Monday, August 24, 2015

Let the kids Sleep!

To start off the school year in AP Psychology, I share with students four lessons from Psychology that can make them a better student. Number one, we talk about metacognition. Two, deep vs. shallow processing. Three, spaced/distributed vs. massed practice. And, point number four is simple: Get enough sleep! Students laugh at this point as if it is too simple to be of value and also because for many of them the idea of sleeping for eight hours or more is just a joke.

If you were hungry, it would be inhuman to keep you from food. If you're thirsty, your body is telling you it's time for water. When you need to go to the bathroom, well, you get where I'm going. These are all physical needs that must be met, and we've recognized for a long time that in school, you better make sure these needs are attended to if there is any hope of getting to the job of educating.

Last night, a fellow high school Psych teacher tweeted out a link to a CDC study headlined "Most US Middle and High Schools Start the Day Too Early." Occasionally, I'll have a student suggest that since teenagers tend to sleep later, they should go to school later, but in my district, they're in for a shock when they learn that we've known that for a while and adjusted the schedule accordingly.

When I went to high school, our day started at 8:20am. Not too bad, but still ten minutes earlier than the time recommended by the CDC. For as long as I can remember teaching in Albemarle County, Virginia, we've started school no earlier than 8:50am. Another Psych teacher twitter friend thought I was joking and shared that his school day begins at 7:15 in the morning.

Adequate sleep is not an option. Sleep deprivation has negative short and long term effects. I don't think that I've been capable of going to bed earlier than 10pm since I was about fourteen years old. If that is a reasonable bed time, then a teen would need to sleep until at least 6:30am to get eight and a half hours of sleep, and 7:30am to get nine and a half. I can't imagine the average teenager able to go to sleep before then even with close parental supervision. If it takes an hour to get showered, dressed, eat a quick breakfast, and travel to school, that gets us to the recommended time from the CDC.

I asked in our twitter exchange what could possibly be the rationale for such early start times for high school students. The only real argument seems to be participation in sports and other extra-curriculars. If that's it, then why can't middle schools get it right on start times? But, these obstacles clearly aren't impossible to overcome. From time to time, early dismissals for athletes competing away can be a problem, but an average of once a week in season doesn't compare to the cumulative effect of sleep loss over an entire year.

This is still assuming that most teenagers are going to bed before 11pm.

So why do so many districts insist on such early start times for middle and high school? The phrase "what's best for the kids" seems to only apply when it's directed to a classroom policy of a teacher. For all of the district administrators and decision-makers having kids start class before 8:00 in the morning, is that really what's best for the kids?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What? Me Worry.


Why do we worry?

Because we care.

I remember after the birth of my first child. I felt guilty at the amount of anxiety and fear I felt rush over me the day he was born. A close friend put it in perspective by saying "what should really upset you would've been not feeling worried and afraid." What he meant was that those feelings showed that I understood it was a big deal and I knew that life was about to change.

I'm still worried and anxious about tomorrow, even though I've done this more times than I care to mention. It's the first day of school, and it's a big deal for my students, for my parents, and because of that...'s a big deal for me.

I'm sure it's going to go well. But I'm still worried. And I wouldn't want to be any other way right now.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What I Learned From Julian Bond

I can’t begin to communicate the level of ignorance in my life when I entered college out of small town southern Virginia in 1990. I was shocked to learn that support for presidents Reagan and Bush was anything less than 100% and struggled to come to grips with the reality that professional wrestling might not actually be a legitimate sport. It didn’t take long on a college campus for me to learn that I wasn’t even smart enough to know the things that I didn’t know.
I took Julian Bond’s “History of the Civil Rights Movement” out of genuine interest in learning about those things that I didn’t know. I had no idea who Julian Bond was. He told a joke on the first day of class about walking with Dr. Martin Luther King along the D.C. mall. Dr. King shared a dream from the night before during which he said “I had a nightmare,” to which Julian Bond replied “No, Dr. King, You have a dream.” He then went on to take credit for the title of MLK’s famous speech.

I laughed along with everyone else, assuming the entire scenario was just a fiction to break the ice in class. Only several weeks later did I notice in our assigned readings, the name of my teacher kept coming up—Then I realized, it was this man who played such an instrumental role in the journey towards civil rights in America that I have been given the privilege to learn from.

I learned first in that class, that I had grown up largely unaware of the privilege my race had afforded me. Walking into the room, the make up of the class was still majority white, but much less than any other classroom I’d entered. It made me uncomfortable, even more, the fact that I was uncomfortable without any good reason made me more uncomfortable and brought some of my hidden biases to the surface where they had to be dealt with.

I learned that the best way to approach new people is with humility and not arrogance. I entered the classroom expecting a “teacher” who would tell me about “history.” What I got was a “history maker” telling and showing me how he “shaped history.” I still regret that it took me a few weeks to realize that fact. I’m thankful that he was the regular instructor of the class for the entire semester. We often miss great opportunities to learn because we don’t take other people seriously enough.

I learned that I had to own my history and live my present. As a white male, I don’t need to defend my history, deny my privilege, or bristle when racism is named. Julian Bond recreated “sit-in” training sessions similar to sessions run by the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee in the sixties. These simulations were difficult and hard to handle, but in light of the fact that they were just that—simulations of training—made the brutal reality of events that actually happened impossible to deny. The past shouldn’t make me feel guilty, but it should definitely inform how I move into the future.

Most importantly, I continued to learn long after leaving Julian Bond’s classroom. From the perspective gained from him I found a new lens with which to view the world. A lens that recognizes the varied experiences of the people in our world and a mind that values the way these varied experiences have weaved the tapestry of humanity that we are a part of today.

I don’t even know how many years he taught this class at the University of Virginia, but I know that several thousand students at least had the opportunity to learn from him. This is just one small way out of many that Julian Bond has shaped the world in which we live.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Balancing the Teacher's Paradox

As this school year starts for most people around the U.S., I thought this might be a helpful idea to keep in mind. I've said it before, but I think it is the key to being an effective educator.

"Education is the most important and the least important thing in a child's life."

I know, it doesn't make sense, but I couldn't do the job I do without understanding it. It started for me eleven years ago. I stood out in the hallway with a senior. He needed my class to graduate in just a few months and he couldn't have cared less. I actually gave him the "what do you want to do with your life?" speech.

He made it, barely.

Fast forward six months. That child died as a result of a car accident. Six months earlier I had actually said "what do you want to do with your life" to this child, and now there is no life to do with.

I could share several other stories like this, but in the grand scheme of LIFE, what did my 90 minutes every other day for nine months mean to that child.

A few years later, in a group discussion about budget and salaries, an administrator remarked that our work was just as important as the work that goes on down the road at the University of Virginia hospital. Most of the time when I visit that place, I look at it in awe as I recognize how many lives hang in the balance in those walls, how many families have had lives changed, for better or for worse, in an instant. I'm not sure that my job deals in life or death that closely.

But, I've seen the difference that my job makes. I know there are students on career paths that have been influenced by me. I know that my institution has enabled success for numerous students that perhaps they could not have found elsewhere. I even inspired a tattoo this year (that's a post for another day). I know how important education is, perhaps maybe even a matter of life or death for a few in the long run.

That's the balance that drives my work. When I prepare and engage with students, I do it because it is the most important thing in the world. I give it my all. I hold them to a high standard. I expect hard work and effort from them. I'm driven to learn and to constantly refresh what I do to meet the changing needs in a changing world. I'm driven by this because it is the most important work in the world.

But, when I see that a student is struggling. When I'm unable to finish a task because I my family is a priority in my life. When the fire drill or countless unexpected interruptions foul my plan. When I try something different and fail. When I get frustrated by mandates, or initiatives that I don't like. When a child falls short of expectations and we have to try again. I am not beat down because this is the least important work in the world.

As our school years begin. I hope that you are able to see the life of a child and develop the desire to change it for the better. I also hope that you have the wisdom to know that often, the most important thing in the life of a child will happen outside of your four walls of influence, and that's o.k.

Good luck with teaching this year, the hardest and the easiest job you could ever have.