As A Teacher

Books that everyone should read

With the pandemic raging and social distancing orders in place, people are spending far more time at home. And, in spite of Books Imageour 21st century technological dependencies, it is the old world habits that have brought us the most comfort. From baking and cooking to reading, we’ve rediscovered the joy of slowing down.

Another habit that can provide a temporary escape from the dystopian conflicts we’re experiencing right now — reading.

Far too often, people associate reading with homework: the late night assignments, annotating textbooks, digesting information and regurgitating it for exams. Those anxiety-leaden memories can keep people, especially students, from reading for the sheer pleasure of it.

It’s also true that many of the greatest, most celebrated works of fiction are actually pretty bleak. Most of our favorite novels explore big questions: free will versus fate, morality, heartbreak and suffering, death and destruction.

And yet exploring these ideas, the fundamental nature of humanity, helps us.

So when my graduating seniors asked for book recommendations, so that they could continue reading – for fun – I wondered what to recommend. Novels or nonfiction, classics or contemporary literature?

I decided on all of the above.

There are many lists of classics that everyone should read or of the 100 best books of the last 100 years. This is not that kind of list.

I polled friends and colleagues and even posted the question on Twitter. I loved the

books tweet

The question posed on Twitter, “What books should everyone read?” drew a lot of suggestions. Scroll through the recommendations

response, and encourage everyone to look through the thread and reply with their own suggestions here.

There are great suggestions on this list, ranging from young adult novels and contemporary fiction to well-established canonical works. Most importantly, it’s a glimpse at what people are reading and thinking and the enthusiasm that we share for great stories.

Here is the curated list — including classics and newer works, both fiction and non-fiction.­­­

1984 by George Orwell

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Stranger by Albert Camus

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Revolutionary Road Richard Yates

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

This is definitely not an exhaustive list and, surely, there will be titles here that some will disagree with. Please scroll through the suggestions on Twitter and add your own.

Do Good in This Life. After 45 Years, Joe Walpole Retires

Anyone privileged enough to learn from Joseph Walpole, could never forget him. Walking into his classroom was

Joe Walpole began his teaching career 45 years ago. After a long and inspiring career, he is retiring.

always special — and whether he was discussing rhythm and meter, or the “art of styling sentences,” or love, loss and conflict in literature – the lessons came alive, the students sat engaged and enthralled.

“Like good writing, teaching is an art, and Joseph Walpole is the best I’ve ever known,” said Helena Castro, activities director at Miami Lakes Educational Center (MLEC). He taught more than grammar and mechanics, he taught his students about life. “His lessons came not only from books, but from his own hardships and triumphs, his time in the U.S. Navy and teaching abroad,” Castro said.

And yet, Joe’s storied teaching career began after a serendipitous encounter. He saw a billboard advertisement looking for college graduates to teach English in the Virgin Islands. He called the phone number and the rest is history.

Walpole has taught everywhere, from private schools to penitentiaries, around the world. And everywhere, his students remember him, send him holiday cards and emails, dropping by to visit.

“I am literally here because of Mr. Joe Walpole,” said Dr. Steve Gallon, who was once a student in Walpole’s ninth grade English class at Miami Northwestern Senior High School. “When he met me, I could have gone left, I could have gone right; Mr. Walpole helped guide me forward,” said Gallon, now Miami-Dade County Public Schools District I school board representative, at Walpole’s retirement party.

Dr. Gallon went on to major in English and became the youngest principal in MDCPS history and then a schools superintendent in New Jersey, before returning to his native Miami.

Throughout his career, Joe has inspired many students. His literary alumni now span the globe. There are millionaires and writers, business people, journalists and scientists. They remember his lessons, not just how to write a killer thesis statement, but they remember that he believed in them.

“Mr. Walpole believed in us, so much and was so proud of us when we accomplished our goals, he was so excited to hear where and when we were accepted to college,” said Jason Ledon, a recent graduate of MLEC heading to Carnegie Mellon in the fall. “When Mr. Walpole is proud of you, you become proud of yourself.”

Now, after 45 years of teaching, Mr. Walpole is saying goodbye to the classroom. He is retiring from Miami Lakes Educational Center, where he spent the last 16 years of his teaching career, the longest he’d stayed at any one school.

It’s not just the students that will miss him.

“Joe makes us better teachers and better people,” said Erica Evans-DeSimmone, the Cambridge Academy leader at MLEC.“He has been the heart of this academy, and we are going to miss him.”

Walpole has said that, throughout his career, he has sought “to do good in this life.” To help “engrain values: the old verities that will anchor students through life, truth-seeking, responsibility, courage, compassion, and respect for oneself and for others.”

If the outpouring of support, love and appreciation that he has received is any indication, it is safe to conclude that Joseph Walpole has, indeed, done good.

——

A version of this story was published in The Miami Laker on July 8, 2019: http://miamilaker.com/Education/ArtMID/570/ArticleID/6598/MLEC-says-goodbye-to-favorite-Joseph-Walpole-

 

A New School Year: How to have a great first day & a successful school year

The first day of school is just around the corner and with it, comes the first-day jitters. Children may be anxious – and excited – about the change: new classroom, new teachers, new friends and maybe even a new school. The change can be a little daunting.

It’s not just the first day that is nerve-racking, a new school year can be challenging for children and their parents.

But, it’s not just the kids who are nervous.

The first day can be pretty nerve-racking for parents too. The best way to combat these stressors is to prepare, not just for the first day, but to set the groundwork for a successful school year.

1. Dress up, coordinate and organize. Shopping for school supplies can be a fun way to help kids get organized and gain some independence and responsibility. Sit down together to create a lift of what they will need. Do they need a lunchbox? A new calculator? Then, set some ground rules, and allow kids to choose their own bookbag, pencil case, water bottle and some basic school supplies (pens, pencils, crayons, etc.). Color coordinating notebooks, folders and supplies might be fun and useful. Older kids who have several subjects and teachers, may find it helpful to coordinate what they need for each. Say, green folders for math and blue for reading. It may help to keep track of homework and assignments for each class.

2. Have a walkthrough. A lot of the stress over the first day is the unknown. Combat that by getting familiar with the environment. Visit the school. Have them see where their classroom is, where the cafeteria is, where they will be picked up and dropped off. Whether someone is driving them to school or they are boarding a school bus, have a practice run. Everyone feels more confident once they know where to go and what to expect.

3. Set goals and get familiar with the curriculum. What will kids learn this year? A lot of this information is online on the parent portal, the school’s website, and was likely provided at student orientation. Parents may not know what it’s like to be in school anymore. Not only has it been a while since they were students (and some of those math formulas may have slipped your mind since then), but the curriculum has changed a lot.

Helping kids with their homework, and working with them, is an effective way to show concern for what they learn at school and to get to know what their academic strengths and weaknesses are.

This is also an excellent opportunity to discuss goals with older children. What does a successful year look like? What will it take to balance school work with sports and/or extra-curricular activities? Again, this is about preparation.

4. Technology is not the enemy. Yes, kids are spending a lot of time online and that is not always a good thing. Too much screen time — whether that is watching television, playing video games, or engaging in social media – is not good for their health or emotional well-being. However, there are many free learning tools online, from apps to video tutorials, help kids find ways to enrich what they are learning at school.

5. Routines are good. Like a standard bed time and morning wake-up call, having a routine — that includes homework— helps kids organize their time efficiently. What will they do when they get home: take a nap, have a snack? Whatever it is, make it a habit. Set aside a designated place and time for homework every day, maybe the kitchen counter while dinner is prepared or a quiet space in the living room. Avoid distractions, like television and cell phones, during this time.

6. Communicate. This is an opportunity to get to know who their friends are and what their interests are, but asking children about school also shows them that their parents value their education. Try to avoid general questions, like “How was your day?” These will most likely produce one-word answers (fine, okay, and good tend to be the general answers), especially as kids get older. Instead, try specific questions, like What did you read in class today? Did you enjoy the story? Why or why not?

7. Get to know teachers. Everyone is busy and it may be difficult to schedule a conference during school hours. Student orientation and open house nights are great opportunity to meet teachers, faculty and staff and to get a feel for what children are learning in school. But remember that you can always send an email if you have questions or concerns.

Teachers spend a lot of time with our kids and they are great allies. If there are concerns – some parents worry that their children may be too shy and introverted or the opposite, too chatty and off task – or if parents have questions on including enrichment opportunities at home, their teachers can help. And teachers can often spot problems or irregularities (missed homework assignments, change in demeanor or disposition) that can be indicative of a bigger problem.

8. Read, read, read. Parents usually read to their babies and toddlers, but that habit does not have to end in elementary school. Reading with a child is an invaluable way to spend quality time together on a daily basis. As children get older, and develop their own interests, help them foster that love of reading. Reading Harry Potter, for instance, as a family can be a great way to bond and promote the lifelong joy of reading.

9. Sleep is important for learning and for optimal health. Studies indicate that Americans are not getting enough sleep, especially children. This chronic sleepiness does not just make kids cranky; it can be bad for their health. Lack of sleep impairs the brain, making it difficult to focus, remember and learn. This is not only important on the first day, when many families are getting reacquainted with an early morning alarm, but throughout the year. There will be projects and homework assignments, kids are notorious procrastinators. Make sure that they are not sacrificing sleep to finish up school work.

School is stressful. It is where kids prepare for the future, where they experience some of their first triumphs and failures. Add to that all of the intellectual and physical changes that go along with adolescence and the result is a rollercoaster of emotions, for them and their families. Working together to face those challenges will help make those life transitions a little smoother.

The Harbinger Celebrates its Tenth Anniversary

Today, my journalism students celebrated their newspaper’s tenth anniversary. Donald Trump, the president-elect, is on the cover. It is the third presidential election that The Harbinger covers.

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The senior editors surprised their staff, and me, with a small celebration — there’s never much time in a newsroom, even a student newsroom, for self-congratulation — and they praised the students on a job well done.

“Remember that you are a part of something special and that you are leaving your mark on this publication, on this room and on this school,” they said.

One of them turned to me and asked, “so how does it feel to have steered a publication for 10 years?” And I wasn’t sure how to answer.

I had a flurry of emotions and ten years worth of memories: an amalgam of faces, conflicts, stories, deadlines, layouts. There were breaking stories and broken hearts, celebrations and disappointments, tears and laughter.

It’s high school, and every staff grapples with telling their story, with the desire to leave their mark.

And they do. Each staff builds on the progress of the one before it. And in this way, they are each a part of an even bigger story.

img_4371There are 22 student journalists working out of our newsroom. They are reporting, writing, tweeting, blogging, streaming video, documenting the year.  While The Harbinger alumni, scattered across the world, continue to learn, grow and succeed.

So, how do I feel? I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of their story.

 

As Teachers Know, School Is A Home Away From Home

My kids are off to college.  It is a bittersweet moment.  I am – of course – incredibly proud of them.  I’m excited for all of the experiences and opportunities that lay before them; but I am also sad, and a little worried, because they will be on their own and so far away from home.

I won’t suffer from empty nest syndrome, however.  I still have more kids to help get into college, about 150 of them this year.  I’m not referring to biological children, but to my school kids.  And, for about 180 days that begin on Monday, school will be their second home, where they’ll learn, work, laugh, cry, write, calculate, interpret and grow up.

And teachers are an integral part of all that.

the girlsTeachers returned to school last week, to unpack, rearrange, set up and plan for the first day of school.  I walked in to school this morning, fueled with a double dose of caffeine, to send and answer emails and begin all the heavy lifting.  They call these days work days for a reason.  There is a whole lot of work to do. There are desks to move, boxes to carry, activities to be planned.

And, as we sit down to plan lessons – juggling texts, secondary sources, standards and activities—it could all become a little daunting.  Will I reach them?  Will they get this?  Is this rigorous enough? Is it too rigorous? Does this lesson infuse the common core standards? In the midst of all the work there is to do, it is easy to get a little overwhelmed, maybe even wallow a little in self-doubt.

Just as I was in the midst of all that, four of my girls sauntered in.  Each of them is heading to college this week.  Each has spent some time at their respective schools, from one year to three, depending on the visitor – Harvard, Columbia, University of Florida, Florida State University and University of Central Florida—to get acclimated.  And each came back home, to their school home, to surprise me and to talk hurriedly and excitedly about their summer.

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The MLEC High School class of 2013 is all grown up. Now globe-trotting juniors and seniors preparing for their careers.

They wanted to tell me how well-prepared they felt.  They wanted to thank me.  These are the moments that teachers live for.  They are the reason that we trudge to and from trainings and professional developments, why we learn and adapt for changing standards, tests and curricula.  It is not for higher teacher merit pay or for school grades – although both are nice – but for moments like these, when Aileen tells me, “I was one of the few freshmen in the class and I got an A,” or when Crystal says that she used her notes on Othello to tutor her friends and classmates, for the moment when Gaby said, “at first I was intimidated by their GPAs and SAT scores,” but then she realized – they all realized—how much they learned in high school.  They realized that they were prepared for college, and – best of all—they came home to tell me all about it.

I am preparing for my eleventh first day of school.  As kids can attest, it is both exciting and nerve-racking.  What will Monday bring?  The only thing that I know for sure, are that at each desk will sit a student who – whether she knows it or not—is building her Mugfuture.  My job is to help her shape it, to make sure that she, and all of her classmates have all of the tools that they need.

Over the years, I’ve lectured and graded, proofread hundreds of college application essays, helped students complete their FAFSAs, written letters of recommendation and worn the dozens of hats that teachers do each day.  I’ve been there to console them after rejections and losses, and to encourage them to push through.  I’ve been there to celebrate acceptances, triumphs and awards and to shake their hand on graduation day.

And another group of young women are off: leaving my classroom, and beginning the next chapter of their lives.

And another group of young women are off: leaving my classroom, and beginning the next chapter of their lives.

But, most rewarding of all is hearing from them.  Opening my inbox to find an email from a student who graduated in 2008 with exciting career news; running into a former student and finding them happy, healthy and successful; and, of course, welcoming a former student home for a visit as they talk excitedly about their lives.  

  Yes, most rewarding of all knows that we reached them.  They learned.  They navigated through the seas of adolescence, the drama of high school relationships, the trials and tribulations of pretests, post-tests, lectures, essays and assignments and that – through the cacophony of all that—they heard us, they listened, they learned, and they appreciate it.

Teachers collect moments: thank you cards, notes, the small things that remind us why we work so hard.

Teachers collect moments: thank you cards, notes, the small things that remind us why we work so hard.

What happens to a Dream Deferred? Students Immigration Status May End their dreams of college

G. Tejeda

Giancarlo was three when he moved to the United States, the only home he has ever known. Now his dreams of college are in jeopardy. Photo by Fabiola Santiago, The Miami Herald

There are thousands of students in Miami-Dade County that are forced to live in the shadows: bright, talented students whose legal status in the United States prevents them from realizing their dreams.  As educators, we often only hear these stories at the end of the school year – if at all — when graduation is upon us, and it is too late for us to help.  Too often these kids remain silent and afraid, because there is so much on the line.

This year, I met one such young man.

Giancarlo Tejeda arrived in the United States when he was three years old. His parents fled their native Colombia, escaping the bloody turmoil at home, to provide their children with the opportunity to grow up free from the fear of repression and violence.

It’s a story that is very American.  All of us are here because we searched for freedom.  Unfortunately, Giancarlo and his family are undocumented immigrants. For his entire academic career, he has kept this secret, concerned that if people knew, his family’s safety would be in jeopardy.  So he and his family have lived with the constant fear and anxiety of being discovered. They’ve worked hard at whatever work was available and possible, who now had to face the reality of starting anew in a foreign land.  Many young people face these challenges, and although their legal status and the need for reform may be controversial, the trouble they face is indisputable.

You would never guess at Giancarlo’s struggles by looking at him or observing his behavior in school. He is a fantastic student, excelling academically and socially. He is graduating magna cum laude, in the 92nd percentile of his class, and has — throughout his time at MLEC — won various awards in competitions ranging from programming and engineering to science and technology.

He never told anyone about his immigration status, not his friends or favorite teachers, not his school counselor, not even the schools to which he applied.  He never complained. He never asked for help or for sympathy. He always wanted to be held to the same high standards as everyone else.

I just learned of his situation and felt that I had to help. Giancarlo was accepted to New York University and the University of Florida.  NYU is not offering him any financial assistance because they consider him an international student, ineligible for financial aid.  This is yet another obstacle.  He cannot apply for federal aid or student loans.  He is worried that his dream, which is so close that he can almost touch it, may be forever out of reach.

I look at Giancarlo and see a talented young man with a long resume of academic success. He had the brilliance and steadfast tenacity to learn and grow and excel. Imagine what more he could have done with just a few more resources. Imagine if the fear of discovery had not been a heavy presence in his home. Now imagine what he will do and what he will accomplish with a college education and what an impact he can make on the world.

There are far too many students like Giancarlo in Miami-Dade, too many children that have grown up here, that don’t know any other home.  We have already educated and cared for these children in our public schools and in our communities.  Why not give them the opportunity to come out of the shadows and give back to the only neighborhoods they’ve ever known?

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To help Giancarlo achieve his dreams, visit his crowd-funding sitehttp://www.gofundme.com/rb6p5dtg?pc2

Watch his interview with CBS4http://cbsloc.al/1CtekSi

Teaching, a Never-Ending Rollercoaster

Teaching is like riding a roller-coaster.  The highs are exhilarating, the lows sudden and stomach churning.   

A teacher’s day can be turbulent. The highs are amazing, the lows often sudden, unpredictable and laced with anxiety.



A classroom is a second home, for the students and for us. And here, we face all kinds of obstacles: from mathematical equations and philosophical quandaries to convoluted metaphors, heartbreak and errors in judgement. 

There are days that, when locking that classroom door at the end of a long day, I walk out feeling like a gladiator — exhausted but victorious –having defeated the day’s monster: senioritis, high-stake tests whose computer programs malfunction, or whatever the day’s foes were.

There are other days when I feel wrought with anxiety. Did I cover this subject well enough? Did they get it? Did they learn? Was it meaningful? Are they prepared for the next course? The next subject? The next test? Am I setting a good example? Have I helped prepare them for college? For the world? Is there something else that I could have done? Could I have explained this better? Given more feedback? Did I give too much feedback?

So often, I find myself giving so much and wishing that there was just a little more that I could give, wondering if my best was simply not good enough. And every great teacher that I know has shared this same self-doubt. Regardless of test scores or student achievement, we are only as good as our last lesson.

I don’t know if that angst is engrained in us by a system that uses test scores to determine our efficiency, or that vilifies and blames us for every educational short-coming or if teachers just never feel satisfied with their performance. And neither answer brings much comfort.

But that’s no matter. Tomorrow’s victory: a college acceptance letter, an A on a test, an insightful comment in class discussion will erase all that doubt… At least until the next class period.

Related story: “Why So Many Teachers Feel So Bad So Much of the Time,” via Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/18/why-so-many-teachers-feel-so-bad-so-much-of-the-time/

Miami: sun, palm trees & embracing differences

My classroom doubles as a newsroom, work space, photo studio and home away from home.

It is the place where the kids brainstorm, write essays & articles, and — every once in a while — solve a few life crises.

This was one of those days. It was way after school and the editors were completing a deadline. But, that frenzy had subsided and the conversation had changed. Their tone was different. The volume was lower and the girls looked worried.

My girls, and their families, are from all over the world. In Miami, that's the norm.

My girls, and their families, are from all over the world. In Miami, that’s the norm.

Placing my counselor hat on, I ask what is wrong. Iqra’s eyes were wide and her face was folded into the saddest frown I’d ever seen. Gaby seemed just as dejected.

There really is no place like Miami.  At least that was the conclusion that a small group of my graduating seniors came to after visiting colleges across the country.

Many city-dwelling metropolitan teenagers find the rural areas where many of our country’s universities are located kind of, well, quiet.  But, it wasn’t the lights or the noise or the late-night entertainment that they were referring to.

“I’ve never felt like a minority before,” said Iqra, who is of Pakistani descent who is a minority even in South Florida.

“Apparently, I have a ‘Miami Girl’ accent,” said another, who commented that people who spoke in a Southern drawl thought that she “talked funny.”

The kids are actually right.  Miami is different.  Minorities make up the majority in Miami-Dade where, according to the Census, only 16 percent of the population is White, non-Hispanic.

This is very different from the racial and ethnic make-up of the rest of the country, and even from the rest of Florida, where Whites make up 63.4 and 57.5 percent of the population, respectively. And college enrollment rates are similar.  In 2010, 61 percent of college students were White.

The United States has always been diverse.  For hundreds of years, people travelled here to begin new lives.  And, the newest groups to arrive always struggled to adapt, fit in and overcome their ‘otherness.’

But these kids are different because they never knew that they were different.  They were born and raised in South Florida, where asking someone where they are from is the natural follow-up question to “what’s your name?”

They grew up in a place where different was normal — where different colors, languages and dialects made up the tapestry of their experiences.  These kids grew up in South Florida, listening to rock and salsa and hip-hop and reggae and reggaeton, where hijabs are almost as common as headbands, where a pot luck lunch means an international buffet and a trip to the beach meant meeting tourists from around the world.

So adapting to college life is going to be difficult for them.  It is difficult for everyone.  It is that moment where kids take that big grown-up step into the world and try to make it on their own.  Any kid packing their bags to move into a college dorm for the first time can attest to the excitement, anxiety and absolute fear that they feel.

This is only natural.  They are still young enough to remember their teen identity crises – scarred by memories of acne, braces, first heartbreaks and bad haircuts.  Now they find themselves in a whole other struggle.  Now these kids find themselves at the bottom of the social order again.  College freshmen — feeling the pressure to succeed, to select the right college major, to build a life for themselves, while learning to balance their social lives — which can be a pretty big challenge at some of these schools.

But these kids have a little extra on their plate.  Not only are they navigating through the regular rites of passage, they face another mini identity crisis.  Each of these kids was born here.  They never felt like anything other than American.  Now they’ve discovered that, in other places, many people don’t see them that way.

On their recent trips, some of my students found themselves reluctant ambassadors of a culture that they, second or third generation Americans, are only partially aware of.  They may find themselves explaining that not all Hispanics are Mexican, not all Asians are Chinese and not everyone in Miami is a “Cocaine Cowboy.”

They found that it’s not just their mothers’ home cooking that they’ll miss, not just the weather and the beach and the palm trees, but also the amalgam of culture that makes up their home.  What they found was that, as my student surmised, is that there really is no place like Miami.

 

 

Teachers Collect Moments

“Teachers get paid with love.”

I read that somewhere — maybe on a bumper sticker or poster — when I first started teaching. That turned out to be the truest statement I read that year. My first days of teaching were tumultuous. I juggled grading, lecturing, parent conferences and student crises that ranged from broken hearts to broken homes. I worked nonstop: at school, during lunch and at home.

And I loved it.

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Every teacher that I know collects notes, letters and trinkets that remind us why we get up and go to work each morning. These are the treasures that remind us that — despite changing standards and countless challenges — we can make a difference.

As the year came to an end, and the thank you letters and gifts — sketches, paintings, student-made figurines to place on my desk — my mentor, Mrs. Lawrence, gave me a box. “Put these in here. You’ll need this, especially on the bad days.”

And on days like today — when the weight of new standards, grades, tests, counseling, coaching, and all the responsibilities that we balance seem too heavy — I open that box. These are the moments that teachers collect.

 

The College Essay: A Personal Story on the Common App

Common App

As more and more students apply to college, schools are looking to application essays to really know applicants.

School buses just started rolling out in Miami-Dade County, announcing sunrise and the beginning of a brand new school year, but already high school seniors are focused on college.  With early admission deadlines looming, students are beginning a new rite of passage: conquering the college application and, with it, the dreaded college application essay.

As competition for acceptance to top schools increases, students began applying to more and more schools.  So many now turn to the Common Application, a not-for-profit organization, developed in 1975 to help cut down on the number of separate applications and essays a student applying to numerous colleges and universities would have to complete.  This one application is accepted at nearly 500 colleges and universities across the country.

So when something changes on the application, it’s big news; it affects thousands of students, all hoping and competing for a seat at their dream school, but they may also indicate a changing tide, on college campuses and perhaps in society.

Last year’s new platform was plagued with glitches. Students had a difficult time paying fees and uploading documents. Schools also had trouble uploading transcripts.

As more and more students apply to college, the Common App’s biggest changes are in customer service. The site now has:

  • A comprehensive FAQ page and help center
  • An ask a question tab where students and parents can contact and leave a message for a Common App Support Team member
  • And live support for recommenders

The essay

The essay prompts, which underwent some big changes last year, are the same this year. Despite the rapid increase in abbreviations, emoticons and whole stories told in 140 characters or less, last year’s Common Application increased its word limit from 500 words to 650. That remains the same. But, many subscriber colleges and universities, such as Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, are also requiring applicants to answer “Supplemental” questions.

In other words, colleges want to know more about their applicants.  And not more details, but rather a narrative with depth, insight, profundity.

And therein lays the conflict.  Students know what is at stake.  They need to be memorable, but honest; smart, but not pretentious; funny, but not silly.  And the indecision and insecurity can lead to bad essays.  Too often, applicants make the mistake of trying to write about every accomplishment – every medal, trophy and extra credit point they ever earned – or settle for a cliché topic, or avoid expressing an opinion or taking a stand.

Admissions officers read essays for up to twelve hours a day. They are looking, and probably wishing for, essays that are different, essays that stay with them.  So really, the best advice for someone sitting at a blank screen, suffering paralyzing self-doubt and writer’s block, is to relax and tell a story.

A personal story

Admission officers want to know the applicant.  They want to know who students are, how they think, and what they can bring to their school.  So students must distinguish themselves in their own voice. What do they want the person reviewing the application to know about them?  What makes you, you?  How are you different than the applicant before you? And the one before him?

The topics are personal, probing, direct.  Among the questions that the Common Application asks students to write, are how experiencing failure shaped them, about a moment that symbolized the beginning of adulthood, or a time that they challenged a belief or idea.

In other words, colleges and universities want to hear about a pivotal moment; they want to read about applicants’ personal, psychological and/or moral growth.  They want to know that the applicants themselves know that they are different.  Because in paradoxical era of oversharing – photos, intimate details, our whereabouts, etc. – while under-communicating, we actually know less about whom we are and what we think.  We spend a lot of time documenting our experiences and very little time considering how they shape us.  Perhaps the Common Application will help change that, if only for college application season.