Under Pressure

Vicke Abeles writes:

Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control. On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments. Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life…

Yet instead of empowering them to thrive, this drive for success is eroding children’s health and undermining their potential. Modern education is actually making them sick.

Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression — and their single biggest source of stress was school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended — and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the university level, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a survey from last year said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.

Read the entire NY Times op-ed piece here.

Connecting Kids Now More Important Than Ever

Yesterday I rode a yellow school bus to Newark airport to meet students and teachers visiting from Konstanz. This marks the 12th year since Gary and I began running student exchange programs between a US middle school and schools in the UK and Germany. We had considered ourselves “retired” from this enterprise, but were convinced to host one more exchange this year to stave off many disappointed young travelers.

It’s a challenge — working with nervous school boards, negotiating the least expensive airfare, handling paperwork, making reservations — Gary and I have noted that there’s a reason we leave this to younger teachers nowadays! But seeing 50 ecstatic exchange partners greet each other last night for the first leg of their exchange visit reminds me why we do this: it’s an experience most students never forget and a critical foundation to cultural understanding.

In light of recent events, it’s more important than ever to help our kids feel connected to other cultures.

First US experience -- riding the big yellow school bus!

First US experience — riding the big yellow school bus!


Change Story

I am currently working on a MOOC through MIT: U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self. It’s been an incredible learning journey that I am determined to focus on, despite the craziness of my fall work and travel schedule.

Today in week 4, Otto Scharmer shared a change story about a time in his life when his family home burned to the ground. While I can’t point to such a dramatic even in my own life, I can remember a similar moment when I realized that I needed to take a leap forward without safety nets in place.

I had the good fortune to work at ACS Cobham in England as the deputy head of a preK-12 school. It was an amazing experience but for various reasons I could not move my family across the ocean with me. Sadly, I resigned myself to returning home, leaving a job I loved and with no work prospects ahead of me.

Shortly before I left England I had the pleasure of meeting Clay Shirky for coffee. We were discussing changes in educational systems as a result of technology and the internet. After a while, he asked for my story.

I told him my tale of woe and mentioned my nervousness about returning to the US without a job. His response has stayed with me ever since that conversation 6 years ago over coffee in Paddington Station. “Listen,” he told me, “everybody’s deck is being reshuffled over the next few years. Look at all the cards you’re dealt and something will emerge.”

Easy for you, I thought. Clay Shirky is an internationally-acclaimed speaker and professor at NYU. But he was right. I returned to the US and began to consult with K-12 schools across the country and around the world. Now I work with schools on all sorts of topics, ultimately all focusing on how we can make learning better for students. Not a bad hand to be dealt.

The Ultimate License Plate Game

An 8th grader was sharing during social studies class that her family has spent the last few years playing the License Plate Game, attempting to find all 50 states. “So a few months ago, we were down to 10 states,” she explained, “and my dad said that whatever state was the last one, we would go visit over spring break.”

“Last month it was down to two states: Hawaii and South Dakota. We got really excited because we figured that there was no way we’d see a Hawaii plate.”

“So …” asked the teacher, “what happened?”

“So in March, we’re visiting South Dakota.”



Start All Over Again …

It’s been a great summer. I’ve had the chance to criss-cross the US working with dedicated educators who — despite the challenges — are determined to do their absolute best for the students in their charge.

As Labor Day approaches, I often wax nostalgic about my days in the classroom or school district. But as I look forward to a fall line up of exciting work (Southeast, Midwest, West Coast, New England, Old England, China!) I recognize that we’re all in this together. Every school year is an opportunity to give it another try.

In the spirit of trying again, here’s a classic from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:


On the Autonomy of Teachers

We cannot have an educational culture that respects the individuality of students and allows their classes to develop their own character without restoring much of the professional autonomy of teachers that has been lost to accountability-driven reform. As Stanford University’s Larry Cuban explained, top-down reformers have long made recurring efforts to curtail the professional autonomy of teachers in order to impose standardization of classroom instruction. Cuban described this micromanaging as “teacher bashing” or “blaming teachers for resisting changes.” School reformers have repeatedly attacked the professional autonomy of teachers, basically asking, “Why can’t teachers simply change their shoes, pull up their socks, and get on with the changes for God’s sake?”

Historically, teachers have pushed back and quietly reasserted a measure of control of their classrooms. The result is a system of “constrained autonomy” or a shifting balance of power between classroom teachers and those who seek to supervise us. And, I believe history will repeat itself. The childhood experiences of today’s teacher candidates may have been constrained by the culture of teach-to-the-test, but at some point they will fight back and refuse to impose this pedagogy on the next generation.

And let’s not forget that autonomy is one of the key ingredients in what motivates us (see Daniel Pink‘s Drive). Is it any wonder teachers are leaving the profession as their autonomy is continually eroded?

Read Dr. John Thompson‘s entire post here.

The Need for Sleep

Fewer than 1 in 5 middle and high schools in the U.S. began the school day at the recommended 8:30 AM start time or later during the 2011-2012 school year, according to data published today in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Too-early start times can keep students from getting the sleep they need for health, safety, and academic success, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Read the CDC press release here.