Originally posted on July 28, 2014
A while back, the Internet was all aflutter about a child’s T-shirt proclaiming "I'm Too Pretty to do Homework”. Advocacy groups launched an immediate response and the item of clothing was pulled from the racks shortly after it had arrived. The protest centered around the complaint that if girls believe they are too good looking to work hard, they will devalue themselves and their abilities and others will quickly follow suit. While true, we must not be satisfied by only discouraging a store to carry one message tee. This is an issue that has been floating around for years that needs to be challenged every time it rears its ugly head.
Now, there is nothing wrong with looking well put-together and being a social person. Over the years, I have had students whose fashion sense and social skills range the gamut from geeky to graceful. Some come to class like they recently rolled out of bed while others appear to have just left a magazine cover shoot. It’s true that some families cannot afford nice clothes for their children, but that is different than the student who is dressed slovenly but has the latest smartphone in his pocket or her designer purse. All this is to say is that teens present their outer selves in many ways that may not be all that reflective of what’s inside.
The problem I have with the idea of being too pretty to work is that it simply is not true. No matter how good-looking they might be, teens will never have a job where they have no responsibilities other than looking pretty or handsome. The question is not whether the student is college-bound or has another reasonable pathway to success. What we’re talking about here is when student play dumb because being smart causes unwanted attention and differentiation. Our society might elevate the latest hottie or hunk to Greek god-like status, but that doesn’t mean we should. We must fight this urge with passion and vigor. While praising someone who is wearing a nice color or who is well dressed overall is one thing, we cannot allow the next generation to believe that looks are all that matter, because looks will not file reports or balance a home budget.
I get the temptation to want to be revered for appearance or athletic skill, but to hide behind them will only help in the short run. In addition to the wide swath of “regular” students who have sat in my class, I have had those seem to think their looks or some particular ability will exempt them from the responsibilities of life. What is interesting is that the ones who did achieve fame and success also worked fairly hard. My students who went on to be everything from professional sports players to a Rose Parade princess didn’t think a wink and a smile would make me give them a grade they did not deserve. Everybody has different skills and not everyone can get an A, but if they think they can build a life out of letting their looks pay the bills, they won’t have much to fall back on when those looks fade.
So, in response to the claim “I’m too pretty to do homework”, I would offer the following reply: No so much.
Getting real about college
Originally posted on April 6, 2015
As a fan of presidential trivia, I remember how surprised I was to discover that nine of America’s commanders-in-chief never attended college, with Harry Truman being the last to rise to the highest office in the land with such a humble pedigree.
Another reason this fact stands out is because of the obsessive push we have about ensuring virtually everyone in the next generation earns a four-year degree. We assume acquiring this piece of paper signifies you are an adult who is fully prepared to conquer the globe. The corporate world has bought into this mindset by requiring even entry-level employees have a bachelor’s degree.
The problem is the promise of a better life does not always match the reality. Students in America have borrowed more than $1 trillion to cover the cover of such an education and the average 20-something graduate has acquired more than $30,000 in student loans, with many owing much, much more. These recently minted alums need to find a job that will allow them to meet this significant obligation in the next decade, or else. This was easier in my generation and those before me, but with the skyrocketing cost of education, such a task has become much more onerous. Many of these problems and more are examined in the CNN Films documentary Ivory Tower, which I highly recommend.
Now that we’ve identified the problem, what is the solution? Well, as I see it, there are three questions to ask before making a decision that will impact the next 15 years of your student’s life, if not longer.
Who’s offering the most “free” money? Colleges are in the business of providing students with an opportunity to learn and, like other organizations that package and sell a product, have become very adept at concealing its true costs. Sure, going to college can cost $20,000–$30,000 a year, but the university’s financial aid department is willing to present what appears to be a very appealing package covering almost all of these costs. A closer look, however, reveals much of this assistance comes in the form of loans that must be paid back. It may look like your student is getting nearly a free education, but instead they will be expected to pay back $8,000–$15,000 or more per year in loans. If your student has earned a full-ride scholarship based upon grades or extra-curricular activities, then he or she is in a very fortunate position and probably should sign acceptance papers as soon as humanly possible. Yet for the vast majority of students, going to college is nowhere near this easy.
Is a four-year college the best place to go? We have been conditioned to think a four-year institution is the best place to learn what is needed to be successful in the professional world, but helping students earn degrees that automatically will translate into a job a week after graduation has never been the primary goal of college. It is helpful to remember higher learning was originally modeled on the idea of Plato’s Academy, in which the wealthy elites would contemplate the meaning of life and the world around them. Clearly such an education is unnecessary to fix a drain, repair a car, or help someone open a bank account. While it is a larger battle to convince companies that internship programs would be much more valuable to them than the bachelor’s degrees many require, we should at least accept the obvious fact there are many, respectable professions requiring advanced training not found at your local university. These programs often are less expensive than a traditional college degree program and have a much greater likelihood of job placement after graduation.
Is a four-year college the best place to go right now? Over the years, community colleges have earned a negative reputation for the same reason Ivy Leagues universities have garnered a positive one: acceptance rates. Relatively few people can get into Columbia, Harvard or Yale, but anybody can take classes at your local community college. Because these programs are so easily accessible and affordable, it has lead people to believe teens go to community college as a last resort and most students at these schools subsequently drop out and become failures in life. They also believe the opposite is true for those attending the regional university. As someone who has taught at five colleges, four of which were four-year institutions, I can tell you this simply is not true. You have good and bad students at both places. You might have more poor-performing students at community colleges because a wider swath of the population attends these colleges, but that doesn’t mean your student will fall into the trap of failure any more than he or she would attending any other school (as a side note, graduation rates at your student’s four-year school of choice may not be as high as you might think). And their workforce training programs offer a practical education at a quite affordable cost.
The honors programs at community colleges, for example, are their best-kept secret. At the community college where I currently teach, I know the director of the honors program and we regularly discuss its merits: small class sizes, great internship opportunities and a dedicated counselor making sure students are on-track to graduate from our institution and transfer to the four-year college of their choice, all for thousands less than going there right out of high school. I tell my students to run the numbers, and then buy a pennant from their dream college and put in on their wall as a reminder that community college is a steppingstone, not a final destination, for those who have higher aspirations.
So, the most important thing to understand is whether it is best in the long run for your student to attend a technical program, a community college or a four-year university.
For, in the end, it matters not where you start, but where you end up.
Tool, Not A Toy
Originally posted on October 5, 2014. We recently completed a class project on teen usage of social media, so this seems appropriate to post again.
As a child of the 80s, I grew up in the era of the PC. I got my first computer, a Commodore 64, when I was in junior high. Like many kids my age, we also had an Atari 2600. I was introduced to the Apple IIe in college and never looked back.
As adults however, it’s easy to forget how much children today are hard-wired, if you will, to the digital age. We may think of iPhones as a new invention, but they came out when my students were still in elementary school. My one-year-old niece can take a selfie almost better than I can.
For the first time this year, I am allowing technology in the classroom, mostly because I am forced to do if I want students to produce the best quality work. I am teaching a speech class, but we don’t have enough desktop computers on campus for me to hog a media lab one period a day for them to write their speeches. When students are working in my other classes, sometimes they ask if they can listen to music while they do so. While I play classical or jazz for some classes, at other times I allow them to choose their own tunes when they write or draw a scene from a story. The end result tends to be better work than I might have received otherwise.
Not, don’t get me wrong: if I confirm they are texting or goofing off, I am enforcing school policy and turning the device over to the discipline office. I have established a mantra that guides my philosophy for electronic usage: It’s a tool, not a toy. If you use it as such, we will not have a problem. If you deviate from that philosophy, we will.
There are some larger principles we can draw from this approach. One of the things we are being asked to teach students is digital citizenship: how to use technology in a responsible way. In an era where everything is instant, we need to re-introduce an appreciation for patience. Here are some suggested guidelines:
Think before you text.
Don’t take that risqué selfie.
Don’t post that mean picture to Snapchat.
Unplug and be in the moment.
But we can’t just blame tech-obsessed teens when many of use our phones almost as much as they do. I can’t count the number of times a student has told me they are responding to a parent’s text during class or are on a “bathroom break” because Mom or Dad expects them to return a voicemail.
This may sound harsh, but the “think before you text” rule should apply to parents as well. One of the best ways you can help your student focus on art, math, science or history is to wait to contact him during a break, if you must do so at all. If someone is in the hospital and you need to pick your daughter up during third period, her day is going to be thrown into chaos whether or not you interrupt her second period class with a text. And if you want to tell your growing teen you still love him as much as when he was five, try a note in with his lunch like we did back in the digital dark ages.
And, one final thought: I am amazed at how many smartphones I see whose front glass is cracked like a haunted house mirror. Even if you are frugal and purchase an older model phone, after taxes and activation fees, it’s still easy to spend $250. I have never understood how parents make this kind of investment and then don’t include a protective case for the device. Teens rarely think of protecting their phone when horsing around with their friends. You would never send a football player into the game without a helmet and shoulder pads. Why would you do so with a phone, which for students can be a communication device, research tool, word processor, camera, and music player?
Like I said before, it’s a tool, not a toy.
I have been a public high school teacher in Southern California since 2005 and writing since junior high. I have an affinity for chocolate, photography, sarcasm and well-written TV shows that refuse to talk down to their audiences.