What I learned on my college campus visits

I was talking with someone this weekend, who told me that his three children did not undertake the traditional ritual of visiting college campuses before they applied but rather applied, got an admissions decision, and then decided to visit the campus as part of the final decision-making process. Now, I get that approach, particularly if a student is living overseas or does not have the time or the funds to see a handful of schools before applying.

Over the past several months, I’ve found our pre-application college visits to be incredibly eye-opening – and I think they’ve given our son some sense of these different campuses and what it’d be like to be on that campus for four years. I can’t imagine going into the application process without the information that we gathered during those various visits. These campuses are not “all the same” and therefore not worth visiting, as this gentleman told me the other day; to me they’re very, very different.

Now, yes, they’re not all that different when it comes to athletic facilities (stunning) and dining halls (with their innumerable choices). I was more interested in what I could pick up about the culture of each admissions office and, therefore, the culture of the college.

For example, on one tour, the admissions officer spent an inordinate amount of time on facts and figures as it relates to the admissions process – such as deadlines for applications – facts and figures that we could get online. It felt like a lecture, and I was reminded of our sour kindergarten orientation when we were told what forms to fill out and when. Contrast that visit with another during which the admissions rep gave an elegant description of the three “campuses” that students inhabit – the college itself, the city that surrounds it, and then a national/international context – all without a PowerPoint deck. It told me a great deal about the school, its beliefs, and its hopes for its students – and I can go look up the application deadline if I need it!

I appreciated the care that went into preparing people (such as the person that spoke about the three campuses) and materials for our visits. On one campus, we sat in an auditorium waiting for the info session to start, and running was a promotional video, its upbeat music soundtrack by various groups from the college.

There were wonderful unspoken moments on these tours too: At one college, in the wing where the office of admissions was situated, there was the college president’s office, right at the very front corner, the first office you saw as you walked in, the door to it wide open. That was a very obvious choice by the college to put that office there, and I loved the symbolism of it being front and center. (An added bonus: Stumptown coffee was served!) In contrast on another campus, our (poorly prepared) tour guide pointed to a window high on a tower and said that’s where the president resides. We squinted up at the window through the sunshine – and then hustled on to the next stop on the tour.

There were few moments of outright honesty and transparency during these visits, as colleges and universities pay a lot of attention to the story that’s told the moment that potential applicants land on campus (even if that story falls flat, as it did with our facts and figures lecture). Perhaps my favorite moment from one of our first tours was the care and attention that we got from a member of the college’s music department, outside the control of the admissions office. He’d just finished teaching, it was a hot and humid Southern afternoon, and he was sweating through his blue blazer, mopping at his brow. But that did not stop him as he excitedly walked us around the music building, up and down stairs, even interrupting a student’s lesson to intro us to the professor giving it. This music department tour guide was a wonderful mess – and it told me a lot about that department and how things might work at the larger college and the city surrounding it. Luckily, there were more unscripted moments like this during other campus tours.

The college application process can be stress-filled for high school students and their families, but the college visit part of that process is not at all, in my opinion. Each visit is like an archaeological dig, unearthing information about the college or university with each utterance from a student guide, with each dorm room selected to see, with each slide from the PP deck used for the info session. For me, these visits were a great kick off for the rest of process; they told me a lot about what turned out to be very, very different places.

I got the first pic from here. I got the second one here.

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More on AP classes

(I shared my AP course post from Jul 11 with my friend and former colleague Robyn Harper; here’s what she had to say about AP.)

Public schools (both high school and college) often have to compete with private school in a number of ways. Public school graduates often feel inferior to private school graduates, regardless of the actual performance of the private school or its students. In some places, public schools have to compete with private schools for both students and funding.

Of course, private schools must operate in a way that attracts new students to their doors, but I think it’s important to understand that because the general public tends to have a biased view of private schools as “better” or more “forward thinking,” the decisions that they make around curriculum truly do influence the public opinion and expectations for what “the best education” looks like.

While AP courses leave a lot to be desired, for a lot of students, including myself, the worst AP course available to me [in my high school] offered rigor far beyond what was offered in the standard classes. Not to mention there are still so many students that don’t have access to even those.

AP courses offer public schools at least an objective measure of equitable access to rigor that can serve as a starting point to address the deeper issues that you do in your blog. However, if private schools are changing the “trend” and AP courses are no longer seen as a mark of rigorous coursework, how do we expect public students (especially from underserved schools) to compete?

If the AP courses I took in high school were dismissed as not being good enough by college admissions officers, I don’t know if I would have gotten the acceptances I did. I’m not saying that I even passed the AP tests – just the fact that I took the courses and did well in them were evidence that I performed well in the most rigorous coursework available to me.

So while private schools may be better to hold themselves accountable to ensure rigor without AP courses, I still believe [these classes] set the tone for public schools that still need objective measures of rigor for both accountability and equity.

Perhaps it would be important then for private schools who do choose to move away from AP to also take up the responsibility of developing and testing a measure of rigor to share with everyone else.

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Getting rid of AP classes

Last month, I read this opinion piece in the WaPo, in which eight DC area private school heads state that “we will better equip our students for further study and for life beyond the classroom by eliminating AP courses from our curriculums entirely by 2022.” I agree with them – that in this day and age, an Advanced Placement class, with its emphasis on breadth of knowledge and not depth, is out of line with a 21st century education. But I was also discomforted by what I read. These highly prestigious and sought after DC independent schools can do whatever they want when it comes to curriculum, and while it might impact the kind of courses offered, the curricular approach of any of these schools, it will not impact their admissions numbers or bottom line. People will still form a line around the block to apply to and, each applicant hopes, get into them. In short, this is an easy decision for them to make.

But it’s not an easy decision for less prestigious private schools or, for that matter, public schools, particularly those that serve historically underserved young people. A rigorous curriculum should be the hallmark of any school – should be a requirement for any school – and since the early 1950s, when AP was first introduced, a school’s slate of AP classes have epitomized that. More often than not, they were the hardest classes in any school, taught by the best teachers, with students in them who were preparing for college and college-level work. And as this one-pager from the Alliance for Excellent Education states, “National and international research finds that a challenging academic curriculum is one of the most powerful levers to boost student learning and narrow achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.”

So, yes, there are complaints about Advanced Placement, as many have written before me: That the courses are not like college courses; that students no longer get college credit for taking them and making a score of a 4 or 5; that more and more students, prepared or not, are being pushed into them, resulting in poor scores on the AP test and a poor course experience for all; and that minority students do not enroll in these classes like their white peers. But while I applaud these private school leaders for taking a stand and for moving their schools beyond Advanced Placement, this kind of action needs to be more carefully considered for other school settings. At schools such as Sidwell and Maret and Holton-Arms, there is significant rigor in classes that are not AP; that may not be true in a more typical school setting, with AP still setting that bar.

Therefore, getting rid of your AP courses? OK, cool. How then will rigor be an everyday part of other classes at your school or in your school district? (In fact, how is it now, even with your AP classes?) How will you ensure that all students will be able to access these classes – and that there is the preparatory classes in elementary and middle school, to prepare all students for rigorous high school classes? And how will you communicate to post-secondary institutions what you’re doing, so that they know about this change and what classes will now set the highest bar for students?

I got the above image here.


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#Neuromyths – or There is No Right Brain/Left Brain

I overheard someone the other day talking to a companion about my “right brain” and was struck by how much detail this person went into – detail that is, scientifically speaking, completely untrue. The left brain/right brain dichotomy that we ascribe to learners and learning typically translates into people think you’re left-brained if rational and objective or right-brained if intuitive and creative. Well, no, the brain does not work that way. It’s a neuromyth, which is a common misconception about the brain and brain research that we often ascribe to people and learning.

I touched on this issue in a post back in June. What are some other common neuromyths?

  • A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards.
  • Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.
  • We only use 10% of our brain.
  • The eating of sugar has a detrimental impact on attention.
  • Playing brain-training games can help improve your memory, concentration, or intelligence.
  • Brain development is finished by the time children reach puberty.
  • Learning happens when new cells are added to the brain.
  • Listening to classical music increases a child’s reasoning ability – also called the Mozart Effect.

You can find more. Just Google “neuromyth.”

Now, why bother worrying about this stuff? Well, there are teachers that hold on to these myths, even though they fly in the face of the research. This 2012 study conducted in the UK and Netherlands showed that 80% of teachers believed in the left brain/right brain and learning styles myths. Think of the impact that those beliefs have on teaching, on how a classroom is constructed to be the most effective for students. Think too about how teachers might categorize students. That person that I overheard talking about his “right brain”? Did he have a teacher that put him in that bucket many years ago and he’s been there ever since, no matter that those buckets are not based in fact and research?

Let me try and end this quick post more positively: Teachers that are well versed in the science of learning, that understand their students neuro-developmentally – it is they that will be more effective than those that do not. But understanding is just one important step. Crafting a classroom and pedagogy that align with this understanding is a next step – and a much more critical one – and arming students with knowledge about their own neuro-development is an important part of this work. There is a lot of talk these days about student agency, and to me the ultimate student agency is knowing how the brain, the organ of learning, works best.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.


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She lived an extraordinary life

My mother-in-law died last week, and I miss her very much. Hard to imagine this world without her. Read my wife’s tribute below, and you will miss her too.


Truda Cleeves Jewett died peacefully at home on October 18, 2017. She lived an extraordinary life.

She answered to Truda, T., or Mom. Occasionally to T-Bone. She spent her childhood in Marblehead, MA, Keeseville, NY and Fort Myers, FL. She was the oldest of six siblings, whose bonds were forged through love and solidarity mixed with considerable mischief.

In Marblehead, T. shared a love for sailing and racing with Link Jewett. Their meeting — on a boat, of course — was inevitable. They married in 1954. In Link, T. had found a partner whose sense of curiosity about the world and love for travel aligned with her own. At the same time, he was her lighthouse, giving her the bearings to explore ever farther afield yet always find her way back to safe harbor. T. and Link spent the early years of their marriage in Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC. In DC, T took up golf and within months became women’s champion at Congressional Country Club, a title she held for three years running. They moved in 1963 to Darien, CT, where they raised their two daughters, Lisa and Lolly, and have remained since. Between them they logged countless hours and nautical miles on successive powerboats, Sam Cat and Sam Cat II.

From an early age T. had a mind of her own, along with the daring and adventurousness to put it to good use. She traveled to dozens upon dozens of countries around the earth — throughout Europe, Eurasia, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, including Cuba, Burma, Tibet, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Zimbabwe, Russia and Georgia. Among these ventures was an epic trek in the early 1970s to the Mount Everest base camp, where she tested her endurance and forged some of her closest lifelong friends. She especially adored Mexico and India, whose bright colors, tastes and sounds complemented her own spirit.  She also traveled throughout the U.S., seeing much of it from the decks of boats large and small, cruising on oceans, lakes, rivers and inland waterways.

In the 1970s, T. channeled her talents through a camera, winning multiple awards for her distinctive black and white images and, with her business, Jewett Photography, capturing portraits of many families in Darien and the surrounding communities.

T. considered herself a loyal Bostonian, but New York was unquestionably the city that most captured her imagination and matched her own energy. She plugged into the city through a small and much-loved studio apartment on the east side of Manhattan; through the arts, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the ballet, and the museums, not to mention Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway; and through work — primarily raising millions of dollars in funds to support New York’s youth. She served as executive director of the Coro Foundation, director of development at the Children’s Aid Society, and as a consultant to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. In the midst of this, she earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

She proudly served as a trustee on the boards of the New Canaan Winter Club; the Darien Library; Kimball Union Academy; Outward Bound; the National Theater of the Deaf; the Vietnam Children’s Fund in Hanoi, Vietnam; the Edwin Gould Foundation; the American Farm School in Thessaloniki, Greece; the Morgan Stanley Smith Barney Global Impact Funding Trust; Wireless Generation; the Harvard Alumni Association; the Harvard Club of New York; and National Public Radio’s Story Corps.

Even more impressive than her professional accomplishments was her gift with people. She knew intuitively how to make whoever she was with feel special. She could carry on an engaging conversation with anyone, whether a world-famous composer, an elementary-school nephew, the President of the United States, or the checkout cashier at her favorite grocery store. Indeed, she took countless young people under her wing, getting them started in new areas of interest, academic pursuits and careers.

Her secret superpower was persuasion. At one time or another, she has convinced everyone who knew her well to do things they didn’t believe they had in them. Sometimes she convinced them to do things they suspected did not constitute good judgment. But if only for the stories they lived to tell, rarely did anyone regret following her lead.

If a legacy of stories is the mark of a life well lived, then T. built up a full library. A 1960s-era red Volkswagen camper bus was the focal point for several of these accounts, even though T. complained affectionately that “you couldn’t get that bus to go faster than 45 if you threw it out of an airplane.” The camper served as a refuge when, during a roadtrip with a gaggle of kids, nieces and nephews, the extended family got kicked out of a fleabag hotel for jumping on the beds. (For the record, the kids got some good air.) There were also several rollicking cocktail parties for which guests received formal invitations to fancy Park Avenue addresses. When the guests arrived, the white-gloved doorman — who was in on the scheme — would usher them into the VW bus that would be parked on the street out front and spilling over with revelers.

There was the visit to the island castle of  Mont St. Michel in Brittany, France, when T. and Lolly, absorbed in an exhibit in the early evening, got locked in a museum. They made a Hollywood-worthy escape that involved climbing through a medieval window and scaling treacherous rocky ledges. Or the trip in a rental car through the Yucatan when, amidst snorkeling sunburns and fresh conch ceviche, T. decided it was high time for Lisa, then 12 and barely tall enough to see over the dashboard, to learn to drive a car. On the highway. With her panicked younger sister in the backseat. Or even four years ago, when T. took her then preteen grandson, Charlie Oakes,  on a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2. Just the two of them. They had a glorious time. Back stateside, though, the one and only communication that Charlie’s anxious parents received during the entire crossing was a pre-departure photo from their stateroom of Charlie giddily quaffing champagne.

T. designed legendary scavenger hunts that had friends and family scouring much of Fairfield County for clues and bragging rights. She and her sister Lynn perfected pitch-perfect loon calls to round out family reunions on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. At Christmas time, there were conga lines around the house to the song Feliz Navidad. Wherever she went, there were gales of laughter. She brought great joy and inspiration to everyone she touched.

T. is survived by her husband, Charles Lincoln (Link) Jewett, her daughters, Lisa Jewett and Laura (Lolly) Jewett, her sons-in-law Joseph Remski and Abner Oakes, her grandson Charles Jewett Oakes, her sister Susan Ard, and her brothers David Cleeves and Michael Barba. Her sisters Lynn Simard, Gretchen Raskin and Helen Fuller pre-deceased her.

The family extends particular appreciation to Loly Jones, Wendy Hlongwane, Joyce Ayensu, Marlene Spahr, and Purity Manyara, who provided invaluable care and friendship to T. in her final months.

Donations in T.’s memory may be made to NYC Outward Bound Schools, the American Farm School, National Public Radio’s Story Corps, Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, the Children’s Aid Society, or another of the organizations that she so loved.

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Brain-informed teaching and learning

The Brain and Language Lab for Neuroimaging at DC’s Gallaudet University .

I get to do a whole variety of things at my work, and some of the most interesting is related to the science of learning – another phrase for brain-informed teaching and learning. Over the past year or so, we’ve visited some of the university sites that’re doing research in this field, such as the Science of Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins. We’re blogging about it, I had the chance to do a SXSWEdu session with researcher David Yeager, and in November we will have a meeting here in DC about it, bringing together researchers, practitioners, and policy makers so that they can share ideas about this multi-faceted subject and come to common understandings and ways of working together. As we have talked with researchers, for example, we have discovered that the translation into practice is not always a focus; Hopkins is a place where they are persevering to make that happen.

So, what’s this all about, this science of learning? In short, it’s applying what we know about the human brain and its development to teaching and the classroom; it’s aligning where students are neuro-developmentally with instruction. Glenn Whitman, who directs the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, MD, said it rather nicely when I went out there for a visit. I forget the exact quote, but it was something like this: That a teacher has 20 brains in that classroom, not just 20 kids, and it doesn’t make sense for a teacher not to know what’s happening in those brains. Optimal learning can only happen with that understanding.

The Center For Transformative Teaching & Learning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School.

But a lot of classroom instruction is not very brain-aligned. Here’s one example from Dr. Bruce Perry:

Learning requires attention. And attention is mediated by specific parts of the brain. Yet, neural systems fatigue quickly, actually within minutes…[and] neurons become “less responsive”…Only four to eight minutes of pure factual lecture can be tolerated before the brain seeks other stimuli, either internal (e.g., daydreaming) or external…If the teacher is not providing that novelty, the brain will go elsewhere. Continuous presentation of facts or concepts in isolation or in a nonstop series of anecdotes will all have the same fatiguing effect – and the child will not learn as much nor will she come to anticipate and enjoy learning.

Now, I was certainly guilty of this heaping on when I was teaching, and as we are discovering in our work at the Alliance, there are not many teacher training programs that connect pedagogy to neuro-development. All the more reason for shops like Glenn’s, that works with teachers to transform their practice to be more brain-informed.

I have just scratched the surface; there’s a great deal of information out there for further reading. For example, see Paul Tough’s book Helping Children Succeed; in its beginning he discusses historically underserved children and the impact of their sometimes tumultuous home life on later school success:

Part of the evidence supporting this belief comes from neuroscience and pediatrics, where recent research shows that harsh or unstable environments can create biological changes in the growing brains and bodies of infants and children. Those changes impair the development of an important set of mental capacities that help children regulate their thoughts and feelings, and that impairment makes it difficult later on for them to process information and manage emotions in ways that allow them to succeed at school.

Or get on Twitter, punch in #neuromyth, and stop talking about “left brain” and “right brain” or “learning styles.” Just two examples of many neuromyths that continue to have legs. Or see Benedict Carey’s book How We Learn, in which he praises the research around distraction – that effective studying is not closeting yourself in a room for eight hours straight, grinding through your Psych 101 textbook.

Distraction is one of those things everybody is worried about – certainly every parent, with the iPhones and people jumping on Facebook and so on. And of course if you’re spending your entire time tooling around on Facebook, you’re not studying, so that’s a problem…However, there’s a whole bunch of science looking at problem-solving. In problem-solving, when you get stuck, you’ve run out of ideas, distraction is really your best friend. You need to stand up, let it go – walk around the block, go to the cafe, drink a beer, whatever it is – and that is really your best shot at loosening the gears a little bit and allowing yourself to take a different and more creative approach to the problem.

I know, I know: I feel like I’m at the blackboard again during my third period English class, just filling it with ideas, from me and my students. Too many much, as we say in our house, and certainly not very brain friendly. I am all over the place.

Well, I’ll end with this: We know more and more about how the brain works when it comes to learning. How do we ensure then that teaching and classrooms and schools align with what we are discovering?

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