AP classes don’t really help students excel in college

I’ve just read an article from Brookings that states that Advanced Placement classes aren’t all that effective at preparing students for college, or at predicting college completion rates. This makes me curious and a little concerned; I’ve long thought that taking an AP class would allow one to gain precious credit for a college course. Turns out, not so much apparently. Dartmouth College stopped taking perfect AP scores of 5 in Psychology in 2013, concerned that AP classes weren’t as rigorous as college classes. And researchers found at the University of Sydney that “students with no background in senior high school physics are generally not disadvantaged.” Concerned that the studies consulted didn’t cover a wide-enough area, Brookings consulted thousands of transcripts from the Department of Education’s National Educational Longitudinal Study and found evidence that confirmed the theory that advanced classes in high school do not prepare students for college-level work.

The study postulates that it isn’t so much that students aren’t learning as it is they are not learning the right things, aren’t focusing on critical thinking, or have forgotten what they’ve learned. And most colleges are making students take an introductory course on writing and argument anyway, as even students from top schools aren’t performing at levels required for post-secondary education.

What to do? The study isn’t suggesting rejecting AP classes out of hand, even though AP class curriculum is limiting, with little creativity allowed for teachers. The authors suggest technical education and “non-cognitive skill development” as better strategies to encourage college completion, rather than the repetitive drilling on subject content so prevalent in AP classes, and enriching classes with creativity and life skills.

This article made me think. I had a “college prep” high school career, even though I only took two years of math. (It was the ’70’s.) I had a rich elective set. I thought I was ready for college level coursework. Erm, no. I took English 101 my first semester in college, which graphically illustrated to me my inability to write a coherent research paper.  Turns out that one college English class was probably the most valuable of my scholastic career, and I’m most grateful to that teacher whose name I’ve long since forgotten.

I would love to see richer content and deeper delving into subjects by teachers constrained by “teaching to the test.” Bring back shop and home ec and woodworking. Free up some time to continue discussions sparked by students, rather than having to immediately go on to the next segment dictated by a test. Let students really learn, and by doing so, increase the likelihood of completing college. Encourage creativity and problem-solving, not how to take a multiple choice exam.

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Sleep or the lack thereof

So, yeah, sleep. We’re not getting enough of it, either as adults or as adolescents. I listened to a story on NPR this morning about how lack of sleep is making employees cranky and less productive, making them perform at the level of mild intoxication. I’ve already championed the cause of taking naps, and the NPR story suggested that employers who provide “nap rooms” may boost productivity.

Sleep deprivation affects brain function, memory, heart health and makes people prone to depression, diabetes, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Also, “a brain that is hungry for sleep will get it, even when you don’t expect it.” (National Sleep Foundation)  Fall asleep in class much? What about during meetings?

All this is another good reason to turn off the electronic devices at a reasonable hour to allow ourselves more shut-eye. The effects of sleep deprivation have been fairly intensely studied, and it doesn’t matter if you are majorly sleep-deprived or only partially sleep-deprived — mood is affected, motor functions are affected, and a host of other physical and mental processes are affected, none for the good. Skipping sleep can be harmful, or even deadly, especially if you’re behind the wheel, which documents more than 100,000 car crashes a year due to drowsiness.

So turn off the TV, leave your phone downstairs, and get to bed in time to allow yourself 7-8 hours of sleep, the amount recommended if you’re an adult, or 9-10 hours a night if you’re a teenager. Reap the benefits and we’ll all be the better for it. (Yes, I need to follow my own advice…)

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Social Media Leads to Sleep Disturbance

There’s an eye-opener. (Cue the sarcasm.) It now turns out that being on social media can interrupt your sleep. A study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has determined that young adults who check social media on a daily or weekly basis have more problems sleeping than their peers who use it less often. The participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had three times the likelihood of sleep disturbances, compared with those who checked least frequently.

Granted, this is a single study of 1,788 participants, and more are needed to verify the validity of this one, “particularly to determine whether social media use contributes to sleep disturbance, whether sleep disturbance contributes to social media use – or both.” My kid will testify to my nagging that looking at her iPhone in the dark will ruin her eyes. Now I have further fodder to add to my badgering.

I personally leave my phone downstairs to charge when I go to bed. I can’t check email during the workday, as it’s blocked. I get on Facebook once or twice a week, tweet once or twice a month, and don’t have SnapChat. I can’t personally attest to the authenticity of this study, but it makes sense that anything that sucks attention the way social media does would have some kind of negative effect. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that social media disrupts sleep. I hope at some point people will sit up and take notice, get their noses out of their phones, and regain some sort of equilibrium in their lives. Not to mention a better night’s sleep.

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Interactive screen time vs. TV

I have long been a proponent of kicking electronic devices out of the classroom, and I just found more evidence that interactive screen time (Internet surfing, social media use, texting, etc.) contributes to physical changes such as smaller brain size and cognitive malfunction. There are studies in respected medical journals that affirm those findings: they state that excessive screen time (or even just “regular” screen exposure) impairs brain structure and neurological function, with much of the damage occurring in the brain’s frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is where massive changes occur from puberty to young adulthood, and it “determines success in every area of life–from a sense of well-being to academic/career success to relationship skills.” (Psychology Today)

A study by Lin, Zhou, Lei, et al., summarizes it this way: “Taken together, [studies show] Internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.” Brain scan research findings include grey matter atrophy, compromised white matter integrity, reduced cortical thickness, impaired cognitive functioning, and cravings and impaired dopamine function. In other words, electronic device addiction is really bad for you, but especially so for those with young, developing brains. As a result, children are suffering from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system: what is called electronic screen syndrome.

So, screen time is making kids moody, crazy and lazy, and it’s changing the physical structure of their brains. What else is new? I see the effects every day in the teens I work with. I see the fractured attention spans, the apathy, the poor focus, and the often explosive and aggressive behavior. I see it in the lack of respect, both for their peers and for authority. I see it as they walk along in the hallways with their heads buried in their phones. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

What can be done to mitigate the effects of screen addiction? Another study I found states that all young people can benefit from a tech fast (from gaming, smartphones, laptops, iPads). This means no interactive screen time for a solid three to four weeks. Refraining from tech use can help to restore sleep patterns, enhance mood and increase relaxation, contribute to better focus, and improve relations in school/work, home life, and social interactions. Reconnecting with nature and green spaces can also lead to increased physical activity, perhaps helping reduce the high amount of obesity running rampant across the country.

The problem, as I see it, is getting parents on board with the idea of eliminating technology for any period of time. They are often the worst offenders in texting their children during class, leading to the assertion, “Well, I had to respond, it’s my mom!” Bollocks. Parents shouldn’t be contacting their children during the school day; if it’s an emergency, call the front office to inform the student between classes, just like the good ol’ days. (It seems the parents need the break from technology as much as their kids do.) But if parents can be made to see the light, giving kids a sustained break from technology can lead to many rewards.

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Facebook as addictive as cocaine?

So there’s a study (published in 2014 but just going viral now) that claims that Facebook has a similar effect on the brain as cocaine. The study sample was just 20 college students from the US, out of 45 initially screened for inclusion. The method used was to scan the brains of the participants using functional MRIs, while measuring the responses to signs and symbols associated with Facebook. (PubMed Health, Feb. 2016) Apparently, the subjects reacted more quickly to Facebook symbols than to road signs. The scans showed increased activity in the amygdala-striatal area of the brain, an area of emotions and motivation.

The researchers said people in their study with low to medium levels of addiction-like symptoms “have a hyperactive amygdala-striatal system, which makes this ‘addiction’ similar to many other addictions”. However, they added: “they do not have a hypoactive prefrontal lobe inhibition system, which makes it different from many other addictions, such as to illicit substances.” (PubMed Health, Feb. 2016)  In other words, saying that Facebook is addictive like cocaine is a bit of a stretch, putting it mildly. The term “addiction” may not be the best to describe the situation as well, with the words “a strong bad habit” being perhaps more accurate in describing the responses.

Is Facebook as addictive as cocaine? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I would say that electronic device use in teens and young adults could stand to be studied. I observe teens every day that cannot go an entire class period without once glancing at their cell phones. No amount of shaming or consequences (short of removing the device from their possession) have any effect on the connected individuals. This is where the studies need to concentrate. Forget about Facebook use — try getting kids to go without Twitter, Snap Chat, Instagram, or texting for that matter. They walk in the hallways with their noses deep into their phones, looking like the Zombie Apocalypse has already occurred.

I do the best I can to set a good example by moderate, discreet use of my cell phone; you will never see me use my phone in a hallway, or in the library for that matter. I save it for lunch, and only if necessary, and only in my office. I get frustrated when teachers (or other adults) that I’m talking to whip out their phones in the middle of a conversation; with examples like this, how can I expect to reach my students? I realize that there’s a limit to what I can accomplish this way, but it won’t stop me from trying, and it won’t stop me from gently pointing out to my students just how ridiculous it is to have their noses buried in a phone all the time, and how rude it is to look at their device when someone is trying to talk to them. The end of good manners is a warning sign to our society (cue the political debates), but I will continue to be a one-woman crusade to save them. Someone’s got to do it.

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One Bad Tweet Can Ruin Your Whole Day

“Never let a 140 character tweet cost you a $140,000 scholarship,” tweeted Brandon Chambers, an assistant men’s basketball coach at Marymount (VA) University. Three years earlier, a potential basketball scholarship athlete had his recruitment brutally terminated because of his Twitter activity, which the coaches said “did not represent what the university was about.” (USA Today, Jan. 5, 2015) More and more, colleges (and businesses) are requiring applicants to provide social media IDs to better screen who would be the best “fit” and to evaluate character. Woe be to him or her who posts inappropriate material, whether offensive language, derogatory comments, or incriminating photos. “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences”, says David Petroff, director of athletic communications at Edgewood (Wis.) College.Teens need to realize and take responsibility for their online actions just as carefully as physical ones.

Many college and university athletic directors are using social media to check out the integrity of their potential athletes. It’s important to remember that once you put something out in the Twitterverse or on Instagram, it’s out there, it’s public. There are plenty of examples of celebrities tweeting something rash, only to have to retract it after public outcry. In the collegiate athletic world, you don’t even get that chance. (Pro football player rants abound, however–go figure.)

I have a moderate to low social media presence by choice. I have a Facebook page, Twitter (rarely use), Instagram (even more rarely), a blog, and a LinkedIn account that I haven’t updated in years. I post only those things that I could shout in church, and I’m constantly reminding my students to think before they send anything out onto the interwebs. If one bad tweet can ruin an athlete’s career (or any career for that matter), it behooves all of us to remind our teens of the calamitous effect of posting without reflection. (Of course, the whole “think before you speak/act” phrase has been around for ages…)

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Print books vs. digital — vindication!

I’ve long been a proponent of “real” books vis à vis digital editions, and I often feel like a dinosaur clinging to life as the earth crumbles around me. Print books are easy to hold, you can go back to a previous page easily, and they don’t require batteries, but e-books weigh less, take up less space in an airplane carry-on, and are easier to read at night without disturbing a partner. My husband bought me a Kindle Fire tablet, and while I have indeed read a book or two on it I mostly use it to access the Internet or play Angry Birds. (There’s a video on YouTube about how paper has a strong future, and it makes me laugh every time I watch it.) And in many of the journals I read (in print!) it’s all about one-to-one programs, more access to e-books, and increasing access to online sources. But now there comes a book that has found that young people, even those considered “digital natives,” prefer books over tablets. The book, by Naomi S. Baron, is titled “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World,” which is profiled in an article by Cory Doctorow, on the website “Boing, boing.” The book is an analysis of how we read and how reading is affected both in print or onscreen. E-reading, Baron argues, does not encourage the kind of in-depth reading that a print book does. Furthermore, e-reading lends itself to distraction and skimming, and multi-tasking becomes rampant. Baron “reaches past the hype of both sides of the discussion” in presenting what can be gained from e-reading and what may be lost by no longer reaching for a printed book. (Amazon.com, 2015)

Another article reviewing the same book is written by a reporter from the Washington Post, Michael S. Rosenwald. The article, titled “Why Digital Natives Prefer Print – Yes, You Read That Right,” touches on some of Baron’s insights on the surveys she conducted for her research. Interestingly, “building a physical map in my mind of where things are,” a reason given by one student as to why he prefers print, squared with Baron’s findings. (Rosenwald, 2015) Others mentioned the fact that it’s easier to find your place in a print book, and print allows for greater absorption of material.

So, to my great delight, paper books aren’t going away anytime soon, and the evidence is mounting that paper and digital books can co-exist side-by-side. This mirrors what I see in my library, as students vastly prefer reading print books over digital. They may have e-readers on their phones and iPads, but not a single one has ever come up to me and asked to add an e-book to the collection. My personal preference will always be print, even though I have been known to reach for a “classic” novel on my Kindle; the major reason I prefer print is, however, the fact that I like to re-read certain passages from the beginning of a novel when I’m almost finished with it. I will continue to monitor my students’ preferences and I’m open to purchasing e-books in the future, but for now, the printed word vigorously survives.

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Teens & Distracted Driving — It’s Worse Than We Think

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the problem of teens driving while distracted, either from passengers or from electronic devices, is bigger than previously thought. The study, culled from analyzing the six seconds before collision in almost 1,700 videos of teen drivers, used voluntary in-vehicle event recorders to capture the information. The Foundation discovered that nearly 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe vehicle crashes involving teens was due to distraction of some sort, almost four times the estimate from police reports. (AAA, 2015) The ability to analyze film in the moments leading up to a crash was cited as being very helpful in understanding what happened directly before impact, something that was impossible before having the videos. Another finding: teenagers, on average, had their eyes off the road for 4.1 seconds of the 6 seconds before impact. Good grief.

I’ve ranted about this before; adults talking or texting on their cell phones while driving irritates me no end. Teenagers on cell phones are even worse. The AAA study suggests that parents create a parent-teen driving agreement before allowing young drivers to get behind the wheel. It may also be worth it to invest in an app that monitors or even disables teen cell phone use while the vehicle is moving. Also, it would behoove adults in general to set a better example of not using cell phones while driving. Additionally, I would love to see legislation passed that outlawed all cell phone use in cars, hands-free included. But as someone pointed out to me, politicians are some of the worst offenders in talking on their phones when driving, so don’t look for any change in the laws anytime soon.

Am I being too cynical? Am I asking too much? I’ve been on the road countless times behind someone not going the speed limit and swerving in their lane, knowing they were on their phone and having it confirmed when I was finally able to pass. I consider myself a decent driver–I’m not perfect, and I struggle every day not to tailgate, but otherwise I’m pretty safe. I would never ask anyone to do anything that I myself am not willing to do; hence, you will never find me on my phone while I’m driving. I will keep ranting to my students about driving/texting/being on the phone and the importance of paying attention while behind the wheel. Maybe, someday, some of it will stick.

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iPhone separation and communication

Apparently, iPhone separation results in measurable negative changes to cognition, emotion, and physiology. To which I say, “duh!” I see it every day at my school, as kids walk in the halls like zombies with their faces buried in their electronic devices. I see it every day in my library, as kids text and tweet after repeated requests from me to stop. They can’t. I have a standing $10 bet with any kid to give me his or her cell phone for the duration of a class period. No one has ever taken me up on it. And now a study out of the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication backs me up. The study involved college students, but the same effects can readily be seen among my high-school students.

In a nutshell, the study determined that “the data showed that the inability to answer one’s iPhone while it was ringing activated the aversive motivational system (increases in heart rate and unpleasantness), and also led to a decline in cognitive performance.” (Clayton et.al., 2015). Additionally, the students self-reported raised levels of unpleasantness and anxiety when separated from their devices. Lastly, the study indicated that once a student was distracted by an external or internal stimulus, it took half an hour for them to return to task.

The study raises the question of how not being able to interact with one’s iPhone affects communication with friends, family, and care providers; they have problems communicating with others when their phones are out of reach. But I’ve seen it work both ways; I’ve already had attention not paid me by people I’m talking to due to them texting or reading text messages. This includes teachers, sadly. The school has a “no electronic device during instruction time” that is largely ignored. The kids are allowed to be on their phones in the cafeteria at lunch, but the phones come out in the hallways as soon as class lets out. Even kids who come to speak to me in the library will pull out their phone to look at it during our conversation, in spite of my requests not to do so.

I’m the self-proclaimed rule-follower at my school, and my students know (for the most part) that I won’t accept dress-code violations, hats worn inside, or cell phone use during school hours. I use humor as much as possible to deflect any back talk I may engender, and as I have told the students many times, I will never ask them to do anything I won’t do myself. You won’t see me in a tank top. My hat comes off as soon as I step into the building. And you will never, ever see me with a cell phone in my hand during the school day. Sometimes setting the example, however, is not enough. It’s very frustrating, and it’s very sad.

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Why teaching cursive still matters

The gig is up — children should still be learning cursive in schools. According to an article written last June in the New York Times by Maria Konnikova, children that formed letters in their own handwriting vs. typing or tracing them show connections to broader educational development. In other words, “it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.” Studies are showing that children who write by hand learn to read faster, show an increased vocabulary, and retain what they learn better. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain,” says Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. To me, it’s kind of like a body memory when you train for something over and over; in a stressful situation, your body knows how to react faster than your brain. By learning to write by hand, the brain is forced to recognize “messy” letters; being able to interpret all forms of an “a” for example, may increase the likelihood of recognizing the letter more quickly.

In free-form handwriting, the brain exhibited increased activity in three areas, an increase not seen in those who typed into a computer. But only the actual act of handwriting itself, not the observation of it, demonstrated increased brain activity. Children who produced text by hand generated more words more quickly, and they also produced more ideas in general. (James, 2012)

The benefits of handwriting extend to adulthood itself, as “not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.” (Berninger, 2006.) And things just keep getting better as we write our notes long-hand instead of typing them into a computer: “writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and re-frame it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.” (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2013.)

My own belief tends to uphold the opinion of these studies, that teaching cursive to children and making them take notes by hand produces both immediate and long-term benefits. I personally take notes much better by hand than by computer, and I usually write out all my papers longhand before typing them up. (Granted, I am a generation removed from easy access to electronic devices – I still prefer books over Kindles, I’m not attached by the hip to my phone, and I don’t need a constant blast of music in my ear from my iPod.) I was taught cursive from fourth grade to eighth grade (in a private Waldorf school in California); even my peers in public school were taught cursive. With today’s bipolar emphasis on standardized testing and yet producing creative, inventive individuals, teaching cursive can only provide a benefit to students both directly and with lasting positive effects.

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