Sunday, November 29, 2015

Why not reduce stress without wasting time?

In my recent post questioning whether "Social Emotional Learning" programs reduced stress, I noted how:

When it comes to college-level anxiety, one source that remains under-appreciated is the increasingly poor academic preparation kids get in high school.
Of course, some high schools that do offer solid academic preparation for college--particularly selective high schools, or high schools with AP or IB classes. In those cases, stress begins earlier. The culprit here is the increasingly poor academic preparation kids get in middle school. Parents on lists for parents of high-achieving students frequently report on how their middle school kids are bored out of their minds, and then, if lucky enough to attend a rigorous program in high school, start out quite stressed out by all the hard work, even if, in the end, they ultimately get used to it, start liking school, develop good study habits, and end up less stressed out than they were back in middle school.

Middle school can also be stressful for parents. This comes largely from all the projects and busy work that dominate many of the otherwise more functional middle schools. The big one in this neck of the woods is the Science Fair Project--the source of many a weekend lost to sweat and tears--particularly since the project grade, a big part of the science grade, could be a determining factor in whether your kid gets into one of the few good high schools. Parents not only have to ferry their kids around to get supplies, but also, somehow, get their kids to stay organized and put all the necessary effort into this and other multi-step assignments. Failing that, some parents end up doing some of the busy work themselves.

Why not instead try to make middle school less stressful and more challenging? This opens up a whole new source of parental stress. I've blogged earlier about the extreme efforts that one parent had to make on behalf of her son. Here's another report from another parent:
It took our group of about 6-10 dedicated parents many meetings with many folks to make changes in instruction. The principal was really resistant to changing things and related it back to the "achievement gap." And the changes would "stick" so to speak only as long as we were persistent in pushing the school to maintain a certain level of rigor. If we went a few months thinking everything was fine and dandy, we'd be surprised by a string of "busy work" activities or books well below our kids' reading abilities being taught in English. And we'd reorganize, start over, push more. It's exhausting and stressful, but we all felt our kids' education was worth it and none of us had the resources to bag out and go to private schools.
Somehow I don't think Social Emotional Learning classes are going to fix any of this.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

While I agree with you about middle school being generally a waste of time, because of low academic standards, I disagree with you about science fair and longer-duration projects.

Science fair was one of the high spots of my son's education—it was one of the few times when he was able to challenge himself beyond the rather limited curriculum of the schools. I did make sure that when he was brainstorming project ideas, that he ended up with ones that were somewhat original and that would stretch his skills. He ended up mostly with computer programming projects, since that was what interested him most, but along the way he also learned about calculus and physics (5th grade), fractal dimensions (6th grade), and electronic circuit theory (9th grade). He's used much of what he learned in science fairs repeatedly in college and in his start-up company.

Yes, it took some work on my part to support him on the project and to keep him working on it when it got tedious, but that is part of my job as parent.

Anonymous said...

Our elementary school has long had a tradition (for grades 1-6) called Learning Goal. A pretty ho-hum name for a very creative idea. Each child picks something that he or she would like to learn about, and then (with, if needed, a little guidance from the teacher) goes out and learns. The result is presented, science-fair style, to the school and parents on a given night. Children choose how they would like to present what they learned -- it can be a written report, a display, a verbal presentation, a model, a video, or a combination. Some children can get help from parents, of course, and some cannot. Some children could get that help but prefer to do the learning and creating on their own. The reason why this works, and why children learn so much, is that the project is ungraded. Children feel they can sort of "go for broke" and take on a project that they're not sure they can do perfectly (or even well). The projects are hugely varied (as are the presentations). Children can play to their strengths (one child decided to learn how to tap dance, and he did -- very very well). While I loved science fair projects as a late elementary/junior high kid, I love my children's Learning Goals even more.

lgm said...

Ime honors classes have been dumbed down or eliminated in middle school. No point in attending if there are no sports, science fairs, math club or orchestra available for the above grade level children to busy themselves intellectually. Running around for science fair supplies was not a big deal...we already have to drive by the store on the way to pick up from sports and ecs. It doesnt matter here though....IB was cancelled first, then middle school foreign language, math club, and science fairs. Next on the chopping block are the band teachers ( orchestra is not offered). English is a joke. Full inclusion brought audio recordings while the students were directed to read along to below grade level novels. Serious students with means have moved to homeschool or private school, and that includes staff members' children.