Tag Archives: High School

Words for Students About College

My grade 12 students are applying to college and for the most part, they’re miserable about it. They’re worried about grades and transcripts, letters of recommendation and application essays. They’re worried about class assessment tasks, standardized tests, final exams.

And no matter how often I try to tell them that it doesn’t matter, I understand that to them, it does. When I was 17, applying to college was the most stressful and seemingly important thing I’d ever done, too. I do empathize with my students. Applying to college is the most stressful thing most of them have ever done, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

I’ve been telling my students to consider the following pieces of advice based on what I know now, looking back over 11 years:

  1. Put yourself in a place you’d like to live. Think about what you want around you, the community you’d like to call home, and the access that place provides for whatever matters to you.
  2. Study something that provides you with options. You can always go back to school, continue your education, and switch tracks entirely. The more options you have, the easier it is to change your mind and do something else.
  3. Consider your passions and the best ways to find fulfillment – and then consider what you need to be able to do that. Financial security? Free time? A level of autonomy? We encourage students to follow their passions, but I’d argue that it’s more important to set yourself up to be able to do that in the long run.
  4. Remember that formal education is an option, not a requirement. It’s a choice. Take a gap year. Get a job. Go somewhere new. And then decide whether formal education is the best way to set yourself up to live a good life. Higher education isn’t going away.
  5. Figure out how you learn best. Figure out what you need to sustain yourself in an environment that drives you. Do you need a 9-5 job to afford to spend your weekends surfing? Do you need to live in a specific country? Do you need to be part of a think tank to have meaningful discussions?

I’m not saying these are the right questions for everyone, but I do believe they merit some thought. Higher education is the default option for the students that I teach, as well as for many students worldwide. I don’t think this is always appropriate, if for no other reason than we don’t often consider alternatives. We also don’t often consider why higher education is the default.

Asking questions is a step in a different direction, and hopefully in the right one.

A friend described his life path to me as “a bowl of spaghetti” and he’s one of the most interesting people I know. I followed a very linear path until I got scared and jumped off it; I’m a better person and educator as a result. Linearity and predictability are safe, easy, and obvious but there’s a lot more to the world than that.

The Perfect School Day

It’s probably clear from this blog by now that education is very (dare I say “increasingly”?) important to me. I’ve written a lot about education in general, and more specifically on the purpose of education. Much of what prompted those posts came from reflection and discussion with Kyle when I was working in Singapore. 

Here are some of Kyle’s past writings on the purpose of education:

And mine:

We’ve also literally written thousands of unpublished words on the topic, including over 10,000 words in an unfinished e-book that has been on the back burner for months, but spurred on most of my education-related thinking over the past year or so. I’ve rethought a lot of what I “knew” about school, teachers, and students and I’m excited about the possibility of true education reform.

So with all the abstract philosophical thought on the topic and much reviewing of the educational literature, here is a complete “perfect day” of secondary school as Kyle and I envision it.

The Daily Schedule
9:00 AM – Start of school. This isn’t super important, other than it isn’t super early. Many high school students naturally sleep in a bit later due to staying up later and there really isn’t any reason to begin at 7:00 AM.

9:00-10:30 AM – Reading. Ideally this is aimed at current local, national, international, or global problems with current events from the news or other texts. The goal is simply to be aware at the beginning of each day of the suffering that is taking place all around us. This is not done to instill pessimism, but to inspire compassion – the desire to alleviate suffering in others. Literature that deals with human created suffering such as Frankenstein make for good selections during this time as well.

Conversation. This is a time to discuss what’s been read and share what interests and engages us. There can be a specific topic for this first hour, say sex trafficking of women around the world, or more open-ended reading of current affairs and sharing issues of personal interests. The aim is simply to engage in meaningful conversation about the state of the world with the purpose of refining ever more acutely what causes suffering and understanding the variety of contexts that contribute to it.

Investigation. This is a time to investigate what solutions have been generated for the causes of suffering we’ve been reading and discussing and to figure out what we can do as individuals, a group, and a community (both locally and societally) to alleviate it. This should spur lots of insight and opportunities for the social entrepreneurship block to come later in the day as possible gaps are identified in current attempts to deal with issues. Students might investigate political, economic, social, or technological solutions that have been attempted to deal with world problems.

10:30-11:00 AM – Break. This is a time to simply relax, have a snack if needed and transition to the next phase of the day.

11:00 AM-12:30 PM  – Physical education. This is a time for strength training, cardiovascular training, mobility training, and other athletics. This is also an opportunity to meet in small groups or one-on-one to discuss nutrition, mental health, and emotional health in order to increase and monitor overall well-being. The aim is pragmatic, how do we take care of ourselves as humans?

12:30-1:10 PM – Lunch.

1:10-2:40 PM – Social entrepreneurship. This is a time to work collaboratively on projects that aim to alleviate suffering and improve the world. Creativity, service, design, innovation, STEM, and business skills are intermingled in order to develop projects and programs that would have the greatest possible impact in any particular area. All members of the school community spend this time actively engaged in social entrepreneurship work, which could also include supporting one another’s enterprises, meeting with community partners and facilitators, and working off campus. This is also an opportunity to attend roundtable discussions to present work completed so far and elicit feedback from others, as well as figure out collaborative partnerships.

2:40-3:00 PM – Break.

3:00-4:30 PM – Personal growth and well-being. This is a time to end the day on a positive note, examining personal strengths, goals, and psychological states. This is also time to follow individual passions, such as reading literature, playing music, learning languages, creative writing, playing sports, making videos, blogging, or simply relaxing. The rejuvenation that comes from this part of the day will help the following day to commence with similar excitement. Engagement and flow should occur often and students can leave for the day feeling charged and full of zeal.

A Day in the Life of a Student
“Air pollution increases amidst warnings.”
“Migrants face deportation.”
“Refugees seek urgent medical care”

Maia stretches and looks up. It’s nearly 9:30, the end of the half-hour reading block that begins the day. Maia, her peers, and their teachers have been together as a team for the past year and a half. While they don’t always agree on how to most effectively tackle the suffering in the world, they care for each other and about those around them.

Soon, there’s enough movement to indicate that the readers are ready to talk. They readjust themselves around the room, remaining comfortable, but better able to see and hear each other.

“I’ve been reading a lot about climate change today.” The comment comes from a student perched on an ottoman next to a stack of books with titles like The Age of Sustainable Development.

“Did you see the New York Times article on the summit?” Maia asks, still sitting against the wall. “There’s a picture of the Doomsday Clock in my head.”

“I thought Canada put up a particularly strong stance, actually, and that might push other countries to follow through with caps on emissions.” A student new to the group states, sitting at a desk.

“That’s pretty broad, though,” says a student on the floor near Maia. “Yesterday, I read a lot of this book on the Copenhagen Consensus and there are real proposals that real people are working on, but it’s hard to tell whether emission caps are actually more effective than other suggestions, like bioengineering. On the one hand, it’s an easier sell. So maybe that’s better than nothing.”

The conversation continues for about thirty minutes and covers a range of topics from climate change to micronutrient deficiencies in small children. As always, the focus is on understanding why suffering occurs. Gradually, students return to their laptops and put in headphones, ready to move on from discussion.

Feeling agency to act is important. Maia and several classmates have lately been investigating vaccination efforts in Africa. They read Half the Sky together earlier in the year, which prompted questions about sex trafficking due to poverty, leading to a foray into tropical diseases. When they come across a new report on Ebola, one group member calls over a teacher to ask about virus mutations while others gather around a YouTube video explaining the science.

After about thirty minutes, it’s time to stop. Maia has learned to monitor her body for fatigue and tries to pause in her work before reaching a point of frustration. While some stay to continue working, Maia needs a half-hour of relaxation and maybe some frisbee. She takes an apple out of her bag and joins a loud group of friends on their way outside.

Frisbee leaves Maia feeling warmed up and ready to keep moving. She has a meeting with a nutrition counselor at 11, the beginning of the physical education block. After a long exploration of ethics and sentience, Maia has decided to become a vegetarian and wants guidance on her new diet. If she can’t take care of herself, she can’t make the world a better place. A guidance counselor taught her that last year after she experienced a series of anxiety attacks. After her meeting, Maia joins a group of classmates for a trail run in the woods on the edges of campus.

When they get back to the gym, Maia heads straight to her favorite coach. She wants to add mobility training to keep her hips mobile for the barbell squats she already does with the hope of squatting one and a half times her own body weight. She found a series of exercises online and asks for help with her form. The gym begins to clear out around 12:30 as students freshen up before lunch.

The afternoon campus is unrecognizable from the calm of the morning. Teachers, students, and community members are everywhere, all working on a myriad of social entrepreneurship projects. Maia’s group is putting together an education campaign about vaccination. They’ve partnered with another group focusing on fundraising efforts to implement the campaign. Each group takes a turn updating the other on what they’ve accomplished since their last check-in two weeks earlier. A teacher joins the groups to ask whether they’ve contacted any humanitarian aid agencies, which Maia’s group adds to their task list. Across the room, a few students and teachers are gathered around a whiteboard with a series of questions: “How do we create vaccines? What are they? Are there vaccines we don’t have, but would like to have? What’s been done to create them? Can we try making one?” Pointing this out to her group members, Maia joins in the discussion. This could be another good partnership.

It’s 2:45 by the time Maia’s group decides to stop for the day. They have a “next steps” action plan that should get them through the rest of the week. Other groups have already paused in their social entrepreneurship work and gone back outside to take a break.

Maia returns to her locker for her yoga mat and makes her way to an open studio space. After learning about yoga and meditation from a friend last year, Maia started an afternoon yoga class during the personal growth block. At the beginning of class, she invites each person to check in with themselves and set an intention for their practice. They’ll be in this space for an hour so she encourages them to focus on altruism, approaching each person with the goal of enhancing their overall well-being in every interaction.

After class, Maia steps over a robot whizzing down the hallway and follows the sounds of yelling and cheering to a room at the end of the hall. Someone mentioned a new virtual reality video game and maybe these are the people to ask about it.

At 4:30, Maia joins the waves of students leaving campus. She feels content, optimistic about the work she’s doing, and already looking forward to meeting with her project group again tomorrow. She makes a mental note to see what the team of teachers has been working on; she hasn’t really talked with them this week. Maia flips through her phone to a podcast recorded daily by a group of students.

“Good afternoon,” the host begins. “Thanks for joining us on What to Be. Today’s special guest is the executive chef at a local restaurant that provides job training and childcare for mothers.”

Maia smiles. That chef is a friend who graduated two years ago. Cool.

Final Thoughts
The actual blocked timing of much of this day ought to be more flexible than is written out here. It’s important that students learn how to manage their time and what is important. If they are fully wrapped up in a project they are working on involving social entrepreneurship, it is in no way urgent that they stop so they can move onto the final chunk of the day focused on personal growth and well-being; they are almost certainly already feeling a sense of personal growth and well-being if they are truly engaged in the project and feel a deep sense of meaning and purpose. Let them continue on.

The shape of this day is designed so that students can be exposed to problems early, work hard on thinking about and reflecting on them, take a break to physically recharge with exercise and food, move onto solving problems and creating value in the world for others, and then finish with some personal “me” time that explores what gives each of us pleasure and a sense of well-being. They will be prepared to act as responsible citizens who can think critically and participate in civic debates while also being ready for employment that is purposeful and creative. When not acting as citizens or employees they will understand how to relax and enjoy themselves in personal activities that contribute to a sense of rejuvenation and flow.

Learn, exercise, connect, create, be. Do our students really need to focus on anything else?

Please Hire Me.

It’s time I made this public: I’m moving again.

Yup, again. I love Singapore and I love my school. I love my friends here and I love the travel I’ve been doing throughout my time in Southeast Asia. More importantly, I love my department and I love the curriculum we’re developing. I am actually excited to develop this curriculum, which is something I never thought I’d say. We’ve made the decision (and been given permission) to completely redesign the MYP Individuals and Societies courses at school and we’re doing it through a lens of sustainable development with a focus on scientifically and morally based problem solving. And it’s really going to happen, which is the coolest part. I so wish I could be here to teach the ninth and tenth grade iterations of this curriculum next year. That would be such a wonderful experience, and I am so excited for all of my colleagues and for all of the students who are going to part of it. I would love to join them.

But I also love a really wonderful man and he’s in New York City. Because of his job, Mitch is likely to be in New York City for a very long time. Our rough estimate is a decade at the minimum before we can even entertain the thought of going elsewhere. For better or for worse, going through the rest of my life without Mitch isn’t an option I’m willing to consider, awesome curriculum or not.

So it’s time to go back.

I made this decision a few months ago and took the necessary HR steps back in December. Most of my colleagues know that I’m leaving, but I haven’t said anything to my students. I have a lot of unfinished business as far as they’re concerned (this curriculum, only developing the first of two years of DP Psych) and I’m not entirely comfortable letting go. I have no doubt that whoever takes my place will be more than qualified. I have no doubt that my very capable colleagues will do brilliant work with the curriculum and really change what we’re teaching and how we’re doing it. And there’s really no reason I can’t continue that reevaluation in my own classroom, wherever it happens to be.

I’ve been looking for jobs for over a month, which I know is not a very long time. I’ve applied to a lot of wonderful schools and even more less wonderful schools. I’m waiting to hear about my application to the NYC public school system. I’m waiting to hear from nearly everywhere I’ve applied. There’s only been one flat-out “no”, but I honestly prefer that to silence. It’s a competitive market, so I’m trying not to be too picky. I’m also trying to find a school that will let me teach and let me do it well.

One day, I’ll find myself back in a progressive school in which I’m allowed to teach what should be taught, not what has always been taught. That’s been the best part about teaching the MYP this year, and it’s only going to get better. We have so much freedom to do what’s right as long as we’re working towards the IB aims of responsible action and creating a peaceful world. And who doesn’t want to do that?

At the moment, I’m not ready for my time in Singapore or overseas to be over. I never really planned on reaching that point, but I haven’t planned on a lot of things. So here’s to the next five months – to making them count.