On Honesty, Rigor, and Success in College

Recently, I spoke to a group of AmeriCorp volunteers at Peace Lutheran in Tacoma, WA. Many were University of Puget Sound graduates working in K-12 classrooms and tutoring after school at the church. I was told they wanted to know the answer to two questions. What is learning? And how do students learn?

The fact that these whip smart young people didn’t think they knew the answers to those questions communicates a hell of a lot about schooling today. Specifically, too few teachers take time from “teaching to the standards” and “collecting and analyzing data” to think together with students about the learning process.

The cynic in mean assumes self-assessment and student-led conferences are en vogue because some policy analysts think they’ll lead to higher test scores. What’s needed is a genuine, substantive commitment to intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. Too few teachers “press pause on the class DVR” and ask what went well in today’s activity? What could have gone better? Which aspects of your group’s work went especially smoothly? Which parts were most challenging? When working with classmates, what do you do well? How do you know that? What could you improve upon? Why? What contributes to your learning? What thwarts it?

I asked the AmeriCorps to list a few meaningful things they’ve learned in the past. Looking for patterns and themes, I then asked them to reflect on how they learned them. “I’m learning how to cook,” one offered up, “by hanging out with roommates who are really good cooks.” We could have spent the entire two hours mining that gem of an anecdote.

When I turned to assessment, I implored them to honestly evaluate the quality of their high schoolers’ work. I said many of the secondary students they tutor get very good grades because they distinguish themselves by attending class regularly and turning in their work. Their simultaneous nodding communicated they understood this rarely talked about dilemma for many urban and rural poor districts and schools—you can’t fail the majority of your students, so students who attend and submit work get passing grades without nearly enough attention paid to the quality of their reading, thinking, math, and writing skills. Understandably, college admissions’ offices know and adjust for this, but that complicates those students’ transition to college.

Absent rigor, many students start to think of themselves as “A” students. But grade point averages can mislead. So it’s understandable that they’re sometimes devastated when they receive “C’s” on their first college assignments. Which is why I keep a box of kleenex handy in my office.

How can teachers, tutors, and parents help high schoolers come to grips with the fact that they may not be ready for college level work without those students giving in to a debilitating hopelessness? There’s no easy answer to that question, but passing students along without honestly assessing the quality of their work is inefficient and uncaring. Here are three starting points:

1) Impress upon them that their commitment to improving their skills is the single most important variable in determining whether they’ll catch up to their college bound peers and that closing the gap will take months and years of tireless work.

2) Invite successful college students from their community back to tell them that they too can overcome the same long odds if they commit to working hard and taking advantage of the resources available to them.

3) Make sure resources are in place, whether it’s well funded public schools, Peace Lutheran-like after school tutoring programs, or intensive summer remediation programs hosted by college campuses admitting first generation college students.

An Open Letter to High School Teachers

During Saturday morning’s 16-mile run, the high school princiPAL asked me to write his faculty about what they can do to increase the odds that their college-bound students are successful once at their universities of choice. Happy to, but I should note from the outset that I’ve massaged the request by focusing more exclusively on how to help the college bound improve as writers—a critical component to succeeding in college.

A confession. The following typology of first year students who struggle with the transition to college-level writing is an exercise in pre-writing, an incomplete, initial draft. Consider this a sneak-peak at my process. In the final draft, which needs to be framed positively, I’ll focus on what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.

Some background. I was a high school social studies teacher for five years—four in Los Angeles and one in Ethiopia. I teach graduate pre-service teachers and first year writing seminars. It’s my Writing 101 teaching that informs what follows. More specifically, I’ve taught first year writing seminars at two liberal arts colleges over the last two decades on changing themes of my choosing including: Globalization; Reinventing the American High School; The Challenges and Rewards of Teaching; and currently, The Art of Living.

Here are five first year college student types that often struggle with the transition to college writing:

1) “Inflated Sense of Skills” student—This predicament is most common among students who graduated from high schools marked by serial absenteeism; unfinished, late student work; and missing assignments. Quite often, given the informal “not everyone can fail” grading curve at work in these schools, students who complete their work on time end up receiving very good marks without much attention to the quality of the work. These students develop identities as “A” students; consequently, it’s disorienting when they receive lower grades on their initial college papers. It’s difficult for these students to quickly adjust from being ahead of their high school peers to being behind their university ones who attended more rigorous high schools.

2) “Five Paragraph, Standardized Essay Exam” student—These students, who tend towards concrete-sequential thinking, have committed the standard five paragraph essay form to heart. They have become so adept at the five-paragraph essay—a thesis, three main points, three supporting details—that they think of writing as a “fill in the blanks” activity. As a result, their writing lacks voice and fails to engage readers.

3) “Grade Fixation” student—These students view writing like everything else school-related, as a no holds barred competition. The single-minded goal is to earn the highest possible grade on each individual paper. They resist the notion that writing is a process requiring continuous editing and they have an aversion to feedback. Continuous improvement is less important than earning “A’s”. These students tend to dislike writing.

4) “Narrow Repertoire” student—These students let it be known early on that they “love creative writing” and “dislike doing research papers”. Or less often, “love doing research papers” and “dislike creative writing”. Preferred forms are completely understandable, but these students’ sensibilities about their writing strengths and next steps are far too fixed.

5) “Interpersonally Challenged” student—These students struggle to interact thoughtfully with their classmates. They don’t listen attentively to others and/or maintain consistent eye-contact with whomever is speaking. Sometimes they talk over others and dominate discussions to the point that the other students eventually tune them out. As a result, these students fail to earn the respect of their classmates and don’t fully benefit from peer editing.

Stay tuned. By reflecting on this typology I’ll come up with what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.

Notes from the College Search

Spent Friday with the Good Wife and Sixteen visiting a private liberal arts college in Spokane, Washington—not the one with the very good Division 1 basketball team. The one with a very good Division 3 basketball team.

My main objective was not to embarrass Second Born by not saying or doing anything to bring myself attention. I was doing really well until mid-day. Early on we learned about the “Three Littles” that every student strives to accomplish. . . 1) get hit by a frisbee; 2) accidentally break a dish in the cafeteria; and 3) catch a “virgin” pine cone—meaning one that hasn’t hit the ground. In the middle of the campus tour, I faked catching a pine cone by droping to the rear, picking one up of the ground, then exclaiming to a few peeps around me, “Look, I did it. I caught a virgin pine cone.” Turned out more than a few people heard. Everyone liked my head fake except Golden Locks.

Thought one. A prediction. Higher education, like every other institution, is changing and will continue to change. However, the pace of change will be slower than the “experts” anticipate. Online “education”, or the cynic in me prefers, “internet coursework”, will continue to challenge the traditional “brick and mortar” model of schooling. Hybrid programs will become more common. But based on Friday’s sample of one, private, read pricey, residential liberal arts education is alive and well. “Spokane” University is thriving despite a relatively small endowment. It’s becoming more selective, it’s improving its already nice facilities, and it feels like there is a lot of positive momentum.

Thought two. A paradox. Many private liberal arts colleges offer financial aid packages that average 30-40% of the tuition and room and board “list price”. This coupled with Washington State’s public universities having to increase tuition 15% annually into the foreseeable future, means many families of high achieving students will find privates more affordable going forward. “Spokane” University has four merit-based scholarship tiers. The higher your grade point average and SAT or ACT score, the greater your financial aid. The second tier is a 3.7 and 1880 on the SAT if I remember correctly. That’s worth something like $15,000 each year. Any high schooler planning on going to college should think long and hard about taking any part-time job that might negatively impact their grades. You’d have to scoop ice-cream part-time at Baskin Robins for five years to make $15,000.

Thought three. Confirmation of a core belief. I believe economic anxiety explains most behavior these days. Especially, but not exclusively, middle and upper middle class parents of K-12 students. One of the day’s events was a panel discussion with four “Spokane” University students answering questions. Of the dozen or so questions asked during the hour, eleven were asked by parents. The only explanation I could think of for that was deep seated anxiety about their children’s futures. I wanted to tell the lady with red hair, who asked a few different questions, to “shut the hell up,” but I had already embarrassed TSwift once. Incredibly aggravating. Free parenting advice—at least try letting your son, who looked like a grown man to me, find his own way.

I took one picture. No, not of the beavers I saw on my run along the edge of the over flowing Spokane River, not of the baby ducklings, and not of the loquacious woman with red hair.

Dig the smart mix-use design

Finally, most importantly, make sure whatever college you decide to attend has plexiglass backboards.

A Mean and Nasty Job Description—the New Economic Reality

Sundays are glorious rest days. The week’s physical activity deposits are in the bank. It’s just me, myself, and my iPad in bed. Surfing aimlessly, wasting time because I can.

Craigslist. Seattle. Olympia. Jobs. Managing Editor. I could do that. Where’s it written I have to die an egghead professor? Check it out:

Managing Editor (Olympia)


Leading health related website is currently searching for a Managing Editor to join our company.The Managing Editor is responsible for quality control, editorial consideration, and publication of all written content published to our website, ensuring content accords to website mission and vision.

The Managing Editor’s duties are as follows:
-Manage all aspects of written content editing and publication.
-Make editorial consideration to website content, ensuring all content accords to website mission and vision
-Work in conjunction with Content Marketing Coordinator on various content related projects
-Develop ideas for user generated, pop-culture, and traditional content
-Manage and coordinate with writers on various projects
-Work with programming team and managing editor to design improvements to design of content pages
-Manage other related duties as assignedThe successful candidate will have some combination of experience in communications, content management, literature, journalism, and creative writing. We are looking for someone who is self-motivated, prioritizes effectively, communicates well via written and verbal mediums, thinks strategically, yet can focus intently on day-to-day details, feels confident in ability to learn the ins and outs of various content management systems, and works well in a collaborative, team environment.Required Qualifications:
Bachelors or Master’s degree in communications or social science related fields preferred
-Interest in mental health and psychology
-1 – 2 years of relevant experience.
-Strong background in computers and ability to learn new technology quickly
-Able to handle a variety of projects simultaneously and prioritize effectively
-Communicate effectively via email and in collaborative meeting environmentsThis is a full-time, 40-hour per week position. Pay starts at $15 per hour, with opportunity for increased wages. Interested applicants please reply to the anonymous email and please be sure to include your cover letter and resume as word docs.

I’m not sure what’s more frightening, the fact that they require a Bachelors or Masters, experience, and pay $15 an hour with no medical benefits, or the possibility they may get qualified candidates applying for the job.

Do the math. $2,400 a month before taxes, so at most $2k take home. Without medical benefits especially, that is not a “livable wage”. What’s the cheapest, catastrophic private medical insurance cost a month? How much to insure and maintain a beater car? Rent an apartment? Travel on an occasional weekend? Save for large, unplanned future expenses? Walk or bike to work, share an apartment, live really simply, basically keep living like a college student indefinitely, then it’s probably doable.

This is a mean and nasty job description that speaks volumes about the new economic reality.

College administrators, the people running for President in 2012, and the sitting president won’t tell you the truth—that a college diploma does not guarantee a job that pays a livable wage. Not even close. That is the new economic reality.

In the U.S., in the 20th century, most adults expected their children to live a more comfortable and secure life than themselves. In the first decade of the 21st, anxiety has replaced hope and most parents are deeply worried about whether their children will achieve economic independence even if they complete internships, graduate college, and outcompete others for the title Managing Editor of a “leading health-related website”.

Count me among them.

I Am the 1%

Not based on my five figure salary, my Kirkland Signature wardrobe, my penchant for water at restaurants, or my municipal golf courses of choice.

I am the “one percent” based upon health, meaningful work, beautiful surroundings, good friends, and a loving family.

Turning fiddy in a few months. My peers are showing varying degrees of wear and tear. Their setbacks help me appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to afford healthy food, to have time to exercise daily, to have access to quality medical care, and to feel younger than I am.

My work matters. How fortunate to get paid to help young people write, teach, and think through what they believe and how they want to live their adult lives. And remarkably, every seven years I get the ultimate gift, time to press pause and read, think, write, rest, renew.

Half the year I get to cycle in unbelievably beautiful mountain settings, swim in an idyllic next-door lake, and run on wooded trails and sleepy residential streets. In the summer it’s almost never hot or humid and there are no bugs that would prevent one from eating outside. There are no hurricanes and hardly any lightening, but I reserve the right to amend this post if I someday survive the overdue Shake.

I often climb the mountains, swim the lake, and run the trails with excellent friends. Fitness fellowship.

My extended family is a blessing. My wife and daughters especially so. Apart from one very bad leg, they’re healthy and happy. My Better Half and I just returned from visiting First Born at Leafy Midwest Liberal Arts College. Most nineteen year-old college students would be semi-embarrassed by visiting parents, but for some reasons ours was off-the-charts warm, inviting, and appreciative the whole time. Even invited her Spanish teaching mom to her Spanish class and took us to great student a cappella and modern dance concerts.

When we first arrived on campus, Spanish teaching mom went to meet her at the Language Building. I read in the “Libe”. At the appointed time I headed across campus to meet up with them. Turned a corner and there she was walking by herself to a piano lesson. Cue the killer off-the-ground hug.

We stayed in a room in this house which a woman left to the college with an unusual condition—that it always be available as a student hang out with the necessary ingredients to bake cookies.

Home Base

The suggested donation for staying there was $30/night. We had twin beds in a smallish room. The first hints of winter crept in through the window next to my bed. I could whizz while simultaneously brushing my teeth in the tiny bathroom.

But looks can be deceiving. No one would suspect that inside this humble house, in one of the modest rooms, a One Percenter slept contentedly.

19

Another birthday. And so two characters exit the stage, Fifteen and Eighteen, and two enter, Sixteen and Nineteen.

I’m at a stage in life, most likely late-middle, where I don’t take mine or other close friends’ or family members’ birthdays for granted. Increasingly I think of birthdays as celebrations of another year of life together.

After writing warm fuzzy posts about the GalPal and youngest daught, there’s real pressure to deliver more warm fuzzies this time around.

I know I should write about how Nineteen is also blossoming on her own at college. About how helpful she’s been at home this summer. About how she salvaged a summer of unemployment by hustling together odd jobs in the hood and a half-time internship. About how nice it was that she invited me to go to Portland with her for a Sara Bareilles concert (that fact that her mom didn’t want her driving home alone after midnight might have factored in too).

Can’t though because a part of Nineteen’s blossoming is continuing to get faster in the pool. When she got faster than me at the 500 freestyle, I consoled myself by thinking at least I own the shorter stuff. Since that’s no longer true, I figured well I can still sing “Look at Me Now” to myself as I pull away in open water. Then Mel, her, and I dove into Ward Lake last Saturday afternoon. I used to be able to pick her out when looking back while breathing. Now I have to lift the chin and tilt the ol’ noggin forward.

So since this is what it has come to, her showing no respect for her elders, I’m going to tap that middle schooler in me that does the opposite of whatever I’m supposed to. Stopping right here sans warm fuzzies.

And as Sara sings. . . Who cares if you disagree? You are not me. Who made you king of anything?

The Subtleties of Privilege

I’ve been teaching first year college writing seminars since my oldest daughter was knee high. Now that she’s a first year college student herself I sporadically think about her when interacting with my students. Sometimes I imagine her sitting around our seminar table. What kind of discussant would she be? Would she tune in or go through the motions? Be bold enough to come to office hours? Appreciate my killer sense of humor? How would her writing compare to theirs?

Most recently I’ve been thinking about how her college experience compares to theirs. Her family is flawed, but more stable and secure than average. As a result, her life is more simple than some of my students’ lives, one who has missed a few classes as a result of “family business emergencies” and another who disappeared for a week and a half because of serious domestic problems. She doesn’t know it, but her comparatively uncluttered mind is a subtle, but significant form of privilege. When it comes to her homebase, she doesn’t have to worry about substance abuse, abusive behavior, violence, estrangement, or divorce. Consequently, in class, at swim practice, hanging with friends late at night, she has no excuse not to be fully in the moment.

When it comes to her family, my guess is that most of the time her orientation is “out of sight, out of mind”. We’re social media luddites meaning we don’t exchange a constant stream of text-messages. Alright I confess, we don’t exchange texts at all. However, we do enjoy Sunday night skyping. Last Sunday though, she texted younger sissy and said she was hosting a prospective student so now we’ve gone a week and half with zero contact. Not complaining, just illustrating how relaxed she is about her distant family’s well-being.

Maybe the most challenging aspect of parenting is striking the best balance between providing your children a stable and secure foundation while simultaneously giving them increasingly challenging responsibilities that prepare them for independence and adulthood. Provide the former without the later and you run the risk of children developing a debilitating sense of entitlement. Provide the later without the former and odds are the increasingly challenging responsibilities will prove overwhelming.

I worry that some of my students may not persist to graduation because their chaotic family lives will prevent them from attending class regularly and they may not roll up their sleeves and strengthen their basic skills enough to earn passing grades in increasingly difficult courses.

And I worry my daughter may not fully realize the extent of her privilege.