Monday, November 26, 2012

Why Cheat? More Importantly, Why Not?
by Stephanie Rafanelli

Reports of academic dishonesty – within prestigious universities, on high school exit exams, by authors of bestselling books – have been widespread this fall. In the wake of cheating, academic communities rush to bolster or clarify disciplinary procedures. New or repeated sessions about proper citation techniques are added to the curriculum. Teachers ask students to leave backpacks at the door and phones on the front desk.

Then we all pause and ask, “Why?”

The answers may vary slightly each time, but they usually include some variation of the following:
“I just didn’t have time to really ‘do’ the work.”
"Because I could - it is so easy."
"I don't care about the material - it's totally irrelevant to my life."
"The teacher doesn't even care or check."
And most often:
“Because I can't mess up.”
In our current high stakes system where every test or assignment seems to be a critical step on the pathway to adult success, students frequently feel that they have no room for error. The process of learning the material pales in comparison to the importance of earning a top grade. In addition, they may doubt their own ability to accomplish the task. Combine fear with some doubt, and copying someone else’s ideas may seem like a pretty good option.

How can we help students become invested in the process of learning as much as, if not more than, in the product? How do we help students develop authentic confidence in their own competence? How can we help students take more pride in and responsibility for their own effort?

Beyond the work we are doing at Challenge Success, there is a solid and rapidly growing body of research exploring these questions. Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, James Heckman, and Eric Anderman are just a few people actively investigating what is often referred to as ‘character education.’ The research is varied, but three suggestions for educators and parents consistently emerge:
  1. Foster intrinsic motivation.
  2. Encourage persistence in face of failure.
  3. Nurture grit and stick-to-it-ness in pursuit of mastery.
While I still grapple with cheating incidents each year, I have tried to honor the ideas above in multiple ways. I let learners design projects, write some of their own test questions, and choose areas to explore. Students are allowed to revise and resubmit assignments multiple times. I involve students in creating assessment standards, participating in peer evaluation, and developing self-evaluation skills. With every task, I ask them, “So what? How might this relate to your life outside school?” Any time they can connect outside interests to something we investigate in class, I cheer. At school and at home, we talk about people who display integrity and people who don’t. We discuss why they might have made the choices they did and what we might have done in a similar situation. Was the short-term reward worth the long-term result?

Learners need to feel some authentic connection to and engagement in a task, they need to recognize small failures as a healthy aspect of the learning process, and they need to develop an understanding that true mastery and pursuit of a passion may take years. Essentially, we need to help each individual find her own answer to the question, “Why not cheat?”

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Regaining Gratitude This Thanksgiving

Ever notice how ironic it is that the holiday that’s designed to make us feel serenely grateful for all that we have—our family, our friends, our prosperous life here in the land of turkey and maize and cranberry salad—falls right in the middle of the most hectic, exhausting time of the year?

Think about it. Our kids are burned out from tests and endless pages of homework. One school project follows closely on the heels of another. Sports and other extracurricular events have left all of us exhausted. Meanwhile, Hanukkah and Christmas (with all their economic, social and familial obligations) loom forebodingly on the horizon.

So how can we pause for a day in the midst of all the chaos and stress—not to mention the weird family dynamics that must be navigated over the Thanksgiving table—and just feel thankful?

The complete answer to that question could fill a book! (And if you know a good one, I’d love the name of it!) But because parenting is my area of expertise, I will zero in on our (complicated, stressful, worry-filled) relationship with our children.

Twenty-first century parents fret. It’s what we do. We wring our hands over our kids’ grades, their social development, their performance on the playing field, their future.

Yet it’s been proven again and again that all of our overparenting behaviors—our bribes, our threats, our micromanagement, our insistence that kids do more, better, faster—not only don’t work, they have the opposite effect. Our frantic efforts to give our kids “an edge” are harming rather than helping them.

And so, based on the knowledge that anxiety and gratitude can’t co-exist, let’s all just relax and trust the research. By research I mean the reams of solid scientific evidence that proves backing off a little is the best thing we can do for our kids.

Below are 10 resolutions that I originally wrote for the beginning of the school year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving I have repurposed them here. I think they speak to the mindset that keeps us from living in the moment and truly savoring the all-too-short time we really have with our kids.

Ten Resolutions For Becoming a More Grateful Parent:

I will make sure my child gets a full night’s sleep. Kids need between nine and 12 hours a night. Sleep deprivation impairs concentration, memory, and the ability to accurately read emotional cues. It makes kids crabby and compromises their ability to learn.

I will remember that I am a parent, not a CEO. Results are down the line, not at the end of the quarter. This means the occasional “B” or “C” will not break your child’s future prospects. Stop catastrophizing. You won’t see the final fruits of your parenting until your child is grown and gone.

I will remember the success trajectory is a squiggle ... not a straight line. Few of us become successful by simply putting one foot in front of the other. Most of us encounter a multitude of twists, turns, direction changes, and stops on the way to our goals.

I will love the child in front of me. Appreciate and be thankful for your child’s unique gifts. Children are talented in a multitude of different ways. See your child’s particular talents clearly.

I will not push my child to be perfect. Besides genetics, perfectionism is the strongest predictor of clinical depression. Life is full of mistakes, imperfect days, and human failings. Kids need to learn how to cope with these inevitabilities. They (and you) need to be able to feel happiness and gratitude in the face of imperfection.

I will not do for my child what he can do for himself. This kills motivation and the ability to innovate. Both are missing from too many young people in today’s workforce.

I will not do for my child what she can almost do for herself. At one time your child could almost walk. Now she can walk. Enough said.

I will not confuse my needs with my child’s needs. This is the most toxic manifestation of overparenting. Get a hobby or a therapist instead.

I will honor the importance of PDF (Play Time, Down Time and Family Time. Don’t overschedule. Kids need time to play, daydream, and just hang out. It’s in these precious “between” times that crucial developmental tasks are accomplished.

I will value my own (adult) life. Being a happy, fulfilled, and yes, grateful adult makes you a better parent. It’s one of the best gifts you can give your child. It makes adulthood look like something worth striving for.

When we observe Thanksgiving the way I believe we’re meant to, we realize that life is truly rich and bountiful. As parents, we’ve been given life’s greatest gift. Learning to appreciate and honor that gift may mean breaking the culturally sanctioned patterns that cause us to unknowingly damage our kids even as we seek to make life better for them.

Overparenting is about anxiously exerting control. Gratitude is about accepting what we’ve been given and noticing the joy that it brings. This Thanksgiving weekend, let’s try to do less of the former and more of the latter. And from here out, let’s try to guide and teach our kids without seeking to force them into the mold that we (and society) believe they should conform to. When you can master that balance you will become a perpetually grateful parent.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

From Strategy to Authenticity:
Writing Your Perfect Essay
by Nate Klemp

Here’s one way to think about the college admissions essay. The task of the essay is to sway admissions officers. Writing a good essay is like marketing a product. It requires that you appeal to the preferences of admissions officers (whatever those are) and that you present a crafted and manicured version of your self – one that gives you the best chance of getting in.

I call this the strategic approach. This admissions essay writing philosophy is based on two core premises:
  1. It is relatively easy to get inside the heads of admissions officers and figure out what they want to hear.
  2. By telling admissions officers what they want to hear, you increase your chance of getting in.
The strategic approach has a seductive quality and is becoming more and more popular among high-achieving students and their parents. In a culture that values prestige and success, this approach offers what appears to be a sure-fire way of getting in to top institutions.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t actually work. It’s self-defeating because both of its core premises are false.

Take premise 1. Many savvy consultants and parents think they know what admissions officers want. But the reality is that each admissions officer has a unique set of preferences. Guessing what an admissions committee wants to hear is like guessing the right number on a roulette wheel. Sure, you might get lucky, but the odds are stacked against you.

Now consider premise 2. Talk to any admissions officer and they will tell you that they abhor overly crafted applications. They’re not interested in hearing from self-branded students. They’re much more interested in those who speak candidly about meaningful decisions, ideas, or experiences.

As Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Admissions at Yale, puts it:
"What concerns me…are the number of high achieving students whose lives are governed by what they, or perhaps more often their parents, imagine is going to improve in some slight way their chances of admission. Exploration and growth serve a student best for the long run, both in education and life, not the construction of a perfect resume. We try as best we can to distinguish the one from the other."
Brenzel helps illuminate the self-defeating nature of the strategic approach. Admissions officers have a kind of sixth sense for students who craft their essays and, in many cases their lives, to maximize their chances of getting in. As he notes, this kind of admissions spin actually diminishes, rather than enhances, your chance of getting in.

There’s a better way to think about the admissions essay. I call it the inspired approach. Writing an inspired essay requires that you forget about pandering to the admissions committee. It requires that you take a look within – that you use the essay as an opportunity to write about an idea or experience that has shaped you.

There is no formula for writing an inspired essay. There is no one “right” way.

There are, however, a few basic guidelines that might be helpful in creating an essay that gives colleges a window into who you are:

  1. Be You – This is your opportunity to give the admissions committee a sense of who you are. It is the one place in the application where you come alive and become something more than numbers on a transcript. If you are creative, let it shine. If you are witty, let it come through. If you are passionate about an activity, tell us why. If you have faced a challenging situation, show us how it changed you. The key is to make sure that YOUR personality jumps off the page.
  2. Provide a “Slice-of-Life” – It’s tempting to try to pack your entire resume into the essay and to distill the entirety of who you are into 500 words. Resist the temptation. The best essays don’t tell, they show. The best essays focus on a small slice-of-life – a moment, an event, or an experience that offers a window into who you are. By painting the picture of a single moment with imagery, dialogue, and details, you don’t need to tell the admissions officer anything. Your story will show them who you are and who you might become.
  3. Have a Killer Hook – To draw in the reader, your essay must have a catchy hook. Remember this isn’t an analytic paper. You don’t need a formal introduction. It’s much more effective to skip the intro and start with the imagery and emotion of a concrete experience. You can hook the reader in many ways. Your first few lines could be funny, shocking, unexpected, or even surprisingly mundane. The key is to create a sense of tension and intrigue – to leave the reader thinking, “wow, I wonder what this essay is about!”
  4. Go Beyond the Obvious – To combat your ordinary urge toward the obvious do the following thought experiment: come up with the most obvious, banal, and clich├ęd version of the essay you are planning to write. Go all out here. Make sure that it is as boring as possible. Now use this as a road map for what not to do in your actual essay!
As we enter the peak of the admissions season, remember – your task in writing the admissions essay isn’t strategic. It’s not like playing chess or battleship. It’s not about marketing yourself to the admissions committee.

The most compelling essays arise from a different source. They come from inspired students – from students who write about what matters to them in a raw, authentic, and honest way.

Nate Klemp, PhD is the founder of Inspired Admissions. Klemp is a former professor of political philosophy at Pepperdine University and holds a BA in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in political philosophy from Princeton University.