college

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.

image

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Florida Prepaid College Savings Plan becomes more affordable

college savings

As the cost of college continues to soar, families are struggling to save for their children’s future education expenses.

Before Ashley had even garbled her first word or taken her first step, her mother began saving for her college education.  When Ashley was only six months old, her mother opened a Florida Prepaid college tuition plan.

“For a single mother, this was an affordable means of guaranteeing my children’s education,” said Yvette Rivera, Ashley’s mother. Today Ashley is a sophomore in college and feels lucky to have the safety net.

“I am able to concentrate on school and not worry about taking out loans just to cover the cost of books,” she said. She has reason to feel grateful. The cost of college tuition continues to skyrocket, and the amount of outstanding student loan debt is soaring along with it. So parents are beginning to prepare early, and 529 plans are an excellent saving tool because investments into them grow tax-free and as long as the proceeds are used to pay for education related expenses, the withdrawals are tax-free as well.

And now, beginning with this year’s open enrollment period, the price of a four-year Florida Prepaid college tuition plan is going down to $35,000 from $54,000 after a new law passed the state legislature in March. Now, families will pay $250 per month instead of $350. And some families may even receive refunds. The Florida Prepaid Plan is very popular. Thousands of families buy into the program every year; but, it is not the only option. There are two types of 529 plans: prepaid or savings plans. ·

Prepaid Plans – like the Florida Prepaid plan that Rivera selected — let you pre-pay all or part of the costs of an in-state public college education. They may also be converted for use at private and out-of-state colleges.  ·

Savings Plans work much like a 401K or IRA. They invest your contributions in mutual funds or similar investments. The plan will offer you several investment options and the account will go up or down in value based on the performance of the particular option you select.

Savings plans will earn more money, but also carry more risks.

“I opened Florida Prepaid accounts for both of my children because it was safe and froze the cost of tuition. Financial aid is no longer the safety net it used to be.”

Is there a ‘Humanities Crisis’?

“Why do we have to learn this?” Every teacher has heard a student ask this question.  It is often followed with, “When will I ever use this?”

Perhaps anyone who was ever a student – i.e. all of us – has either uttered or thought the very same thing.  And they are indeed valid questions.  After all, when will the average person need to calculate the square root of an imaginary number?  Or determine how many moles of oxide are in a substance? Or explain the difference between Aristotelian and Shakespearean tragedies?

In all honesty, the answer is probably never.

literature

Fewer college students are majoring in humanities. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better prepared for the workforce.

This is why when the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released a new study indicating that the number of college students majoring in humanities was plummeting, reactions were mixed.

Some fear that the humanities might disappear from college campuses. And that it will lead to less creativity. That without the exploration of the humanities, students won’t learn how to think creatively and critically, to reason, or to contemplate big abstract questions of love, knowledge, democracy.

“There is an atmosphere of crisis in the humanities,” said John Paul Russo, Chair of the Department of Classics at the University of Miami.

But not everyone is concerned. As Lee Siegal wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.”

And, as Russo points out, some of the concern “is warranted, and some not.  Yes, there has been a decline in majors over the past 25 years, and that goes back even further in time.”

But parents always worried when their children majored in the humanities.  What will you do with a philosophy major? Philosophize?  And English, what are you going to do with that?  So, it is not new that undergraduates are gravitating to, what they think, are more practical college majors.  And given the skyrocketing costs of higher education, it is understandable.

And while it is fair to say that it is not necessary to know Shakespeare to cure cancer, it is important to point out that we are not losing humanities majors to biochemistry and computer engineering.  The most popular undergraduate major in the United States – by far – are business related.  So, although quoting Cicero won’t prepare you to run a Fortune 500 company, neither will a semester spent perfecting Excel prepare a student to build relationships with clients, or to reason and think critically.

This change towards seemingly more practical college majors like business administration or business management, were not born on college campuses.

The truth is that the move away from the humanities coincides with the rise of high-stakes testing.  And, they will continue to suffer.

Under the Common Core State Standards, 70 percent of what seniors read in high school will be non-fiction and informational texts while only 30 percent will be dedicated to fiction.  Although that this is not intended to be the case in a student’s English class, but rather across all curricula, in the face of declining reading scores, the most likely outcome – what is actually happening in many high schools right now — is that teachers will have to sacrifice some of the time that they spend teaching classic literature.

They will spend less time asking literary and thematic questions, like what Shakespeare meant when he wrote that “life was but a walking shadow,” in order to make time to go over the Environmental Protection Agency’s Recommended Levels of Insulation and the California Invasive Plant Council’s Invasive Plant Inventory (both Common Core exemplar texts).

Undoubtedly, this trend contributes to the declining interest in undergraduate literature courses and humanities majors as a whole.  As reading become more of a chore, and reading courses – classes designed for students who need intensive remediation – are viewed as punishment, it is not a surprise that teenagers lose interest.

(See related WLRN article: more testing does not necessarily lead to smarter kids.)

It all comes down to how we, as a society, view education.  And what the role of college and universities should be.  Do we see colleges as institutions of higher learning where students explore different interests and learn math, science and – yes — humanities?  Or, are colleges and universities career training centers?  In the president’s discussion of Race to the Top, the Common Core’s concentration on College Readiness and the push to graduate more and more students in the field of Science and Technology, we have to be honest with our expectations.

And those expectations are not only affecting college campuses, but they undoubtedly affect the approach that schools and school districts take in educating high school, middle and even elementary school children.

Ironically, this approach has not led to better readers.  In fact, results from the National Center for Education Statistics’ analysis of fourth- and eighth-grade vocabulary scores from 2009 and 2011 reading comprehension exams found that even the highest-scoring students on average couldn’t perform above 67 percent.

Although kids are reading more – as evidenced by the explosion in young adult fiction – the complexity of what they read is dropping. Walk into any Barnes & Noble and you’ll find shelves and shelves of hugely popular novels and book series aimed at teenagers.

But research shows that as young readers get older, they do not read more classics or more complex books and teachers aren’t assigning difficult classics as much as they once did.

A recent study by Renaissance Learning, Inc. revealed that American high school students are reading books far below their reading level. A compilation of the top 40 books read by students in grades 9 through 12 showed that the average text’s reading level was 5.3 — barely above the fifth grade.  The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.

Interestingly, in 1989, before high-stakes testing, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton.

Dana Gioia, the former chairman of The National Endowment for the Arts, commented that “both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates”; even the more educated individuals, whom one would expect to have resisted the trend, registered the steepest fall, and hence their “reading comprehension skills” have eroded.

To place the blame solely on testing is a mistake.  Surely there have been great strides in students’ academic gains; however, there is a trend and correlation that should not be ignored.

As Dr. Russo pointed out, “it is important to remember that the humanities help prepare the person not just for a specific field but for life itself; ideally, the humanities help expand our humanity, putting us in touch with people of different ages and backgrounds.”

So when a student asks, “Why do I need to know this?” I hope that we, as a society, respond that learning for the sake of learning is important.

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Originally published on wlrn.org in July 2013