Follow us on

Making a difference!


Charlie's Blog Spot

Be on the Field, Not in the Stands

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Several years ago I had a client who, when he came to my office each week, spent the first several minutes complaining about all the unjust happenings that had occurred in his life since our previous meeting. His teachers did not know how to teach, and, therefore, his test grades were low. His mother was sloppy and disorganized, and, therefore, he had to eat out all the time, thereby wasting his money. The students at school were lazy and left their lunch wrappers all over the tables in the cafeteria, and, therefore, there were no clean tables where he could sit to study or to eat lunch with friends.

One day after several weeks of this, I told the student a story. The story was about a soccer team. The members of the team were on the field practicing. Each day the coach gave the players directions about which moves to practice when their goal was to get the ball down the field to the goal and what moves to practice to block the other team from being able to move the ball in the other direction. Little by little as the team practiced they seemed to be getting better at moving the ball down the field, as well as better at keeping the other team from moving the ball the other way on the field. Meanwhile, other kids were in the stands watching the practice. They were watching the players on the field, and talking about the coach and his ideas, or commenting on the players. The kids in the stands said things like, "That coach doesn’t know how to coach. He should teach the team to use more passes, or more deception, or more maneuvers if he wants them to get the ball down the field." And they said, "See that kid over there, he can’t run for anything. The kid over there is so awkward. I could do a better job than that."

Where do you see yourself in this picture I asked my client? "I would be in the stands," he said. "Yes, you would!" And in the stands all you can do is critique the guys on the field. You can’t get any coaching. And you can’t get any practice. You can’t learn any new techniques. And you can’t learn how to get stuff done. And you can’t find out if you have what it takes to step up. In the stands is a very safe place.

"How could you be more on the field?" I asked my client. We talked a long time about the role he could take in his own learning, for example. If, in fact, his teacher didn’t do a good job teaching something, what resources did he have? There were the other students in the class. There was going back to the teacher for extra help. There were internet tutors like Khan Academy. There were other adults already in his life—parents, former teachers, older siblings, for example. There was the library with supplemental books, text books, and study guides. There was the possibility of asking for a paid tutor. And there was bearing down and reading and re-reading the text book. In fact, sometimes teaching yourself is even better than being taught. All of these could put my client more on the field than in the stands, where he would feel more like a victim and an onlooker than a player.

The next time my client came to see me, when he started to tell me about something unjust that had happened. I asked him if he felt like he was in the stands, again. And he said, "I kind of wish you hadn’t told me that story."

Next time you feel like something has happened to you, try to think about what you can do to put yourself on the field. Because it is always better to feel like you can take action to overcome a problem than to feel like you are relegated to being a powerless critical observer.

To Get into College, Be a Thermostat, Not Just a Thermometer

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

If you register the temperature and don’t try to do something about it when it is too hot or too cold, you are only a thermometer—you can record the situation but not change it. If you are a thermostat, on the other hand, you can call for heat or call for cool air when you sense that the temperature is not optimal. “I heard this admonition when I was growing up,” said a recent autobiographer talking about his childhood. Being a thermostat, his dad always taught, is the goal of life. It seems that Harvard University agrees with this criterion. See their recent discussion of what makes a good candidate (“Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” 1/20/16) .

Being a thermostat, not just a thermometer takes the kind of confidence that not many 16-year-olds have, however. For most of their lives they have been working hard to fit in, to first learn and then uphold standards—at school, in their families, on athletic teams and in their friend-groups. Asking a 16-year-old to look outside herself, identify an issue that needs fixing and become a change-agent is challenging.

But sometimes it happens. One of my student clients decided to help children who had to undergo chemotherapy. She saw, because of her hospital volunteering, that often these kids lost their hair and felt embarrassed. So she set to work collecting hats for the children. She asked sports teams like the Yankees and she asked celebrities to donate a hat. Then she asked everyone in her high school to donate one hat. Soon she was filling boxes and delivering them to local hospitals. And the National Cancer Society gave her an award.

A student, who lived in Massachusetts, spent time going to beaches on cold nights in October and November to search for sea turtles. Sea turtles on the East coast travel north for the summer to feed; then swimming south, many get stuck in Cape Cod Bay. Then the cold water causes their muscles to freeze. In the timeline of their species, the glacial creation of Cape Cod is recent. So, when their instincts tell them to swim north to feed, and then south for winter to reproduce, they get disoriented around the relatively new peninsula of Cape Cod. Working with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and the Gulf of Maine Institute, this student with others made and launched wind-floats to help track the ocean currents in order to predict where the turtles would wash up on shore at night.

More recently a student worked on an issue about which she wanted to know more and about which she could see many students in her high school needed guidance—the issue of teens not getting enough sleep. This student began an independent study to learn as much as possible about deterrents--such as, coffee, TV and computer screens, late-night eating--that hinder healthy sleep. She also did a survey in her school to see how many of her peers, unaware of sleep deterrents, were using them and getting less than optimal sleep. Finally when she made her presentation of the findings from the survey and research, she invited not only the independent study committee, but the high school teachers who teach health courses and the vice-principal in charge of curriculum. In the end the health teachers agreed to include her findings in a unit the following year on how to get optimal sleep.

Each of these students was exceptional in his or her ability to see and affect issues outside his or her own circle of life. Each was successful in bettering the common good. However, each of them did these things because of a developed interest in an area. If you are looking to explore areas where you might become a change-agent, start with your natural interests and look for projects there, look outside your circle of life, but not too far.. Do something like my varsity baseball player who painted all of the little league dugouts in his town. And good luck!

Nail Your College Essay—Write a Narrative in Your Own Voice

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Material from this article is copyrighted and may not be used without the author’s permission—October 23, 2015

One of the hardest things for most high school students to realize is that writing a college essay is not like writing a school essay. When you write a school essay you have a thesis or point you want to make. You prove your thesis by sighting supporting details. In the final paragraph you restate your thesis. Also use a formal voice, as if you were a reporter. In a college essay the goal is to tell a story—a narrative—about yourself that demonstrates some of your qualities. In other words you want to “show”, not “tell” the college about yourself. The essay will have a hook that makes the reader want to know more about what happened, it will tell your story, and it will sound like you, talking to, perhaps, your favorite adult.The following excerpt (Version 1) is the beginning of an essay with an authentic voice that tells an interesting story. Version 2 (below) is the beginning of the same student’s essay as it was revised by the student and her well-meaning English tutor. Read and compare them.

Version 1: Bart

“Well, at least somebody jumped the jump,” was the first thing I heard when I looked up from the ground on the far side of the jump and saw my friend, Marge.

We were at the Vermont Summer Festival and I was participating in my first real horse show-- riding Bart, that is. I had been jumping a 3’3” oxer. The jump was situated uphill, and you need a lot of pace to jump uphill. I had asked Bart to jump without enough pace and he had stopped short--unfortunately, I didn’t. I had catapulted over the jump.

My friend Marge who was watching from the sidelines laughingly said, “Well, at least, someone jumped the jump.” She was being funny, and in a way saying, it’s okay that you fell off. Anyway because my feet had hit the ground I was out of that class. But because I would be able to participate in another class, I got right up and right back on. That’s how it is with me.”

Version 2: Riding is My Favorite Activity

“I began riding when my mom gave me riding lessons for my sixth birthday. The riding ring is where you can find me on most Saturdays and Sundays, and every day after school. Becoming a horse back rider has helped me to learn many life lessons: perseverance, discipline and how to overcome set-backs.”

(What followed were paragraphs two, three and four, each respectively, about perseverance, discipline and overcoming setbacks. The conclusion repeated the ideas of the first paragraph.)

Which of these essays do you find most interesting, most lively, and most informative regarding the student who wrote them? Both essays reveal that the student is an accomplished equestrian but the first excerpt “shows” it, while the second essay “tells” it. The first one also shows through its voice that the writer is determined, spunky, humorous, not easily embarrassed and strong enough to challenge the will of her equally strong-minded horse, Bart.

The second, well, it shows she’s learned to write a “standard” formulaic essay. Put yourself in the role of an admissions officer. Will you be wowed by the authentic person? Or will you be wowed by the person who sounds like a five-paragraph student robot? Whom would you most want to admit?



Read a sample chapter

Price: $14.95
(plus $5 S&H for paperback)