Monday, September 27, 2010

Selection Month, Part 4

On Saturday I ran into a Casady mom at Krispy Kreme. She introduced herself and told me she had a 9th grade daughter. She shared with me that she had attended the Dessert with the Dean event on Wednesday with Maria Laskaris, Dean of Admission at Dartmouth College. What she took from that night was the importance of helping her daughter move from the "what" to the "why". Before her daughter decided to join a club or volunteer her time, she needed to explore why she wanted to do it. The mom then referenced Dr. Powell, and how on UD Parent Night, Dr. Powell explained to a room full of parents that in high school,the question that students learn to answer in their essays and writing is the "Why" question.

Too often, I think, we don't ask why, especially when it comes to our college search and final selection. We rely instead on US News and World Report and their ranking system to answer that question for us. It's a symptom, really, of a much larger, systemic problem. Too much of our curriculum is done to kids. As I've witnessed first hand, this pedagogical approach to education doesn't produce "autonomy, mastery, or purpose," to borrow from Daniel Pink's new book Drive. Instead this approach produces in our kids an unhealthy co-dependence, shoddy apprenticeship, and an anemic purposelessness.

I tell my 9th grade English students on the first day of class, for example, that I'm not going to answer the "why" questions for them. This is their education. Not mine. And though I will certainly help them in their exploration, I won't climb that mountain or dive into that oceanic depth for them.

This brings me then to what I most appreciated about my two full days interacting with Maria Laskaris. Beyond being an Ivy Dean, Maria is a mother, in fact, one of only three moms among the Ivy League Deans. Therefore Maria knows what the college admission process is like on the other end. She's been in the "other's shoes". She knows the anxiety that comes with not knowing whether or not the college will accept her daughter. She's suffered sleepless nights. She's calculated the odds. She's rehearsed the rejection speech to comfort her daughter. And she's had to deal with the vagaries of competitive college admissions. But what Maria discovered through the process that alleviated personal anxiety and made the process more enjoyable was realizing that her daughter's college thumb print was not the same as her own.

And even though Maria wanted her daughter's thumb print to match the one at Brown, in the end, she knew that her daughter's anatomical match was at Wesleyan. Now with her second child going through the college process, Maria has been able to relax and enjoy the match making process all the more, where her daughter's artistic thumb print will probably best match a school like Oberlin.

It's ironic to me, in closing, that a Dean of Admission at an Ivy School can understand more clearly than most parents that a college is not a match to be arranged, but a match to be made.

So let's not be afraid to ask why. And let's not be afraid to discover the answer that lies beneath and let that be the navigating instrument that leads us to our True North.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Selection Month, Part 3

My favorite movie of all time is Dead Poet's Society.

It's the story that inspired me to become a teacher.

On the first day of class, Mr. Keatings (played by Robin Williams), gives his students a lesson on literature and life that his students will never forget.

Too often we approach the college search/selection process from the Neoclassic School. We seek to do what is most linear (prep school - top tier college - high powered job) and logical (good college + good grades in college > good graduate school = good paying job.) We draw a graph and measure the college's merit in a formulaic way. The x-axis represents the college's prestige. The y-axis represents the college's ranking.

But what are rankings, really? Colleges know that rankings are like sex - they can help successfully market and sell their school. What US News and World Report: The College Edition is to seniors and parents is what Sports Illustrated: The Swimsuit Edition is to libidinous men. Moreover, rankings tends to underscore the binary way we view the world - there are winners and losers; successful people and unsuccessful people; BCS Bowls and Sun Bowls; championship banners and consolation ribbons. I would argue this dualistic worldview derives its potency from our Greco-Roman heritage. We've been conditioned to split the world into two halves and divide people into two categories. We do this in sports. In politics. In religion. In zip codes. In school districts. And on and on..

Now don't get me wrong. First, I love competition. I love winning as much as anyone. And I love cheering for a winner. The fact that my CU Buffs are riding a four year losing streak in football, for example, eats me up. And last year, beating Heritage in basketball - well, I'll be honest, it felt reaaaalllly good!

Second,I grew up in a logocentric family. My dad was of the head chief of our "linear Bottomly tribe" (Air Force Academy > Purdue University > Pilot). I was raised to use common sense and be prudent. I was also raised to understand the value of an education. But it wasn't rankings that ultimately determined my college path. It was a combination of personal reflection and family conversations about the realities we faced. On the reflection side, I realized I wasn't Air Force Academy material. I was a words and ideas guy. Not a numbers and graphs fella like my dad. At the top of my families priorities was affordability. They had invested in my college-prep education; I was largely responsible for funding my college education. Big loans, therefore, were not an option. It didn't make fiscal sense to spend inversely to what I would make professionally as a teacher (I knew early on that putting "Tolkien and Lord of the Rings scholarship" on my resume wouldn't put food on the table.)

Honestly, based on observation of our students, what disturbs me most about rankings is the way that they often stymie reflection. Not long ago, for example, I asked a really smart student, "Why are you interested in Stanford?" He shrugged his shoulders and responded, "Well, because it's prestigious and ranked high." I pressed this student a bit and he acknowledged that he didn't really know why he wanted Stanford, just that it was what anyone of his academic stature should consider.

Our headmaster, Chris Bright, cited in his last blog post an article by Mark Taylor, the chairman of the religious department at Columbia University. The article bemoans the fact that his students, who are like the Casady student I talked with, really don't know why they are at Columbia. Reflecting on this, Taylor writes:

In today’s market-driven economy we constantly hear that choice is the highest good and that competition fuels innovation. But this is not always true. Choice provokes anxiety and competition can quell the imagination and discourage the spirit of experimentation that is necessary for creativity. In a world obsessed with ratings, well-meaning parents all too often train their children to jump through the hoops they think will lead to success.

Part of the problem, I believe personally, is that we have as Wendell Berry puts it, "provided a cure that preserves the disease." We are so driven by success that we have forsaken the heart's deepest hunger, which is to find significance.

For Mr. Keatings, he understood that business, medicine, and law were all noble pursuits and necessary for culture to thrive, but he also understood that we are not robots, but that created in the imago Dei, we were designed with a restless soul that hungers for beauty and truth and relationships and love. Without this form of divine photosynthesis, we will dry up at the roots, wilt, and die.

So my challenge to students and parents as they come down the "September selection" stretch is not that they rip out the rankings from Newsweek. But that they use them as a starting point, not a stopping point. It's time then to do some real soul searching, reflection, and personal examination. It's that time to determine as a family how you measure and rank a school's value. Perhaps "alumni giving" is not as important to you as the retention percentage each year, or the graduate school/job placement percentage upon graduation.

In the end, I hope that you discover that the college selection process can be like falling in love. And when it comes to falling in love, there is no real science to it. When we decide whether or not to marry a person, we don't pull out our calculator or spreadsheet to crunch numbers and fill in cells with datum. We throw caution into the wind. We jump out of a window and yell, "Geronimo!" Because love, in the end, is a mystery. It can not be reduced to utility. The same is true with a radiant and dazzling college match.

I like what Jim Miller, the Dean of Admission at Brown University, tells prospective students about how to navigate the selection process. "Become a 'gutologist'," Miller exclaims, "in other words, go with your gut." I like that. And I would add this: It takes guts to follow your gut, but in the end, it's often when we follow our gut that we feel the deepest sense of peace in our own skin.

So how will you approach the college selection process?

From the Neoclassic School of formulas and graphs?

Or the Romantic School of feelings and guts?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Selection Month, Part 2

His name is Lloyd Dobler.

Who's Lloyd, you may ask?

He's just an 80's iconic figure from the movie Say Anything.

He's your quintessential existential romantic; an 18 year old who yearns for authenticity, and lives for the moment.

Ask Lloyd about his "future plans", specifically about college, and Lloyd says what all of us at one point have wanted to say.

Kickboxing. The sport of the future. You got to love Lloyd's honesty about his chances at "greatness."

But in all seriousness, we are all often like Lloyd in that we're far more comfortable telling people what we're against as opposed to what we are for.

Teens do this every day, right? They are against excessive homework, curfews, limits on Facebook, text messaging, and what they can wear.

The same is true when thinking about college.

There are the anti-Ugg boot'ers. These are girls primarily who are not opposed to wearing Uggs for style, but adamantly opposed for wearing them to stay warm. These are the girls that exclaim "Ugh!" anytime you mention parts of the country that involve snow.

There are also the BBB'ers. These are the fellas primarily (and girls) who are not interested in any schools that are not "Big Bowl Bound". If the college isn't competing in a big time, D-1 football conference, to be blunt, and isn't winning enough games to go to Tempe or Miami for the BCS championship, then forget about it.

Then there are the hobbits. These are your students who are not interested in any colleges that don't border the state of Oklahoma. For these students, "the Shire" includes Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. Flying is simply not an option. (ps. I love hobbits. They are my favorite Middle Earth creatures.)

And finally there are the SAT'ers. These are the students who will not consider a college that has an average SAT score below 1500.

Parents aren't any different, I've learned. They are Lloyd Dobler's in their own way.

There are those parents that will not consider any colleges whose team colors are burn orange or bright orange for that matter.

There are those parents who will not consider any colleges that Southwest Airline doesn't fly into.

And there are those parents who will not consider any colleges where the car decal sticker won't invoke oohs and aahs from onlookers in the neighborhood.

The truth is that all of these "anti's" are actually roundabout ways of identifying the college criteria that is important for students and parents.

It's okay then to begin with what you are against.

Eventually you will break through into what you are looking for.

I want a warm, Southern, rah-rah, Super Greek school.

I want an open curriculum where I can dabble, explore, and create my own kind of academic fusion.

I want to be able to jump on I-35 or I-40 and get home in time for dinner and mom to begin a load of laundry.

I want to study in Paris, work a paid internship, and write a thesis with a professor.

I want to play college athletics, but not at a school where sports will consume my life, but compliment my college experience.

I want to bleed crimson and cream - period.

I want to wear purple and learn how to make a horn frog sign with my fingers.

I want to know my professors, learn in small classes with a Socratic pedagogy.

I want to live in a big city with skyscrapers, long lines of yellow taxi cabs, and steam rising like mist above the crowded streets.

In closing, one question I find that helps students really clarify what they want to get our of their experience is this one:

When you walk across and receive your diploma, what do you hope to have experienced and accomplished?

Perhaps this is as good as any place to jump in over Chinese food or mom's famous lasagna.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Selection Month, Part 1

September is the month of selection.

Finalizing one's college list to be more exact.

I often tell my seniors: "You can choose where you apply, but you can't choose where you will be admitted. So choose wisely."

Last year our seniors embraced this guiding principle.

74% of the 343 college applications were deemed admissible by 110+ colleges and universities.

Many seniors were not only admitted to the majority of the schools they self-selected.

But they were also offered financial merit money to matriculate.

This year our seniors are off to a fantastic start! Many seniors have already finalized their college list. Others are getting closer.

Just today a senior came in and told me that he had spent the weekend researching and "soul searching" over college.

What he presented to me was his final college list.

The week before we had met and his college list looked like drip art, something of a hybrid between a Jason Pollock painting hanging in The Chicago Art museum,
and something my three year old would create if he were given goggles and a spray paint bottle.

His school list was sprayed all over the place, not just in terms of colleges, but types of colleges, from liberal arts schools to specialized schools, not to mention a panoply of college majors.

I shared my concerns. He listened. I told him that it was normal to be scattered, for the list to feel muddy and messy, and therefore emotionally to feel a bit overwhelmed, anxious, and bewildered. I reminded him that he had time for order to emerge from the chaos. For clarity to emerge from the convolution. And for confidence to emerge from the insecurity.

Somehow over the weekend, this student experienced a provocative convergence. Everything just came together in clarity.

Instead of 12 colleges. He now had 6.

Three colleges were "Likely" schools, two were "Target" schools, and one was a "Reach" school.

Pulling up his Naviance account - there they were listed under "Colleges I'm Interested In".

Looking up from my computer I could almost feel the palatable peace that had settled within in his own skin.

If there is one hope I have it is that I can help supplant a student's anxiety over the selection process with a sustained excitement for the application season.

In the next blog post, I'm going to explore the thought process that goes on in the college selection process. But not just the teen psyche. But also the parent psyche.