Thursday, August 24, 2017

AV#166 - Don't study distracted - Put the smart-phone away and focus

    “Although people seem to be unaware of it to-day, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.
    “… every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.”
From “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,”
by Simone Weil
Hey grey-beard, hey Mr. Luddite, hey you-who-can’t-even-operate-a-smartphone, I don’t think you have a right to tell me what to do with my phone!

Well, here goes anyway.  I expect to be mocked; I stand ready for a barrage of rotten tomatoes; I suspect I may be banished from the kingdom.

I hereby announce that in the fall of 2017, the #1 expectation we want for our high school students is this: to put your phone away while doing your school work.

Our 16-and-17-year-olds taking driver’s education in another wing at our school step into their classroom and sees signs like these:


My English classroom would match that – with homemade signs like these:








We begin the school year trying to help our students establish good habits.  I want my students to focus. Just as I wanted the soccer, tennis, and baseball players I coached to focus.  Does anyone see Nolan Arenado checking his cell phone between pitches?  Do we find Serena Williams reading texts between points?  The best are focused.  True as well for successful students.

How good to see, this summer, at my tennis club, the mountain of smartphones placed in a box—before the kids went out to take lessons.  Hard enough to hit a ball rifled at you—if your eyes glance to the side to see if you have message.  If the tennis pro can ask the boys and girls to put the damn phone away for an hour, can’t teachers do the same?

Over the past six years – a downward spiral

Tutoring high school students these past six years I see how increasingly difficult it is for them to avoid checking their phone, eyes darting off to look … and now even taking calls as I sit with them–in spite of the repeated requests from the adults in the room—not now, not here, please hold off until this session is over….

On the other hand, even an old-timer realizes that in 2017 more students are using the cell phones to find their homework, to do class work, and to read assigned articles—even books—for class.  Making it only harder to know if students at the table ten feet away are on task—or not.

Some educators act like we’ve already lost the battle.  In a Denver classroom last year I saw a teacher ask his students: “Please take the buds out of your ears” (i.e. would you be so kind to detach from your phone for a few minutes)—to watch and listen to the video he was showing them.  Heaven forbid that we might inconvenience them ….

This won’t be easy; we are talking about something close to addiction.  Some might beg off—you’re asking me to cut off my right hand! (after a summer when their smartphone seldom left it).  

I have no answers. I only raise my voice in protest at what I see, confident that we will help our students learn—and live—by working on the critical habit: to pay attention.  Age does not equal wisdom, but 67 years on this planet has at least taught me that to do anything well, we need to focus. 

Three ideas.  One: the faculty reads and discusses Simone Weil’s essay ““Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”—the most powerful essay I know on studying.  Yes, it has a larger theme–on prayer, and paying attention to God.  But please look at the excerpts in Addendum A.  A secular school can still explore what truths they find in her words—and to ask what more it can do to address this vital skill.  (And perhaps to develop a larger habit of character – the ability to pay attention … to another human being.)

A second idea: consider what some schools are doing to help students learn to focus. See - “Why students need to sit up and pay attention,” by Eva Moskowitz, founder and chief executive officer of Success Academy Charter Schools, in Addendum B.)  Or talk with high school students about a series of articles on texting and driving--see Addendum C--and ask if they see the relevance for their lives, and their studies. 

A third idea: schools and teachers can provide a multitude of examples – I offer a few here (Addendum D) – to emphasize that no, multi-tasking while studying – or driving, is not a virtue

But to develop the tremendously difficult art of focusing well—yes, that is a virtue.

Addendum A

Excerpts from Simone Weil’s essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” (probably written in 1942; part of her collection of essays, Waiting for God).

The Key to a Christian conception of studies is the realisation that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it. …
Although people seem to be unaware of it to-day, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary. All tasks which really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree….
If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary it is almost an advantage.
It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so. Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lightens the mind.
… Quite apart from explicit religious belief, every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit. An Eskimo story explains the origin of light as follows: “In the eternal darkness, the crow, unable to find any food, longed for light, and the earth was illumined.” If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention.
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it.
(To put our studies to their right use we must) take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate attentively and slowly each school task in which we have failed, seeing how unpleasing and second-rate it is, without seeking any excuse or overlooking any mistake or any of our tutor’s corrections, trying to get down to the origin of each fault. There is a great temptation to do the opposite, to give a sideways glance at the corrected exercise if it is bad, and to hide it forthwith. Most of us do this nearly always. We have to withstand this temptation. Incidentally, moreover, nothing is more necessary for academic success, because, despite all our efforts, we work without making much progress when we refuse to give our attention to the faults we have made and our tutor’s corrections….
Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one’s pupils: “Now you must pay attention,” one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles…
Will power, the kind that, if need be, makes us set our teeth and endure suffering, is the principal weapon of the apprentice engaged in manual work. But contrary to the usual belief, it has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade….
Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of the kind of frowning application which leads us to say with a sense of duty done: “I have worked well!” …
In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it. There is a way of giving our attention to the data of a problem in geometry without trying to find the solution, or to the words of a Latin or Greek text without trying to arrive at the meaning, a way of waiting, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.
Our first duty towards school-children and students is to make known this method to them, not only in a general way but in the particular form which bears in each exercise.

by Eva Moskowitz, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 13, 2015

Moskowitz, the founder and chief executive officer of Success Academy Charter Schools, writes of the expectations Paul Fucaloro set for his classes that have become the standard for Success Academy classrooms. She acknowledges the criticism of the approach – even from two of her children who attend Success! – but she is persuaded Fucaloro’s approach has proved effective:
As Paul repeatedly preached to me, it’s morally wrong to let a child choose whether to pay attention, because many will make the wrong choice and we can’t let them slip through the cracks. So if a student had trouble paying attention, he’d move him to the front of the class, call his parents, keep him after school to practice. Whatever it took. Paul was relentless.
Some critics say that it’s hard for young children to focus. True. But it’s our job to teach them this. Recently, I was at a news conference at which I was asked why Success has strict rules regarding behavior. As I answered, the reporters didn’t stare off into space, look bored or fiddle with things. Because they were focusing. A school that fails to teach students this necessary skill isn’t doing right by them.

Addendum C
Distracted driving

   Too many 16- and 17-year-olds have personal experiences that make the road signs on distracted driving (page 1) tragically relevant.  They might not heed the warnings – perhaps they are busy on their cell phone, zipping by above the speed limit, to even notice—but when they do, the words seem to be, well, at least about something real.
   They are likely to be offended by any comparison between driving and studying—and focus.  Come on, they will say, showing us the txt that just came in from Mom, this is not dangerous!  I just need to see if and when my Mom is going to pick me up….
   Dangerous?  Well, at least worth discussing.  I’d love to see teachers explore if and when the comparison has at least some validity.  A few articles and headlines to get the conversation started.

1.      “an epidemic of distracted driving … People on phones, on their devices.”

    To be sure, government officials and insurance executives are nearly unanimous in fingering the smartphone as one of the main culprits in the recent uptick in fatalities — both in Colorado and across the country. As smartphone ownership has become the norm, the perils of distracted driving are overwhelming the advantages of newer, safer vehicles, these experts say. 
    “What the data tell me is we have an epidemic of distracted driving,” the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) told The Colorado Statesman earlier this year. “People on phones, on their devices.”

“Why highway fatalities are going to fall,” by Vincent Carroll, The Denver Post, May 21, 2017.

2.       “Cellphone ban effort fueled by bike death” (Denver Post, 11/20/08)
3.       “Devices target districted driving” (USA TODAY, 1/17/12)
4.       “Teen driving deaths: New increased causes concern” (Denver Post, 10/22/13)

5.       “Aurora senior turns family tragedy into serious life lesson,” (Aurora Sentinel, 1/12/17)
“Rangeview’s ZIP Code, 80013, tops the list for distracted teen driving accidents in the metro area, according to JJ’s LIGHT, a student-led nonprofit organization that aims to combat distracted driving and raise money for family members of those affected by it. That data was compiled by Children’s Hospital Colorado….

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that each day ‘over eight people (were) killed and 1,161 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.’ And the federal website dedicated to distracted driving awareness reports that 3,179 people were killed and 431,000 more injured in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2014.

6.       “Distracted driving caused 40 crashes each day in Colorado last year, and CDOT wants it to stop” (Denver Post, 4/4/2017) – by Hayley Sanchez
“With a surge of 605 roadway fatalities in 2016 and Colorado officials calling distracted driving an ‘epidemic,’ the Colorado Department of Transportation has joined a national movement recognizing April as National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
“‘I think people don’t understand the real danger when they take their eyes off the road,’ CDOT spokesman Sam Cole said. ‘We know that an accident happens in an instant, and unless you’re ready to respond, it could have tragic consequences. If you’re going 65, 70 miles per hour and take your eyes off the road to read a message, that’s the equivalent of driving the length of a football field, and a lot can happen in that time.’ …
“In a survey conducted by CDOT in November, 22 percent of Colorado drivers admitted to reading messages while driving, 64 percent used some sort of entertainment, and 33 percent talked on a handheld phone.
“It’s less about the law and more about the impact of what somebody distracted while driving can have. It’s not about writing tickets and punishing them,” he said. “It’s because too many people get killed in car crashes every year. I want people to do whatever they have to do to focus.”

7.       “Phone addiction has unleashed a deadly toll” (Denver Post, 4/9/17)

Addendum D

Good Quotes on Focus and Paying Attention

“… is an act of total attention”

Photographer Dorothea Lange celebrated in PBS “American Masters” film, Aug. 29, 2014

   Family, friends and colleagues recall not just her dedication to her art (and the negative fallout for family members), but also her ability to open the artist’s world to others.
   Her granddaughter recalls the way Lange taught her to see — really see — for the first time, focusing on a handful of stones and shells at the beach. She demanded her young granddaughter’s full focus on the moment. “Yes, I see them, but do you see them?”
   “And then she took the picture.”
   Throughout, quotes from Lange illuminate her intentions and interpretations. Her commitment to “getting lost” in her work — a “mental disengagement,” she said, so that the artist “annihilates oneself” and becomes “only an observer” — is the artist’s profound recurring theme.
   “To me, beauty appears when one feels deeply, and art is an act of total attention,” she said.


From “Man’s Nature is Good,” by Mencius – chapter 9

“Now chess-playing is but a small art, but without his whole mind being given, and his will bent, to it, a man cannot succeed at it. Chess Ch'iû is the best chess-player in all the kingdom. Suppose that he is teaching two men to play.  The one gives to the subject his whole mind and bends to it all his will, doing nothing but listening to Chess Ch'iû. The other, although he seems to be listening to him, has his whole mind running on a swan which he thinks is approaching, and wishes to bend his bow, adjust the string to the arrow, and shoot it. Although he is learning along with the other, he does not come up to him. Why?— because his intelligence is not equal? Not so.”

From “’Present’ as a State of Mind,” by Ben Zimmer. The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 7, 2016

“The appeal of ‘being present’ is especially sharp at a time when our attention is diverted by countless electronic distractions. Perpetual inattention can lead to a state of mind that’s some scholars oxymoronically call ‘absent presence’: being there but not really being there.
“To be fully present can now men shutting off our screens and engaging directly with ourselves and those around us, in the spirit of quiet reflection.”

From Soledad O’Brien, founder and CEO of Starfish Media Group

On the value of getting back to horse riding after a terrible fall and reconstructive surgery on her knee:
“My brain is always going, multi-tasking, but when you ride, you really can’t multitask or you’ll kill yourself. You have to pay attention to your horse.”


Homegrown help for Rockies
Freeland making big-league debut six years after starring for TJ
The Denver Post, by Patrick Saunders

The announcement that Freeland would be the starting pitcher for the Rockies in their home opener sent his friends and former teammates scrambling for tickets. Humphrey’s Eaglecrest players will be at Coors Field too.

And, of course, members of Freeland’s family will be in attendance -- including his father, Do; his mother, Susan; and his older brother, Colin.       

He steadily moved up the minor-league chain, and hoped to get a late call-up to the Rockies last September. That didn’t happen, only stoking his motivation to make the big-league roster this spring.

Those who know Freeland best say that composure will serve him well Friday when 50,000 fans pack Coors Field.

“He doesn’t allow a lot of distractions to creep in,” his big brother said. “He’s always been that way. It kind of sets him apart.”

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

AV#165 - The privilege of being a teacher

To care – the chief reason we will not be made redundant by artificial intelligence

“I have noticed that is the biggest motivator for kids. If the kids perceive that the teacher genuinely cares about each of them as individuals that's huge. That carries more weight in the classroom than any teaching technique. Establishing a sense of family and community in the classroom."
Joseph Ruhle, 38-year high school teacher (see Addendum A)

As principals, teachers, and staff begin the new school year, a word. 

One word.  The key difference.

Too obvious. A given. Perhaps trite.  But, in the end, we will walk into the school building the next 175 mornings because we … care.

That’s it.

We care about the lives and well-being and education and character of the young people we will be with each day for the next 9-10 months.

It is inaccurate to say we spend the summers “recharging our batteries.”  A good answer for man as machine, but that is not who we are. We are in the business of caring, intensely, about young people … who need strong teaching, support, and kindness.  Our business is a matter of the heart. 

No wonder we reach the final days of school each spring needing to renew our spirit.  More than a few of us crawl across the finish line.  So yes, summer is a blessing: time to restore our soul.  A chance to make sure we will return to the classroom another year with the depth of commitment we know is necessary to do this job well.

The new 28 kids in our elementary class this first week, or the new 125 in our five classes in middle or high school, deserve our best, and so we hope our heart is full – and we are ready now to care about each of them to the best of our ability.

Which is why this is a great profession. 

And why all the talk of artificial intelligence replacing millions of jobs during the next twenty years should not scare off the young men and women who wish to teach.                       

Yes, many imagine education undergoing a dramatic transformation, thanks to the impersonal touch of the computer.  (See The Economist, July 22—right. Addendum B includes excerpts from the cover story, “Machine Learning.”  Subtitle: “Education technology is changing what happens when a child goes to school.”)

There will benefits, to be sure.  But how much is changing?  When our essential purpose is to care, no—teachers will not be out-sourced to machines.       
I am not sure anyone told me, in 1975, early in my 18-years of teaching, that it was the most important attribute. I knew it was essential to know my content, communicate clearly, show enthusiasm for the subject, and handle behavior and discipline issues well.  But in looking back, nothing was more important.  Care.

I’ve had many other jobs, but none harder.  None asked me to give as much of myself, to try, daily, hourly, moment by moment, to be a good person.    

Which, again, is why this is a great profession: it does test our character. We know where we are impatient or insensitive, or too proud to admit where we have fallen short—and the kids see it, and base their relationship with us on how we handle ourselves.  They see how we manage disruption, disrespect, teasing; how we snapped, or not; how we treated the student who returned after an illness or a death in the family--or who returned after being sent to the principal or dean, or after a suspension.

They see if we meet with students before and after school, or over lunch.  They sense if the one-on-one conversations are sincere. They like praise, but above all they hope we are fair and kind.  Which can be incredibly hard, when their behavior is more than just “off task.”  The moments when my temper got the better of me had consequences—when I did not pass the test of character. They haunt my dreams.

Their mistakes, and our failures, remind us “what fools these mortals be.”  We strive for a sense of proportion that lets us laugh—at ourselves and each other, that allows us to be of good cheer.  Which is impossible if we see ourselves as burdened, sacrificing our happiness for the good of others.  

Let’s remind ourselves, then, to be grateful for this challenge, this opportunity.  Grateful we can see the faces, moods, hopes, and confusion of boys and girls, teenagers, young adults, trying to make sense of life, of who they are.  Grateful we are asked to play this vital role—to help them on their journey.

It is not that we are better people – good grief, not my point – not at all.  No, what is great—inspiring really—is that we hold a job that sets the bar so high.  We spend most of our working day with many fragile human beings, and it our task to build good relationships with them for this week, this month, … throughout the year.  We fear the student who recalls his or her year with us as painful, uneasy, feeling we had it out for them…. Another bad memory.

No wonder I loved reading Do No Harm by Dr. Henry Marsh, his look back at over thirty-years as a brain surgeon.  Teachers can see themselves in his reflections, someone ready “to admit my fallibility,” to acknowledge “mistakes and ‘complications.’”  And yet deeply proud of his chosen profession.  He writes:

“The book is also the story of an all-encompassing love-affair, and an explanation
of why it is such a privilege—although a very painful one—to be a neurosurgeon.”

Yes, it is privilege to be in a profession that asks so much of us.

The school year begins.  We take a deep breath.  We will fail time and again to be the person we want to be, every day, for 175 days, but we are glad for the challenge—to be asked to care as much as we can, for as many kids as we can….

And then to wake up and do it again tomorrow, and tomorrow, until the final bell rings in late May.


Nothing original here.  For over a year I have been gathering quotes that make this same quality in teachers here in Colorado and beyond (see Addendum A).  It is what we all know, or—lest we forget—what we need to remember.  Our chief task: to care.

Addendum A – CARE
Quotes, excerpts, studies

“Meet The 5 New Inductees of The National Teachers Hall of Fame”
National Public Radio, July 25, 2017                              
Joseph Ruhle is a high school biology and genetics teacher at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Indiana. Total years in the classroom – 38.

After one of the five new inductees stressed the importance of caring, another—Joseph Ruhle— added.

“I have noticed that is the biggest motivator for kids. If the kids perceive that the teacher genuinely cares about each of them as individuals that's huge. That carries more weight in the classroom than any teaching technique. Establishing a sense of family and community in the classroom."


Principal James Chamberlin, Fraser Valley Elementary School, East Grand School District

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 


“New Principal Standards Catch On” - Support and Care for Students

A look at the new standards being approved by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparedness (CAEP).

"There's a lot in the new standards that the preparation programs have not emphasized in the past," said Joseph Murphy, the associate dean of the college of education at Vanderbilt University, who worked on the original Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium, or ISLLC, standards in 1996 and was part of the committee that worked on the 2015 revision.

"We, as a profession, haven't really paid the kind of attention to children that we probably should," he continued. "What we have learned over the last 15 or 20 years is that setting up a school so that children and young people are deeply cared for is critical. ... We have been light on the care side in preparation programs, and the research tells us that we have to be much more aggressive in helping people to understand how to do that."


Jane Shirley - Vice President, Catapult Leadership – What school leaders must do

Of her organization’s support for school leadership. “With all the quest for accountability and numbers, school leaders need to ensure that our schools demonstrate above all – that we care and that our students are more than data points.  We must keep asking how we’re meeting the needs of our students emotionally as well as academically.”

At a session in the Education Policy Networking Series put on by the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver, May 12, 2016.


Lone Star High School - Otis, Colorado
“The seniors say there are some distinct advantages to a small, isolated school where teachers really get to know each student. Parker says some schools don't care if you hand in your homework. They’ll just give you a zero.
“The teachers at Lone Star though are going to get on you if you don’t have your homework, she says, asking ‘why didn’t you do it, how can we help you understand this so you do it? What can we do to help you?’”
“In sum, says Zach Hamar, the teachers ‘care so much, it’s ridiculous.’”


Arnaud Garcia - a French teacher at Loveland High School in the Thompson School District

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I think building relationships is primordial in our job. I have a great sense of pride when students staying in my class, even if they don’t need it to graduate. You see them grow as a student and a person, and it is one of my favorite parts of the job. I don’t have to know everything about their life, but they have to know that I care about them. We have an activity: the star of the week, where we learn about one student’s life. It is a great way to learn that one of your student is an artist or has a secret talent.


Bill Cary - a teacher in horticulture program at Pickens Technical College, retires after 25 years

Talk to former students and one thing becomes abundantly clear about the man who was just awarded a lifetime achievement award from the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado:  Cary’s love for plants is only matched by his love for his students.
“It’s who he is. He’s very caring, he’s very warm,” said Shelby Kowalenko, a former student and owner of Colorado Land Escapes in Aurora. “It’s almost like you don’t want to let him down because he’s putting so much into you. You wnt to succeed.”

Aurora Sentinel, “After 25 years of inspiring love of plants, Aurora teacher hangs up his shears,”, June 7, 2017.


What I Learned From Listening to 100 Oakland Students

   Charles Cole II asked 100 students: “If you could address any issue regarding education, school, and your community, what would it be?”
   “Every group we spent time with,” he writes, “was incredibly thoughtful during these conversations. Here are the top three answers we got.  I am sharing this with the hope that educators, community activists, parents and the like take heed.”


This one came up with a lot of passion. Students were quite vocal on this point. They each could point to one or two teachers they felt were “different”—who really connected to them. But for the most part, they highlighted that they did not feel cared for. I pressed them for examples.
One student said: “It feels like my teachers don’t wanna be here. And I’m like, if you don’t wanna be here, what makes you think I wanna be here?”
Another student: “My teachers know nothing about me. Nothing! Like, damn, you want me to do all this work that has nothing to do with me, but you can’t even take the time to find out what I care about or where I come from?” That one got a lot of head nods and verbal agreement….

Education Post, by Charles Cole III,, June 13, 2017.


Gallup Student Poll Finds Engagement in School Dropping by Grade Level

The survey, conducted by Gallup, found that only half of adolescents report feeling engaged in school, and a fifth are actively disengaged. About 10 percent of students are classified as both disengaged and discouraged.
"A tenth of American students are really struggling," Shane Lopez, a senior scientist at Gallup, said during a panel discussion on the survey at the organization's headquarters here last week.
The report suggests that engagement drops as students age because older students feel less cared for by adults and see less value in their own work.


“More than a third of teenage girls experience depression, new study says”

   Depression is usually considered an issue parents have to watch out for starting in the turbulent teenage years. The CW channel, full of characters with existential angst about school, friends and young love, tells us so, as do the countless parenting books about the adolescent years in every guidance counselor’s office.
   But what if by that time it’s already too late?
   A large new study out this week contains some alarming data about the state of children’s mental health in the United States, finding that depression in many children appears to start as early as age 11. By the time they hit age 17, the analysis found, 13.6 percent of boys and a staggering 36.1 percent of girls have been or are depressed.
   These numbers are significantly higher than previous estimates. Understanding the risk of depression is critically important because of the close link between depressive episodes and serious issues with school, relationships and suicide. The new numbers show that whatever divergent paths boys and girls take happens even earlier than expected.


‘Too Smart to Teach’
On the challenges of teaching today, and yet the need for teachers to remember how important they are to the young people in their care.

   To be sure, educating today's youngsters in our virtual-reality culture is a tough task …. Yet these realities are little different from the interferences of past generations, when the introduction of rock-and-roll, television, radio, and the backyard swimming hole all provided newfangled nirvanas for yesterday's students to explore. Though more complex and technological, today's distractions to academics still share some common ground: Each involves children who are active, friend-conscious, and more interested in having fun than in learning math facts. Times may change, and the kids of today may appear more sophisticated than their 1940s counterparts, but a deeper look reveals that which should be obvious: Today's students need caring and intelligent adults to teach them as much as they ever did.
   To the many naysayers in our profession, I kindly ask a favor: Resign or retire or retrain or do whatever it takes to reignite the idealism that brought you here in the first place. Leave education until you once again believe that anything is possible in the life of a child--drugs, poverty, or emotional bankruptcy notwithstanding. If educators do not see their ability to make a meaningful difference for a student who believes in the inevitability of his own defeat, they are taking up valuable space in front of a classroom--space that can and should be occupied by an optimist who takes the role of teacher seriously and pridefully. 
Education Week Teacher, by James Delisle, when he was a professor of education at Kent State University and an enrichment teacher at Orchard Middle School in Solon, Ohio., Nov.1, 1995.


“Teaching character – Grit is critical in how and why people succeed” –
Review of two books: Paul Tough’s Helping Children Succeed - What Works and Why, and Angela Duckworth’s Grit

Paul Tough is “almost certainly right that character skills are shaped by a child’s social context and modeling rather than by direct instruction. And he’s probably right that helping students feel authentic connections to the adults in their school and what those adults are trying to accomplish is incredibly important. Thinking about schools as social organizations, as James Coleman once did, will likely prove a much better approach to addressing problems of motivation than pursuing solutions that focus on using incentives or information to change outcomes. … [What students] do lack, too often, is a connection with adults who would be disappointed if students didn’t care and strive for better outcomes.


From “Musing on My First Months on Ida” - Emma Willard School, Troy, N.Y.*

One of my first efforts was to gather information from every member of the faculty and staff about their Emma experience. The results of those personal interviews tell a compelling story: Ask any member of this community why they stay at Emma and the answer I heard most frequently was, “the girls.” This isn’t always the case in schools. Emma is blessed with diverse group of caring adults who surround each girl with support and care during her entire time at Emma.

From the Interim Head of School, Dr. Susan R. Groesbeck, Emma Willard School, Signature, Spring 2016
(I taught English at the Emma Willard School from 1984-88.)


School Climate - "How Are Middle School Climate and Academic Performance Related Across Schools and Over Time?"

Middle schoolers' math and reading performance rose and fell with their belief that their school had a welcoming climate, says a new study by the Regional Educational Lab at WestEd.
Researchers looked at 7th graders' reports of school climate—including feelings of safety and connection, caring relationships with adults, meaningful student participation, and low rates of bullying, drug use, delinquency, and discrimination at school—at 1,000 California middle schools, from 2004-05 through 2010-11. Researchers compared school climate data to students' test performance in reading and math during that time. …  Schools with high overall school climate … had higher average reading and math scores, and student performance was strongly related to changes in the social climate within the same school from year to year.

Education Week, by Sarah D. Sparks,, 2/8/17.


Europe’s top-performing school system rethinks its approach

The article began noting the recent praise and attention devoted to Finland’s K-12 schools, but then found a different reality:
   Inside the country, however, educators are worried. PISA scores fell in 2009 and 2012 (the next results will be published in December). Data suggest the slide began around the turn of the century. Children of immigrants tend to score worse, but native Finns’ scores have dipped, too. The problem is worst among girls from non-Finnish-speaking households and native boys: one in eight 15-year-old boys cannot read at the level necessary to keep studying.
   A separate problem is that when Finnish children are in school, they are surprisingly glum. About half of 14- and 15-year-olds feel that their teachers do not care about their lives. Finnish pupils are more likely than the average OECD student to say that their classroom environment is bad for learning. Tuomas Kurtilla, the country’s ombudsman for children, says 20-25% of Finnish girls aged 14 and 15 receive school counselling.


“Using Student Surveys: Research Findings and Implications for Teaching and Learning” - by Dr. Ron Ferguson, Senior Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Paul Ronevich, Science Teacher, Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy.

What we have learned through recent research on the use of classroom- level student surveys…. (including) how surveys capture key dimensions of classroom life and teaching practices as students experience them.”

                                  The Tripod 7Cs Framework
What Teachers Do (What Students Experience)
1.       Care about students (Encouragement and Emotional Support)
2.       Captivate students (Learning seems Interesting and Relevant)
3.       Confer with students (Students Sense their Ideas are Respected)
4.       Clarify lessons (Success Seems Feasible)
5.       Consolidate knowledge (Ideas get Connected and Integrated)
1.       Challenge students (Press for Effort, Perseverance and Rigor)
2.       Control behavior (Culture of Cooperation and Peer Support)


First Person: “I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.”  (Chalkbeat Colorado)

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.
   My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.
   So here I am.
   Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.
   I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.
   I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.
   The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.
   (When her daughter) Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.
   I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.
   Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. … I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended.…
(And then Karen was hired.)

Addendum B

Excerpts from “Machine Learning.”  Subtitle: “Education technology is changing what happens when a child goes to school.”  The Economist, July 22, 2017.

Information technology has reshaped other sectors; it has had little impact on education. … Now, though, the stasis is finally starting to shift …. “edtech” is increasingly able to interact with students in sophisticated ways. Recent studies show that software which imitates the responsive role of a tutor rather than just cranking out questions and answers can indeed accelerate children’s learning.
Research in two fields is shaping the new technology. Artificial intelligence (AI) is letting machines learn about the pupils using them by studying the data produced in the process. And research drawing on psychology, cognitive science and other disciplines is providing practical insight into the “science of learning”.
Rapid progress in speech recognition and generation may take such ideas further. Researchers at the ArticuLab at Carnegie Mellon University have used voice-recognition technology to develop Alex, a “virtual peer”, who talks to children in a vernacular that makes them feel more comfortable in class.
When pupils at the Ascend School in Oakland arrive for their daily hour and a half of maths, they look up at monitors resembling airport information screens which tell them what and how they will learn today. One child is to work on geometry in a group; another will take algebra questions on his laptop. Three teachers walk around the open space, checking on pupils’ progress. At the end of the session pupils take a short test, which is used by developers at New Classrooms, the charity behind Teach to One, to set children’s schedules for the next day. Wendy Baty, the school’s head of maths, is an enthusiast; she says that pupils receive feedback that “even the best teacher could not provide to all of the class”.
At the Yerba Buena AltSchool, in San Francisco, Hugo, 12, explains that he learns more from his peers here than at his old school. Teachers at AltSchool say they save time by not marking or planning lessons. Instead they analyse data on pupils’ portraits and tutor them on individual problems. Hugo says “I feel like the teachers here really know me.”
If schools can combine personalisation and rigour it is hard to imagine pupils failing to benefit. Education software is not making teaching obsolete. If anything it is making the craft of teaching more important. That would be good news for the staffroom and the classroom. For as 12-year-old Hugo observes, “too many teachers are just trying to get to the end of the day”.