Thursday, February 20, 2020

Anxiety among high school students

TL;DR: Today's high school students suffer anxiety brought on, in part, by always being connected on their phones and by a perpetual need to know what their grade-in-progress is right now. I actively remediate against both of these things, but my methods are frowned upon.

We tend to imagine ourselves the heroes of the movies we live our lives in. And those of us with blogs rarely hesitate to trumpet our own heroism. (That includes virtually everyone on Twitter, the microblogging site where virtue signaling is like oxygen.) As a publisher of a blog and someone with a Twitter account, I am in no position to hold myself above the crowd.

The theme of a recent faculty in-service session for the faculty of my school was anxiety among high school students. Counselors hoped to raise awareness and broadcast availability of services.

One potent source of anxiety was that students were constantly on their phones, connected to social networks that functioned as stock markets, chronicling the ups and downs of their individual social status.

I bit my tongue. I had a suggestion, but it would not have been welcome in this setting. This setting was to paint the picture of how bad things are for today's high school students. The aim was for recognition and accommodation. The problem was described as too pervasive and universal for remediation or solution.

Another stressor was the constant obsession with academic grades. Students and parents are in a state of perpetually refreshing their online grade book page to see if the latest assignment's score raised or lowered their grade-in-progress.

I bit my tongue again. Had the biting been literal instead of figurative, there would have been blood.

In my classroom, I do not ask students to refrain from phone use. I physically separate students from their phones as a matter of classroom policy. Violators are assigned Saturday School. That is my in-class, temporary remedial effort to alleviate phone-based anxiety during instruction.

Students hate it. My enrollments have suffered. Colleagues won't do it. Many teachers never want to be cast as the bad guy in their own classroom. So they beg/plead/bargain with students, who deploy the full measure of their genius to stealthily maintain their ongoing phone activities while instruction plays out around them. I cannot change my colleagues, but I also cannot allow my classroom to be another phone zone. I have a finite number of minutes to teach a difficult topic, so I'll don the black hat.

When I began teaching in 1986, we tendered grades four times a year. That evolved to six times. That, in turn, evolved into eight. Every increase in frequency was heralded as a solution that would lead to better student performance. In my personal experience, the actual outcome has been the diametric opposite.

With the advent of online student information systems (SIS), there is an expectation of daily grades-in-progress updates.

But I don't use my district's online grade book. I do not post daily updates to the SIS. I post updates at the district-mandated grading interims, eight times a year. (I prefer Excel over the online grade book; I can bend Excel to my will, and I like math. To me, the online grade book is a horrendous kludge.)

So when we learned that a source of student anxiety was their constant need for grade updates, I might have raised a hand and described how I didn't play into that practice. But doing so would have cast me as the jerk. Counselors and parents, too, want up-to-the-minute grades-in-progress. I make my students wait a month (a month!) between grade updates. What kind of luddite barbarian am I?

Of course, there are some who would argue that I'm actually precipitating anxiety through my solutions. While separated from their phones during instruction in my class, students might not be able to think about anything except when they will be reunited with their phones. And two weeks into that one month eternity between grading updates, students could be wracked with anxiety over what their grade has progressed to.

If this is the case, it's a Kobiyashi Maru. I have chosen one losing path while others choose another.