John Reich's two-piece discussion of personalization on EdWeek affirmed some of the nagging concerns I have about the personalization trend in education. 

While I certainly agree that elements of the school day certainly can--and should--be personalized, completely doing so would take away from a huge piece of education: the participation in a democratic society. 

The graphic above is one I used as a visual representation of an Inquiry Project not fully nurtured. Students came in to my class, spent time researching their individual questions... but our classroom felt very lifeless in those weeks. Though students made wonderful discoveries, they were disconnected from each other. This seemed like such a shame... Here we were, together--yet completely separate. Shouldn't I be working with these students to look at our crazy-different selves and say, Can you imagine the amazing things we could we create together

This was passed along to me from a student who spent her first post-HTHI year abroad. I love the speakers answer to her question, "How much pain of the world do I allow myself to feel?" was to focus on one project because that one project WILL have ripple effects. I also love how she said that being in a relationship with her community means that she's not just a taker, but also a contributor. This one will stick with me for a while.
Dewey, J. (1938). Traditional vs. Progressive Education. Experience and Education (pp. 17-23). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dewey begins his discussion of what that experience of education should be by clarifying that he is not attempting to completely negate traditional education. In fact, he feels that complete negation of traditional education would result in developing a new form of education “negatively rather than positively and constructively” (p.20). He does, however, note that the drawback of the “traditional scheme” is that it is “one of imposition,” in which teachers “are the agents through which knowledge and skills are communicated” (p. 18). When this happens, the “gulf between the mature or adult products and the experience and abilities of the young” is too wide and students cannot actively participate in constructing meaning (p.19). While traditional education is static and taught “as a finished product,” without regard to how that product was constructed, it doesn’t allow for students to consider how to construct solutions, which Dewey claims is a valuable skill for developing solutions for future problems. Progressive education, doesn’t immediately solve problems by eliminating the barriers that traditional education imposes. Instead, it creates new problems, such as “What does freedom mean and what are the conditions under which it is capable of realization?” and “How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?” (pp.22-3) In his introduction to his ideas about the possibilities of education, he clearly proclaims that the progressive form is certainly not the easier, but one that necessitates both learners and teachers to determine a “more effective source of authority” (p.21) for a truly educational experience.

I completely agree that progressive education is NOT the easier route. Instead, we adults are delicately dancing between guiding and informing the student. Especially in the age of the Internet, I recognize that my role needn’t be one of informant. Instead, I should be helping students learn how to learn.

Additionally, I found his comments about imposing adult standards and subject matter very interesting. In thinking about how adults and teens should interact, there should be a healthy balance of shared experiences. The gap must not be “too great,” or it is not a healthy, constructive environment. Like psychology research Robert Epstein, Dewey seems to feel that interaction between students and adults is very important.  While Epstein contends that the interaction allows for teens to learn how to become adults (versus break away from them), Dewey feels that adults should not impose ideas (or subject matter) onto teens. This creates a huge question for the teacher. How much guidance is too much?

His opposition to static, product-oriented learning reminded me of how project-based learning can go wrong. When a project simply replaces an essay or test, it is another form of a static, finished product. BUT, when the project allows for students to tackle a problem, or to figure something out, this is a useful skill that can be applied to problems in the future. It’s transferable. Progressive learning necessitates looking into a changing world and recognizing that the world is their present; they shouldn’t simply prepare for what is to come and wait for their application “someday” in the future.

His question about how much of the past adults should bring into an interesting one.


“Teachers are the agents through which knowledge and skills are communicated and rules of conduct enforced” (p. 18).

“The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject-matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity. The gap is so great that the required subject-matter, the methods of learning and of behaving are foreign to the existing capacities of the young. They are beyond the reach of the experience the young learners already possess. Consequently, they must be imposed; even though good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features. But the gulf  between the mature or adult products and the experience and abilities of the young is so wide that the very situation forbids much active participation by pupils in the development of what is taught.” (p. 18-19).

“Moreover, that which is taught is thought of as essentially static. It is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future” (p. 19).

This could be a huge benefit to constructive project-(or problem-) based learning. It means taking in information and figuring out a problem. It involves figuring something out... which, of course, is a useful tool for the ever-changing future.

Traditional vs. Progressive
“To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity, to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world” (pp.19-20).

Dewey claims that we must not forsake the older practices, lest we develop a new form of education “negatively rather than positively and constructively. Then it takes its clew in practice fromt hat which is rejected instead of from the constructive development of its own philosophy ” (p.20) i.e., Don’t reject everything just because you are aiming for something new.
“...there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education” (p.20)

Democratic Education:
“When external authority is rejected, it does  not follow that all authority should be rejected, but rather that there is need to search for a more effective source of authority” (p.21)

Why Adult-Student Relationships are Crucial:
“On the contrary, basing education upon personal experience may mean more multiplied and more intimate contacts between the mature and the immature than ever existed in the traditional school, and consequently more, rather than less, guidance by others” (p.21)

New education doesn’t solve problems, but “set new problems which have to be worked out on the basis of a new philosophy of experience” (pp.21-22)

What it is NOT:
“...many of the newer schools tend to make little or nothing of organized subject-matter of study; to proceed as if any form of direction and guidance by adults were an invasion of individual freedom, and as if the idea that education should be concerned with the present and future meant that acquaintance with the past has little or no role to play in education” (Dewey, p.22).

“Let us say that the new education emphasizes the freedom of the learner... A problem is now set. What does freedom mean and what are the conditions under which it is capable of realization?... How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present? (Dewey, p.22-23) 






Be an artist.

Look at what is there. 
Consider what could be.
Do something about it.

This is what Seth Godin’s linchpin does. It is an indispensible book for those on the cusp of becoming leaders and at the risk of succombing to “the resistance” and becoming “cogs.” 

Godin, an entrepreneurial marketer, writer, and speaker nutshells his idea of the linchpin within the fourteen chapters of his “penultimate text.” Within each chapter, he breaks down his ideas into smaller nuggets that resemble his daily blog.
According to Godin, a cog is the equivalent of a factory worker: someone who does what she is told. This alleviates her from making decisions, taking ownership, but previously provided one with the tenure of the American Dream.

This is no longer the case.

Godin gives the reader a clear understanding of how our desire for stability and contentedness is an inherited ideal from previous generations. It used to be that the American Dream would be fulfilled if we ducked our heads down and performed the functions that maximized production in the age of the Industrial Revolution. The good news is that we learned to maximize our outputs. The bad news is... um, now what?


Godin contends that we can’t go cheaper, faster, or leaner. Instead, we must lean in. We need linchpins who coat their deliverables with authentic personal care. We must create gifts for one another, and not for a price or the guarantee of reciprocity, but for the sake of producing art. 

Mr. Godin seems to think we know this, but are simply afraid. We fear and fight “the resistance” which satiates our lizard brains (the instinctual part that compels us to flee in the face of danger). He dedicates the heftiest part of his book (almost 50 of 230 pages) to the various forms in which the resistance may surface and bulwark our beautiful ideas. At the forefront is our inability to “ship,” or produce, the art we envision. Once we look clearly at what is causing us to resist--usually our fear that once shipped, our idea will prove to be not-so-glorious--we can free ourselves to look back at our failures and remark, “Isn’t that interesting?” rather than cowering in a factory corner of resistance.


What does this have to do with school?

EVERYTHING. We mustn’t stamp out factory workers. Instead, we need to encourage students to take risks, get to know, and the know-how to defeat, the resistance, find their “superpowers” and SHIP. 

PBL offers this experience so long as we aren’t using the project to push kids through a pre-designed system of manufacture. Otherwise, it’s the same old factory. I’d love to bring this book into my students’ brains and help them to see school as not a factory, but as their laboratory. They should feel at home as scientists who take risks to determine what might work. In order to create the space for students to learn to do this, we must allow them to feel safe, acknowledge what they contribute, and applaud their efforts to ship: the beautiful, as well as the less-beautiful artifacts of learning forward.

Otherwise, we have DONE school to them. When they cross the stage, they will wonder why that carrot of a diploma doesn’t make them feel any different. It’s the act--the art--of what they can explore at our schools that will create the linchpins that I agree we need.  

Godin’s book is inspiring. He has hit the nerves of my resistance as a lizard-brained teacher leader and gives me no way to duck out. I think my seniors need this reminder, as well. I want them to feel that when they ship off, they’ve learned not just how to work within a system, but to be a linchpins: . As I research the effects of co-designing projects with my students, I need to be mindful of how much I need to work to develop their own awareness of what it means to contribute to a project and a group of people working to make change. I’m wondering how much resistance I will face. 


“In every corporation in every country in the world, people are waiting to be told what to do. Sure, many of us pretend that we’d love to have control and authority and to bring humanity to our work. But given half a chance, we give it up, in a heartbeat. Like scared civilians eager to do whatever a despot tells them, we give up our freedoms and responsibilities in exchange for the certainty that comes from being told what to do” (p. 9).

“Our world no longer fairly compensates people who are cogs in a giant machine. There’s stress because for many of us, that’s all we know. Schools and society have reinforced this approach for generations. It turns out that what we need are gifts and connections and humanity--and the artists who create them. Living life without a map requires a different attitude. It requires you to be a linchpin” (p.19).

“There are fewer and fewer good jobs where you can get paid merely for showing up” (p. 23).

“... the people who work for you, the ones you freed to be artists, will rise to a level you can’t even imagine. When people realize they are not a cog in a machine, an easily replaceable commodity, they take the challenge and grow. They produce more than you pay them to, because you are paying them with something worth more than money. They do more than they’re paid to, on their own, because they value quality for its own sake, and they want to do good work. They need to do good work. Anything less feels intellectually dishonest, and like a waste of time. In exchange, you’re giving them freedom, responsibility, and respect, which are priceless. As a result of these priceless gifts, expect that the linchpins on your staff won’t abuse their power. In fact, they’ll work harder, stay longer, and produce more than you pay them to.  Because everyone is a person, and people crave connection and respect” (p.36)

“The launch of a universal (public and free) education was a profound change in the way our society works, and it was a deliberate attempt to transform our culture. And it worked. We trained millions of factory workers: (p. 41).

“The sign in front of your local public school could say:

Maplemere Public School

It’s almost impossible to imagine a school with a sign that said:
‘We teach people to take initiative and become remarkable artists, to question the status quo, and to interact with transparency. And our graduates understand that consumption is not the answer to social problems.’
And yet that might be exactly what we need.” (p.42)

“Studies show us that things learned in frightening circumstances are sticky. We remember what we learn on the battlefield, or when we burn a finger on a hot tea kettle. We remember that we learn in situations where successful action avoids a threat.
Schools have figured this out. They need shortcuts in order to successfully process millions of students a year, and they’ve discovered that fear is a great shortcut on the way to teaching compliance. Classrooms become fear-based, test-based battlefields, when they could so easily be organized to encourage the heretical though we so badly need... Decades of school have drilled that into us--fear, fear, and more fear...Teaching people to produce innovative work, off-the-charts insights and yes, art is time-consuming and unpredictable. Drill and practice and fear, on the other hand, are powerful tools for teaching facts and figures and obedience... The thing is that we need a school organized around teaching people to believe, and teachers who are rewarded for doing their best work, not the most predictable work” (pp.44-5)

“‘I am good at school.’ This is a fundamentally different statement from, ‘I did well in school and therefore I will do a great job working for you.’...Being good at school is a fine school if you intend to do school forever” (p.47).

“While schools provide outlets for natural-born leaders, they don’t teach it” (p.48).

“It’s impossible to do the work at the same time you’re in pain. The moment-to-moment insecurity of so many jobs robs you of the confidence you need to actually do great work” (p.54) Grades???

“Emotional labor is the hard work of making art, producing generosity, and exposing creativity. Working without a map involves both vision and the willingness to do something about what you see” (p. 57).

“One of the most difficult tasks the military had in Iraq was to teach soldiers how to treat Iraqi civilians as potential partners, how to vary from the stated mission of the day, how to be human in the face of huge unknown danger” (p. 96) Graduation?

(On shipping) “One way to become creative is to discipline yourself to generate bad ideas. The worse the better. Do it a lot and magically you’ll discover that some good ones slip through” (p. 117).

(Relevant to co-designing): “The first step is to write down the due date. Post it on the wall. It’s real. You will ship on this date, done or not.

The next step is to use index cards, Post-it notes, Moleskine notebooks, fortune cookies, whatever you can embrace. Write down every single notion, plan, idea, sketch, and contact. This is when you go fishing. Get as much help as you like. Invite as many people in as you can. This is their big chance.

This is where the thrashing and dreaming begin. It’s very hard to get the people you work with to pay attention at this moment. Since the deadline is so far away, their lizard brains are asleep and there’s no  fear or selfish motivation available. People focus on emergencies, not urgencies, and getting yourself (and them) to stop working on tomorrow’s deadline and pitch in now isn’t easy. A big part of the work, then, is to get yourself (and your team, if you have one) to step up and dream...” (p. 147)

(Relevant to sharing strengths): “If money (resources) circulates freely within the tribe, the tribe will grow prosperous more quickly” (P. 154)

(Relevant to grades): “Sure, it would be better if [flight attendants] got paid a fair wage, and it would be a lot better if more passengers appreciated their work. But until those two things happen, the most successful and happiest flight attendants will be embracing their art, not looking for someone to applaud them If their airline started using hidden cameras and customer report forms to push them to do it more, they’d actually do it less. 

Manipulated art (even the art of service) ceases to be art. 

Great bosses and world-class organizations hire motivated people, set high expectations, 
and give their people room to become remarkable” (Pp.168-9)

(Senior year) “When we apply to college, we’re attached to the outcome, so we’re blinded to the reality of the process” (p.175)

(Why choice is essential): “The challenge... choosing projects and opportunities that are most likely to reward the passion to a situation” (p.179)

(reminds me of Nelson Mandela quote): “Real change rarely comes from the front line. It happens from the middle or even the back. Real change happens when someone who cares steps up and takes what feels like a risk. People follow because they want to, not because you order them to” (p. 201).

“In great organizations, there’s a sense of mission” (p. 219).

“Organizations obey Newton’s laws. A team at rest tends to stay at rest. Forward motion isn’t the default state of any group of people, particularly groups with lots of people. Cynics and politics and coordination kick in and everything grinds to a halt... Most modern organizations... Responsibility isn’t as clear, deliverables aren’t as measurable, and goals aren’t as cut and dried. So things slow down.

The linchpin changes that. Understanding that your job is to make something happen changes what you do all day. If you can only cajole, not force, if you can only lead, not push, then you make different choices” (p.221) .

“It’s our desire to be treated like individuals that will end this cycle. Our passion for contribution and possibility, the passion we’ve drowned out in school and in the corporate world--that’s the only way out... All these interactions are art. Art isn’t a painting; it’s anything that changes someone for the better... Art can’t be bought or sold. It must contain an element that’s a gift, that brings the artist closer to the viewer, not something that insulates us from one another. So, we need to remember how to be artists...
Artists, at least the great ones, see the world more clearly than the rest of us. They have prajna, a sense of what actually is, not simply the artist’s take on it. That honest sight allows them to see the future over the cloudy horizon. As our world changes faster and faster, it is these honest artists who will describe our future, and lead use there” (p. 235)

Kittle, P. & Ramay, R. (2010). Minding the Gaps: Public Genres and Academic Writing. What is "College-Level" Writing? Volume 2: Assignments, Reading, and Student Writing Samples (pp. 98-118). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. 

“... researchers choose topics because the study engages them, they already have prior knowledge and are passionate about their subjects, and they have colleagues who care about the issues under discussion. These are the aspects of academic writing that we would like to reclaim: personal and professional engagement with topics, and connections to real audiences who share concerns and assumptions with the writer" (p. 100).

"It can be difficult to reconcile the ideas of authentic writing for an audience in a workplace and the kind of analytical compositions required in many college courses" (p. 101).

“Mallory not only wanted to do well, though - she expected to do well, but even with her strong motivation, she didn’t know how to express her thinking effectively on the page. What she needed was something to help her bridge the gap between what she knew and cared about and the ability to write about her ideas in an engaging way for a real audience" (p.108).

Kittle and Romay continue to reinforce the idea that a mature writer strives to make an authentic connection with the audience. A mature writer will be able to identify the appropriate anecdotes and research for his/her audience.  They support the idea that students should be able to write  “about issues of importance to them” (p. 115) and to be exposed to multiple mentor texts of the genre they are expected to produce. Teachers should scaffold this process so that students practice “replicating particular aspects of the genre before being expected to produce complete drafts” (p. 115). 

Revision is required of the mature writer, and students should be given the opportunity to connect with a specific audience through publication. They offer up the “My Turn” essay as an effective way to scaffold the student’s process of writing for an authentic audience.

Once again, I see how important connection with one’s audience is. I think that I can do a better job of finding mentor texts for the students to analyze for rhetorical strategy, as well as to use as models. Could I use Kelly Gallagher’s AOW (Article of the Week) to do this? Maybe I could do this during the first semester as a whole group (as I did with the snapshot narratives) more frequently, and then encourage them to find their own through their inquiry project? This was my intention with the mentor texts for this semester’s project, but I don’t feel like I made the idea and purpose of mentor texts clear to them.

I immediately took to Kittle’s piece because I learned so much about mentor texts from his sister’s Write Beside Them. One anecdote from  her book that has stuck with me is when she spoke of how she had asked a former student how well she was doing in college, and the student replied that she was doing well because she knew “what good writing is”. This is how I would like to teach my students to think about writing. I overheard a conversation between my students today about how they never really paid attention to the writing if the story was good, but immediately noticed when the writing is bad. I should teach them how to look at what makes good writing good, and then ask them to try it out more.

Berger, R. “Fostering an Ethic of Excellence.”
“Work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of quality, of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less” (p. 2).

“Students my have different potentials, but in general their attitudes and achievements are shaped by the culture around them. Students adjust their attitudes and efforts in or to fit into the culture.” (p. 5)

I thought of my own “appetite for excellence” when I read these statements and the culture of excellence within our cohort. Each week, you all push me to expect more of myself, and I thank you for it. I know that each of us have “different potentials,” but I think that our teachers and our collective passion for what we are working to understand has created an ethic of excellence that I find myself constantly wondering how I can replicate in the the classroom. I believe that part of this comes from our collective desire to be better teachers, and as Bobby noted, Alfie Kohn’s lecture was eye-opening. It made me think about how much more I can do to foster student-led inquiry.

I also think that it comes from the models of excellence provided by our teachers. This is clearly not a place to slack off, and even though we are graciously supported, we are expected to produce beautiful work. I know that I push myself as much as I can to rise to the occasion, and sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the excellence that surrounds me that I fear falling short. I guess that part of what I expect my students to do is become comfortable in that place of fear and hold tight to previous experiences with excellence. I know that I have pushed myself through difficult projects and reaped the benefits. The reward is that much sweeter when the level of effort is novel.

I have noticed that those of my students who do well are those that are okay to take new risks because they have experienced success in the past. Last year, I spoke with a student who was facing the prospect of not graduating. We looked at what he needed to do in his classes, made a plan, and then I asked him the big question: “Are you read to work for it?”

“I guess,” was the reply...

I then asked him the second big question: “Can you remember another time like this when you knew that you had to work really hard for something, you did so, and you experienced that joyful pay-off?”

His reply: “... No.”

Those sweet rewards are so critical in encouraging students to dig in and try again! The people who surround us encourage us to take those necessary risks, and I need to remember that some students may feel like Jason are are uncertain how to enter into a “culture of excellence.” Additionally, I must make sure that my classroom is one that inspires the excellence I wish my students to rise to. 
Steinberg, A. (1998). Real learning, real work: school-to-work as high school reform. New York: Routledge. 

“One of the most unusual aspects of the Oakland program is the way in which students proceed through increasingly complex school and work-based projects, with decreasing coaching and scaffolding on the part of the teachers and industry partners... In their three years in the program, Oakland students are expected to make progress along three major trajectories: 1) from doing small, short-term projects under the tutelage of a teacher of a specific course, to completing longer term integrative projects that cross curricular boundaries and draw on the expertise of industry partners; 2) from handling projects with a lot of specific work requirements, to tackling more open-ended projects with more room for student choice and creativity; and 3) from demonstrating knowledge or skills they have been taught, to undertaking projects of personal interest that make a contribution to a larger audience” (Steinberg, 1998, p. 10).

I really enjoyed the Steinberg selection because of the insider’s look into three successful models of project-based learning. The Oakland Health Academy utilizes a strategy I particularly like: students begin with smaller, focused projects before moving into larger, integrated (and increasingly self-designed) projects. This makes sense to me. If I am part of a project-based school, I should also be scaffolding students’ practice in designing their own projects.  (By the way... I noticed that in Rob’s Three Integrations “Teacher as Designer” was no longer included. Is this a recent change in the HTH philosophy?) THIS additional awareness of explicitly communicating the elements and practices of project design might be part of what I feel is missing upon graduation. Students have been immersed in a smorgasbord of projects and have a loose sense of what makes a good project, but I’m not sure that they would be able to clearly articulate and demonstrate it before they leave in a fashion that demonstrates an approaching mastery. Clearly, if a senior project or “Endersession” truly required students to demonstrate their ability to design (vs. simply fulfill) a project, this would be an evaluation of their personal understanding of project-based learning. As Steinberg notes, the ability to design and carry out a project is an essential life/workplace skill... And it’s not easy! That’s why we’re all in this class, I guess. ;) In sum, the summary of the practices at the Oakland Health Academy led me to rethink the way I scaffold understanding of not just content or content-related skills, but of project design.  
Sizer, N.F. (2002). Playing the College Game. Crossing the stage (pp.75-112). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


In chapter four of her book Crossing the Stage, Sizer shares how many seniors feel they have entered into the realm of a slightly dishonest game world when applying to college. Hyper alert to hypocrisy, they struggle with the need to stay true to who they are (faults and all) and the push to market themselves as top-grade meat for selective schools. They hope that once this stressful, self-depleting process is over, they will have earned the ticket to truly discover themselves when they actually get to college. During the senior year, however, authenticity must be put on hold for the sake of playing the game.

According to Sizer, the game involves a lot of gambling.  Students become so overwhelmed with the brand new task of selecting a school, that they often fall into the trap of applying to the most selective schools that they might have the chance of getting into. They don’t have the energy or experience to seek schools and properly evaluate whether or not each would be a good fit for them. Instead, they often resort to parents’ prodding, arbitrary qualities in a brochure, or those which simply sound impressive. They are unsure how to measure whether or not they have a “feel” for the college even upon visiting, and would rather someone “impose order on all the chaos” (p. 84) by telling them where to go.

Once the application process commences, students are terrified to see their statistics staring back at them on a form. Standardized tests cause the most frustration, as students (and teachers) note the inequitable nature of the test, but must “play the game” in order to move to the next level. They feel “ripped off” (p. 95) by a system that takes their money and spits back a number. They are torn between engaging in activities they are truly interested in and those that will look good on their application. Sizer notes that adults “encourage this inflation” by recommending students involve themselves in certain activities in order “look good on your CV” (p. 100). Once their resumes and applications are filled, they cynically pit their odds against one another, and begin to prepare excuses as to why another student may get in before them (p.102). These issues often relate to how heavily a college considers the applicant’s racial and ethnic identity and/or whether or not s/he is a child of alumni. Many students alter their sense of justice during this time. Some are willing to take whatever odds will work in their favor in order to gain admittance, even if they acknowledge that it may not be completely just. On the flip side, students who may understand the larger reasons behind affirmative action will insist upon “strict equity” when applications are being reviewed (p. 104).

Students also begin to question the level of preparation they received at their own high schools. When they hear tales of high scores and radical projects at other schools, they sometimes feel betrayed by a high school should have pushed them to do more. They wonder if the grades they have earned in high school will be the same in college. This causes further disillusion in how seniors perceive their abilities. Once again, they question their worth.

The only section that students seem to approve of is the application essay. They know that “they are being given a chance – and that they can’t throw it away” (p. 105). However, while many students are accustomed to examining their faults, they are uncertain how to reflect upon their positive qualities. They have great difficulty bragging when they are so keenly aware of their own faults. It feels dishonest, but once again, they play the game and request the assistance of others to help them “dress things up” (p. 107).  One student describes how “for the sake of his future, he described his present in a way quite different than he knew it to be” (p. 109). The struggle between being honest and selling out is intense and students feel the pressure to bill themselves as “impressive products rather than in works in process” (p.111).


Sizer clearly articulated what I am experiencing in my classroom. It is so interesting that her description of interviews from ten years ago sound eerily similar to own my own students in 2011. I am looking forward to moving into the “What We Can Do” section in order to make some changes.

I realized how vigilant I need to be about the way I encourage students to sell themselves when applying to schools. This year, I have asked my students to put themselves in the shoes of admissions readers several times. My hope was that by examining case studies, the admissions process would be demystified as they became familiar with how an application package is viewed. My fear is that I have further perpetuated the “game.” I find that many of my students have no idea where they want to go to school or what they want in a college. They just want to stop playing the high school game and discover who they truly are in college.  I do not want to perpetuate dishonesty. I want them to feel pride in what they have to offer a school without making them feel they have to game the system.  I am encouraging the creation of more personal digital portfolios this year with the hope that students will feel they can present a more vivid picture of who they are to combat their poor test scores. I don’t want this to just be an extension of the dishonest package, however.  How can I encourage them to be “real” while they fear being judged?

I was also struck by how the students Sizer spoke to began to question their own high school.  This is something especially disheartening to me. I have noticed students beginning to question their experience at HTHI when they note lack of AP classes on their transcripts. The school they once held pride in for being different doesn’t seem to align with “what colleges are looking for” and students feel betrayed by a school may not have prepared them in the way it should.  I find it extremely difficult to be a college-prep school and one that offers authentic learning experiences when “college prep” still entails “college admissions prep,” which is smattered with tests and adding up hours of activities. 

As a senior teacher, I feel much like the students who struggle between being true to education and playing the college game.  I would love to change the narrative surrounding college at our school. I hate to hear college used as a carrot… Too often, I hear the phrase, “When you’re in college, you’re going to have to do _______” when a teacher assigns a difficult assignment.  However, to some extent, I know it’s true.  I spoke to a graduate who insists that our school is amazing because of the authentic learning opportunities, but feels that by being too radical, we shortchange our students who are preparing to complete inauthentic tasks in college, such as high stakes exams and papers.  She insisted that we should strike the proper balance in order to prepare students for this.  To some extent, I agree, but then again, are these (usually larger public colleges) justified in continuing an older style of learning? If we change, but colleges don’t, does this mean I still need to play the game in order to help my students? Must I teach them the language of power in order to teach them to combat it? How can I be a game-changer? How can I make my students more aware of what college is (or should be) in order to add meaning to the senior year?


“Success in life depends fare more on how well a student does in college than on which one he attends. Although teachers and counselors may stress the importance of making a good match rather than putting blind faith in a selective college, it’s hard for students to believe it. There are so many mysteries, rumors, and ‘deals’ regarding college admission that it’s hard to blame seniors who may prefer to think that a little ‘luck’ now is preferable to the hard work required to do well once they get to college. High school has been give to them. College is something they have to go out and get for themselves” (p.77).

“This obsession with college, however, has cause us as a nation to pay less attention to other ways in which a person might prepare himself or herself for productive adulthood. It has also affected the senior year in high school, because it has created the false impression that college admission is the only rite of passage, when in fact there are several” (p.78).“College is the reward for surviving high school, the pot of gold at the end of the adolescent rainbow” (p. 79).

“'My whole life is reduced to a piece of paper,’ one senior observed. ‘They don’t want to hear your reasons: just what you did. The more I thought about, the more I got stressed out. Not so much working on it, but thinking about it.’ Being a ‘beggar’ is disheartening, and the notion that so much is riding on so little invites manipulation – and procrastination” (p. 87).

(Regarding SATs): “Any system that can be manipulated, she believed, could not really be objective. But none of the adults in the seniors’ world – not parents not teachers – dare to counsel them to bypass these exams, let alone organize a revolt against them. ON this issue, therefore, seniors grow increasingly cynical and sullen. One told me, ‘We are just objects to be played with, and in a matter that will really affect our lives’” (p.96).

“Each ‘lift’ is added without much worry about being dishonest; each is tolerated by the culture that surrounds the seniors. Added together, the seniors hope, these things will make them stand out. But the growing disconnection between the person presented in the application and the person who still has to live with herself, her family, and her teachers can’t help but undermine what is left of the senior year” (p. 112)
Sizer, Nancy F. (2002). Crossing the Stage: Redesigning Senior Year (pp.xvii-xxviii) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


In the introduction to this book, Nancy Faust Sizer illuminates the “emotional chaos” (p. xvii) that marks the senior year. She discusses how the “senioritis” that runs rampant when the spring semester arrives (and sometimes months before) is due to their coexistence in three time zones: the past, present, and future.  Students are splaying their past onto college applications and are asked to measure its worth. Meanwhile, they are preparing for the “big breakup” (p. xviii) with their childhood, their friends, and all that is familiar to them. They want to embrace the present, but are watching it slip away as they wonder what they will have the opportunity to face in the future. This transition, Sizer contends, is often more difficult than we remember.

She highlights the cultural imperatives that have seeped into our collective mindset. Seniors grow up with a certain mythological understanding of 12th grade because the “magic” of senior year is often conveyed through the selective memories adults share of their own experience.  She shares that the archetypal senior hero of these stories faces challenges, but “somehow” emerges with a magical maturity. “The emphasis here is on ‘somehow,’” Sizer continues. “In our memories, the transformation was magical… Hence the assumptions that surround the experience of the senior year” (p. xx). Seniors grow up with the idea that there are things they should be feeling or doing simply because they have inherited the title of “senior.” They have inherited the crown – now when does the magical transformation take place?

Sizer argues that this is a paradigm that must be considered. When the seniors feel that “almost desperate darkness” (p. xxiii) when the magic doesn’t just happen, they start to question the system that led them here. They wonder what they have really learned all these years in school… Is it enough for the next step? This is where we non-seniors must step in. High schools, colleges, and the workplace need to help students recognize “…how much that know and are able to do in order to perform well, in whatever arena, after high school” (p. xxiv). While they can identify how many courses they have passed, they carry a lot of “subliminal nervousness” about whether or not they are truly ready for the world post-breakup. Fearing the truth, they recline into the safety of proclaiming their status. We are the (magic) seniors… Just watch! Something is supposed to happen! Instead of maintaining the myth, we need to help them take pride in their work and recognize them as they are. We need to help them value learning for its sake, rather than the points. Ideally, this should begin much earlier than the 12th grade in order to empower students to own their learning and not simply to “limp” away from high school wondering whether or not they did anything worthwhile. 


Sizer’s words were strong and clear – they hit me hard. My seniors are working on their college applications right now, and I can see the anxiety bubbling up under the surface. While I consider our school progressive and not deeply-routed in tradition, it can be difficult to balance true, authentic learning for its sake while students are filling out their school stats on an application that shouts, “Pick me!”  It is crushing to watch a young student tear up because she just feeling like she understands this whole “college thing” or to read a student’s remarks on the week’s class:

"We've been working on our resumes in English class and writing up applications for college. The app I got was pretty confusing and I realized that I barely know any of the stuff included in it. Which makes me wonder, am I truly ready to graduate high school?"

We pledge to a college-going culture, but we also promise to engage in real-world learning. Clearly, these two need to be better integrated. I plan to pursue Sizer’s contention that the high school, college, and workplace need to be in better communication. I think we discuss college in the same mythological, intangible, unclear manner that Sizer contends we do the senior year. This is a problem. We know how to organizeinternships in order to immerse them in the work world. Some students do take a college course at USD. But, never do all three meet. How can the relationship be improved so that students don’t feel the pain of their breakup from high school as profusely? How can the experience be altered so that students don’t feel cheated and shell-shocked at graduation, but ready to take their place at the next piece of the triad? I have ordered Sizer’s book and am looking forward to reading more of her ideas!


“The institutions that ought to support the seniors – high schools, colleges, the workplace – seem isolated from one another. High schools charge ahead with the same old schedule and the same old program, seemingly uninterested in the number of new challenges that have been added to the seniors’ lives, only marginally willing to help them cope” (p.xvii).

“Being a senior year is a pervasive American cultural experience, ranking up there with being married, having children, holding a job, attending church, and going to baseball games. Between 80 and 90 percent of our teenagers finish high school [as of 2001]. They build up expectations for their senior year, live through it self-consciously, and remember it clearly for years. These are – or are meant to be – their  “glory days.”  More young women may wear a prom dress than a wedding dress” (p.xvii).

“The spotlight shown on seniors captures the imagination of far more people than just the seniors and their parents and teachers. The experience is full of fascination and mythology for us all” (p.xvii).

“Seniors expect to be honored as leaders” (p.xxi).

“Seniors live in three time dimensions at once… Living in the present while planning for the future can test the mettle of even the oldest and wisest of us” (p. xxii).

“Without knowing what they need to learn, they carry around a lot of subliminal nervousness, but they are not sufficiently alert to the dangers of a year of ‘coasting’” (p. xxiv).

“With the seniors’ help, we need to examine the  senior year for what should stay the same and what can be altered in small and even big ways. Perhaps we teachers should recognize that the academic growth that has been our worthy stock in trade for many years must be not abandoned, not cheapened, but altered to suit the seniors’ changed circumstances” (p. xxvii).

“Most of all, we need to bring about a more graceful transition between high school and what follows it. Our goal is to leave all the participants feeling that the senior year was a glory time but also one of permanent usefulness, one to feel proud of after all” (p.xxviii)

Mitra, D.L. (2008). Student voice in school reform: building youth-adult partnerships that strengthen schools and empower youth. Albany, New York: State University Of New York Press.

Mitra chronicles the development of the Student Forum at “Whitman High School” in an urban part of the Bay Area. She notes how collegiality between students and teachers increased as students were invited into more conversations about school reform.