First Person

Ask an Expert: My son is slacking on his college essay.

Q. My son, a high school senior, is driving us mad by putting off his college essay and applications. I know I am not alone. He’s been a very strong student overall and my wife and I can’t believe he’s not putting the time and thought into writing his essay. Any tips on how we can encourage him without putting him on the defensive?

Talk to your child

I answer this question assuming you already asked your child directly why he is putting off his applications for college and that you did not get a straight answer.

There are three main reasons why he can’t answer this question directly; one, he truly doesn’t know why.  Two, he is too ashamed or scared to admit why. Three, he may be unmotivated and not aware of the consequences of applying late.  There are other plausible explanations, but these would be the most likely.

If the problem is related to number one, he will benefit from having a professional evaluation done to explore the deeper meaning or causes of his avoidance of this difficult task. Before you go there, you can try a couple of things.  If the problem is related to the second possibility, you would want to rephrase the question of why he is not doing this to a safer and more supportive approach of “It can be very scary to do this, or intimidating to do this.  Lots of kids put this off.  Do you have any strong feelings about that?”  Even another way to validate his feelings would be, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were worried, overwhelmed or scared about this.  I would be.”  This is an example of going with a child’s resistance, which can usually soften their defense.

If that is not working, you may try the strategy for the third possibility.  If he is truly unmotivated and naïve to the consequences of procrastination, offer a reward for completing his applications.  The reward can be a dinner with you at a favorite restaurant (a win-win for all) or another fun family activity.  A reward system like this tends to work if the child has no deeper undercurrents for his lack of motivation.  You may also want to sit him and directly explain the consequences of applying late; no spots left, bad choices for dorms, etc.   (You have probably already tried that).

Either way, you are also best trying to temper your own frustrations about this.  You are likely annoyed by this and tempted to lecture him, ground him, smack him upside the head.  These strategies can work but more often lead to anger, stress and stronger resistance.  Additionally, punitive strategies usually do not help with long-term change for a child.  For example, it likely won’t teach him lasting skills in how to handle procrastinating.

I would urge you to be patient, do your best to stick with a problem solving, active listening and corroborative approach on this.

– Steve Sarche

Living with consequences

This is a tough time for kids and parents. Trying to figure out the emotions on either side of the divide would need a crystal ball.

One moment you can’t stand the thought of sending him off to college and the next moment  packing his room can’t come soon enough.

There is no magic bullet for helping kids stay on a timely track for college paper work.  Having worked with many seniors and many parents of seniors I know the paths are quite divergent.

Your son may have to live with the consequences of his choices, e.g. not getting into a school because he missed the deadline. Loving and supporting him though that minefield will be part of your job as parents.

Sometimes kids don’t get their paper work in and it’s quite deliberate. For reasons known only to them they had quite a bad  case of what Shel Silverstein called the Whatifs—here are a few, but you can fill in your own whatifs– most of us can.

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?. . . Everything seems well, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again!

“But my son is so capable” you might say. Remember the whatif’s don’t depend on reality, but the perception of reality.  This time is one of major transition. Your son still needs his parents to be loving, supporting, nudging, believing that he can and will do what is right for him to do.

Don’t forget to talk to him. Ask him what his plans are. Does he plan to take a year off or will he get his paperwork in on time to the schools of his choice?  Then trust him to meet the deadlines. I wish you well.

– Suzanne Lustie


First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.