December 10, 2009

My Fall in Fall

It is that time of the year where it becomes difficult to tell where the days begin and end. I think that the kids this year have all done/are doing an amazing job staying positive and working diligently with their applications and essays, testing and organizing. However, this does not always help me to sleep. Yet there is one thing that I continue to learn as each year goes by, and is something that I think I tried to deny until just a few years ago: truly getting started early is the only way to keep oneself on track and to feel wholly satisfied with the way the applications turn out. I ran into a student just this morning who will be applying to a number of schools from Harvard to Georgia Tech, Yale to MIT and she had not even begun her applications. A pit swelled in my stomach as I realized that my students are beginning this process in the months of May, June and July and they still often have one or two final pieces to polish come the month of December. Plus, when they get in the early applications, they get the early responses back as well. And I can tell you that these responses coming back this month are extremely welcome by everyone (of course they're acceptances!).
I realize that I have neglected the blog for some time. But I am positively sure that those of you who may be reading this are much happier knowing that if it's a choice between my students and my blog, the blog is definitely the right one to give up on this time each year.
Thank you all for the support. Keep the students coming...
Hope to hear from you soon.

Brady Norvall, M.A.
Education Counseling

October 7, 2009

Ranking the U.S. College Rankings

I was just reading an article this morning about women's professional tennis and the flaws in its ranking system. I also see weekly reviews often at this time of the year when different people are giving their opinion about the various ranking systems in college football. There are computer programs that use data analysis; there are coaches votes; there are win/loss and strength-of-schedule ranking systems . . . indeed, there are different ranking systems based on the weight of each different criteria that is ranked. Honestly, I find it to be a bit of overkill. So how do the U.S. College Ranking systems work? Which U.S. College Ranking organization is most reliable?

So this is the most important thing to remember before you read any further: if a school makes you happy and the education that you are getting is of value to you, you should not be too concerned or caught up in where, exactly, that school lands in any of the number of U.S. College Ranking lists. So, with that out of the way, let's cut to the chase about these dubious (and multitudinous) U.S. College Rankings.

Are they (U.S. College Rankings) legitimate for the quality of academics that are available at each school for every single person? No.

Do they have any necessary influence on how much money you will be earning when you graduate? Not really. Look, if you're going to be a high school math teacher in Arkansas coming straight out of Harvard versus Arkansas State, you're making the same salary. If you're graduating with a degree in business, try to go to a school that has a strong alumni network and is near or in a city with booming industry. But don't make your choice on college based on what you HOPE will be your future career earnings. Things like this, when revealed to rationale people, just make you sound like a pompous fool.

Back to the U.S. College Rankings.

Will you be happier at a school which is ranked 20th in "level of student satisfaction" than you would be at a school ranked 30th in the same category? Not necessarily.

Can you find someone at every school in this fair nation who thinks that their school is the best school there is? Probably.

Can you find someone who thinks that their school is the worst? Almost without a doubt.

Certain aspects, which I think can be glaring, are not factored in to many of the U.S. College Rankings, such as student suicide rate, student exercise rate, and alumni involvement (no, I don't mean JUST financial donations- there are other ways to serve your institution). I also believe strongly that whereas the quality and diversity of food was extremely important in my college selection, some people just don't have such a refined palate. And where Greek life might have played a significant role in your selection of college/university, for me it did not. But these are both areas which are tucked away and given a very arbitrary amount of weight in the College Ranking process. For some, however, they deserve more or less mention than they do get.

One of the major points of the U.S. College Rankings has to do with the number of faculty on a campus, and the number of those faculty who hold what are considered "terminal degrees". A terminal degree is the highest degree that a person in that specialty can achieve. So, in English literature, the terminal degree would be a Ph.D. However in a field such as creative writing and poetry, it might be an M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts). So, when we read that 98% of a universities faculty hold terminal degrees, that's all well and good. However, some of the best teaching, many would argue, has come from those who do not have the terminal degree or maybe they're pursuing it. Perhaps they enjoyed the teaching aspect and not so much the research necessary for finishing a doctoral program. Who am I to say? But I do know that the rankings think that they can judge that and while it MAY be true in some cases, it is certainly not true in all.

If there is anything that U.S. College Rankings have done is that they have increased the hype for a small pocket of elite schools across this country. This has been, essentially, a self-fulfilling prophecy for those schools because when an alumni sees his/her school around the top of a U.S. College Ranking list, the swelling of pride might just induce a monetary donation. That monetary donation can be one small step in actually raising the profile and ranking of said university even more, which then makes even more alumni swell with pride and donate, as they believe the value of their degree is also being enhanced by this ranking. Be aware supportive elite-university alumni. A recent article had a very interesting point to make:

I don't know if I have actually made any significant progress towards a conclusion on whether or not U.S. College Rankings are beneficial or harmful to our system of higher education. So, in summary, I would say that while there is certainly some validity to ranking categories like "class sizes", "average incoming gpa" and "graduation rate", because these are statistics that should be known and available to all students who are researching prospective schools, do any of these mean that YOU will be more or less successful at a top-ranked school versus a school ranked somewhere in the ambiguous folds of the pages of some U.S. College Ranking magazine? No.

And in response to the question regarding WHICH U.S. College Ranking system is most reliable? Well, the answer is simple, of course: Your college ranking system is most reliable! Visit a campus, call the admissions office, read about it on the website, chat with students who go there, etc . . . Are we really becoming such passive thinkers that we have to just rely on what information other people give us? No. We are smarter than this.

Please don't think that way. Or soon, you, too, will begin to sound like a bit of a pompous fool.

If YOUR college ranking system fails you, contact me. I am never one to hold back on this topic.

As always, thanks for reading and don't hesitate to email me if you need help deciding whether you should apply to Harvard or Arkansas State--or both.

September 23, 2009

California's In Crisis. Is The Education System In Crisis Also?

First of all, let me be very specific about one factor: many of the very quality private schools in California have weathered the economic storm quite well. Their endowments shrunk, of course, but they remain in a fairly healthy financial condition. It’s the public schools that I’m referring to here. At the moment there are nine University of California (UC) campuses- the research-intensive branch of the California public higher education system and twenty-three of the California State University campuses (CSU). The major differences are few, but the minor differences are many. The level of academics tends to be more competitive at the UC campuses because more full-time students who are on a more academic track with the idea of graduate school, professional school and/or research on their minds. Keeping in mind that public higher education in California is paid for by the citizens of California and thus, there to serve the residents of California. This is why in-state tuition is less than out-of-state tuition, as an example.

There have been many items tossed around the proverbial table with regard to the state of the system. Everything from shutting down the newest campuses in both the CSU and UC branches, to a fee increase to offset some of the costs, has been proposed. The thing that most people have to understand, first and foremost, is that the cost of educating a student at even the most expensive university in America is higher than the cost of full-tuition. In other words, if tuition at George Washington University is $45,000 per year, the actual cost of the education is closer to $65,000 once you take into consideration all of the academic advising, career support services, tutoring, mentoring, student life opportunities, etc . . . The cost of a university education is fair in many ways. But public universities are in a very different league.

Most public universities are slaves to the annual budget of their respective state. For the majority of the top publics in the country, this has not been terribly harmful as the state continues to fund a significant portion of the university. For California though, that is not the case. California has continued to decrease its support, funding, research monies and expansion investment dollars. The pace of growth in qualified kids who should be guaranteed spots within the system is much faster than that which the system can grow.

California Students:

So how does this play into the opportunity for one to gain admission into UC Berkeley or UCLA or UC Davis or UC Santa Barbara, to name a few? If you’re in California, your chances are slightly worse than years past. In a nutshell, a student must graduate in the top 10% of their high school class, still earn solid SAT/ACT scores and be a stellar candidate. The likelihood that a student with great credentials, graduating from a California high school, will be admitted to a UC is high. The likelihood that it is the student’s top-choice campus is not so high.

International Students:

The admission process for this group of students is going to remain as competitive as it has always been. The California system will not be cutting a significant number of their international student “slots” because this is where they gain some of their greatest diversity: those coming in from Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America will only see their probability go down if the number of International applicants rises. Otherwise, the percentage of students on each campus who are admitted from out of the country will be steady.

Non-California Domestic Students:

This will be the biggest single group affected by the admission numbers as the only significant percentage drop in UC and CSU admissions will be coming from those students who are graduating from high schools out-of-state. However, due to cut back enrollment numbers on all campuses and increasing percentages of in-state students for admission, the domestic, out-of-state students will suffer greatly. Couple this with the fact that application numbers continue to rise every year for the various UC and CSU campuses (and the obvious cutback in admitted numbers) and it’s going to be a tough road for those students who are outside of California, but domestic nonetheless.

Overall, my recommendation is, like everything else, be very careful and thoughtful about how you will present yourself as an applicant. Unless your scores are phenomenal and your math and science curriculum is really the absolute most competitive, DON’T apply engineering or math and science. You’re competing against the best of the best in not only the UC and CSU systems, but the world! You’re competing against those students from around the country who have perfect scores, IB and AP classes, near-perfect and perfect SAT II’s, etc . . .

I hope this is helpful for those who have been struggling with how and where to apply in California. Good luck and, as always, thanks for reading.

September 9, 2009

The Importance of Reading and Writing

With the beginning of a new year it seems as though there has been an inundation of discussion and discourse on the topic of young people and reading. I am always intrigued by the topic as it is one area where, I am sure, our schools are failing-- and thus, creating a vicious cycle which will only weaken our social system, from the work-force and economy to the leaders we create for political and industry leadership.
Bottom line: for some reason there is a large percentage of students who think that it is okay to NOT read. With great sadness I believe that this is a group of young people who will, many of them at least, look back in retrospect on their teenage years and wish they would have had a book in their hands. Or, perhaps, their ignorance won't permit that. Regardless, it seems that the subject has been appearing quite often in the headlines. Some of the better articles that I have seen are linked below:

Each of the short essays is on a different aspect of importance in the educational journey of young people, written wonderfully by a long-term professor at one of a number of distinguished institutions. I implore you to read them all (which would take, perhaps, 15 minutes). But if you have to choose just one, I recommend the brief essay, Off-Campus Life. However, they're EACH wonderful.

This is a wonderful post by Stanley Fish (who also had the first short essay in the above link). The problem that occurs- and that which Fish points out- is that the lack of reading does not just affect the student. The obvious lack of reading carries over into his/her writing, verbal communication, vocabulary, effect on others, all-around competency, etc . . .  I believe it's something that needs to be taken very seriously. Fish follows up on this post with 2 more posts on the same topic, eloquently titled "What Should Colleges Teach part 2 and part 3).

This was just a very interesting post which highlighted the different sides of the debate on whether or not summer reading is healthy. Bottom line: OF COURSE summer reading is healthy. What would be unhealthy about reading? Ever? There's something inherently sad about the fact that this is even up for debate. See for yourself. But I think that giving the students a summer off of reading as if we are treating it like a chore and not a pleasure, is the worst example of reinforcement I could imagine.

I recently asked a good friend, who is a Professor of English, whether she has experienced these issues since she began teaching over 10 years ago. Her response was simple: She told me that she 'cannot take the time to revise papers as she used to because, although the university continues to boast higher admission standards and "more intelligent" incoming classes each year (higher SAT/ACT scores and GPA's), her students demonstrate a lower level of understanding of how to form a sentence, let alone a decent argument.' In other words, we are sending our students off to college-- they are graduating from our high schools-- without the ability to write a thesis statement and supporting ideas.

Reflect on this and think about the last time you read a student's writing and were impressed. Let us not lower our standards.

Thanks for reading. I always love hearing from my readers so please do keep your emails coming.

August 22, 2009

The Education Cycle Begins; The Calendar is Packed

At this time of each year I am usually so eager to get started with school and testing and the college application process that I begin to scare my students. Apparently not all of them are quite as enthusiastic about the beginning of a new school year as I am. Perhaps it's just the end of a summer that they mourn. Either way, big things are always happening. Although this summer has seen us away from our usual stomping ground for more days than we care to recall, the number and geographic location of campus visits has really been wonderful. From the three major New Orleans schools to University of Washington, Seattle University and University of Puget Sound all in the Seattle Metro area, to California State Universities and several private colleges elsewhere on the west coast, this summer has been a whirlwind.
If I have learned anything, it's the importance of campus visits. These universities are always changing so much and there are always such great ideas and collaborations going on around a campus community that make visiting and walking around, even if it's just for an hour, an experience that is well worth the trip. Visiting even the smallest school, one can discover big ideas. With that said, this year will have a great emphasis on college tours. Not only do so many seniors desperately need to see the campuses which they are applying to, but it's time that the juniors and sophomores start opening their eyes, too. These school years always blow by much faster than most think they will and without proper planning, most people will never remember to emphasize a college visit until it is too hectic and a bit too late. Trust me, I see families cramming campus tours during the school year, on a three-day weekend, when their senior is in the middle of the college application process and busy with school, extra-curriculars, etc . . . So, if you're interested in learning more about the trips planned for this year, just let us know. There will be some great opportunities for everyone.
Other than that, with the new year here for many, and just on the horizon for others, my advice is the same as always: stay aware and read a lot. Don't fall behind at the beginning because it's just too hard to catch yourself up. As usual, for those who are going through the college application process now, continue to be in touch with me. I have had some very interesting contacts from students both in the U.S. and as far away as Asia this summer who are looking for guidance. It makes me realize how difficult so much of this process can be and how few advocates there are out there for these kids. I am so happy and proud to be doing what I do and working with the families that I get to work with. Thanks for reading.

June 30, 2009

Road Tripping

Well, it's been a little while since I've had a chance to write a new post. But at the moment I'm sitting in a small cafe in Marianna, FL, where the big attraction is the Florida Caverns State Park. Yesterday brought us to Tallahassee, where we stopped to walk around the campus a bit and the downtown, had a bite to eat at a great little place called Andrew's 228 and was fortunate enough to have both a hostess and a waiter who were both more than happy to share their tales of undergraduate experience at FSU with us. Later today, we will be at University of West Florida in Pensacola which should be a wonderful experience, minus the fact that it could be a ghost town as summer programs are not a huge draw for most students who attend UWF. After that it's on to New Orleans to visit U New Orleans and Tulane-- and to have a little r and r. We're really looking forward to every stop on the trip as the drive through North Florida has been beautiful and if I remember correctly, it stays like that the whole way through. The website is nearing completion: This is exciting. I am pleased with it so far. Some of the text needs to be edited, but all-in-all, it's a big step up. All my best and thanks for reading.


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May 13, 2009

Existentialism Anyone?

Is this what makes small, liberal arts colleges which create a greater personal experience for their student body, worth the often-higher tuition?

As the senior year celebrations are being planned, don't forget to stay focused on the purpose of those long, beautiful summers: to give our brains the chance to recover by taking part in intellectual activities that are NOT available through traditional schooling. Compile your summer movie list, grab your summer reading books, equip yourself with a journal and try your hand at poetry, prose or song-writing. Don't just get stale and sunburned.
Write to me if you're doing something exciting over the summer or have plans (or need advice) that could be interesting and unique. I'd love to hear from you.

April 22, 2009 Swimming Without a Suit

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Message from sender:
I think this really gives an idea, through statistics, at least, of how badly our traditional high school system has failed us. Let's hope it's not too late to reverse the damage. I stand firm on my belief that high school should be only 3 years long with shorter breaks in the summer (or mandatory summer programs), so the minds work year round! Happy reading . . .

OPINION   | April 22, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist:  Swimming Without a Suit
America needs to invest money and energy into schools with a sense of urgency that the economic and moral stakes demand.

April 17, 2009


I just wanted to write a quick update about the kids this year: so far, 21 seniors, 141 letters of acceptance; 5 graduate students all into their top choice graduate program- with one who will hear at 12:01 a.m. this coming Sunday/Monday (the 20th). The juniors this year are already gearing up for their summer application push and the phone calls for potential new students are drifting in, slowly but surely. I appreciate everyone who helps to get the word out and refers friends my way. It sometimes can seem like a lot of responsibility, but I stand by the belief that all of these students will go somewhere great . . . where it is, we just don't know yet. But every one of my kids deserves the opportunity that I can provide and the advocate that I work hard to become for each of them. We're at a critical time in the state of our higher education system in this country. Investments are being made while coffers are dwindling. Again, this year was the hardest year in history for college admissions. It is to only get more difficult until approximately 2016. But I believe that we are only seeing the beginning of the hyper-competitive college admissions process. But if it ever lets up on the undergraduate admission's end of things, it surely will intensify on the graduate side. All my best. Thanks for reading.

March 31, 2009

Selecting the Right College

Hopefully, in these coming weeks, students across the country will be finding out that they have choices for their college future. Although they will only enroll in one university at a time, long gone are the days when students applied to only one school or were admitted to only one school. The majority of high school students nowadays have the option of two- or more- colleges to attend. I'd like to imagine a hypothetical situation where, say, all universities on your student's list are . . . free! And, for the sake of this post, let's imagine they are.

So, here we are, presented with a variety of choices, all of which are going to cost the same amount of money. How do we begin the process of sorting through each and differentiating between A, B and C schools? If you were like most students, at the beginning of this process you narrowed down your list of choices for your applications to schools that you maybe felt would be a good fit if you were fortunate enough to gain admission-- sorry, if THEY are fortunate enough to have YOU choose them, after you've gained admission! So, I gather that during this process of receiving your offers of admission, each school has something about it which you initially were drawn to. In other words, there are qualities at each of your college options which draw you to that college, correct?! Good. Now, what SHOULDN'T you base your college admission decision on? Let's review a list of those characteristics that are important to consider, but should never be the ONLY factor that you base your college decision on:

1. The visit: You must visit a campus and the surrounding town/city/neighborhood prior to making the commitment to attend. Without a visit to actually see where it is you'll be living, you cannot make an informed decision. And after all this hard work, don't you think it's worth a visit?

2. The major: If you've selected an obscure major, don't go to the one school that has that major available because chances are you're not going to graduate with the same program that you thought you would when you entered as a freshman. Look for similar programs at each institution-- or ask if you can minor in it or design your own program.

3. Financial aid: Don't make up your mind before all the financial aid packages have come back. If there's a school that you really want, but they didn't award you enough to make attending a possibility, call them up and tell them that you can't go without $xx more. Talk reasonably with people and see where it might land you.

4. Sports: Do not . . . I repeat DO NOT choose a university based on their previous year's sporting success. Seriously, give yourself a bit more credit than just being a college sport fanatic. You have so much more to give.

5. Boyfriend/Girlfriend: Unless you have a child together, this is a recipe for disaster. Everyone needs space. Education is the only thing no one can ever take away from you-- a high school relationship . . . get my point?

6. Because all your friends are going: Use this opportunity to allow yourself an opportunity to make new friends, meet new people and experience all kinds of interesting new things. Why would you want to take such a momentous and life-altering event as the transition to college and try to make it more comfortable by isolating yourself around already-made friends? If it's going to be difficult, you may as well meet people who are undergoing the same process as you are.

7. You heard the parties are really spectacular: Welcome to college. Unless you plan on being the person who parties from Tuesday-Sunday (which means you won't be there long, anyway) you're going to find a party (or at least the opportunity to be social) at pretty much any college Thursday-Saturday nights.

8. The dorm rooms are nice: Bad idea! Bad idea! Bad idea! I can almost promise you that your dorm room is NOT going to look like that Bed, Bath and Beyond room on the guided tour you took with your family. You're going to have clothes on the floor, school work everywhere, a mini fridge with things in it that are rotten and probably something else that is going bad, somewhere in the room. All you do in the dorm room is sleep and, maybe, study (if you are able to manage yourself in such a social atmosphere). When you're in college, you'll learn quickly how easy it is to sleep in your non-color-coordinated room.

9. Because of the food: Okay, this is only making it because there are some schools out there that are well-known to have much better food awaiting prospective students and their parents, than they actually serve the student body. However, I do think that the food is a very vital part of your life in college, you can navigate to good options, no matter how bad it seems.

10. Because people tell you that you should: Listen to only a few and know who those few are. They have been the ones who have been most supportive throughout the entire process. They are the ones who are thinking about you NOW, not their idea of what you SHOULD be in 4, 5, 10 years from now. Listen hard to your heart and those who you trust.

You've worked hard for this choice ahead of you. Congratulations and good luck. If you need a sounding board, find me at

March 16, 2009

The College Admissions Waiting Game

This short article ran a few weeks ago on one of the college websites that I write for,, but I thought it was still relevant and wanted to post it up here, even though many of the admission decisions are coming in as I write! Hold tight.

While the applications have been submitted and most schools have stopped accepting new applicants (though some still continue to accept applications through May and, sometimes, June), you are wondering what can be done to alleviate your anxiety, right?

Well, let me lead you to a nice little list of post-application tips for maintaining sanity:

1. If you haven't already been in touch with an admission counselor at some of schools you hope to gain admission to, do so now. Give a phone call. An email is fine, but really, a phone call is best. Introduce yourself. Find a reason to talk about school (i.e. maybe your classes are really difficult or you're feeling exhausted by high school). It's okay to talk about these things. It makes you more personable and more human.

2. Keep your grades up. I know that you've heard this before, but this is no time to slack off. Stay focused and have purpose- always. You will go to college so don't give up on high school.

3. If you haven't already met with an alumni or two from the schools you have applied to, for an interview, and need to alleviate your stress and talk a bit about this whole process, contact the local interviewers.

4. With Spring breaks coming up, it would be a productive idea to make a visit to a campus or two. Perhaps you've already gained admission somewhere and have not yet seen the campus (or would like to see it again) or there's a school that is close enough to make a fun day- or overnight- trip, go for it.

5. If you've been deferred from a school, it is important that you find out what their policy is. In most cases, a school is not going to penalize you for writing a nice letter stating that you still very much want to attend and that the deferral "did not take the wind out of your sails", but, on the contrary, gave you greater motivation.

6. Review your list of schools and make sure that you have appropriate options for these economic times. Perhaps you will need to go ahead and apply to your local college, after all.

This is no time for passivity. You must continue to be your own advocate. And if none of these work to alleviate your anxieties, get some well-deserved rest and a bit of regular exercise and you will start remembering why you undertook this process in the first place: it's all in the name of a learning experience.

February 27, 2009

On the Return: Reflections from the Boston College Trip

So, one week has passed since the Boston college trip and although I was initially planning on writing a daily log of our events, the days were long and the cold was debilitating. Ordinarily we left the hotel in Cambridge in the mornings around 9:15 (breakfast consumed) and off to our first college tour and meetings of the day. We went from college #1 to lunch and then to college #2, typically, each day we were there. Overall, we saw eleven colleges and universities, which sounds like a lot- and really, it is a lot- but in Boston it's not that unheard of. We met up with some of my old students and they hosted a great dinner for the boys and talked to them all about living and going to school in the city, the transition to college, the difference in responsibilities, etc . . . It was a great evening. We also met up with another one of my students from Boca who was in Boston for Harvard Model Congress with some of her classmates. Serendipitous. The boys were on great behavior the whole weekend and really gained an understanding of what type of campus it is that they're looking for and what the major differences are between academic programs from school to school. Of the group, three of the guys decided that going to school in Boston was precisely what they wanted. The other one learned that going to school in Boston was precisely what he did not want. The weather was much too cold. For him, this was a very productive trip, as well, just because the whole point is to identify locations that you do want to go to college and a big part of that is identifying those areas that you do NOT want. The guys have now all sent/are sending this weekend their follow-up Thank You emails to the various admissions folks who really went above and beyond for the four of them. That is a big part of these trips, to make sure that the students continue to grow and learn through inquiry and experience, while exploring themselves. It was a good trip. Happy almost March!

February 17, 2009

Boston: Day 1; Cold

I am in Boston with four great young guys. We arrived this morning to find that our luggage did not follow us here. It was disappointing, but also a good lesson in patience and customer service. The initial response was- as it always must be- frustration. But this was funny how absurd it was. All five of our bags were missing. When they found out that the lost baggage amount of compensation is $3,000 they all started to hope that the bags were lost in the ether, somewhere. It's extremely cold here. This is the whole point of a trip during the winter, to experience what ends up being the real weather during 4 months of a 9 month college year, sort of eliminates any fantasy about what "college in Boston" will be like. But regardless, it's still a wonderful place, with so much energy and so many young people. The guys were a little apprehensive, I think, as they were expecting some amazing shock of college life when they got off the subway and entered the city. But it's just a normal, dynamic city that has the hustle of a metropololis with the community of a college town. We had some good food. We walked the commons. We walked through the Jewish Memorial near Faneuil Hall, which was really moving. Then they got cold and started whimpering so we came back to the hotel where I made them write for a little while- they'll get used to this. More later.

Brady Norvall, M.A.
Education Counseling

February 9, 2009

Wired High Schools: Increasing Access and Decreasing IQ's

I admit that I have not always been a fan of the idea of laptops in the classroom, especially in affluent areas where students have access to that technology on a regular basis, as it stands. However, several recent experiences and some new students who I have come across, have lead me to assess "why" I dislike the idea of a 'laptop school'. This post will not be very long, because I'm afraid that I could write far too many ideas that are neither supported through independent research nor really legitimized by a truly random sample. That said, what it is that I have witnessed from my experiences with students who attend schools which do utilize laptops as a part of the daily curriculum, is their savvy in navigating youtube, wikipedia and google is greatly enhanced. It stops right about there. Sure, they can troubleshoot a computer problem much quicker than I probably am able, but the majority of their time spent on the computer is spent trying to figure out a way to beat the firewall or entertain themselves with the infinite amount of ether-tainment available in the wide world of web. I have students who have found (and do send me) some of the most obscure videos from youtube or will, without thinking twice whether they've heard of an author or tried to dig in the recesses of their minds for a common reference, do a wikipedia search, read the first line of the bio and then move on, as if they have now learned, associated and retained the information. Like I said above, there is something valiant about providing technology in a more vocational aspect- especially to schools where the demographics indicate that the average student might not have the same opportunity and access outside of school. But is it really necessary for students who do have access to be hiding behind a screen all-day long? What will happen to their creative writing? When will they have the chance to feel a book in their hands or turn the page of a newspaper? I'm not saying that google search is not a better tool than a library. But I am saying that it would be nice for every student in high school to be able to walk into a library and know how to find a book that they might be looking for. It's technology. It serves a wonderful purpose and provides great hope for a more well-connected and informed society. Though I just can't help but wonder whether, with these laptop schools, it isn't providing one aspect at the expense of another?

January 27, 2009

Reading for the SAT and Life

Now is the time when many parents of tenth and eleventh graders- and sometimes, even the tenth and eleventh graders, themselves- are beginning to wonder if their student is "test-strong". With the PSAT scores coming back to most students either right before the new year or after returning from winter break, the shock of being in the middle 50% or, as some have found themselves, the bottom 25%, in an area as crucial to learning as "Critical Reading", the panic sets in. This is a time of the year when I, inevitably, get phone calls. The question always seems to be the same: "How can my son/daughter raise his/her score on the test?" My answer sometimes frustrates parents, especially if we are discussing an eleventh grader on the dawn of college applications: "There is no quick fix. It sounds to me like your student needs to be reading on a very regular basis".
You see, it's not that the SAT can't be taught or that there aren't strategies which can enhance the score a few percentage points, the simple fact is that the test is there to gauge where a student's long-term learning has placed him/her. For someone who has never even completed a book for school or otherwise, there are no shortcuts. Too many people are looking to be let off the hook. And this, in all honesty, is the one redeeming characteristic of the standardized exams: The fact that they do not let laziness off the hook. If you don't read well and don't read consistently, your score will reflect that. If you have never been asked to paraphrase an article or summarize an author's perspective, let alone formulate your own ideas and articulate them in a coherent way, you will probably not be too satisfied with the Critical Reading score you earn.
It takes hard work to compensate for those lost years when you should have been reading a few pages each night. I recently recommended to a student's mom that she subscribe to three monthly magazines for her son: National Geographic (he likes photography and intense images-- think Stanley Kubrick films); Men's Health (he's a teenage boy who goes to the gym and worries about his image); and one more. If I had my druthers (and I told her as much) it would be the magazine that attracts the attention of most teenage boys (and has for several decades), with some of the greatest articles and writers contributing to the outstanding -and often overlooked- literary aspect of this empire (I hope that you get my subtlety). Why? Because he'll pick it up! He had never read as much as a newspaper article until I began working with him last Fall. He needs reading to be something that he wants to do. Eventually, he will learn to find joy in the learning and discovery processes of literature. Until then, if he's drawn to pictures and reading ends up being a byproduct . . . so be it!

January 12, 2009

10 Reasons to Not Panic

As the time draws near and the decisions of whether you will or will not get into x, y, or z school are imminent, I think it best to give all high school seniors good reason to settle down, take a breath and start thinking about other, more important things (that's right, I said MORE important things).


1. In the scheme of life, there is, ultimately, nothing that can be done now that your applications are in, but wait. Waiting is patience. Patience is a virtue. Virtues are something you will learn much about in college (especially if you take a philosophy course). Get a head-start. It will be like you're already in college, but you're not . . . yet!

2. If you did your best on the college applications, good job. You have now learned what it takes to complete a task that will be judged by someone who really does not know you. This, my young friends, is a life skill.

3. If you did poorly on your applications and saved everything until the last minute, maybe this will be a good wake-up call as to why approaching things with maturity and preparedness is not just a trait of an adult, but a trait of a successful adult.

4. Everybody has waited this process out before you. It's just like the SAT's, you're still around to tell about it, right? Your anxiety is not unique and, therefore, not really necessary.

5. At the end of the day you will be blazing the trail that you- and you, alone- created for yourself. Many a'student have gone off to their top choice school and been unhappy and then transferred. You, too, will find that no college is omnibenevolent and upon your arrival to whichever school you end up enrolling, you will be both extremely pleased in many regards and extremely disappointed in some regards.

6. Remember the old adage that most of the things we worry about never end up coming to fruition?

7. Don't panic because although this is a stressful process, you must learn NOW how to deal with such stress. Say you don't end up getting into any of your schools and you end up going to a junior college? Well, many, many successful people in the world today went to a community college first. Do you think they looked at this or any other instance in their lives, for that matter, as a setback? Or perhaps as a springboard?!

8. Take the time to write some friendly admission officer(s) at the school of your choice an email (or a phone call). Introduce yourself. Wish him/her a happy new year. Tell them how you're doing in your classes this semester (if you're doing well, only)! You know, interact . . . be a human.

9. Instead of using this period of waiting as a time for panic, utilize it as a time to reflect and be a bit introspective. Set a new year's resolution for how you will deal with the inevitable situation of rejection (maybe not for colleges, but at some point in life, right?). Try to think about your own personal reactions and responses when things do not go your way and how you treat those around you. Contemplate the idea of personal responsibility and being accountable to the process. Did you do everything that you could have to prepare yourself for success? Think about that. Seriously.

10. And, if for no other reason, you should try to not panic because you know all those other kids at your school who ARE panicking and you know that they really get on your nerves and seem to only be feeding their own anxieties, making it worse and worse by day. And this, to any person who has ever had to wait for something good as opposed to instant gratification, is the most frustrating behaviour to witness from a teenager. Bottom line: panic is NOT cool.