Sunday, April 21, 2013

JSA - The Guts and the Glory

My high school students participate in this national debate and civics organization - The Junior Statesman Association. For over 5 years I have been driving them and many other teens to conventions and congresses, beginning with John, when he was in 8th-9th grade.   Nora has also participated for 4 years and now Andy does it too!  Exhausting?  Yes. And, I would not miss it for the world.

I have seen kids get up to debate who never thought they could do it. Since kids participate from multiple NJ high schools, I do get to see them grow from freshmen to seniors.  What a privilege it is to be able to quietly catalogue a young adult's progress on the "JSA stage".

This weekend alone I saw a home schooled, novice, first-time debater win a best speaker gavel, a home school teen earn a prestigious, elected cabinet position (making history in the national JSA organization - congratulations Angela!) and a deserving Lt Gov race turn out well!  The most inspiring part, however, is watching those who did not win - those who tried but did not get the position they wanted.  They show grace and poise and wisdom well beyond their years.

Anyone who thinks that debate club is NOT a full-contact sport - think again.  These kids are in it to win it and they give it their all.  Bravery?  I can't believe how much courage they demonstrate, gutting it out to the end.

The life lessons in JSA can never be tallied up.  In fact, they are infinite.

Every time I get ready to head out to a hotel for 2 or 3 days with a pile of teenagers, I think to myself ...."Why am I doing this?  It so hard."  But then I look at what the teens are doing at these conventions ....and, frankly, I am humbled.  Plus .... I always have so much fun!!

This is a pic of Nora with the Mid Atlantic Region Lt Gov Cole Aronson, and Chief of Staff Allison Berger. Nora is Director of Financail Aid on the Lt Gov cabinet and she's had such an exciting year working with these outstanding statesmen !!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Race to Nowhere ??

Have any of you seen this documentary?  Race to Nowhere is a film about the pressure to succeed in high school in order to gain admission to a competitive four year college. It's primary focus is on the super-testing atmosphere and the demands of AP classes and extracurricular activities on the students and their families.

I watched it twice.  Each time I came away with the same impression.  The families and students interviewed seemed utterly unprepared for the competition they were in.  My 16 year old daughter watched it and had the same impression, stating quickly that most or all of the students interviewed extensively in the movie never should have been put into the pressure-cooker in the first place.  Her words:  "These kids are not equipped for high performance and should not have been put into AP classes or told they could get into Harvard or Stanford or UC Berkely, in the first place!"  I do agree.

The problem is NOT too much homework, as the movie suggests.  The statistics bear out the opposite - most kids in high school watch 4 hours of TV per day and play video games on top of this ....daily.  The problem is one of goal setting.   For example, my youngest child is not the athletic type.  Outdoorsy - yes.  He'd much rather be outside, no shirt, playing for hours, running and carrying on.  But give him a basketball or a baseball and bat?  It is not a pretty sight.  Would I ever put this kid in a competitive sport with a ball that had to be bounced, kicked, caught or hit with a racquet?  Never.  I have different goals for him - reasonable goals for him in the realm of sports.

This same kind of reality check needs to be done all over the country, when it comes to college preparation. After I sat through this whiny vignette a second time, I asked myself why in the world these parents were doing this terrible thing to these perfectly nice kids.  I have met kids who can do 4 hours of advanced algebra without complaint and then turn to the memory work needed to prepare for five different AP exams.  They are calm, driven and gifted.  I have also met kids who are completely lost (academically) most days.  Not only are they unable to handle the intensity of AP level work while balancing other commitments, they also have no idea why they are doing it.  They lack the big picture, they are not playing to their strengths and pushing these kids up the Ivy hill is just wrong.  But, I blame the parents, not the schools for this tragic error of goal-setting.

I thought the entire move reeked of this and it could have been more aptly named ....The Injustice of  Erroneous Goals.

I found this Washington Post article illuminating:

The reason these kids are sick, distraught, overwhelmed and failing is that most of the parents (not all of them) were oblivious.  The parents were all watching a train wreck take place in their kid's lives because deep down inside, they want their kids to keep up when they really should have encouraged them to slow down.  Then they blamed the system, the homework, the AP classes, the unforgiving and unrelenting testing.  But, parents ALWAYS have a choice.  Parents ALWAYS have the freedom to walk away. The movie was about the 'system' so I did not expect to see much coverage of home education.  But, to not mention it even once as a viable alternative?  It was an odd omission.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Chosen Few

This is the season when high school seniors find out who got in and who got injured; college admissions is a full contact sport and not for the faint of heart.  For the past two weeks, I've been hearing reports from both the happy and heartbroken in this take-no-prisoners game and I was reminded of T. S. Eliot's modernist epic poem, The Waste Land, because it begins this way ....

"April is the cruelest month ..."   The poem is 434 lines long, so I won't inflict the entire thing upon you in this blog.  (I love this poem and spent a full year studying it - not because I had to - just because I loved it.)

There are legions of disappointed high school seniors who would agree that April is the cruelest month.

I read the open letter from Suzy Lee Weiss printed last week in the WSJ and titled ...."To all the colleges that rejected me ...."

More interesting than the writer's sprightly message to the Ivy League schools that rejected her were the reactions from casual readers.  Some were deeply offended, some thought it hilarious, and some were alarmed.  I had almost no reaction to it because I have seen so many similar essays and articles in the past.  I remember racing over the lines in the article and thinking, 'yada, yada, yada.....'    The young lady does not cover any new territory.  She merely shines a light on the same old-same old.   If we hate what we see it because we hate it (in fact) or is it because it is true?  I do not know.

I do know that gaining admission to a very competitive four year college is a vulgar game where the stakes are high.  I would never pretend otherwise. Still, I play it.  I do this because in the past 5-10 years I have witnessed a huge national decline in well-paid middle class jobs.  Median American wages are stagnant and I think they are going to stay that way.  There is a shocking concentration of wealth at the top (America's richest 1% now possess almost as much net wealth as the bottom 95% combined.)  And it is only getting worse.  I do not begrudge the 1% their millions.  Kudos to them.  Also, I do not think that money can solve all of one's problems.  But, as I tell my kids, money will solve all of the problem caused by not having money. And, God will take care of the rest, if you let Him.

This article on the $$ value of an Ivy League education is a good read:

Here is a quote from it:  "Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are among the most expensive universities in the country, yet their graduates are among the five colleges with the least student debt.  This is the case primarily because grads of these institutions find good jobs and make enough money to pay their loans back.  In other words, degrees from these institutions are terrific values in the long run, even if they cost a pretty penny upfront."

I do believe that a degree from a very good university will keep paying off years down the road.  Additionally, these institutions are pipelines to power.  Don't we, as Christians, want to see more Godly men and women at the very highest echelons of society?

Schools with admission rates below 15% are not for everyone.  But, regardless of your student's aptitude, I urge you to reach for the best possible school within his/her reach.

My husband and I have four kids to get into college.  The first one made it through the eye of the needle.  Most importantly, he is happy.  He loves UPenn.    Next year, we'll see if my daughter's dreams will come true.   Regardless of where she goes to college, my husband and I know she will thrive.  She knows what hard works feels like and she is not afraid of it.  And, most importantly, she loves to learn.  Still.

So, although it occasionally distasteful,  I will keep plugging away, planning and seeking out unique experiences and opportunities, looking for ways to challenge.  And I will fall asleep and awaken each day with a prayer of thanks on my lips.

Final thoughts from  The Waste Land ....

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.