Every teenager is an aerialist of sorts, and we on the ground below -- parents and teachers, counselors and doctors and cops, city fathers and mothers -- hold our breath as we watch them cross that wide gap, that high wire, between being children and being grown. Having outfitted them, we now do what we can: pull for them, gasp, cross our fingers, pray. We wish them, as hard as we can wish, a safe transit.
The local coalition born out of our losses, Project Safety Net, has been weaving protections for our kids if they should fall. But since it's common sense to help kids stay balanced and aloft, Project Safety Net has also recognized that the high wire itself can be steadied against gusts, secured to hold fast, and made of material that grips the feet.
Amid our sadness and turmoil, it's understandable that some of these precautions, though, aren't yet in place, are still missing; and indeed, a "developmental assets" survey lately came back from our high-flying youth, telling us that virtually half of them are at risk, vulnerable to some kind of tumble.
So it's our collective responsibility to stay on this task.
From my vantage point of many years in the classroom, let me set forth the five, most pressing steps that I think will make our kids' high transit lore safe and secure. These measures -- which align with Project Safety Net's "next steps" for a more supportive school environment (see section P-8 of their report) -- relate to test and project calendars, homework purpose and amount, academic integrity, and giving students a greater "voice" in their campus lives. Three of the five steps can be taken within the year's first semester (one requires a computer program, to be sure, but another needs only a signed piece of paper). Two further steps call for transformations in the school culture, but even these can be underway by next spring.
Gunn principal Katya Villalobos has already set the ball rolling in the right direction: this year's schedule starts the school-day a bit later, giving our kids a shot at some extra zzzzs and a more wakeful first period.
We can keep moving, with speed.
Our hope, to be sure, isn't to be found in our phrases in a newspaper or in a public meeting, or in theories or ideas. It's to be found in our classrooms, offices, hallways, and quadrangles. It's to be found in our libraries, nurses' offices, auditoriums, and gyms. It's to be discovered in a changed coloration to life in our schools, daily habits that begin to bend toward joy, a new texture of closeness on campus that can be seen in brighter eyes and heard in livelier voices.
We are capable of these things; we are Palo Alto. Here are the five steps I believe will help us move forward.
1. The student with room to breathe
Are homework loads too heavy in our high schools?
We disagree, and will always disagree, on this. The answer depends on circumstances and is an individual, family, subjective call. But we can agree to disagree, yet still make progress on this front, because of one circumstance we share. While homework loads are talked about in the hallways at school, in the library and student centers, on buses, at School Board meetings, and around dining tables at home, they aren't talked about nearly enough in the one place where it counts: the classroom.
This is only natural. It's as unrealistic to expect young people, beholden to an authority figure for their all-important grades, to take on such figures face-to-face as it is to expect that the keepers-of-the-grades can always be aware of the force-fields of power that their position sends off. But while this is only natural, it need not be so. Healthier communication -- healthy "connections" in the classroom -- can be jump-started by a connection online.
Students and teachers need a shared, explicit, electronic log of homework amounts assigned.
Teachers and teenagers need to intersect online, with teachers typing in the number of minutes of homework they're assigning each night, and students able to view, and print out, their projected total minutes for all classes. Teachers, if they wish, should be able to view the total homework load for each of their students; students, if they wish, should be able to view the average total homework load of their classmates (no names, of course).
This daily, weekly, monthly reporting and tracking will make teachers and students more aware about what they've undertaken, as well as open a door to candid, in-class conversations-based on shared, accurate data -- about how much is too much and how little is too little. This will tend toward feelings of connection, and realistic homework loads that leave room to breathe.
The system could anticipate long-term assignments, even whole units, as well as be in the mix from night to night. It would post, for all to see, expectations for weekends, holidays, and breaks. It could help teachers anticipate when their colleagues have scheduled major projects due, and so avoid academic "rush hours" with simultaneous due-dates causing bumper-to-bumper academic stress.
We ought to be embarrassed we haven't created such an electronic log to support our kids, when we've busied ourselves with elaborate online systems to track their grades, tardies, cuts, absences, and classroom behavior. Luckily, versions of such logs can be purchased on the market -- though I'll bet our whip-smart kids would take great pride in constructing one on their own, at great savings to us and great credit to their resumes.
We live in the Information Age. Let's get some information.
2. The student with time to sleep
Do our kids take too many APs?
The answer is the same for these college-level courses (which clock in at 30-60 minutes of study per night) as for homework loads in general: it all depends. Different students, different parents, see this differently. Since some will go to the barricades for a students' right to take five, six, seven Advanced Placement classes -- even after being told that Stanford, and other universities, look askance at such transcripts -- it would benefit us little to get into a knock-down-drag-out over this.
Happily, there's a middle way. Knowing that it bears a measure of responsibility for kids' well-being, Gunn, through its guidance department, is already vigilant about AP loads staying sane and safe. Students and parents must, already, sign an AP contract that gives a nod to the workload involved. But the contract should be read aloud by the assembled parties; and as it is now written, it is too bare-bones. Some meat should be put on it, providing food for thought.
Drawing upon the "developmental assets," the contract might read:
We, the undersigned, are aware that, for the student named below, the nightly homework for his/her 3 4 5 6 7 (circle one) Advanced Placement classes will total about _____ minutes. We're aware that this workload may, while offering advantages in learning, result also in disadvantages: greater stress; added anxiety over grades; loss of sleep (known to be related to depression); loss of time to connect with teachers and classmates; decreases in social, family and cultural life; and the attenuating of some of the "41 Developmental Assets" identified by the District as beneficial to youth-including assets 1-3 (Support), assets 17-20 (Constructive Use of Time), assets 25-27 (Commitment to Learning and Positive Values), and assets 32-34 (Social Competencies). Lastly, we're aware that major universities such as Stanford, Harvard, and Yale recommend against students taking too many APs.
With signatures on this form, then, admission to more than two AP classes would be automatically allowed. Read and sign, and -- though hopefully now with eyes wide open -- you're in. At least, at least, everyone would know what they're letting themselves in for; and a contract with such language would spark balanced thinking and in-touch, informed conversations.
3. Students' peace of mind
Rightly apprehensive about stress, some in this community back a change in the district calendar, ending the first semester before winter break to move finals from after the holiday time to before it. On whether this change is truly desirable, we disagree. But one thing is sure: any stress of finals after winter break is mere child's play compared to the continuous, calamitous stress -- monthly, weekly, nightly -- of deciding whether or not one will betray oneself, and one's classmates and teacher, by cheating.
Though it makes us wince and blush to think of our kids, ever, as dishonest, we must agree that Project Safety Net -- in its recommendations for reducing students' "stress and distress" -- is wise to ask us to look at academic integrity.
This is not, first and foremost, a moral issue. It's an issue of mental health.
Nothing causes teenagers more distress than cheating. It's a source of anger, envy, self-doubt, remorse, defiance, misery, and a daily distrust among students and students, students and teachers.
In a limited-sample survey last year, 30 percent of Gunn students said they'd cheated on tests, 20 percent said they've plagiarized, and 70 percent said that copying homework happens often or very often. Almost half of our kids see getting "unpermitted" aid on an assignment as a "trivial" infraction.
Different workloads, different courses, different academic years, different classmates, different rumors -- in every context the subtleties, and necessary calculations of cheating, vary. But the decision to cheat is, by and large, solitary and anxiety-ridden. It made may be made at 2 a.m. in the morning or lunchtime in the quad; or it may come amid an exhausting pile-up of homework; or it may be a knuckling-under to peer pressure; or it may be a silent scream of protest against high-school life -- but it is never stress-free.
Having cheated, one can't forget that one has. "Will I be caught?" "What would mom or dad say?" "Ohmigod, what if it goes on my college transcript?" And a more profound anxiousness: "What kind of person am I?" The costs pile up. And yet the "opportunity cost" of not cheating seems too, too much to pay. "What if I don't cheat? And everyone else is doing it anyway! It would be stupid for me not to! My grade will go down."
For we adults to turn a blind eye to cheating, in fact, is for us to reinforce the silent message that grades trump all. If people can and will do anything to get them, grades must truly be sovereign! It's time that we convey to our kids that many things, such as patience and daring and compassion, are far finer than grades, and that one thing certainly among them is integrity, while another — even more important -- is peace of mind. This is the "expanded definition of success" that Project Safety Net calls for at the very core.
Changing a culture of "everybody does it" to one of "it's just not cool" is not a difficult matter. It's a matter of willpower. A model awaits us at St. Francis High -- and a mentor in their principal, Patricia Tennant -- where a committed faculty tackled the challenge of cheating in the classroom. In 2008, and in fairly short order, St. Francis went from a student culture that tolerated fraud to one of zero tolerance by telling the kids what cheating is, telling them not to do it, telling them it will not be tolerated, and spelling out the swift, sure, significant consequences — and doing this comprehensively and, above all, sincerely. Their most powerful measure was to have the teachers speak to their kids, from the heart, about the personal hurt that they feel when students lie.
It's a pipe dream to think that kids can feel connected -- which, if it means anything, surely means mutual trust -- in a school where cheating, and the competitive anxiety it produces, are an acknowledged part of the culture. To put cheating to rest at Gunn is to refuse to accept the law of the jungle as any law, as any peace of mind, at all.
4. The student who is present at school
Even if occasionally they aggravate us, drive us nuts, make us want to tell 'em to leave us alone, we're amid a passionate affair with our cellphones.
With these friendly-to-the-hand, merrily-jingling magic wands, we solve emergencies and stay safe, govern our children and keep close to those we love, and seem to teleport ourselves to be in multiple places at once. But for a teenager -- a young person of shifting moods, quick distractions, and a brain whose "judgment" lobe is still forming -- being in several places at once is a debacle when one's supposed to be at school.
It makes little sense that in the most stress-filled stretch of their day -- multiple hours during which they must attend to multiple academic subjects while sitting in desks in multiple rooms -- we outfit and enable our youth with this extra stress-producer, cellphones. When we first allowed phones onto campus -- back in the prehistoric '90s -- such devices could do not much more than call, or record calls. Now, more than a decade into this experiment in combining the education of teens with all-day, instant connectivity, their phones also bring texting and Facebook onto campus, and games and multimedia, and bullying and sexting.
The average American teen sends and receives 3,339 texts per month (for a girl, the figure is 4,050) and the average Gunn student, according to a survey last year, spends two and a half hours daily with social media. This wireless current flowing through teen lives is especially strong where they most deeply live, in their romances and peer relationships. "Cellphones give teenagers unprecedented 24/7 access to their relationships," says Jane Randel, director of Love is Not Abuse, "and can dramatically extend the radius of power and control a teenager has over a boyfriend or girlfriend."
When a student comes into class (perhaps late) having read a long, upsetting text; or sits in class planning a text to friends headed for Starbucks ("When class is over, what'll I ask them to bring me?"); or is taking a difficult exam, aware that mom expects a phone-update right after; or is phoning home between classes to help dad track down some homework; or is reaching into a book-bag during a Power-Point in a darkened room to check the latest campus Pop Poll; or is texting on and off all day long in order to stay socially "plugged in" -- well, certainly no teacher can hope to connect with, reach the mind or heart of, such an interrupted child.
These "inner distractions" might be only intermittent, or seem minor, but when added to the other things that decrease kids' connectedness in class -- lack of sleep, anxiety due to inner pressures, fear of embarrassing oneself, normal teenage daydreaming -- the emotional static that a teacher has to pierce can be considerable.
The solution is not to ban cellphones from campus, but to simply forbid their use during the entire instructional day. (Gunn already forbids their use during class.) This would include passing periods, preps, brunch, and lunch. To enforce this ban, we don't need to get involved with metal detectors and searches of bookbags. It'll be enough just to assure notice of violations on transcripts and/or in the guidance counselors' letters of reference to college admissions officers.
Telephone emergencies, or even merely "urgent" situations, can be easily handled with one or two lines made available to students in the Main Office for limited use. Already, teenagers on campus can be reached at will, by concerned grown-ups, via classroom phones and the school's system of public address loudspeakers.
We can assure that no student with a legitimate need attested to by a physician would be prohibited from using his or her phone. And exceptions might be made for phones programmed only to 911 and two or three other numbers.
For our kids' peace of mind, we have to consider the possibility that giving them all-day, immediate access to electronic correspondents and sites is an experiment that is failing, which needs now to be replaced by another "strange," "counter-intuitive" experiment: no phone use on campus from the first bell to the last.
If we leave phones in young learners' hands we're simply not serious about decreasing stress at school.
5. The individual student
Classes have gotten bigger at Gunn. Does this matter?
In thinking about class size -- how many teenagers belong in a room with one grown-up -- usually we enter one of two blind alleys. 1) The smaller the better. 2) A first-rate teacher is what really counts. The Ones must then fend off the question: "Would you want your child in a tiny class taught by a second-rate teacher?" And the Twos must answer: "Would you want your child taught by a first-rate teacher in a packed theatre or gym?"
The fact is, a really brilliant teacher, intellectually and pedagogically gifted, can successfully teach larger and larger classes, through force of personality alone. But in a roomful of teenagers -- with their urgencies, moods, distractions -- this teacher's resources for classroom governance will always run out at about 30-35 kids. But even at this limited number, the teacher can't hope to offer the connectedness, the emotional sustenance we so badly want for our kids, because connectedness and sustenance require so very, very much.
Every student added to a teacher's roll sheet is not a number but a human being. (Palo Alto parents surely believe this of their sons and daughters!) And every single student requires a commitment from the teacher. The commitment is to: give help with assignments; answer questions asking for clarification; distribute hand-outs and texts; coax and welcome the student into class discussions; test for grasp of the material; figure accurate scores and grades; respond to emails; respond to parents' or guardians' emails; report absences; be helpful during and after illnesses, or after suspensions; be available to talk outside of class.
And the teacher's further commitment -- if we truly want them to connect with our kids -- should also be to: say hi and goodbye every day; call the student by name; make eye-contact several times an hour; note or inquire sometimes after his or her mood; praise the student's performance; put the student in charge of something meaningful; ask his or her opinion; listen closely; showcase the student's work; help retrieve lost items; phone home with commendations; respect confidentiality; and, via the fleeting, subtle exchange of looks in class, supply reassurance, recognition, encouragement, empathy, confirmation, and support.
If every student deserves all these things, and some even need them very badly, then to do all this as effectively with 30 kids as with 25 is a human impossibility.
And so we should want top-notch teachers -- even if it means hiring more of them -- teaching smaller classes.
Money's not the issue, surely. In recent years we've spent scads of money, wads, on modern things electronic -- email, voicemail, online attendance, Smartboards, classroom video and DVD players, campus cable TV, classroom movie projectors, InClass and Infinite Campus, ever newer generations of computers and software and systems-while at the same time failing to do the very best, most state-of-the-art thing to give our students and teachers the chance to feel close: keep class size down.
Instead of allowing the crowds of faces in our classes to grow ever larger, we need to hold them to a number where the teachers cannot only count the faces every day but can look into them and begin to see what is there-boredom or eagerness, fatigue or pep, depression or elation-and gracefully adjust to form a human connection.
Some words on connectedness
Having chosen human connectedness as the lantern in our troubled dark, we can't re-examine too closely what we mean and feel by this word, this notion. Are two people "connected" if they're in the same room together? Are two people "connected" if they watch a video or listen to music together? Are a grown-up and teen "connected" during a long talk in which the grown-up offers advice and guidance while the teenager listens? Are any of us "connected" if we're too frightened or shy to say what we really feel?
We owe this idea our best thought because we've chosen it to light our way.
To become "connected," I think, is first and foremost to do the simplest, most basic thing to give our students and teachers the chance to feel close, or at least as close as human beings can in a frantic world: give them time for each other. Teachers are the grownups with whom teenagers spend most of their waking hours -- even more than with counselors or coaches, friends or family. But we erase teachers' time for individual students by putting more and more kids into one class. We wipe out students' time for their teachers by allowing so many cares and burdens into their lives that they rush out the classroom door toward the Next Big Challenge without having time to ask that extra question or hear that extra, one-on-one word of encouragement; dash into class at the last minute, distracted, because they've been texting; can't complain to the teacher about heavy homework because to do so might be to risk one's grade; fight fatigue in class because they're running short of sleep; or disconnect from the day's lesson because they've been too busy with Facebook and homework night before to read the scene in "Macbeth" or do the algebra set or the psych experiment or the French verb conjugation because they have too much to do. And we think we can solve this problem mainly by adding more! More advisory periods, freshmen-transition curriculum, special assemblies, visits to therapists, theme weeks, surveys! Madness!
When all's said and done, while we must be mindful of providing connections -- peer-to-peer, say, or advisor to student -- we must be mindful too of tearing down the many, many barriers to connection -- barriers of time and of emotional tone that hinder both students and teachers.
Our overworked teachers, with overcrowded classrooms, need to have the zone of their concerns down-sized, so that they can give more to students, and perceive more in students, one child at a time. Our teachers who are dynamos of subject matter, intellectually gifted, may need to be helped to become more aware of the subject matter they're were never trained in: the texture of kids' lives. (I know for certain that I, for one, needed this in my early years of teaching.)
And our teenagers need help with their own obstacles and barriers to connection: the feelings of fear, fatigue, distraction, and self-consciousness that combine to wear them down. Teenagers have always been anxious in class, among their friends, about raising a hand or giving and answer or saying a stupid thing; and in some teens this stunts their growth. The more that is expected of our kids, intellectually, the greater this fear. But, added to this perennial teenage self-consciousness, now, are a suppressive smog of digital distraction, plus sleep deprivation, plus pressures of workload, plus indecision about cheating -- and all this added to the grim wish to be perfect rather than playful, to get it always right rather than learn from mistakes, to tick off a series of boxes on the way to college rather than to be curious and really, truly explore. The sum total of anxiousness, of an emotional tone that is damped down instead of buoyant, makes it unlikely our kids can "connect."
People simply can't connect if they're too busy, too weary, too worried, or too wrapped up in their own thoughts to reach out.
That's worth saying again:
People cannot connect if they cannot reach out.