Tag 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 www.wiseteched.com 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




Tagged , , , , , ,

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.


Image from www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning

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.

Tagged ,

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: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/resilience.aspx

Tagged , ,

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?

Tagged , , ,

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…

Tagged , , ,

Making Meaning in Education

Recently I was walking past a school playground and noticed a group of elementary school kids playing a game: two teams on either side of a central line were building hoop structures, and then throwing soft balls towards the opposing side to knock the structures down. Asking the Physical Education instructor about the game revealed its name: Castle Ball (here is a link to a high school lesson plan).

As I watched, I noticed the game required a collaborative effort on each team’s part: some had to construct the hoop structures while others threw balls to knock the opposing team’s structures down (a mixture of offense and defense, which we know from last night’s Super Bowl is VERY important). The first team to knock down all of the opposing structures won.

It was clear the kids enjoyed the physicality of the exercise, the competition AND the cooperation, yet I couldn’t help but think something was missing: how could the game be framed to make it personally meaningful to all participants? I realized that many times in education the lesson or activity is framed in a “follow these instructions but don’t ask why” framework.

I then began to think about how to make Castle Ball meaningful, even connecting it to personal responsibility and sustainability. One idea would be to start with a lesson on ecosystems, and how an ecosystem is an interconnected web of relationships that rely on each other to coexist. This could dovetail into building hoop castles where each hoop represents a key part of an ecosystem: clean water, fresh air, topsoil with nutrients, bacterial and fungal organisms, vegetation, animals, etc. Depending on the grade level, the lesson could even include socio-political aspects such as environmental legislation and responsible citizens. Once the students learned to build healthy ecosystems (in this case represented by hoops leaning against one another), the second part of the lesson would introduce what degrades ecosystems: air and water pollution, free-radical chemicals, overdevelopment, poaching of animals, erosion of topsoil, etc. Each of these “ecosystem enemies” would be represented by the balls used to throw at the hoop castles to knock them down.

Sound like a stretch? Perhaps. Yet with planning and correct framing of an exercise, any educational lesson can be imbued with meaning with metaphor and a bit of imagination. Last I checked, youth had plenty of imagination to go around, and if they don’t they should. After all, once Castle Ball becomes about protecting and destroying ecosystems, it raises the stakes considerably doesn’t it?

Tagged , , , ,

Personal Myth Education

In the story A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the protagonist Sheherazade faces death at the hand of a King unless she can tell a string of stories that prevent him from taking her life once dawn breaks. The side of the story less known is why the King has gotten to his current state: grief stricken from an unfaithful Queen, the King decides to take his vengeance on the kingdom by wedding and then sacrificing a new Queen every night. Sheherazade willingly decides to become the next Queen to prevent the unnecessary killings, as she knows she holds the power of storytelling that can slowly unravel the grief the King holds in his heart, thereby saving the kingdom.

Stories, or myths, such as these were told to provide valuable lessons to society. In the case of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, we learn that unconsciously acting out on grief can create harm to others, and by utilizing inherent and powerful gifts we can help others. Myths were told as ways to remind people the importance of knowing ones place as an individual in a larger collective society; to create meaning as to how individual actions help and contribute to the larger world. Today, our myths have been diluted and in many ways subdued by technology and science: in a world where facts and logic are at our fingertips, where is room for the personal meaning-making that myth provides?

At R2B, we believe the trend of myth and making meaning is necessary to create individuals who can identify their gifts and use them for greater good. A way to do this is to create service learning projects that bring the individual out into the world, where societal talents can be honed and put to the test. As students in schools and individuals from corporations engage in service learning projects, they begin to act upon latent and hidden skills thus identifying personal meaning in a shared environment. In other words, service learning helps individuals establish roles to create a personal myth that is then shared with a collective audience. This process, once repeated and implemented in all spheres of society, can create a wave of actions that lead to nothing short of “saving the kingdom”…we’d like to start with the educational system.

Tagged , , , ,