Things Teachers Can Do to Make School Less Stressful for Kids

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There have been a lot of recent suicides and a lot of talk about how much stress children are under and also how difficult it is for poor children in school. The stress crosses all boundaries, school has become an oppressive nightmare that is harming even privileged children. There are a lot of reasons for this, a bad economy, income inequality, Ed reform, testing. These are all things teachers can’t control but there are things that teachers and parents can do at the local level to make things better. Academic accomplishments are nice and all but are unlikely to result from stressing kids out, it has been scientifically stress actually hampers performance. Besides that cynical reason, I’m imploring you to care about the amount of stress kids are under because kids are people and what we are doing is oppressive and hurtful to them, especially when there are so many things teachers can do in their own classroom to make lives better for students. I made a point of making sure to design my classroom around student health and despite all the “concerns” about whether or not my kids could perform, my kids actually did extremely well on standardized tests and their final projects. They were doing primary source documents everyday as sophomores and I taught high school sophomores, most of whom were poor and Hispanic, to do research at a very average public school. So you can have rigor and good health at the same time. A lot of these problems stem from asking kids to be the same, not everyone needs to go to Stanford. In fact, very few people do, if we paid everyone a reasonable living wage and didn’t demean anyone for the work for they do there wouldn’t be so much pressure on kids to fit one very narrow image of success. There are kids literally dying because of this, so here’s some things we can do immediately to curb some of this and parents have the RIGHT to demand these things for their children and teachers have the RIGHT to implement them and advocate for them.

1) Be Careful About Assigning Homework

Unless the work is for practice or an independent project or reading it has no value. And most of the time the practice has no value either because you have no idea who actually did the homework. Independent projects are ok to assign for outside class time IF you’ve provided the appropriate structure and some class time to complete it. I got all the way to Vietnam last year, without assigning homework to my sophomores, while using primary source documents and with a month left to spare for their research projects. And by the time they got to their research projects they could do them independently while I was out suffering from injuries for the last month of school. The reason I was able to do this is because I very carefully paced the year out for them to do that, and I didn’t just pace content, I also paced skills out as well for things like essay writing, even though most history teachers leave that to the English teachers. So there is probably no good reason for you to assign homework, especially if you are working in a low income area where the kids don’t have the home life to do it anyway and if you are working in a rich area you don’t even know whether it was the parents or the students who did the work. Cheating is rampant, so all homework does is punish your honest kids and your disadvantaged kids. If you teach math or English, 15-30 min of practice or reading should suffice, IF you feel you must assign stuff outside class time. It’s not the kids’ problem that you can’t plan well enough to cover things in class, if you are struggling to cover things then either the standards are wrong or you need to plan differently but you don’t have the right to punish the kids over it.

2) Think Carefully About Your Deadlines

Before picking a deadline think about what your limits are and move back from there. If the kids are struggling to get it done in time, consider the possibility that you weren’t being realistic and move it back. Does your deadline fall on another deadline like when applications are due for college? Does it fall in the middle of other stressful times in their classes? If you can get them together, the grade level team can get together and make sure they aren’t over scheduling mastery assignments. Even teachers sometimes get to say, “hey this wasn’t a realistic deadline” to their bosses. As professionals we move deadlines all the time and we expect our bosses not to completely bury us if there is a hard deadline with another thing that can be put off, there is no reason to hold children to arbitrary dates we made up.

3) Accept Late Work
If you don’t accept late work you are simply punishing those students who lack support at home or who need extra time for your own convenience. And I’ve been in a lot of jobs now and I’ve never seen a boss say, “no, I won’t take the work you did because it’s an hour late!” Kids aren’t at school by choice and they aren’t adults so they should at least be afforded the same compassion we expect to be afforded. No one failed my class last year. One of the big reasons was that I took late work.

4) Don’t Grade Attendance
Grading kids for attendance is cruel, it punishes those who lack family support and the ill. I had a chronic condition growing up and missed a lot of days of school and you know what? I made it through Stanford with a 3.5 GPA. That happened in part because my high school teachers had the good sense to accommodate me but I’ve seen lots of teachers punish kids for attendance. I had an especially bright young man in my classes last year who was struggling with a serious chronic illness, so he and I developed a plan to make the work up while he was hospitalized. I got yelled at by my boss because my class was the only one he was passing; this was a college-bound senior. That is wrong and it shouldn’t have happened and in the end, he got his work in. I’ve seen kids infect other kids because they came into school sick to protect their grades. I’ve watched kids choke back tears after finding out a close relative died because they didn’t feel they could take the time to mourn because they thought they had to be at school. We don’t have to do that to children.

5) Consider Extending Accommodations to All Children Regardless of their Status

If a child has an IEP or a 504, then those are legally binding documents and you are required by law to give the students those accommodations. < I would like to assume people know but I’ve seen so many people fail to accommodate that it would be a foolish assumption. Those accommodations exist so that kids can be successful and I feel that we should treat all children like they all have IEPs, which means Individualized Education Plan, because each kid is unique. I gather a lot of data on my students and treat them accordingly. So if I can extend a deadline for a kid with an IEP, I can extend it for a kid who is sick or in foster care or working. If I feel it’s educationally sound to provide more scaffolds or more assistance or a shorter assignment to a kid with a 504 then I see no reason to not give that to every kid who would benefit from it. And if a kid is bored, I give them more challenging work. If you explain to the kids that you do this and you do this because you believe in equity and you apply this to everyone you will NEVER hear whining about fairness. And for the record, I have never seen a kid use a scaffold, like sentence frames, if they didn’t need it and making them all use it when they don’t all need it because you don’t want to have to do the work of differentiating is wrong. If you do this they learn to trust you and will tell you when they need extra help and they won’t try to play you because that line of trust has been established.

6) Don’t Grade Everything and Think Carefully About What You Grade for

It was my policy that class work and home work, which are not “mastery” assignments was graded on a pass fail basis. I would read it to check for understanding and inform my teaching and give points to whoever did the assignment. In my sophomore class mastery assignments were worth 70 percent of the grade, and “work to support mastery” was 30 percent, in my senior class that was an 85/15 split. So you could pass my class solely based on whether or not you had mastered the material. I didn’t grade for participation, I graded things on a pass fail basis. And you know what? The kids still worked their butts off every single day in my class, because they knew that everything we did had a purpose and was building to something larger. Chaos didn’t ensue, no one was slacking and because I didn’t give homework to the sophomores and minimal homework to the seniors, I didn’t have frequently missing assignments. And the sophomores did all of their mastery assignments in class too so I never had any missing mastery assignments. I also graded group work on a pass-fail basis to avoid the common pitfalls and the stress that frequently results from group work. I believe in group work, it has value and kids need to be trained to do it. I don’t do it everyday but a lot of teachers cut it out entirely because they don’t want to deal with kids being upset that their grade is impacted by someone else’s performance or because there are kids goofing off. So I assign it but don’t grade it and the kids got along better, everyone got to contribute and there was a lot less complaining and a more supportive atmosphere. The only people the kids should be competing with are themselves if you can avoid competition. They should be working to better their writing and their skills and worrying about their individual performance. But I was ruthless in my grading of their mastery assignments, all of which were writing assignments. The kids said I was the hardest grader for papers they had ever had but that I was fair and they were happy to have the challenge.

Some competition between groups is ok, for fun and glory, but not grades. My seniors ran a campaign between two classes last year and they got really into it, and it wasn’t perfect but a lot good came out of it. If I could go back and do it differently I would have taken even more competition out because it just created a hostile environment. Some student populations liked it more than others so I kept competition in for big simulations and group things, like the campaign my kids ran in the sophomore classes or when my kids came up with their own country but it still wasn’t graded. The mastery assignment was and it was what mattered because their grade should reflect their master over the material.

7) Think Carefully About the Schedule

Any teacher that has been to PD knows how difficult it is to sit in a desk, in a room for 8 hours without breaks and snacks. The behavior of most teachers during PD is appalling, they talk over each other, stare at their phone, work on other things. They complain endlessly when they don’t get breaks or can’t check their phone or don’t have food. Basically all of things we expect the kids not to do. The schedule for kids is brutal during the day and you should consider things like their hunger levels, or what time class is, or whether or it’s 1st or 5th period or how long they’ve been doing the same kind of work or stuck in desks when designing your schedule for the day and then add in some things to mitigate the problems that might arise from that, I frequently changed the order or the method of things between periods of the same course. I would even change it based on the personality of the class or their specific interests. And it made it such that we got a lot more done and everyone was happier, even in my “difficult” class that had a lot of kids who were “bad” in other classes.

8) Add a Revision Policy
Let kids make up assignments. In writing this allows them to continuously improve their work and on everything else it allows them to review the material until they are certain and you are certain they have mastery over it. This allows you to differentiate by giving low performers more time to grasp the material and giving your high performers some semblance of control over their grade and a break if they have an off day.

All of this really comes down to remembering that our students are people and empathizing with them. Treat them kindly and like they are human beings and they will respond accordingly and you don’t even have to change anything else.

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Why I Still Believe in the Enlightenment

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I knew when I became a history teacher that there were certain stereotypes I wanted to avoid. For example, I didn’t want to be the teacher that kids like but don’t respect who spends all of class time relating to but not teaching the kids. Still, my politics are pretty radical for America (though pretty mainstream in Europe), so a lot of people assumed that I would be that teacher, in order to “get” the kids to believe what I believed. But the thing is, I never worried about that because I knew that the kids would reach the right conclusions with full information. Which is to say that I think the evidence is on my side. I’m classically liberal, which means that I believe that freedom, truth, logic and scientific reasoning are our best hope to provide everyone with the best society possible. Now, if this were true, it would be simple, right? People would reach the conclusions based on the information that is available. So why hasn’t that happened? The older I get the more I realize how limited people’s information is. Most people aren’t operating under the best information available and even if that information were easily accessible, and it isn’t, they wouldn’t know how to find it anyway. Now maybe some of the reason for this is sinister: “they” don’t want people to know. But I personally feel that in all of my experience of looking at government documents around the world that arguing that its all part of some master plan that “they” cooked up is giving “them” too much credit. It is rarely the case that “they” are that competent. The people with power really believe what they believe, sure there might be a few psychopaths who are acting for the cameras but most people with power believe in the bullshit they sale. How does it happen that an entire elite comes to believe nonsense? Well, first they stop looking for answers. They close their minds and hearts to any evidence that contradicts their worldview. Now maybe, I find it more palpable when their worldview lands them on the same policy position as me, but its still just as dangerous. This problem is what caused the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the famine of the Great Leap Forward. Much of the progressive policies of the 30s and 40s, including Social Security, I agree with but many of these people ALSO believed in Eugenics so a good policy position can come from a very dangerous place. That’s why I try really hard to be cagey enough to never get labeled or to never join anything because I want to make sure I have enough autonomy to call anyone on their bullshit.

I take for granted my research skills but the fact of the matter is that even the smartest people I know cannot research as well as I can, so they are working off of limited information as well as limited worldviews. For example, police shootings. What do we know about them? Well, it turns out not a whole lot. But what we do know is that black men are disproportionately likely to be shot by police, the majority of the victims are in fact white, and that police officers never get charged. Based on this information, what are the logical conclusions we can draw? One might be that racism exists. One might be that poor white people are the majority of the population and possibly the majority of the poor. One might be that we give police officers impunity. I think all of those statements are probably true, but most people have, at best, one of those pieces of information. Our conclusions are limited by the limit of factors we can hold in our head at one time. There are rarely two sides to anything, usually there are somewhere between “a lot” and “infinity” sides to anything. More often then not, one has to consider that all sides or some combination of the sides are correct. Sometimes information is correct but not valuable to the discussion. And sometimes, people don’t have even one piece of correct information or believe in information that is functionally unprovable. Now, in this example, believing ONLY that black men are disproportionately likely to be shot is probably a much less serious problem than believing only that the majority of victims are poor and white, but both won’t get us to a workable conclusion and solution because they won’t deal with the culture we have built up around the police, or poverty, or gun violence. They only look at one of many factors.

It is for this reason that I maintain the belief in skepticism and scientific reasoning. The difficulty in it is that it is unpleasant and uncomforting to most people to have to constantly hold in their head that they are probably wrong, that there is limited information and that we still have to make life and death social decisions based on what we have. But the comfort that I do take in skepticism and a scientific approach is that eventually we are going to reach a point nearing truth, and that if we get distracted by misinformation that the road to truth will be a lot more difficult for us to reach. The difference between people who are able to bring to light new Truths, who are able to think differently, and solve problems is that they are willing to consider the possibility that all of us could be wrong. No matter how many degrees, rewards, books, years of research, every single one of us could be wrong. Someone with more information is more likely to be right. They operate in probabilities instead of certainties. And it is not just about the “scientific method” that we teach in school, artists, historically, have been some of the best people to do this and it is because they go looking for perspective. I believe in evidence, even when it is really unpleasant for me to have to believe in evidence. I accept when I’m wrong, adjust for the new information and move on. Most people don’t do this; most people just repeat what they believe over and over again until they find someone gullible enough to listen to them. For example, I was in an argument with a libertarian one time about our health care system and the person said, “well, why don’t we treat it like food distribution?” So I responded with a clearly articulated, backed by research response and he actually simply repeated the same point. These kinds of thought processes are part of what makes our politics so frustrating, at some point Americans stopped believing in science and logic.

But I also believe in something else. Absolutely everyone is capable on some level of doing this. Pattern recognition and logic are stitched into the very fiber of our being. Children have to be trained NOT to do this. Absolutely every student that I have ever had has reached the right conclusions when they had evidence, some got there faster or easier, but all of them can do it. Because this is what fundamentally makes us human, and it has long been the dream to ensure that everyone gets the same opportunity to get the kind of education that allows us to do that. That is what a true education would mean, and the biggest thing holding us back from achieving that is not that “they” want to keep us ignorant, but that “they” believe that we aren’t all capable of that. We relinquish our humanity far too quickly, when we should instead be fighting for it with our lives. That ability and belief in that ability are far more likely to lead us to liberation than anything else and that’s why I believe it is inherently a human right to receive that education, no matter what the kid’s home looks like. I don’t want to be right, I don’t want to win, I want everyone to be free. Because I believe that freedom is the only pathway to humanity, and that’s something that we can get everyone to believe in no matter their worldview.