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College Readiness through Great Family Dinners

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

“One of the most important things in my life as I grew up were family dinners,” said a friend who seemed to have amazing confidence, as well as the ability to navigate life with great intention, wisdom, and aplomb.

She said that each member of her family knew from very early on, that it was his or she responsibility to arrive at the dinner table prepared to answer two questions. The first was: what is the most important thing that happened to you today? The second was: what is the most important thing that happened in the world today?

You can imagine how the discussion that ensued helped to develop the family’s connectedness, but more importantly, each member’s 0wn agency and mindfulness. Each member had both the responsibility of observing and interacting in the world around him or her and the task of evaluating what he or she saw, and then the privilege of sharing that story with the others at the table.

An eight year old might say the most important thing in her life was catching a ball during the kick ball game at school. And the most important thing in her bigger world was that there was a visiting scientist talked about the properties of magnets in her classroom that day.

But by 11 or 12 he might be saying that the most important thing in his life was baseball tryouts. And the most important thing in his bigger world was that a gorilla had to be shot at the Cleveland Zoo or that Djokovic just won a Grand Slam by betting Murray in the French Open.

Such a conversation every night and being responsible for both your part and hearing what others have to say helps a student, an individual, learn to grow into and be comfortable with communicating and explaining a position or view, analyzing the views of others, and questioning the opinions of others. It might also stimulate curiosity and a search for more knowledge and deeper understanding of topics that come up. All of these skills are needed for a student who engages fully in college learning. And what better place to begin to develop and hone them than in the safe environment of a family dinner?

So let’s eat together more often. And let’s talk about our observations to each other. It will make your student all the more ready for college.

Be an Ally against Aggression

Friday, April 15, 2016

The teenaged student sitting across the desk from me says, “My friend was being harassed by some stupid boys in the cafeteria today. I am so upset for her. But also … I couldn’t think of anything to do to help her.”

I work with high school students by helping them to figure out who they are and who they want to be and what colleges might help them get to where they want to be.  Our college considerations can be categorized this way: academic match, professional opportunities available, social environment on campus that will shape events, and, for lack of a better word, temperament fit—is the campus atmosphere supportive, collaborative, competitive, mostly shaped by responders, initiators, that kind of thing.

Things like real time interpersonal aggression, though, do come up. A student will say, “My history teacher was picking on my friend today.” Or, “My dad was mean to my brother last night.” Or, “I am the only freshman on the team and it’s rough.”

Or sometimes we are answering college application essay questions, like Oregon State’s Personal Inventory question which says, “Describe your experience facing or witnessing discrimination. Tell us how you responded and what you learned from those experiences and how they have prepared you to contribute to the OSU community.”

That is when we both confess, yes, we know that being a witness to verbal aggression, and remaining silent is a tacit sign of agreement with the speaker who implies or states some damaging false assertion. Yes, we say, this kind of abuse is destructive to the whole social unit, whether it is a family, a classroom, a school, or something even larger, like a town or a country. But we both confess we often do what Kerry Ann Rockquemore talks about in her Chronicle of Higher Education article (1/13/16), we freeze when it is our turn to act as an ally. But we also agree that we want to and can work toward being a better responder, one that overtly supports the victim. We do not just want to apologize after the incident to the victim and tell him or her that we know they were wronged.

Professor Rockqueman was responding to a professional situation, which is different, but she encourages the by-stander to employ a technique called “OPTD--open the front door.” This mnemonic represents a set of behaviors for a by-stander who speaks up in support of a victim. It represents: observe (describe what you see), think (say what you think about it), feel (express what you feel about the situation), and desire (assert what you would like to see happen). “When you treat my friend that way, she is uncomfortable and I feel embarrassed. I would like you to leave her alone.”

Another solution, given that in such a heated situation it is too hard to think and it might be socially awkward to say so much, is, “I am not sure I understood what you said. What did you mean by it?” This might be enough to cause the offending person to think twice.

Dealing with this difficult circumstance is hard for most adults.

And we all know that recognizing the aggression is just the first step. But working toward allying with the victim is a step toward making a difference—to a friend, a school, a city, a community of others.

Jan Rooker, College Consultant, 4/15/16  #Teen #Bullies  

Solving “The Most Difficult Problems” ……at the end of a chapter, at the end of a test, at the end of the SAT

Wednesday, March 23, 2016
 We all know the kind of questions I mean. At the end of the physics chapter they might be called the “challenge problems.” At the end of a history chapter they are called “questions for further thought.” And in references to the SAT test I have seen them referred to as “the last three most difficult questions.”

These kinds of questions cannot be studied for ahead of time. A memorized formula or set of facts, alone, will not provide the solution. It is creative thinking that will be required to formulate a solution. Yes, you will be using rules and laws and facts you have learned in the past, but you will be required to use them in novel, creative ways. And this will require a state of mind that is fluid and relaxed, one that many test takers may not have by the end of a difficult test.

To understand the relationship between creativity and the state of mind one needs to be in to allow creativity to flourish is something studied by Dr. Heather Berlin at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She explained her studies to Kurt Anderson of “Studio 360” in a recent broadcast. Dr. Berlin did an experiment with rappers. First, the rappers had their brains scanned using a functional MRI [fMRI] while they voiced the lyrics of a memorized rap song. Then, the rappers were shown an image and given an fMRI while they composed lyrics to a rap song about the image. The second task required that the rappers come up with creative lyrics that: made sense (1), stayed on beat (2), and rhymed (3).

The fMRI done of the brains of the rappers while the rappers were generating the spontaneous, creative lyrics showed a decrease in activity in an area of the brain called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. This area is especially associated with a person’s “sense of self.” It is also associated with the “inner critic” and the “rules” that apply in society and thought. So it seems during the performance of creative tasks the area of the brain that controls the “self-critic” and the “sense of self” and the “rules” is quieter.

You have probably heard this state of mine talked about as “flow” or “being in the zone.” Besides being associated with creative tasks in the mental or artistic area, it is also often spoken of in sports performance. Sometimes during a creative process an individual says that ideas just came flowing through me or the ideas seemed to come from somewhere else. In writing, in particular, this openness and easy flow of ideas is often attributed to “my muses.”

In explaining this, Dr Berlin refers to a concept called “liberation without attention” where, because the sense of self and the inner critic are not attending to the process, the unconscious can step in and bring forth new ideas and connections. The unconscious is liberated to make connections the conscious mind cannot see due to the limits of the conscious mine which is less able to consider so many different ideas at the same time.

So how does this apply to the “the last three most difficult problems?” It is often when such problems are first presented that thoughts such as, “I have never seen this before,” or “I can’t do this kind of problem,” or ”We never studied this,” begin to form. And these are the kind of thoughts that pull you right out of the flow of creativity and back into the dialogue of the inner critic where you suffer a diminished sense of self.

Here is where you, the experienced test taker who has done diligent practice and preparation, can knowingly say to yourself, “No one has seen this kind of problem before. Let me just take a few minutes to understand the question and see if anything occurs to me. I think I did one similar to this in my last test.” This will keep your inner critic and the “rule inforcer” part of your brain quiet and give you the creative flow to possibly solve this kind of problem.

Jan Rooker,

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 a Thermometer

Thursday, February 18, 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!



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