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Ensuring Students are Not Overloaded and Underprepared
Posted 01/07/2016 03:55PM

The first week of semester two York hosts two alumni panels, one during the day for students and an evening event for York Parents. I hope you either attended or heard about one of them. It is always a great pleasure to see alumni return and share their success stories from life after York. As you can imagine, we frequently hear from alumni panels how academically prepared they find themselves to be for the expectations of post-secondary studies. This year’s panel was no different. Whether the alumnus or alumna was attending Penn, St. Andrew’s, Colorado College of Mines, ASU’s College of Architecture, Colby, or Dartmouth, each confirmed the value-added of a York education. Moreover, while alumni confirm that York’s safe, nurturing community is conducive for academic success in high school, they also report that academic confidence at college and university ensures they can successfully integrate into their next community without the dangerous anxiety of feeling overwhelmed by it all.

This is unfortunately not the case for graduates of all schools. A recent evaluation of 12th graders on a national test of reading and math found found that fewer than 40 percent were ready for college level work. Some critics suggest it is the design of school itself, and the micro-learning environments offered within a school day, that are at fault. One such critic, Stanford’s Denise Pope, writes in her latest book “Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools, and Healthy Successful Kids” many middle and high school students are exhausted, stressed, tempted by maladaptive behaviors, and not necessarily optimally prepared for adulthood. Moreover, she argues maintaining student engagement — excitement about school, willingness to put effort into work, and a belief that school is worthwhile — is essential for maintaining physical and mental health.

A specialist in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning, Pope is a co-founder of Challenge Success and lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity.

Challenge Success suggests that positive school reform is represented in the acronym SPACE: (s) students’ schedule and use of time; (p) project- and problem-based learning; (a) alternative and authentic assessment; (c) creating a climate of care; and (e) education not only for students but for parents and faculty too. Pope’s latest book, which synthesizes decades of research and experience, recommends schools consider the following.

Regarding scheduling, it is suggested the school day be restructured to start later thereby aligning with adolescents’ natural circadian rhythm. More breaks in the day for reflection and socializing are urged. The school calendar should be designed so semester exams occur before winter break and so vacation is more restful. Sound familiar? I hope so. York adopted these school reforms long ago, and we recognize their benefits every day.

Furthermore, Pope reminds us homework should not be busy work. It should be used to review skills and prepare for in-class activities. Worthwhile homework allows for student choice, and it is tailored to each students’ skill level. It connects to the overarching concepts in the course.

Pope’s book also focuses on overall wellness. Here, we are told that schools with a caring climate seek to promote social emotional learning, a sense of belonging, and healthy relationships with adults. They teach stress-relief practices to students and teachers, promote an integrative, mind-body wellness and fitness routine, and recognize that wellness need not come at the expense of academic excellence. One can find such practices integrated into the climate and design of York.

Pope’s emphasis on the social and emotional skills critical for success and happiness are also echoed by other research teams. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/) reports that cultivating happiness takes pace in three modes: the hedonic treadmill, flow, and cultivating a meaningful life. That third realm is the most sustainable, and the best method to creating a sense of meaning and a meaningful life, they suggest, is to cultivate compassion and gratitude and to share in these experiences with others.

Above all else, I appreciate Pope’s take on grades versus learning as well as process over performance. Here she is talking about grades, which is timely, given that we just posted semester grades and comments:

I’m very pleased that Denise Pope will be our guest this February for our Speaker Series. I hope you will consider joining us by registering here.

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