A Chance at Greatness

Earlier today I read this article about the application process to get into middle schools and high schools in New York. It’s crazy!!!

(I’d strongly encourage reading this article before reading the rest of my post because it provides helpful context.)

I remember applying to colleges all too vividly and it was stressful and tiresome and promoted all sorts of self-doubt amongst teens. For students applying to some schools, your shot all boils down to a bunch of numbers – that’s terrifying. From what I can tell, it seems like some kids go through this same process as early as when they’re 10-11 and only just about to enter 6th grade- that seems outright wrong.

Even looking past the equality debates and economic pull for a second (though very real issues as well), what 10-year-old should have to be thinking about how their grades will affect the rest of their life: the odds of getting into a good middle school leading to odds of going to a good high school leading to odds of being well prepared for college. Sure you may think, “Well the child probably isn’t worrying about all of the grades and applications and portfolios; the parents are the ones to really send stuff in,” but what is the likelihood parents don’t start pressuring their kids more and more with each year the academic game gets more competitive? Parents just want their kid to go to a good school, but what has to happen for them to get there?

And let’s keep in mind elementary school “grades” are basically assessing things like multiplication to the power of 12 and a few basic sentences written in a row.

I couldn’t read well until 2nd grade, does that mean I shouldn’t have gotten a chance at a good education?

This article honestly made me consider even beyond this apparent problem with New York City schools. I realized that there are often complaints about the ways that higher education admits students, but how often do we consider all of the k-12 schools who also have application processes? How do they work? How heavily are grades and standardized tests considered? Are children truly looked at holistically?

I’m just throwing out questions because I really don’t know how it works. I had never considered how lucky I am to have gone to the same school for middle and high school. A lot of kids go to a different school every four-ish years of their life because that’s just how neighbourhood schools tend to work. I, on the other hand, switched to a private school when I was going into 6th grade and then got to just stay at that school. I didn’t have to deal with applying to a new high school, or meeting new friends, or getting used to a new school system.

I vaguely remember the application process going into 6th grade. I’m sure my records were sent in and then I remember having an interview where they asked me to solve some basic math problems and take a few “creativity tests.” I only applied to one school. If I didn’t get in and didn’t get financial aid, I would’ve gone to our local middle school despite it being known as, “not a good school.” I was fortunate to make it in and to be on scholarship, but many don’t get that same chance.

My life would be completely different had I not switched schools in 6th grade. Completely and utterly so, I’m certain of it.

I hate that there even exists rumours of “not good schools.” Shouldn’t every child get to go to a great school? School is honestly one of the biggest parts of childhood. We spend 35+ hours a week in school for roughly 180 days a year. That amount of time spanning from age 5-18 (and some kids spend longer than that), adds up to an underestimate of about 16,380 hours spent in k-12 school during childhood. That’s a ton of time!

Obviously, this article I read is focused primarily on how the system to apply to schools is corrupt, but in my opinion, if the schools supposedly “not good” we just transformed to be better, then maybe the application system would self-fix to some extent. Every school has a different culture. Two schools can be entirely different and yet both equally great for the right child. The school application process should be about finding what culture of a school is best for each individual child, not about children competing to be admitted into the select few great schools.

School influences life; there is no questioning that anymore in the age we live in. Being okay with some schools just not being great is like saying not all kids deserve a chance at a great life.

We need all schools to be great.

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Why Learn

Well, I’ve officially had the first hiccup of my challenge from forgetting to blog last night. Probably for the best though so I didn’t procrastinate studying physics any more than I already had by this point last night.

Though now that my final test before finals is over, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to “study.”

Sometimes we use this word synonymously with “learn” but the more I think about it, I believe there is a difference.

Most frequently, studying refers to preparing for an assessment of some kind, but this can be done in a number of ways, not all of which require actual learning. To most students, more often than not, studying just means committing facts and equations to short-term memory in order to do well on a test. I myself am guilty of this.

Learning takes time that we don’t always have before an assessment. In theory, you learn along the way so by the time an assessment comes around, you already have learned what you need to know. But what if you didn’t learn what was necessary? After all, not everyone learns at the same pace, so if we’re expected to have learned certain things before an assessment, then why are we expected to take assessments at the same times?

The fact that we teach “study skills” is kind of funny in this regard, because part of this notion is implying that you don’t fully know the material you are going to be assessed on so you have to strategically study to make sure you know enough to pass. It seems reasonable that we shouldn’t be expected to fully know everything, but that begs the question of what qualifies as “enough”? Who determines what “enough” is? Should “enough” be the same metric for everyone?

Logically the next thing to talk about would be the notion of grades, but I feel like I’ve made my opinion on grades fairly clear in the past and don’t want to dwell on their problematic structure. However, I do wonder, if before going into surgery we saw our doctors report card, how would we perceive him/her?

Anyway, back on the notion of “learning,” I’ve realized that I often consider myself to have truly learned something if I’m able to teach it to someone else. And to be honest, I feel like if I take all of my education thus far, I don’t know how many things would fall into this category. I’ve done well in school, but I’m not sure if I was always learning. And this includes classes I considered to enjoy based on the subject or teacher.

And I’ve noted that in the education world, we like to talk about “teaching kids how to learn,” but pondering this today I wonder if really we should be trying to teach kids why to learn. I think most kids have a general understanding, even at a young age, that learning takes time and practice. Most of the time when we don’t learn, it’s because we don’t want to. We haven’t been convinced why it should be worth learning something.

The reasons why we learn really don’t need to be obvious or even relevant out of context. For example, as a bit of a tangent story, I believe, and if you ask 75% of my graduating class they’d agree, I learned my 7th-grade vocab words. I was motivated in this case by competition.

We played a game in English class called “Vocab Basketball” where at the end of each week our class would split into teams and be asked vocab questions if we got it right then we got a point for our team and the chance to try making a basket to gain a second point. However, there was more to this game. Each week if you used, read, or heard a vocab word used in a sentence then you could write down the word, how it was used, and what it means and put it in your class bucket. At the end of the week, whichever student in each individual class had the most words got a homework pass, and at the end of the year, whichever class had the most words got a party. First semester only one kid in my class really tried, so he got all of the homework passes. I didn’t really care about the homework passes, but it seemed silly to me that he should get all of them for barely trying at all, so I started trying. Sure enough, we ended up in steep competition, but it was also benefiting our class, so then kids from other classes started trying more in order to attempt to keep up with our class total. We may have been motivated to want to learn due to competition, but we definitely learned. The reason I have no doubts about having learned those words and their meanings is because to this day we will occasionally still point out and use words we recall being on one of our 7th-grade vocab lists. I can’t say the same about vocab words from other years.

Anyway, I got lost in my train of thought on that tangent, but I do wonder still, for the amount I’ve studied this year, how much have I really learned? How much do we learn any year for that matter? How do we choose what we learn? What motivates us to learn? How can we spend more time exploring why we learn certain things and not just how we learn them?

Mental Health in Education

If you ask a random Yellow Jacket to describe the last two weeks on campus, the majority would most likely respond with, “extended hell week.”

On the one hand, there was the academic side of hell week: first midterms in multiple classes on top of lab reports and extra curricular’s starting to pick up. It was tough, but everyone here chose to be somewhere where we can be academically challenged.

But then you have the emotional side of hell week… Many people know that GT has been on the news a lot recently. And not in a positive way. There was Irma, then a shooting, then a riot, then a fellow scholar died from an illness, and I recently heard that there may have been a few robbery’s as well (though don’t quote me on that one). Not to make light of any of these things, but I list them for the sake to say that our campus has not been getting the greatest press in the past few weeks, and I thought now that I’ve made it through hell week, I should take some time to reflect.

Thus I come back to my blog because it seems this is where my best reflections come out. (Even though they typically are written in about an hour with me just word vomiting onto a page, so who knows where this will go because I surely don’t right now. )

Anyway, as I was saying, it all started with Irma. The first wave of the storm. It feels so long ago, but then again so does the start of the school year, and yet we’re really it’s hardly been more than a month. I went home for the hurricane and got lucky that our power didn’t even go out, and GT wasn’t in too bad of a situation either so we got back in school by the Wednesday after with seemingly no problems jumping back into things.

Then there was the shot hear around the campus. I’ve been told it was the first time in GT police history that a gun was fired by a police officer on campus. I didn’t know Scout, but like everyone at Tech, I’ve been wishing for the best for Scout’s family and friends. And the peaceful vigil turned protest just seemed to come out of no where to me, because as I told friends who reached out to me around that time, it’s the kind of thing you hear about happening on college campuses but never really expect it to happen when you’re there. I was lucky enough to be in my dorm room at the time, and thankfully everyone I knew also stayed safe.

As for the death of Tessa Powers, I don’t know how public this was even made. All we were told was that she was sick and it was a sudden and unexpected death. I have friends who saw her two days prior at a coffee house I was invited to but couldn’t make it to. I can’t say I knew her well, though she was a member of one of my programs, and thus I knew several people who were close with her and her loss was felt deeply by the community.

To be honest, I maybe wasn’t worried enough about these potentially emotionally scaring events. I felt removed in some weird way, maybe because I was distracted by midterms and am also just not the most emotional person for better or worse. What I will say bothered me though, was that the protest was started by non GT students. Outsiders came onto our campus, caused a bunch of problems, and then GT is now has to deal with the bad press.

I don’t really follow the news as well as I should, but here on campus there was a lot of talk about that and it was making a significant number of students upset to see our school community being judged so much for a lot of things that just kind of happened to be on our campus. In times of struggle it’s at least nice to see a community come together, and I’d just like to acknowledge that tech did a great job of always alerting us when things happened on campus (I got at least 5 notifications telling me to seek safe shelter and then reporting when everything was under control). Furthermore, there have been lots of emails and announcements about events for people to pay their respects to Scout and Tessa and their families, and there has been lots of talk about mental health on campus with many resources for those in need of counseling.

Mental health actually has been a huge topic of discussion since I’ve gotten to Tech

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Student story: We need mental health education in schools

because my Grand Challenges problem is all about the evident stress problem on campus. And if feels like yesterday, though it was two years ago, that I was looking at this same problem at the Stanford d.School with the Innovation Diploma for interim. It seems that college campuses and mental health problems are becoming more and more of a conversation these days. I wonder why.

I haven’t done enough actual research to make a big statement at the moment, but my hypothesis is that it has a lot more to do with academic pressure from grades then schools would like to admit. The past two weeks have been very emotional for a lot of people and a lot of professors made the call to change schedules some because of that. Tests were pushed back in freshman chemistry. A few classes were canceled. Some classes became more of a discussion around the events of the past few weeks and were used as check ins to make sure everyone was doing relatively okay. Etc. That was great; I know it helped a lot of people.

Though I know some people still aren’t doing better. There are people on campus still overwhelmed with the events of hell week and can’t seem to find themselves taking time for themselves. Are we just going to be in this constant loop of people getting worked up, then something bad happening and then we address things, and then the cycle repeats? I’m curious as to what will actually change.

I know some people are advocating for more mental health services, though personally I have to wonder if people who really need help will take the time to utilize them. But I’m sure that will help lots of people who can’t seem to get off the wait list because their problems aren’t “urgent enough.” – yes, I had a girl tell me that.

Personally, my education oriented mind believes this is yet another example of why education needs to change specifically in regards to how we assess students. Assessment is a good and needed thing, that doesn’t mean number grades are the only way to assess knowledge and capabilities. I don’t have the answer for the “best system,” to be honest I don’t even know at the moment what I would suggest, but I know that students get too stressed over grades and these past two weeks have made me even more annoyed about it.

IT’S TIME TO CHANGE THE WAY WE ASSESS!

How might we get authentic feedback and assessment? The kind that truly allows us to have a safe space to fail and then learn and grow from our mistakes, without this looming fear of a few bad grades recking our future? What does a number really tell us? If people keep saying grades don’t matter after you get your first job and gain some credibility for yourself, then why do we keep grades at all?

I could go on, but I may just start sounding repetitive because I can feel myself verging into rant mode because this truly makes me deeply upset. I’m more than a number; and I want work that I feel is meaningful enough to work on for a reason better than just because “I want a good grade.” Isn’t that the real reason we still have grades? – because once they’re gone it will require us to give students different kinds of work which leads to a lot of new systems we need to prototype and explore?

It seems that the fact that people keep asking me, “how was your first hell week?” is reason enough to believe that this mentally and emotionally stressful environment wasn’t just because of the unfortunate and unpredictable situations of the last few weeks. If this is an inevitable unhealthy environment, that also means we should be able to prototype and test ways to avoid it, and I personally think that with some creative thinking there are a lot more options worth pursing than just increasing the number of counseling resources. (Counseling is still a great cause to fund, but there is always more than one way to solve a problem, and it seems like this is the only way being talked much about so far.) My vote is to rethink assessment since from interviews I’ve conducted and observations I’ve made, it seems to be a clear cause of a significant portion of stress and is something very controllable by schools, but it’s not the only way to tackle this challenge.

So what’s going to be our experiment to improve mental health in education?- and I’m not just talking about at Tech, because this problem is by no means isolated to GT, or Georgia, or even just higher ed.