Words of Wisdom from Teens

Going back to work this week reminds me of how much I still enjoy my job after 29 years of teaching.

As a teacher, there are two beginnings to one’s work year:  the kickoff in August and the return in January.  It is one of the things that makes teaching different from other occupations.

The two-week holiday in December and the extended layoff in summer takes adjusting to, though each has its own feel.

While the very start to school requires a reserve of energy including mental acuity in getting to know up to nearly 200 new faces and names, the second start in January feels more like getting reacquainted with old friends.

As a way to get the students re-focused on their goals after New Year’s, I like to open with a reflective lesson, one that uses an essay by Edmund N. Carpenter II which received wide circulation when he passed away in 2008.

Published in the Wall Street Journal in 1938, Carpenter contemplates about all the experiences he wishes to have, both good and bad, before he dies.  What is remarkable about the piece is that he was only 17 years old when he wrote it, a fact that I purposely withhold from my students until the end of our discussion.

I then have the students follow Carpenter’s structure, writing about what they want to do before they graduate high school.

A majority mention getting good grades, volunteering in the community, joining clubs, attending school events, getting their driver’s licenses and that first job. And a few wish to experience boyfriend/girlfriend love for the first time.

Here are some of their thoughts.

“High school is a one of a kind story that everyone makes.”

“Having a couple of friends that support you and respect you is exactly what every high school student needs in order to get through high school peacefully and easily.”

“This is where I hopefully discover myself.”

“Knowing that I worked hard and that my job as a student was well worth the late nights full of tears, stress, and my Starbucks Mocha Chilled coffees.”

“Cherishing the moments where the only responsibility I have is to keep my room clean, and the biggest problem I face is having to write an essay.”

“I hope to forgive myself like I can forgive others, accept my flaws, and kindle sparks of passion and joy into roaring flames.”

“High school is a love letter to my youth, a final goodbye on my childhood years.”

“I want to learn to be independent and to provide for myself.  I do not want to trouble my parents with having to pay for me any longer; they do not deserve that tiresome task.”

“I want to change a life; I want to know how it feels to give someone hope.”

“The fear of making a mistake is the biggest mistake of all; it is the mistake of denying oneself of a valuable life lesson that cannot be learned from books.”

“I want to accomplish something so monumental that everyone is aware of my achievement and that I somehow inspire them to set higher goals.”

“I want to make my parents proud of everything I did.  Out of all my goals for high school, this is the most important and most valuable.”

“I will apologize to someone I treated poorly.  I will make amends with anyone whom I neglected, insulted, or hurt.”

Looking over what they wrote reminded me of why I still feel fortunate to be working with such inspirational young people.  We will be in good hands.



Time for High Schoolers to Put on Their Big College Pants

“Who was absent yesterday and needs the handout?” is not a question a teacher of high school seniors should pose.   In less than one year, how will these students function on their own, choosing courses, purchasing books, transporting themselves to college?

We baby students.  Too much.  Too often.

Chancellor Timothy P. White of the California State University (CSU) system made the right call earlier this month proclaiming that starting in the fall of 2018, incoming freshmen will no longer be given placement tests in English or math, nor will those who struggle be enrolled in remedial classes.

The decision is based primarily on the length it takes a CSU student to complete a degree, and the extra money students have to expend by remaining enrolled beyond the traditional four years.

Currently, over one-third of freshmen are enrolled in these classes; CSU’s four-year graduation rate stands at 19 percent.

Between now and then, each campus will figure out a plan on how to ensure that these students will succeed through other means.

The larger problem that no one wishes to address is that these recent high school graduates are not ready for college.

Several of them are suspended on a rickety bridge between 12th grade and freshman year resembling an Indiana Jones cliffhanger:  who will make it to college and who will not.

Those of us who work at the high school level need to look in the mirror and question our methods and expectations.

Much teacher training is spent on how to scaffold and differentiate lessons, breaking down hard concepts into smaller chunks which eventually handicaps the lower ability students and frustrates the higher ability ones.

Some of this work fits earlier grades.   However, come high school, more should be asked of students.

Each grade from kindergarten through 12th should purposefully be organized to ensure with each passing year, teachers hold the students’ hands less while the students gain more control of their learning.  That way, by the time students cross the stage and hoist up the diplomas, there is true meaning behind that accomplishment.

An integral aspect of attending college is being mature enough to handle the extended freedom and independence.

Schools get the concept of “college prep” wrong.   While applying the phrase to upper grade coursework, college prep actually begins in kindergarten not high school.   Every grade, every class should prepare students to further their education beyond 12th grade, be it college or learning a trade.

High school seniors should not still be working on how to write an effective paragraph.   These kids will fail in their first quarter of college.

This past summer school, one Glendale administrator urged teachers not to fail students.  Having failed classes during the regular school year, these students were given an opportunity to retake them by only being taught 60 percent of the curriculum.  Yet some still couldn’t pass the class.

Administrators and teachers who wipe clean the ‘F’ are not doing these students a favor for maybe the only real lesson that student will have learned in summer school is that a person needs to work at something in order to receive credit.

If that lesson is not learned at the high school level, then a four-year college is not the right option for that individual.

President Harry S. Truman had a famous sign on his desk while in the White House:  the buck stops here.

Those of us in public school need to adhere to standards; passing along students who do little to no work or show little to no grasp of subject matter is real failure.


My son, the high school graduate

The end of high school for seniors is often bittersweet for their teachers who may have known the students for up to four years.

The end of high school for a parent of a senior, however, resonates deeper for it marks a significant rite of passage.

One senior graduating this year in particular means a great deal to me.  He is my son.

People who know Ben frequently comment that “he’s a good kid.”  Any parent would be proud of a child who generates that reaction from others.

Goodness is in short supply in today’s world.  It does not show up on a standardized test.

Ben is very polite, always responding to a meal at home with a “thank you for the tacos” without any prodding; it comes naturally to him.

I overhear him talk to grown-ups on the phone asking “How are you?” interested in having an adult-like conversation.

He makes his own breakfast of eggs and oatmeal each morning, and often assists me with dinner.

He engages in adult-like perceptions on politics and the world.  Our family TV time is watching Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN and “60 Minutes” on Sundays.

He knows cultural history, recognizing an Ella Fitzgerald vocal or an Alfred Hitchcock film.

He has a taste for long-established restaurants such as the Smoke House.

He doesn’t mind getting dressed up to go out for dinner, or picking up after the dog in the backyard.

He rarely wants anything.  His iPhone is not new, his car as old as he is.

He still sleeps in the same bed that he got back in elementary school, though lies diagonally accommodating his nearly six-foot frame.

His only luxury is a flat screen TV that his uses primarily for playing videogames on his PS4.

Something else Ben does:  when he is out, he always calls us (not texts) when he is coming home.   This is not something that we have demanded; it comes from Ben’s own sense of responsibility.

What is the recipe for a good kid?  Along with love and support from family and friends, Ben’s teachers deserve recognition: kindergarten teacher Ms. Solyom, third grade teacher Ms. Rostomyan, fifth grade teacher Ms. Essex, sixth grade social science teacher Ms. Lamb, sixth grade P.E. teacher Ms. Asmussen, seventh grade English teacher Mr. Martin, eighth grade English teacher Mr. Rothacher, biology teacher Mr. Margve, astronomy teacher Mr. Movsessian, AP Psych teacher Mr. Collazos, AP English Lit teacher Mr. McNiff, and AP U.S. History teacher Mr. Thomson.

My wife and I were amazed as his maturity blossomed earlier this year.  Within a matter of weeks, he made the decision to attend CSUN and got his first job.

It was a surreal feeling to have my photo taken with my son in front of CSUN”s Oviatt Library where I graduated 35 years ago.

Back then, the idea that one day I would have a son who would attend the same college as I did was not even a flicker of a thought in my mind.

When we moved into our house 18 years ago, Ben was three months old.  Today, in that same bedroom lives an 18-year-old.   Oh, the baby still lives in the man.  You can it in his eyes, his smile, and the way he speaks.  And you can see his younger brother looking up at him from an early age, absorbing Ben’s life as a textbook on how to grow up.

Ben, you have had a good life so far.  I hope you continue being good and doing good in the years to come.

More Like High School Completion Than Graduation

“Graduation rate at Glendale’s high schools tops 90%” read the Glendale News-Press headline recently.  On the surface, this statistic is celebratory, something Glendale Unified should prominently display at the top of its website’s homepage.

Before we pat each other on the back for a job well done, keep this in mind:  many high school graduates are not ready to start college or get a job.

For too many, a high school diploma only confirms that an individual met minimum standards.

If the purpose of a high school graduation is to give a thumbs up for job accomplished, i.e., you attended school kindergarten through 12th grade, then we should call it “completion” rather than “graduation” because disturbing trends lurk beyond high school.

There is a high remediation rate in colleges.  Some surveys say 20 percent of those attending 4-year colleges and 60 percent attending community colleges take at least one remedial class, meaning that whatever knowledge and know-how students were to absorb and practice through their high school career is not evident.

Such retraining often continues when college graduates enter the workforce.  According to Washington Post reporter Jeffrey J. Selingo, employers say that young people lack “problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks,” skills needed to excel on the job.

Somewhere in the education pipeline, especially in high school and college, young people are just getting by with underdeveloped abilities that delay future success.

Much of the hype surrounding the Common Core standards is that its higher expectations on what skills teachers should be teaching at certain grade levels will produce a higher caliber of student.  In reaching for an elevated learning level, we should see a drop in graduation rates due to students struggling with the more rigorous work.  So what accounts for the rise?

A push to ensure that every last senior crosses that stage at the end of the year.  No district official or principal wants a less than stellar grad rate for it darkens the reputation of a school.

At the high school level, there is pressure on teachers to pass students (a grade of ‘D’ or higher).

Some administrators contact teachers who have too many students with failing grades.  In other words, the teachers are questioned why they are failing the kids rather than the kids being questioned why they are failing the classes.

Then there is the wide variation among educators on how they evaluate student work and calculate grades.

Teachers are permitted, rightfully so, to determine their own amount of work to assign, and what percentage of a class grade is based on participation, homework, and tests.

But when some ingratiate themselves with their pupils by grading easy, the result is that an ‘A’ in one teacher’s class does not signify the same level of achievement as an ‘A’ in another.

Years ago when California developed the High School Exit Exam its original intent was to make a diploma not attainable but meritorious.  It didn’t work.   Soon after piloting the test, results showed more than half the students not passing it.  So, the test was whittled down to the point that it would merely rubber stamp the diploma not elevate it, adding a bureaucratic hoop for students to jump through, wasting millions of tax dollars and hours of classroom time.

School should not be the place where kids survive but where they thrive.

All of us—educators, parents, children—need to accept the challenge and work towards meeting higher expectations so that more young people finish college and perform well on the job.

Maybe if students knew that there was a realistic chance they may not cross the graduation stage, more effort would result so that the diploma would not simply be a piece of paper.