Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Want Students College Ready? Let Them Miss Class

By:  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D

About 40 principals and counselors attended the Principals/Counselors at ED event held this week at the US Department of Education (there’s more about the event here), and had the chance to spend a day talking about how principals and counselors can work together to make sure students are ready to take on their roles as college students and workers once high school is over.

The day had some unexpected topics of discussion that were clearly related to the main point, including several conversations on how to instill the qualities, or character traits, known to make students make the most of college, and known to make workers invaluable assets to their companies. ​To the surprise of no counselor on the planet, these are the same qualities that make for healthy individuals who contribute meaningfully to relationships and communities, a reminder that the three main areas of a counselor’s work are not only interrelated; they are the same thing.

The aspects of preparation for life after high school that were covered include:

The nature of the assignments students are given  The work of keeping a college schedule together requires sound judgement, problem solving, initiative, and creativity—the same qualities needed to be an effective employee. If that’s the case, the assignments students are given in school should give them the opportunity to test drive these skills, see how they feel, and fine tune them along the way, with each assignment requiring a little bit more of the student to create the structure.

Some teachers are adept at doing this, but these assignments usually come as the dessert at the end of a heavy meal of lecture and multiple choice testing. If this becomes the main course, students are more likely to take the lead in their learning and in their lives, once they’re shown how to do so. As an example, telling students it’s important to be active citizens is one thing; giving them an assignment to do something for three hours that improves the US government puts their skills to the real test. Students want school to be more real. It’s up to us to deliver on that need.

The structure of the school day I used to teach math, and managed to get teaching assignments that never had anything to do with trigonometry. That’s a really good thing for my students, because even though I made it through college calculus, I don’t remember a thing about trig. I had Pre-Calculus every day after lunch in tenth grade, and since I tended to eat a little too much, most of Pre-Calc was spent in a, shall we say, quasi-attentive state of mind.

That’s just one of the reasons so many schools are going to rotating schedules, where students don’t have every class at the same time every day. It’s also why every class doesn’t meet every day—it gives students a chance to rest, let new ideas really sink in, and begin the work with new focus.

Combine that with the FLEX period presenter Scott Crisp has at his school, and things get really interesting. This daily open period allows students to get extra help in a class if they need it, or see the counselor if they need to— but students have to plan these free periods ahead of time. Managing free time is one of the main reasons students succeed in college. This schedule gives them a rare chance to practice that essential skill.

Don’t want to come to class? OK Scott’s school also offers about a dozen classes where students who are doing well in the class don’t have to come to class every day. If they’re earning an A or B in, say, History, and they have a Math test to study for, they can go to an assigned study area and do that instead. This leads to more practice in decision-making and time management, key soft skills for college and work.

Principals/Counselor at ED was an important reminder that counselors are an essential part of the leadership team that builds a college- and career-going atmosphere in their building. While some of that role involves delivery of direct services, much of it involves supporting other educators to create an atmosphere where the postsecondary skills are taught that make all the difference in a smooth transition to life after high school. That’s an important part of our work that deserves more attention.

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