Category Archives: Education

Alternative Technology Education

For the past 3 years I have taken part in a sort of alternative education ‘experiment’ at 5 middle schools in a school district north of San Francisco. The premise of this experiment is that punishing students for failing subjects, for bad behavior in class and for truancy can only go so far. At some point, the school, teacher or parent has to come up with a solution as expelling middle school aged kids typically leads to drug use, over reliance on video games and lack of an incentive / skills for societal involvement. The solution created involves keeping kids at the school site nearest to their home, yet in an alternative classroom where a multiple subject teacher and teaching assistant work much more closely with each student than in a standard class. The ratio of student to teacher is 10 to 1 as opposed to 30 to 1; the focus is on academics as well as social and emotional learning; and project based learning and field trips are woven into the curriculum to inspire creative application of academic concepts.

During my time as educator of project based social and emotional learning, I have noticed one trend that is pretty much universal among the alt-ed students in these classrooms: their reliance on technology and overuse of smartphones, Youtube and video games. Regardless of socio-economics and race (as each school is situated in a different area that results in demographic shift), the trend I have noticed is near universal with these kids: ask them to do a simple multiplication and they can’t answer without going to their phone calculator; ask a question about geography and they use Google maps; ask them to identify a definition and they ask Siri or Google. Initial attempts at removing technological distraction such as by putting phones away and keeping Chromebooks closed leads to blank stares, disinterest and a flare up of a suite of behavior management challenges.

One might observe that ‘of course’ these students act this way- they are, after all, the segment of our population that are failing or in danger of being expelled, and most likely they have some sort of learning disability or lack of support at home. While the latter is true in many cases, the former is mostly false as students in these alt-ed classes lack an IEP or ‘Individual Education Program’ plan that is created when a student has a learning disability that may prevent them from thriving in school. The one thing these students DO have is a form of ADHD where keeping their attention for more than 15 minutes is near impossible.

In thinking about this I was reminded of an article I read back in 2008 that first cued me into the possible dangers of Internet connectivity: entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? it is a fascinating read even today and worth checking out. A quote from the piece explains, “[Internet media] supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” This phrase exactly describes what I see happening with the hundreds of 11-14 year olds I have worked with the last 10+ years, and not just with the students in alternative education classrooms. Middle school students in public, private and alternative education contexts exhibit shorter attention spans than anytime in history*. This statement comes from current research, personal anecdotal evidence from my own experience and from numerous principles, teachers and guidance counselors I have worked with; seasoned educators that have been in the educational realm for multiple decades.

A simple way to put it is this: students I work with in the alternative education classes and many from general education would much rather surf on Youtube than actually go surfing. And maybe they have a point? Actual surfing involves getting to a beach at odd hours, trudging through coastal plain and sand, getting wet in cold water (at least in Northern California) and the occasional run in with sea urchin spikes in your foot. Youtube does the work for you, includes the dopamine rush and you can do it from anywhere. The problem with the above is that as research shows, in accessing information online we are actually changing the way our brain processes information, many times with dire results: decreased academic performance, a decrease in the ability to focus on tasks and a general apathy for education and possibly the world in general.

Current solutions exist on both the social and technological fronts: work done by Common Sense Media can help us educate our youth on trends in digital citizenship, tech workers at Google and Facebook (among others) have launched a Center for Humane Technology, and websites such as offer targeted social behavior change platforms to educate ourselves on the dangers of overuse of technology while changing social norms and neural pathways. The goal is to enable awareness and an increase in the ability to give our attention in focused and meaningful ways.

I recently went on a field trip to the California Academy of Sciences with two of the alternative education classes mentioned above. Each student was given a scavenger hunt worksheet that asked them to go to specific areas in the museum and write down responses. One question asked the students to answer, “In the exhibit The Color of Life, what is the term for the bending of light?” Rather than move from his seat near the cafeteria, I watched a student pick up his iPhone, cracks spread throughout the screen, and ask Siri “What do you call light that bends?” I couldn’t help but respect the fact he used the tool available to him.

*”There has been an 800% increase in the ADHD “epidemic” in the last 30 years. 6 million kids have been diagnosed with ADHD (1 in 10 kids)” Glow Kids by Nicolas Kardaras




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The Adolescent Brain, Drugs and Media

We recently finished a drug education series at a local middle school, and (pun intended) the kids are hooked on the information. The lesson covers in broad strokes topics having to do with the development of the adolescent brain, levels of identity, drugs and media, and responsible decision-making. The course is designed to work with 6th-8th graders, yet personal experience and research show 8th grade as the critical time this information needs to be shared, learned and integrated. As the national drug use watch organization Monitoring the Future says, “Often 8th grade substance use is a bellwether, and year-to-year changes that are unique to 8th grade can signify an emerging increase or decrease in substance use at later ages…”

Our experience in the classroom shows higher levels of engagement when talking about brain development and drugs than almost any other subject. Contextualizing information with group activity, helpful visual aids, anecdote sharing and impactful statistics allow for digestion of complex concepts. Students demonstrate insatiable appetites to hear about drugs from someone that isn’t telling them “just say no” or explaining how drugs are “bad” the way a parent talks to a toddler.

The success of a drug education program in the classroom is merely one step in a multi-phase abuse prevention strategy. According to the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Education, parenting practices are extremely important in prevention of drug use and abuse among teens. According to the website, teens between the ages of 16-17 show the highest rates of drug use initiation (see graphic), meaning prevention measures need to take place well before this critical time. Couple the fact teens are actively developing their prefrontal cortex from ages 12 to their mid-20’s, and we can begin to understand why risky impulsive behaviors need to be reigned in before unhealthy addictions can set in.


A question remains how addiction can accurately be addressed in our media and drug-filled society. A recent article that addresses the root cause of drug addiction compares addiction to a form of memory, where we are actually “bonding” to an experience we have with a substance, rather than the substance itself. The article furthers this statement by stating the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, but human connection.

As we continue to address the needs of children in middle school, sharing in real-life terms the perceived rewards and hidden risks of drugs and media is a must. Parent norm creation, a necessary piece in the larger puzzle, is also possible via community meetings and before and after school presentations. After all, if we can learn that human connection is the opposite of addiction, wouldn’t we all want to be a part of the communal conversation?

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School as a Social Primer for Future Success in Life

What if kids learn more during recess than in the classroom?

It’s a disruptive notion but a case may be made that social/emotional learning during this predominantly unstructured time has significant developmental benefits. It’s no accident that preschool is emphasized at such an early age to encourage interpersonal growth. Leaving the “safety” of a home environment in which the primary social interactions typically involve mom, dad, sister and/or brother, is hugely instructive for a child’s eventual acclimation into the larger human community.

“There’s increasing evidence that children gain a lot from going to preschool,” says Parents advisor Kathleen McCartney, PhD, dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “At preschool, they become exposed to numbers, letters, and shapes. And, more important, they learn how to socialize — get along with other children, share, contribute to circle time.”

Schools (whether they be preschool, kindergarten or K-12) function not just as conduits to convey knowledge via essential subjects, such as math, history and language arts, they act as ongoing incubators for societal readiness. The more that children are exposed to a plurality of diverse individuals, from classmates, teachers, and educational staff, the better prepared they will be to navigate the complex social minutia of adult life. It is for precisely this reason that recess can be just as valuable as classroom time. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids with regular recess behave better, are physically healthier and exhibit stronger social and emotional development.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that innovative schools, such as Eagle Mountain Elementary, in Texas, are experimenting with multiple recesses. Eagle Mountain is modeled after the Finnish School system which consistently scores at or near the top in international education rankings. The core idea behind the frequent recess approach is use this special time to focus on character development through empathy-building and sustained social interaction.

Based on the success of the Finnish educational model and its American adherents, it’s worth pursuing more social/emotional learning initiatives, even if they don’t feature a whopping four recesses per day. It’s been well documented that school drop-out rates are directly correlative to crime and dysfunctional behavior later in life. The better kids learn to relate to their peers, the more comfortable they will feel in school, allowing for greater achievement. We owe it to our children to use precious school hours towards facilitating interpersonal skills. After all, educators are preparing our young for much more than an eventual job someday. They are preparing them to thrive.

Maybe It’s Time We Brought Back The Vision Quest: Why Rites of Passage Create Wiser Adults

Have you noticed that many of today’s “adults” are adults in name only? In terms of outlook and behavior, these “grownups” more closely resemble adolescents.

“…Not only are many young people blocked from reaching adulthood, but they are bombarded with role models for childish and irresponsible behavior,” writes Stephen Schwartz, P.H.D in Psychology Today. “Lifestyles that would have been considered deviant 50 years ago are now commonplace.”

What can explain this alarming tendency? Perhaps we should look towards a once meaningful practice that has largely disappeared. Rites of passage are meaningful traditions across many cultures, yet we have mostly abandoned them in our modern society. Instead, we barely acknowledge milestones, such as obtaining a driver’s license, or growing old enough to vote.

To be sure, there are truly horrific rites of passage we should all be grateful to avoid, but the symbolic meaning and importance of this ritual has profound implications we ought to consider for our young people. According to anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep,  “Rites of passage exist in order to consolidate social ties, establish roles, and give members of a group a sense of purpose and placement.”

Gannep is not alone in his assertion on the importance of rites of passage. It is backed up by the Jewish culture that emphasizes Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for 13-year-olds and the Quinceañera for Latin American 15-year-olds. A similar and compelling argument can be made that our own society would benefit from events in which the whole community witnesses a youth’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the infantilizing tendencies of today’s “grown-ups” may be partly due to the absence of these types of meaningful markers designating when a child can be considered an adult.

“Going out by yourself and a spear and coming back with a lion’s pelt doesn’t just mean you’ve been ushered into the world of men. It also means that you are a capable hunter; a valuable addition to the group who can likely handle what the world will throw at you,” writes Mark Sisson, author of the Primal Blueprint. “Having your first menstruation isn’t just a symbolic shedding of your girlhood; it means you’re physiologically capable of getting pregnant. Rites of passage are also very utilitarian and practical, then.”

Ultimately, no one is suggesting that we isolate our children and/or force them to sharpen their teeth into canine points like the Mentawai tribe. However, we do owe it to our young people to find honorable ways to acknowledge their shift from adolescence to adulthood. We might consider designing our own set of challenging, yet meaningful ordeals to help them develop both resilience and self-reliance. If we are successful in our efforts, our society may be rewarded with wiser, better-adjusted adults instead of just larger adolescents.

In closing and just for fun, the next time your adolescent complains about something, here are three gruesome rites of passage ceremonies you can share to let them know just how good they have it:

1) After being ceremoniously circumcised, young boys and girls of the Okiek tribe in Kenya are secluded from adults for months. During this time they paint themselves to resemble a wild creature and are then haunted by a mythical beast whose terrifying roar can be heard at night. The youths only become adults when the elders show them the roar-producing instrument and teach them how to make its sound for themselves.

2) Girls from the Fula tribe in West Africa must have their faces tattooed for hours with a sharpened piece of wood before they can be considered adults. If a girl cries or grimaces she is believed to be too immature and must wait to finish her tattoos in order to marry.

3) To become an adult hunter in the Matis tribe of Brazil, young boys must endure much. First, a bitter poison is dumped in their eyes to “improve” their vision. Next, they are beaten and whipped. Finally, they must inject themselves with poison from the Giant Leaf Frog using wooden needles.



Social and Emotional Learning: Just as Vital as Math and Reading to Raise Healthy, Happy, Well-Adjusted Children

High-stakes testing in education has led many schools to focus on reading and math instruction as the centerpiece of the CORE curriculum. But what if social and emotional skills are just as crucial for ensuring a child’s success in life? A recent study by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Duke demonstrates that children who scored high on social skills were four times as likely to graduate from college than those who scored low.

So what is social and emotional learning? The Collaborative for Academic and Social Learning defines (SEL) as the “process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Many models view SEL in a holistic sense likened to the “container” metaphor that suggests nothing happens in a vacuum. When educators and parents mindfully invest in community-building to create a healthy “container” for learning they provide positive conditions for resilient young people to flourish. Besides better grades, effective SEL has been attributed to better interpersonal relationships amongst youngsters, higher self-esteem, and avoidance of risky behaviors.

Public figures who have taken note of the above study and see the need for SEL have therefore begun to make the case that it’s not enough for schools to myopically focus on academics, particularly teaching solely to the test. David Bornstein from the New York Times recently wrote an opinion piece in which he quoted Mark T. Greenberg, professor of Human Development and Psychology at Penn State as saying, “These early abilities, especially the ability to get along with others, are the abilities that make other kids like you, and make teachers like kids. And when kids feel liked, they’re more likely to settle down and pay attention, and keep out of the principal’s office, and reap the benefits of being in a classroom. And this builds over time; it’s like a cascade. They become more bonded with peers and healthy adults and they become more bonded to school as an institution, and all those skills lead them, independent of their I.Q., to be less at risk for problems.”

The wisdom of valuing SEL that Bornstein and Greenberg trumpet is not lost on the Oakland Unified School District. According to their site, SEL is not separate from academic learning, but is in fact critical to the effectiveness of teaching academic content through the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. The Oakland Unified School District takes this educational component so seriously that it emphasizes five key skills and competencies as part of its curriculum: Self Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making.


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Based on the need for SEL as a powerful educational tool backed by studies, columnists, and proactive school districts, it is heartening to see it being rolled out as early as preschool in many communities. Parents who are interested in discovering if their young child is developing age-appropriate social and emotional skills can visit Get Ready To Read to monitor their progress. Other helpful sites containing SEL information for older children can be found at Edutopia and the Independent Day School’s website that specializes in resources for middle schoolers.

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3 Myths and Realities About Fostering Resilience in Young People

1) Myth: Resilient youngsters must be pessimists.

Reality: Not so. Many people mistakenly believe that resilient children and teens must be cynical or pessimistic, but actually the opposite is true.

According to PBS This Emotional Life resilience can be defined as, “the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe.” A 15-year study by Dr. Martin Seligman found that optimism is the key to fostering emotional strength. Resilient young people are realistically optimistic. They don’t blindly see pie in the sky at all times. Instead, they willfully seek the silver lining within dark clouds, preferring to focus on the good in difficult situations.

2) Myth: Adversity automatically leads to predetermined consequences.

Reality: Nothing could be further from the truth. The ABC model of resilience proposed by Albert Ellis in 1962 posits that adversity leads to beliefs leads to consequences.




Basically, adversity is any problem in your life. Your beliefs include any thoughts you have after the problem has occurred. The consequences include the actions you take or emotions you feel in reaction to those beliefs.

Here is an example that follows reality #1:

Fifteen-year-old best friends, Morgan and Juliette, are in a car accident. Morgan enters a downward spiral. A broken leg injury means she can’t play on her volleyball team. Depressed, Morgan withdraws from school and friends.

Though Juliette also suffers from a broken leg and must quit the volleyball team, she uses the additional time to study more and receive better grades. Instead of sulking, she joins the debate team and flourishes.

Why does Juliette thrive while Morgan flounders? It’s all in their thinking. Rather than succumbing to negativity, Juliette chooses to remain optimistic in the face of adversity. Rather than dwelling on what she can’t do because of her injury, she finds positive ways to spend her time that benefit her life.

3) Myth: Resilience is best developed on your own.

Reality: Resilience is best developed in a community, not in a vacuum. Young people who have strong community ties, including family, friends and school, are more likely to develop solid feelings of security that are the basis for resilience.

Dr. Lynn O’Grady, community psychologist and Senior Education Officer at Melbourne’s Catholic Education Office, stresses the importance of mirroring when it comes to young people viewing the behaviors of adults in their community. “If children are surrounded by adults who model resilience through their own behaviors as well as by explicitly teaching and practicing the social and emotional skills, they will be more likely to develop resilience themselves.”

Though family is the most significant focus of any child’s life, external social connections highly impact a young person’s sense of belonging to the wider world.

In conclusion, it is important for all of us to consider the following when contemplating the true nature of resilience as it relates to our children:

-1) How does optimism impact a child’s ability to cope with adversity?

-2) How do beliefs affect the consequences of our actions?

-3) Why is it so important to create strong community ties for young people?

For more related info on resilience, please find the following helpful resource from the American Psychological Association:

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The Landscape of Education

Perhaps it is time to examine the patterns prevailing in today’s K-12 educational system that minimize and compartmentalize the student, creating what is in many respects a current crisis in education. This crisis can be seen readily in high instances of school violence, truancy, bullying, stress-anxiety levels that lead to at-risk behaviors, along with an overall erosion of the public school system on the national level. According to the Nation’s Report Card, statistics show that public schools have, in general, not seen an increase in performance of reading and mathematics for 17 year olds since the early 1970’s.

Perhaps this lack of increase in the efficiency of schools is due to a collapse of the vision of what education is truly for: rather than an institution of instruction that denies individual gifts and attributes, education needs to return to its roots of literally “bringing forth” abilities, ideas and creativity in students that will be the change-makers once they reach the societal level. Through interviews and working with students, parents, teachers, principals, wellness directors and administrators, we have seen clearly identified ways that a school can help students become active and engaged, leading to increased academic performance and personal well-being. These actions include family and community outreach programs that get parents more involved, social and emotional learning lessons that teach students social skills and emotional management, and community service with curriculum tie-ins that build empathy and student participation.

Ever-present patterns still persist that stifle creativity and lead to the anonymous student, the disengaged performer and a higher potential for at-risk behavior, truancy and “drop-outs”. Due to lackluster management, overarching bureaucracy, lack of funds and basic ignorance our public schools are at a crossroads: Do we continue down the same path of higher student to teacher ratios, devaluation of teachers in general, and metrics that only quantify the value of an education based on a test score? Or do we embrace the higher cultural ideals that seek to give students the tools and resources they need to engage in our community and eventually get quality jobs that improve, not only their quality of life, but the quality of life of those around them?

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Why Resiliency?

When asked about what we do when working with youth, the topic typically comes around to the subject of “building resiliency”. The word “resilience”, for whatever reason, is triggering for some and understood in different ways. Some believe the concept of being resilient means the ability to “bounce back” from a struggle or hard times, and continue moving forward. Others look at resiliency as a sort of “walling off” of the world, a way to stay immune to stress by creating a wall to protect ourselves. Finally, I have spoken to parents who look at resiliency as a focus on hard times rather than a striving for the good ones.

The answer to the question “why resiliency?” really depends on what the definition of the word “resilience” is. Taking a quick look at Merriam-Webster:

: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens

: the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.

In both examples, the commonality can be seen around the “ability to return” or “become again”. The purpose of building resilience, as used by our organization and for the purpose of working with youth, is to aid young people in the understanding and integration of educational experience so that it can allow for greater personal awareness. We believe a foundation of personal awareness is what gives an individual a strong and steady place to “return” to so they can “become themselves again”.

Life is full of stress, especially as a developing youth, so having the ability to return to oneself in a calm and steady manner is one of the greatest tools we can provide. The tool of “resiliency” is what we call an “actualizer”: it creates the context for other tools to be understood and used. Examples of tools enabled by resiliency include communication with integrity, wise utilization of personal strengths, humble identification or personal needs, cultivating the ability to communicate complex emotions, among many others. Examples of techniques to create resiliency include group exercises around mindfulness, collaborative projects that tell the story of each individual member, and reflective essays around personal place and meaning.

Why resiliency? Because life can be hard, and we need to have the tools to become ourselves again.

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The fallacy of teenage rebellion

Growing up as a teenager I was told by friends, teachers, my parents (among others) that my teenage years were the time for rebellion. It was assumed that a child between the ages of 14 and 18 would by definition lash out against adult figures, authority, the system in order to move through some innate urge triggered by hormones, peer pressure and social anxiety.  Then, once we graduate from high school, turn 19 and go to college a magical transition happens and we are told the time for rebellion is over- the focus shifts to choosing a major, finding a career, getting married, etc.

To be honest, I did feel a need to rebel, yet I was and am still not convinced teenage rebellion is given a proper voice in our society. Perhaps the act of rebellion, rather than a phase that one must go through that represents hormonal shifts and labeled as “teenage angst”, is actually a cry for a shift in the way our culture deals with education (more like ‘instruction’), and the destruction of our true selves in order to fit into a societal mold.

Before going off the deep end into philosophical quagmire, let us imagine a world where teenagers are NOT rebelling against authority. Picture a classroom where every child 14-18 is obediently absorbing every thought, belief and byte handed to them. In this world, where is the innovation? Where is the challenge of the current paradigm in order to make way for the future? The teenage act of rebellion is not merely a hormonal shift (although one might say the hormones enable the rebellion to exist), but rather a precursor vision that something being taken for ‘normal’ and ‘necessary’ needs to change. Rebellion, when given proper context and a voice, helps the world shed its old skin and step into a new, necessary way of being.

And what happens when rebellion is not given a place, or is merely stereotyped, told to go in a corner, and count to 10? Google search ‘teenage violence’, ‘suicide rates’, ‘youth drug use’, ‘bullying’, ‘sexting’, ‘depression’, etc. etc. and you will have your answer. The world as we know it is screaming that there is something wrong with youth, yet rather than look at the distress signals as a sign to create a system that can listen to the message, we place a label on teenagers to isolate them and continue with business as usual.

My thoughts on rebellion, especially when looking at specific cases of youth who are ‘acting out’ is that teenagers are using rebellious behavior to tell us they are looking for more responsibility, more personal meaning in the world, and a place in which to share their feelings. All we need to do is open up the space to listen.

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The Importance of Student-Teacher Relationships

An often overlooked aspect of an educational system based on grades / test scores / aptitude tests is the interpersonal relationships between teachers and students. According to an article in The Atlantic magazine titled Kids Get Better Grades When They Share Similarities With Teachers, facilitating an awareness of connections between teacher and student can have a positive effect on grades.

Taking this a step further, my feeling is creating a healthy relationship between teacher and pupil would have the most positive impact on the educational system as a whole. In order for youth to learn from someone, it makes sense they would need to listen and have respect towards that person. Perhaps most importantly would be to create an understanding of shared connections between educator and learner- a process which would ultimately lead to empathy.

And once you have empathy? That is another story for another time…

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