Category Archives: Students

ADD: a reminder for parents what “Attention Deficit” really means

Parents of a student who has been diagnosed with “Attention Deficit,” commonly known as “ADD” and “ADHD,” get a reminder every hour of every day that by, “attention deficit,” ADD is more than some inability to focus.

Wikipedia defines “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD) as:

characterized by problems paying attention, excessive activity, or difficulty controlling behavior which is not appropriate for a person’s age.

The key words here are, “paying attention,” something that I am reminded of as I jumped up from my living room chair at the smell of my burning breakfast. My wife would remind me that I always burn the roast. I remind her that she should remind me when I put something on the stove.

A wise, wonderful person, my Belgian host-mother during my student exchange year to Tournai, Belgium, told me (in French), “Michael, you try to do too much at once.”

My own mother wouldn’t disagree, especially during those numerous emergency visits for another round of stitches needed because I wasn’t “paying attention” again. Continue reading

Sleepers Awake: a celebration of J. Reilly Lewis, master organist, conductor & educator

J. Reilly Lewis, world-renowned conductor, organist, and expert on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and our dear friend, died unexpectedly last week.

A Friend to All

We called him our friend because, for Reilly, if you were a friend of Bach, you were a friend of Reilly’s — and if you were a friend of Reilly’s you could not help but be a friend of Johann Sebastian Bach.

We were both. We were both because Reilly was a true teacher who was passionate about his craft, welcoming and enthusiastic for his learners, and compassionate and patient for those who didn’t know it — like the best teacher, a friend to all.

Reilly welcomed his friends several Sundays each year at the National Presbyterian Church, whose organ he called one of the best in the world, and on occasional Tuesdays at the Church of Epiphany on 13th Street, for “Noontime Cantatas.” Reilly’s Washington Bach Consort is a premier musical organization in Washington DC whose performances are part of the permanent collection at the Library of Congress.

Reluctant Learners

A few years ago, the musical director at my high school and I brought a rather unwilling group of about a dozen or her Music Theory 9th graders  to a “Noontime Cantata.” Reilly loved nothing more than for students to attend his concerts.

The value in it for the kids was the trip itself, hanging out with their friends and missing their other classes. The cost in it was to have to sit through a classical music concert. These were Catholic school students, so they knew how to endure a mass. Still, classical music? Yikes!

I sat behind them in the upper level pews and shared a box of Altoids to help them stay awake. There weren’t enough Altoids in the world to hold up their nodding heads. If the violins didn’t push their eyes to the back of their heads, the chorus closed the gap between their chins and chests. Most of them were fast asleep by the end.

They were good sports, they were brave, and they had behaved.

We awaited for the audience to depart, then relocated to the main pews while the school bus returned. I did my best to give them a little history lesson of the church, why the stained glass, why the design, how this church held community in DC during times of distress such as the Civil War.  Poor kids, they bravely sat through my attempts to engage them in some learning while we were sitting there waiting for the bus.

A Private Lesson from Reilly

Then a little man in a tuxedo walked up to the group, and with the brightest, happiest voice, loudly welcomed them and thanked them for coming to see his concert. The kids turned to him and smiled back gently, reluctant to engage, but curious.

Reilly asked them a few questions about their school, if they’d seen a concert like this before, and one or two bravely, if quietly, answered.

Then, with that wisp of mischievousness that made him so compelling as a person, performer, and teacher, Reilly said, “Do you want to see the organ?”

Again, the kids were hesitant but polite. Reilly said, “Come on!” and led them up the isle and onto the alter, where a beautiful organ sat with all it’s confusing keys, knobs and pedals. Reilly sat at the bench and ushered us to come around him.  The kids were now well past curiosity and jostled for the best view. My father and I stood back and smiled at each other, not fully aware yet of the magnificent treat before us.

Reilly turned to the kids,  “Do you want to see how it works?” He had them by now, of course, deliberately teasing them with a couple keys and different sounds from the pipes.

Suddenly, he launched into a full blown performance, with his hands and feet racing about the keys, magical, like nothing they had seen before, not CGI from the movies, not beats and rhymes from their friends and music videos. This was special, and their eyes lit ablaze.

I looked over at my father who had seen countless performances – but never from just over the master’s shoulder! He was as mesmerized as the kids, and more for knowing for what a special moment it was.

After a bit of pure showmanship, Reilly wrapped up, not having shown off, but having shared the fun.

We thanked the maestro who with genuine enthusiasm thanked the students for being there. The kids returned the thanks with equal enthusiasm.

The bus had arrived, and these 9th graders climbed into it not with the shared pain of sleeping through a classical concert but with the joy of a unique and wonderful experience that they talked about the ride back to school.

RIP J. Reilly Lewis

We will miss you, J Reilly Lewis, and we will think of you often as we aspire to love our work as you did yours and, more importantly, love sharing it with all — all of whom we will call our friends.

– Michael

 

Deconstructing Graduation Day: Administrators, “The Road Not Taken” Speeches & Other Regrets

graduation_msclipart_450pxIt’s hokey, trite, and boring:  long live the great American high school graduation ceremony & hopes and dreams for students and parents!

As a teacher I grew cynical about graduation ceremonies. At my school the faculty blessedly sat well behind the podium, mostly out of view. When one of our kind ever “went to the dark side” and joined the administration, we’d always riddle them with texts during the ceremony about having to behave and offering to pass along some Hot Tamales, the faculty currency during these tedious events.  We ran bingo contests with student names, competed as to who could eat the most Hot Tamales at a time, bet on the length of the speeches, and otherwise fooled around worse than the children had done in our own classrooms.

I no longer go to graduation ceremonies for a living, but the other day my wife and I sat through a ceremony for a family member. Since we were in the audience, I had to behave. At least, I thought, the faculty of this school had to behave, too, as they were seated on the main floor by the students in full view of everyone. Ha!

Then I had to figure out how to survive it myself. My wife had banned all thoughts of listening to a podcast, so I put the phone on airplane mode and, unlike half the people around us, sat isolated from the outer world with only a graduation before me. So I begged my wife for a pen. She sighed, reached into that magic bag she calls a purse, and produced one. I spent the rest of the ceremony employing the advice I give students on how to survive a boring class by jotting notes on the program, deconstructing the events.

Grade Inflation!

My first notes regard how many times the principal bragged about grade inflation. Well, he didn’t put it quite like that, but he bragged over and over that 103 kids, about a third of the class, graduated with honors. I pondered how the rest possibly managed to get below a 3.5.

The clue was “Weighted GPA,” which is education-speak for honors-classes bonus where a C is a B, a B is an A and an A is a 5.0 on your 4.0 scale GPA. There were certainly kids taking honors courses (AP/ IB, etc.) that did not make a 3.5, but for those kids not taking honors, a 3.5 is truly a 3.5, whereas for the honors kids that’s just a C.

Administrative Bloat

My next notation reads, “7 or 8 Vice Principals!!” and is underlined three times. I was already shocked by the number of faculty — they streamed in like the Persian army of old.

Then the principal got to introducing the administrators. What should have been a quick, “Here’s Ben, our Vice Principal of Student Affairs” and “Meet Lucy, our Academic Vice Principal,” turned into a directory of all the administrative positions you never heard of. I attempted a quick mental calculation of the administrators times their bloated salaries divided by the county residents, but then I just got angry.

Next came introductions to the County Superintendent of Schools, a Director of Curriculum (was the County Director of Honors Programs unavailable?) and a couple Board of Education members. My notes read, “Memo to self: NEVER RUN FOR BOARD OF EDCUATION!”

The Superintendent took the easy route and had the kids write her speech. She just read off a list of quotations on the meaning of high school that the school had students send her. Our family graduate made the list with one I felt was rather apropos to my own take on the ceremony about not letting the haters get you down.

A Board of Education member then gave a speech she had to have pilfered from a web search on “trite graduation speeches,” featuring Robert Frost, of course, and his “The Road Not Taken.” I can’t remember if she got the title right, as it’s usually called “The Road Less Traveled” by most graduation speakers. And, of course, she read the poem.

Really? You read the poem? Okay, it’s only four stanzas, but make that four incomprehensible stanzas coming over a basketball stadium loudspeaker to an audience most of whose last breath of poetry came precisely at their own high school or college graduation ceremony, likely hearing this same poem.

She next delivered the standard tripe about daring to take the road “less traveled,” even though the poem states that both roads are equally traveled:

“…the passing there  / Had worn them really about the same.”

Worst of all, and here I take offense on behalf of Robert Frost and all thinking English teachers, she assured the kids, heh, don’t worry, even if your road is the wrong one it’ll be alright because, “you can always turn around and go back the other way later.”

What’s horribly wrong with that misreading of the poem itself is precisely what’s wrong with an education system so full of backstops and “safety nets” that magically protects students from their own bad choices.

It starts with turning zeroes into 60% Fs, dumbed-down summer school and no-competition sports, and ends with the absurdities that we’re all winners no matter what we do – and one third of the graduating class receiving honors.

Nobody Better Than Anyone Else

But even those students are all equal among themselves, as the word “Valedictorian” didn’t make it into the program. The student speakers were the class president and another student whose title or honors went unmentioned. My notes here read: Memo to school: VALEDICTORIAN IS THE PERSON WHO DELIVERS THE VALEDICTORY.”

Usually, that’s the kid with the highest GPA but not always. I learned afterwards that the selection was based upon a speech contest, which is fine. Nevertheless, the word “valedictorian” did not appear in the program or the event, and no mention was made of who was no. 1 in the class. I guess we can distinguish a third from the rest, but not the one-percenter from even that top third.

Good & Bad Choices

“The Road Not Taken” ends with a “sigh” as the narrator considers that he may, in the future, look back upon the choice he is making today with regret:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,*
And that has made all the difference.

The job of educators is to guide children into making positive choices. By dumbing down both negative consequence and positive rewards, we are developing fragility in our children, not robustness.

There’s much pedagogical discussion about the benefits of failure, but clearly it’s not being implemented here. This school has a multitude of administrators whose job is to make sure as many kids as possible “earn” a 3.5 and as few as possible don’t somehow manage to fail out. With one-third the class earning honors, largely due to the grade inflation of the GPA “honors bump,” what’s the other two-thirds to do but ponder why they bothered at all?

The problem is that the failure is too easy and too little sanctioned. There is no pain in failure if summer school is easy and all stigma is removed. Worse, in offering no positive alternatives to academic failure, we merely make anything possible and that will too often be seriously bad choices. Our Board of Education speaker is only creating more future sighs of regret.

And let’s clarify here and now that a very few, if any, of the kids will be a trail blazer. I wish a normal life upon them all, one that, when they get to be my age, they don’t look back upon and sigh, as Robert Frost’s narrator knows he will one day, and wonder what might have been on that other road. The lie our speaker told is that each of us is unique and special and, by the way, we won’t be held accountable for our screw-ups. Maybe you’re the one. Good luck. But for the rest of us, let’s just see what we can do to make our paths — which are never really just a straight choice between this and that, and are instead a series of turns and cross steps — as safe and happy as possible.

A sigh for who didn’t make it – and applause for those who barely did

I know there were kids who didn’t make it through to their senior year and were not there that day. I also know there were kids who walked that stage but have not yet earned their diploma. For the ones who have fully graduated and who earned every bit of it — and not just the one-third of the class who benefited from grade inflation, I congratulate you, and I trust your road will be a well-planned, well-traveled, and safe route to happiness.

I rather love the kids who struggled, who got screwed by a teacher or two, possibly deservedly but mostly not, who dug a few holes, and who can’t remember what’s due when, but who fought back and graduated. God bless the 103 honors students, but the others are my heroes.

Yet, it’s the kids NOT on that stage who need to learn the meaning of the Frost poem. Those who weren’t there, dear Board of Education speaker, are your audience, and you might do a better job of helping them avoid the lesser roads they unfortunately took — and can now very little work back from.

Congratulations Graduates!

Honest, I’m not a buzz kill, and I congratulate the students and their families on this graduation. That’s wonderful and it’s an important rite of passage in our country. My cynicism is for the hordes of Principals and Vice Principals and Superintendents and Boards of Education who could use a refresher on the meaning of “The Road Not Taken.”

– Michael


* The “one less traveled by” isn’t a unique, different path, rather, it’s the narrator’s future rationalization for a regretted choice of today — and it couldn’t be a more inappropriate sentiment for a graduation ceremony. 

 

Procrastination, values, and connecting long term goals to short term choices

student goal setting, values and procrastinationParents and teachers think that if only students would connect their short term decisions to long term goals, such as college and jobs, they would quit procrastinating and do their homework.

That’s why we’re always telling them about how important their future is.

Experience tells us that it’s not a reasonable connection. Kids won’t suddenly start doing their homework because they decided one day to be an astronaut or a sports agent. They do their homework because they think the homework is important unto itself.  Or not.

Every Child Wants Success

Students of all levels have high-standards and long term goals for themselves. But just wanting to go to a good college doesn’t get the homework done.

Continue reading

How can I improve my essay grades? Students, writing is drafting

student writing an essayWith academic writing or other research projects, student improvement has a single source: drafting. Students will always score a better grade if they don’t hand in a “first draft” to the teacher.

Think of handing in an unrevised paper as “going in blind.” That means that no one else, including the author, has looked it over. A fully revised paper or project is one that has been looked over — and over again, hopefully also by a second pair of eyes – revised, sat upon, and revised again.

The great writer and critic, Evelyn Waugh, advised* : Continue reading

Ancient advice from Epictetus for students and parents: want what you can, not just what you want (setting realistic expectations)

All students are aspirational: they want to do well in school and for their parents. But when they fall off from expectations, the excuses and resistance begin.

Managing a teen student is complicated enough! Now you have to deal with enforcing rules, upping the oversight, and staying on top of a resistant child. Communication breaks off, and things get, well, unhappy.

At the A+ Club, we help students do better in school by engaging them in reflection, problem solving and goal setting — and following up week to week, along with assignments and grades oversight and direct tutoring when needed.

Our system helps students identify what is possible and feel empowered to get there. When kids don’t know what to do or can’t see past the next step, it’s usually because their expectations aren’t aligned with their realities.

Do not “require a fig in winter”

– Epictetus

When we adults say, “I want to lose weight” it’s as vague and meaningless — and counter-productive — as when a student starts a new quarter after low grades with, “I’m going to get straight A’s.”

Continue reading

Parents & Teens Beware: like diamonds & tattoos, social media posts are forever

gaming and social mediaSeemed like a good idea at the time…

Two recent Skype incidents remind us of the dangers of social media and the “instant age.”

One, an offensive albeit private joke ignorantly shared online, the other a deliberate spamming via Skype messaging remind us that parents can and should be aware of their teen student’s social media activities. Here are some warnings and suggestions, starting with the idea that with social media, private is never really private.

Likes, Moods, Tweets & Eternal Connectedness

You may have heard about how one Facebook “like” can expose a supposedly private account to a viral world (see CBS article on Five Hidden Dangers of Facebook)

And you have probably seen the news that broke recently about The Bong Hit That Cost an NFL Prospect 8 Million.  It wasn’t the use of the drug that cost him $8mm, it was the picture of it that ended up on Twitter on the biggest day of his life – 7 years after the picture was taken. Oops. Continue reading

Brenda discovers that she actually can learn the quadratic formula! (with a little help from the A+ Club)

Cartoon1_Panel2_bBrenda’s mom is upset about her grades and that she’s not doing her homework. Brenda thinks her mom is being too pushy. Like high school teens & parents everywhere, they’re both a little right — and also a little wrong.

Brenda’s mom is right to be concerned. And Brenda is naturally feeling stressed over doing something she is genuinely having trouble accomplishing. And that’s where the emotions get in the way.

This scenario plays out every day with high school teens and their parents.  Sometimes students just don’t know how to do their school work. Worse, sometimes they don’t know how to go about studying. That’s where we can help.

Quadratic Formulas & Other Troubles

Brenda is stuck on the Quadratic formula. She gets it when her teacher shows it in class, but when she has to do it on her own, she gets stuck. And then everything else becomes a problem, too. Continue reading

A Successful Assessment pt 3: how to take a test (or, reading instructions & not running out of time)

Test Prep help from the A+ ClubWhen a parent of a middle or high school teen worries that “my student doesn’t test” well, what’s missing is a combination of goal setting, preparation and execution.

As discussed in the previous posts on “Successful Assessments,” testing success consists of:

  • Identifying teacher/ test expectations (“no surprises”)
  • Preparing effectively (learning v. cramming)
  • Executing on test day (test taking strategies)

Test prep above all else

“Easy” tests are those students have or are effectively prepared for: if the student knows what to expect and prepares for it, the results will be strong.

That said, there are still a few things a student can do to better results on the test day.

A couple do-nots on test day include: Continue reading

A Successful Assessment pt 2: how to prepare for a test (or learning all along not just cramming)

Successful Test Prep from the A+ ClubParents concerned about their teen’s middle and high school exam and test prep might consider that studying isn’t just a matter of reviewing notes and study guides. Successful testing requires ongoing learning.

Here are some strategies for parents to empower their student’s exam prep and overall academic success.

In our series on  Successful Assessment: how to prepare for a test (or why doesn’t my child test well?), we are reviewing the essential parts of successful testing:

  1. No Surprises (identified teacher expectations)
  2. Student Prepared (successful learning)
  3. Student had time to finish (successful test execution)

This post regards student preparation. It’s one thing to know what will be on a test (see Part 1: Identifying Expectations) and also to understand it . But can you perform it yourself? Continue reading