really excellent discussion/debate about the substance of the book and film.]

Flipped Classrooms

A few weeks ago, I showed a 75 minute long documentary to my graduate students. That only left us 25 minutes to discuss it. Next year, I thought to myself, why not assign the viewing of the film before class and then use class time to explore it and a related case study in greater depth.

“Flipping” classrooms is a promising new educational phenomenon. Here is how a New York Times education blogger describes the flipped classroom:

Teachers record video lessons, which students watch on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in the school’s tech lab. In class, they do projects, exercises or lab experiments in small groups while the teacher circulates.

Initial experiences and findings are positive.

My favorite education reform metaphor is an ocean storm. The water surface is dramatically changed by high winds. There’s also unusually dark skies, lightening, and extremely high surf. But the farther you go below the surface, the less significant the changes. Until, on the ocean floor, the animal life, water chemistry, the entire environment is unchanged. In education reform, the teacher-student relationship is the ocean floor. Schools change bell schedules, require uniforms, buy tablets for students, and implement site based management, but the teacher-student relationship remains the same as one hundred years ago.

Flipped classrooms and schools may mix up the ocean floor.

What Baby Boomers Get Wrong

The “Get Wrong” series is so popular, the Good Wife recently asked when I’m going to post on what she gets wrong. Since she’s a card carrying Baby Boomer, here’s some of what she gets wrong.

First, some context. Whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a full-fledged generational cage match going on and the Millennials bring it via YouTube!

At first glance the vid appears to be light-hearted entertainment. In actuality, it’s poignant, hard-hitting social criticism. When it comes to generation gaps, Baby Boomers like me (I’m a tail ender) make two mistakes over and over and over.

Mistake 1—Based upon a few negative encounters with Millennials, we get so worked up, our brains shut down; consequently, we overgeneralize about all young adults. Here’s an idea Boomers, let’s stop starting sentences with “Millennials”. Any sentence that begins with the word “Millennials” is likely to be a gross and inaccurate generalization. Unless, of course, it’s “Millennials make some damn good videos.”

Mistake 2—Baby Boomers are lightening quick to say Millennials suck, and yet, take no responsibility for their alleged shortcomings. That’s the brilliance of the vid. Their flaws are the direct result of our parenting, teaching, coaching. Millennials didn’t suddenly appear out of the ether like the first invertebrates. Here’s another idea Boomers, let’s stop ripping the Millennials without explaining our culpability.