Thursday, March 19, 2020

Have You Ever Seen Anything Like This?

No.  I have never seen anything like this, this being the novel coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19.  I have never seen anything that has resulted in so many changes over such a short period of time on such a large scale.  The World Trade Center attack on 9/11 comes the closest.  I recall back when that happened air travel was shut down shortly after, and some of that same “emotion buying” took place.  However, that was a lot different from what we are experiencing right now.

Two weeks ago, Friday the 6th to be exact, I was driving south out of Waterloo on my way to Austin, Texas to attend the SXSWEDU conference.  Each year I try to attend a national conference and this was the first time I had planned to attend this one.  I was truly excited because this one was a lot different than any other I had attended, and I was planning to stay with a good friend who lives in Austin.  I had plans for stops on the way down and trip back, and my friend was putting together a list of famous BBQ joints we were going to check out.  I don’t know if it classified as a “dream trip” because a large part of is was a work trip, but I was really looking forward to it.  Then I got this text just south of Hudson from a friend in Minneapolis: SXSW cancelled.  What!?!?

That was 14 days ago that I pulled over in Traer, got on the phone and confirmed that yes, the mayor of Austin, Texas shut down the entire SXSW education conference and festival.  At that point there were four people identified with the virus in Texas and less than ten in Iowa.  I think most people did not realize what was going to come, or at least refused to believe what was being said about it.  However, that was a punch in the gut to me.  At that point it became very obvious that this was going to become a big deal.  If the city of Austin, Texas was shutting down a three week long evert that has been going on for 34 years and in essence throwing away millions and millions of dollars that would be pumped into its local economy, this was a big deal.

When I came into the high school building last Monday morning, my mind was on what impact this was going to have on  school and our students.  I have been able to get a few other things done, but I would guess that at least 70% of my time and focus has been on the coronavirus.  I cannot count the number of conversations Mr. Willhite and I have had, as well as with other administrators.  Regular communication has taken place with Jessica Wegner from public health.  We have made plans for this and plans for that, and then things change.  Until last Thursday night the 8th graders were still going on their trip to Washington, DC.  On that Friday the travel company for our music trip up to Minneapolis recommended we cancel.  Some state organizations, the music and speech associations, have proactively cancelled contests.  Others, the IHSAA and IGHSAU, have not.  

This past Sunday night I got a call that I strangely expected.  The Governor was shutting down schools for four weeks.  I now know what crisis mode is.  I lost track of the meetings we have had online with various groups.  The experience of working in a bureaucracy where every one is trying to come up with answers to questions, yet having to wait on guidance from those above you is painful.  Acknowledging that in many ways we are in a war, and having to deal with life in a whole different way than what we were living two weeks ago.  On Wednesday the stress got to me.  I could feel it in my body and I had to get away from what our administrative team had been so focused on.  We had basically been holed up in the “war room” in the superintendent’s office and I had to get out.  Fresh air, a good walk, and a little to eat got me back to where I needed to be.

How life has changed in two weeks.  

Sunday, March 1, 2020

How Involved Should You Be?

Once again I am going to defer to Tim Elmore for the first article this month.  I have a few articles of my own in the works, but have not completed them.  That said, I think you will find his perspective interesting and his advice helpful.  It’s a relatively short article and I believe has good information for all of us.

How Involved Should Parents Be in Their Child’s Education?

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Address the Other Side of The Sexting Issue

It has been a little while since the last sexting issue at our school, but there is no question that up to this point, we have primarily addressed one side of it: telling girls not to send nude photos of themselves.  We have basically interrogated boys about where they have gotten pictures, and implemented consequences if warranted, but rarely have we talked to boys about the issue.  On the contrary, I’ve given sometimes very emotional “lectures” to girls about not letting the boy convince you to send pics.  All of those conversations have included me talking to them about developing a strong self-identify and having control over their life.  The reality, however, is that in many high schools, girls are under tremendous pressure to share explicit pictures of themselves, and we adults do not always have a full understanding of it.

Researchers from Northwestern University found through a study on cyberbullying and sexting that about 66% of girls age 12 to 18 had been asked for explicit pictures of themselves.  In that survey, a high percentage of girls said that they faced persistent requests, anger, and threats from boys to send them pictures.  It is also quite common for some boys to play on emotions common in dating relationships, emphasizing trust and commitment as reasons to share pictures.  “If you love me you’ll share a picture with me” type pressure is often used.

What is particularly disturbing, according to psychologist Lisa Damour, are the repercussions some girls face if they do not share photos.  In some instances girls face harassment and threats if they don’t sent pictures.  They are sometimes cut off from relationships.  At a period in their life when relationships mean everything, being isolated takes a tremendous toll.  We also know that there are significant emotional and psychological concerns, with young girls experiencing depression, and some opting to take their life once the pictures become public.  

While attention given to sexting is not as intense as it was a couple of years ago, it is still going on.  At NFVHS we have dealt with a handful of incidents that have been brought to our attention over the past four or five years.  In each case, we involve law enforcement.  We investigate the matter as it applies to the impact at school, and then we let law enforcement handle it in the manner they see fit.

After the first couple of times we dealt with a sexting issue, and basically telling girls “don’t send the boys pictures,” I started wondering about this constant “blaming the girl” for what happened.  In the bigger picture, we tend to blame the girl for a lot of negative things that happen in teenager relationships, perhaps because many of us simply accept the “boys will be boys” philosophy or because we expect more from girls than we do boys when it comes to traditional views on sexuality.  That said, I have asked myself why we aren’t sending the message to the other side of the equation?

Many of you may remember the news from the University of Notre Dame that made the rounds a little over a year ago.  A mother of two boys who attended the catholic university in South Bend, IN wrote an open letter to girls at college to quite wearing leggings on campus because her boys basically couldn’t keep their eyes off of them and she was worried about how they (the boys) could cope with this.  When I heard that I thought “are you kidding me!”  It’s kind of like those who blame girls through dress code policies for boys having “impure” thoughts, not being able to control their imaginations or urges because of what a girl was wearing.  Come on!  Give me a break!  Like this mom with boys at Notre Dame,  at what point do we hold boys accountable!

That’s the other side of the equation.  Rather than pointing the finger at girls and blame them for sending “nudes,” we need to put our focus on boys and tell them to quit asking for them!  Heck, I have heard unsubstantiated stories of boys who have hundreds of photos of girls, each one of them could be used to bully, blackmail, or embarrass a young person.  The irony, is that in the State of Iowa, this is illegal.  Now, most county attorneys and local law enforcement do not want to ruin the life of a teenager in possession of photos like this, but why are we not putting the focus on the boy who is asking for the pictures rather than the girl that is being harassed into giving them up?  It seems to me that is the approach we need to take.  We need to at least balance the how we approach issues like this, holding boys accountable at least to the extent we do the girls.  We need to hold our boys to a higher level, and not just accept that boys will be boys.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Thoughts About the Gymnasium Uberlingen Exchange — Part V

For this last article about the trip to Germany, I am shifting back to an educational topic, and am posing the question as to whether American schools are becoming more like German schools, or is it the opposite.  Are German schools moving toward what we have for public schools in our country?  Actually, I think a better question is “should” either one of them make a shift.  The reality, at least from my experience, is that there are shifts in both countries, and whether those are right or wrong will not be resolved for some time.

In the United States, most  of the high schools (at least the public ones) are considered to be comprehensiveschools.  In essence, the schools provide educational programs for all students, whether they plan to go on to college or chose a path that is more technical in nature.  All students are educated under the same roof, regardless of their ability, background, socioeconomic status, proficiency, or vocation.  Public schools in the United States are set up to educate all of the youth in the community.  

In Germany, and many other countries in Europe, they have a tiered system or a dual system of education for high school age students.  At the elementary level, children go to the same schools, but then around the age of 10 or 11, they take a series of exams that will determine what school they go on to the next five to ten years of their life.  For those who perform at a high level, they will be allowed to attend a professional Gymnasium or a general-education Gymnasium, depending on their career aspirations.  In essence, they are the top students academically who are planning to attend a college or university.  Students who do not score as well, are able to go to a Hauptschule or Gesamtschule, which teach many of the same subjects as at a Gymnasium, but at a slower pace.  And, the students who attend these schools at some point will most likely move on to a full-time vocational school, enter into an apprenticeship, or start work in the public service at 15 to 17 years of age.

Most of us, particularly due to the presence of the exchange in our school community, have at least a bit of knowledge about this system.  For example, we know that the students who come from Uberlingen Gymnasium are those who are very bright, scored well on their exams, and intend to pursue a professional career by first attending college.  And, after getting to know a number of these students over the years, yes, they are very intelligent young people that seem to have a solid grasp of what they want to do with their life.  We also know that if a young person has a desire to work with their hands or pursue a job that involves more technical skills, they are going to attend a different school.  Perhaps many of us were not aware that they actually finish formal school at a younger age than our students, and most of them complete some kind of an apprenticeship.  What we do know is that by common American definition, students in Germany (and many other European countries) are “tracked" and attend secondary schools that have a much more specific focus.

Tracking has been somewhat of a four-letter word in American education because it implies that there is inequity.  The common belief is that every child should have access to the same educational opportunities.  There are multiple reasons for this, among them the American value of equality and that just because a student learns a little different from others they should not be denied a chance to pursue their dreams.  Kids are told they can be whatever they want to be, and people do not want to close doors to their future.

Exam scores are not used by public schools in our country to determine where students go to school.  It is only at the college level where exam scores are used to sort students out.  However, even in Iowa, we are starting to see a bit of a shift away from the traditional comprehensive model.  In recent years there has been a strong effort by the Department of Education, political leaders, as well as business and industry to move students toward an education that prepares them for highly skilled trades.  Do not mix that up with what what at one time was called vocational programs.  Today, it involves much more technical skills, though there is a huge need for people to be electricians, plumbers, and the like.  There is pressure being placed on school districts to “regionalize” their efforts and work closely with area employers to create programs to meet the future demand.  There are efforts to start with students in middle school to more clearly identify what career they are interested in, so that their high school educational program can be tailored to that path.  In some areas, new “high tech” high schools with a focus on career preparation are being created.

In Germany, the change that is moving fairly quick is parents being able to choose the school their child attends, with those rigid exam scores being a guide, rather than a way definitive way to assign students to particular schools.  This is basically a federal requirement, and like many top down decisions, the cart has been put in front of the horse.  As I spoke to teachers at Uberlingen Gymnasium, a common concern was that they now were getting students who were in no way able to perform at the high standards in place, some with disabilities.  More important, those teachers were never trained to provide supports like tiered interventions or academic supports.  A student with a disability did not attend these schools, and some of the teachers feel totally unequipped to teach them.  For decades, teachers in American public schools have been given a full toolbox of strategies to work with students of all ability levels because since the inception of public education in our country, our doors have been open to all.

For education geeks, debates over the purpose and structures of school could go deep into the night.  There are certainly pros and cons to both systems, and from my perspective, it will be interesting what public schools in the United States look like in twenty years.  My personal opinion is that they will look similar to what we have today unless there is some major economic shakeup in our country that forces change.  Our schools have changed quite a bit over the years, but the fundamental structure and purpose of school has not.  I believe a high percentage of high schools will still be comprehensive, providing programs for all.  In metropolitan areas we will see some high tech schools, but unless there is a huge infusion of money in rural areas and consolidation of small districts, twenty years from now I would predict things will be quite similar to what they are now.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dealing With Entitlement

It has been a while since I have fallen back on Tim Elmore of Growing Leaders: Ready for Real Life for an article.  The one that I am sharing with you today is one that came to my email the last week of the first semester, and shed a lot of light on some of the issues that we are dealing with now that some students have recognized they have not done enough to satisfactorily pass a class.  This generation of students in high school right now may turn out to be one of the most influential in our nation’s history.  As a group, they are going to face incredible challenges left by the mess that we boomers are leaving them.  At the same time, never have we had the level of entitlement among such a large segment of the student population.  Give this a read and ask yourself if you see this in your kids, and if so, imagine how you can take steps to reign them back in so that they recognize that they have to earn what they get.

Five Steps to Reverse a Sense of Entitlement

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Kids Retiring From Youth Sports

In a report from the Aspen Institute that was released as part of their Project Play research, some very disturbing numbers where shared about the declining percentage of students who play sports.  I’m not talking about high school students; I’m talking about those in elementary schools!  Here is a statistic to give you a picture of what I am referring to.  According to the Aspen Institute, the average child in our country spends less than three years playing a sport, and quitting by age 11, because it just is not fun anymore.

This study has sent a major warning shot across the bow of sports organizations from youth to professional.  Professional sports leagues have responded quickly with a marketing campaign put together encourage kids to stick with playing sports.  They have called it #DONTRETIREKID.  Kind of interesting when you think about it as retirement is generally associated in sports when an athlete can no longer compete.  We have seen some athletes agonize over that decision, and for others, they really do not have a choice because they have exhausted their opportunities to play a game they love because they do not have the skills to move to the next level.  Now, many 11-year olds are making that decision!  In 2018, only 38% of children from the age 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis.  That is down from 45% ten years earlier.

Another reason cited by the study that kids are quitting at a young age is because of the economics.  While parents report that the primary thing they are looking for with youth sports is that their kids have fun, it can cost a lot for their child to play.  To that end, many parents pay upwards of a few thousand dollars each season for their child to play.  Hockey has the highest average price tag at $2583.00 per year, with track and field having the lowest average at $191.00 annually.  The average cost across the board for all youth sports participation in the country was $698.00 a year.  But, keep in mind that these are averages.  Even the least expensive sports saw some parents spending in excess of $9000.00 per year per child, taking into consideration private coaching, travel, uniforms, and other costs.  

It goes without saying that because of the cost, kids are left out.  Even nominal fees to participate can be an obstacle for some low-income families, and certainly, in some areas public and non-profit organizations do not provide the same opportunities as in the past because of cutbacks that have been made over the years.  Another phenomenon is that for those families that can afford it, their kids play on travel or “select” teams, depleting numbers for local leagues and lowering the level of competition,.  Whereas for previous generations sports were a way for kids living in poverty to “get out,” without opportunity that is not as readily available.  Leagues sponsored by Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA, and city recreational departments are the ones most likely to be free or at a low cost for kids, but in many areas of the country, it has become increasingly difficult for these programs to find funding.

While a majority of parents state that their primary hope for their child that participates in sports is to have fun, many of them are also looking for extrinsic rewards for their kids as well.  Many parents rank admission advantages to college, athletic scholarships, and professional sports opportunities very high as to why they want their kids to play sports.  For many of these kids, the level of stress becomes very high, and “burnout” is something that is often the result.  In addition, many families are under the impression that if their child is going to get a scholarship, they need to focus on one sport, which obviously results in a decline in overall participation.  An increasing problem with sport specialization, according to medical professionals, is overuse injuries.  Dr. James Andrews, the foremost orthopedic surgeon in the country working with professional and college athletes, reports an alarming increase in the number of young, pre-teen athletes coming to him to repair injuries.  This is quite scary when you think that an athletic career could be finished before a child starts high school due to injuries!

According to the Aspen Institute study, kids are cycling out of sports relatively quick.  On average, kids quit playing a sport after 2.86 years.  At first look, this is not a good sign, especially if the kids move to the couch or end up spending their time on something other than sports.  If they are in fact leaving, then there truly is a problem and people need to figure out why.  It is critically important for their long-term health that children do remain active and get the recommended level of one-hour of physical activity a day.  It does not have to be in organized sports, but it needs to take place somewhere!

Referenced earlier is the growing issue at a young age of kids specializing in one sport.  According to the report, 45% of children play only one sport.  The multi-sport athlete — the life blood of small high school athletic programs — is declining.  We see it at NFVHS as fewer students are participating in three or four sports.  In some cases, students play a sport at the high school and then move on to a club program, opting not to play another sport with a school team.  Specialization is also something that college level coaches caution against.  Many of them have been very outspoken in their desire to recruit multi-sport athletes.  Coach Kirk Ferentz at Iowa has a number of offensive linemen that were outstanding wrestlers in high school.  Coach John Cook at Nebraska loves to recruit volleyball players that have competed in other sports as well.  

There is certainly a bias here from the perspective of a high school activity director wanting to see a high level of participation playing at a competitive level.  It is concerning that fewer young kids are playing sports, and more so, they are quitting at a young age before they get to high school.  Yes, there is an obsession in this country with sports, and certainly some people taken them a lot more serious than they should.  However, they can have very positive benefits for young people that participate, and they are something a community places an emphasis on.  Let’s take some time and figure out how to give more access to kids and create an environment where they want to continue playing as long as they can.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Rewards and Recognition: What Works

As I begin this article, I want to fully disclose that I have never been a fan of rewards for participation, motivation, or self-esteem.  The “everyone gets a trophy” mentality has been detrimental for years, doing more harm than good, and the spillover continues to damage the development of young people, and in turn, have a negative impact on a number of things we do in high schools.  I have written about this same topic previously on this site, and after recently reading a bit more on the topic, and am going to discuss it a little further.

In a recent Harvard study led by Carly Robinson, it was found that attendance awards, generally used to motivate students to come to school, can actually lead students to miss more days of school.  This study included 14,000 students in California in schools that gave out awards to students for school attendance.  Many of the students, once they received an award, started attending school less often.  The question then becomes, why?  We will get to that in a few minutes.

Rewards are a very big deal in American culture.  They have been used in all aspects of society to motivate performance.  Whether it is Employee of the Month in a department store, or the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, rewards permeate our society.  We have organizations that spend huge amounts of money to publicly recognize people.  The CMA Awards are just one example of a major television production, and each year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame puts on an incredible program.  At the local level, you can most likely put together a list of rewards people are given pretty quick!  Just check out the local newspaper and someone is being recognized.

So, why am I bringing this up, and why is it a negative for kids?  Well, research is showing that rewards do not necessarily do what we want them to do.  They do not motivate people the way there were necessarily intended. 

There is a sense that there is a saturation of rewards.  Everyone is giving them.  In a school, look around a lot of classrooms and hallways and you will see stars for this, names on the wall for that, and any number of ways kids can be recognized. The volume of rewards has increased dramatically, and in some instances, you do not have to do much to get one.  Today, many of our students have figured out the game that they have to play in order to get the reward, and some simply do not want to play the game.  

To the casual observer, one would think it works because there are kids with stars and names on the wall, right?  Wrong.  If it worked, wouldn’t all kids have a star and all kids have their name on the wall?  Youth wrestling tournaments give medals to any youngster that  pays an entry fee and shows up, so why aren't youth wrestling tournaments turning kids away?  Go to some schools and get your picture on a banner when you are a senior.  Why don’t all seniors go out for athletic teams to get their banner on the wall?

There have to be reasons why.  Let’s take a look at a few possibilities, some of which have already been alluded to.  Tim Elmore provides a number of possibilities, and in my opinion, the biggest mistake people have made when it comes to giving rewards is that they have done it for behaviors that are expected.  I have had a number of colleagues question why are we rewarding students for doing what we expect them to do?  That has bothered me for a long time, and I suppose I get criticized because of my lack acknowledgment of kids.  I’ve done some of this, but I have a hard time handing out praise or rewards for things students, or anyone else, should be doing.  Rewards should be given to those who exceed expectations.  I will never apologize for having high expectations, and neither should anyone else!  Exceeding those expectations is what should get recognized.

Elmore points out that we must make sure that we understand how the reward is perceived by those who receive it, as well as their peers.  I remember a classmate of mine, Bruce Feigenbutz, who did not miss a day of school from Kindergarten through his senior year in high school!  That is impressive, and goes beyond anyone’s expectations.  As an educator, I am impressed and would certainly agree that giving a reward to someone for that kind of accomplishment is warranted.  That said, for the majority of high school students, consistent school attendance is not seen as something cool at all.  In some school cultures, really good grades are not cool either, at least for some members of the student body.  How much influence they have will often determine how a reward is perceived.  Some students will resent the recognition if they believe they are going to be mocked for their success.  Thus, a reward for attendance may in fact be something kids do not want.

I’ve already pointed out that too many rewards reduces the meaning.  Here is a real quick example.  Compared to a lot of high schools, we have a high standard for admission into the National Honor Society.  To even be considered, a student must have a 3.5 GPA, which is actually higher than the national recommendation.  For the most current induction, there were 30 students eligible to apply, and through the selection process, fourteen were inducted.  Our NHS Chapter has 29 current members.  We have another school almost exactly the same size in our area that had 100 students eligible this year, and over thirty were selected.  Their GPA requirement is 3.25.  Which one of these is the greater honor?  How about schools that have an overwhelming number of valedictorians?  How much an honor is it when 20% of the senior class is recognized as a valedictorian?  The rarer the reward, the higher the value.  For something to be motivating, it has to be valued.

What do students value?  What kinds of rewards do motivate?  That is something that those giving the reward need to find out.  In some communities with high poverty levels, the reward of a free college education paid for by wealthy benefactors has had a huge impact on academic performance.  I’m not so sure that would have the same impact in wealthy communities.  In some schools, access to free computer time has been an attractive reward.  For many, finding ways to reward excellence or exceeding expectations can be quite difficult.  What researchers have shown time again is that to be most effective, the reward must have intrinsic value.  The individual must have a high level of personal satisfaction and sense of personal accomplishment for the reward to have value, regardless of what it is.  

I have to admit that the hair stands up on the back of my neck when I am with various groups and we are talking about students and the topic of rewards come up.  In most instances as soon as that happens, I ask “What are our expectations?” and generally follow with “If kids meet the expectations, why is it necessary to reward?”  Other than a “thank you” or “good job” do we really need to give more?