Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sometimes Life Really Isn't Fair

It's not always teen angst.

The music students at our high school had been preparing for the winter concert for months. And this concert was a big deal. In the past, there were three separate concerts, for band, orchestra and chorale. Last night all three groups were to be on stage together -- and all the parents were there. It was a full and enthusiastic house.

The freshmen concert band was playing its second piece when something really odd happened. The district superintendent went onstage, said something to the music teacher who was conducting, and he brought the the music to an end. Then the superintendent announced we all needed to evacuate. About five minutes later, the concert was canceled. There was a nearby bomb scare -- not even related to the school -- but the police played it safe.

Our kids had rehearsed during three class periods yesterday, they were excited and ready to shine. Then, their big night came to a halt. Their frustration, anger and disappointment was understandable.

The concert has been rescheduled for early January. But in all of the excitement, I didn't think to watch the CNBC program on The Price of Admission: America's College Debt Crisis. Probably would have made me even more depressed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Take the Time to Look for the Essence of Your Teen

A lot of admissions-related news right now focuses on early decision and application procrastination.

Let's take a break from all of the college stuff and just spend some time marveling about our teens. I know that isn't easy, sometimes, when they don't accomplish tasks in our time frame, or don't clean their rooms as requested, or get a disappointing grade. It's time to take a few minutes to look at our teens, without the layers of our self-imposed expectations.

I think that if we are honest, most of us will be pretty proud and amazed that we have such great kids. We'll each find a different child after we've stripped away those things, that 10 or 50 years from now, just won't matter.

When I do this, I see a daughter who has good friends of all ages; is kind to children; enjoys music and wants to make it a part of her life beyond high school; can hold her own in a conversation with adults; has wonderful enthusiasms that make her happy; perseveres despite setbacks, and does so with a positive attitude; loves family traditions, particularly those related to holidays.

Here's to our teens! Here's to remembering what is really important, and also being understanding -- to ourselves -- when we revert to the traditional nagging parent. Of course, that is behavior we will try to overcome in 2011 even if we know it's impossible.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We Can't Talk Enough About Money

I recently attended a session at our high school given by a financial aid officer at a local college.

He reviewed a number of issues, including key points about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). New in 2011-2012 will be a major redesign of FAFSA on the Web (FOTW) that includes the ability to retrieve data from the IRS that may be transferred to FAFSA.

He also listed two other strategies for making college more affordable: accelerated learning (taking two classes each summer can shorten the stay in college by a semester, for example) and living off-campus, which enables the room and board costs to be paid monthly, rather than in a lump sum. Finally, he stated that students who have some financial stake in the process (even if it is just paying for books or personal expenses) seem to take their college experience more seriously. I can't verify that, but it sure makes sense.

Meanwhile, here's a nice tidy list of financial aid myths -- good reminders for those of us just starting to think about financial aid.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Wait is Over for Many, But Not All

I'm talking about Early Decision (ED) -- either a beautiful thing or a concept that has gone horribly wrong, depending on who's talking. As a refresher, if a student is accepted early decision, usually in December, it is a binding decision. Many experts think it is a good approach IF the college is the first, second and third choice and has programs that mesh completely with the student's interests.

Here's The Choice's take, The New York Times admissions blog by Jacques Steinberg. He is trying to give voice to all sides, including the college perspective.

If you read the comments following the Steinberg post, you will taste elation, relief, depression, perseverance. But one particular post touched me -- from a parent of a happy daughter who nonetheless worries that the college admissions process is sapping life and joy from kids.

"Our family is thrilled for her. She has worked so hard at so many things, and she deserves whatever validation she can get. At the same time, as a college admission consultant and a parent, I believe that the admission environment our kids are subjected to is deeply unhealthy. We are sliding further away from what should be our focus–our children’s love of learning–to a fixation on winning some prize.
Our kids are far too stressed, too unhappy, too pressured to be able to do anything for the simple pleasure of just doing it.

"I share my daughter’s joy, but lament the fact that it’s been mostly absent these past four years."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Can Education About Fears Lead to Higher SAT Scores?

I have no idea. But this site offers its subscribers excerpts from books (usually nonfiction)that it thinks look interesting. A book it just featured, called Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, by Taylor Clark, is due out in March 2011. As the publisher's marketing materials state, "Nerves make us bomb job interviews, first dates, and SATs. With a presentation looming at work, fear robs us of sleep for days. It paralyzes seasoned concert musicians and freezes rookie cops in tight situations. And yet not everyone cracks. Soldiers keep their heads in combat; firemen rush into burning buildings; unflappable trauma doctors juggle patient after patient. It's not that these people feel no fear; often, in fact, they're riddled with it."

The author says, "When you think about it, it's one of the great ironies of our time: we now inhabit a modernized, industrialized, high-tech world that presents us with fewer and fewer legitimate threats to our survival, yet we appear to find more and more things to be anxious about with each passing year. Unlike our pelt-wearing prehistoric ancestors, our survival is almost never jeopardized in daily life. When was the last time you felt in danger of being attacked by a lion, for example, or of starving to death? Between our sustenance-packed superstores, our state-of-the-art hospitals, our quadruplecrash-tested cars, our historically low crime rates, and our squadrons of consumer-protection watchdogs, Americans are safer and more secure today than at any other point in human history.

"But just try telling that to our brains, because they seem to believe that precisely the opposite is true. At the turn of the millennium, as the nation stood atop an unprecedented summit of peace and prosperity, anxiety surged past depression as the most prominent mental health issue in the United States. America now ranks as the most anxious nation on the planet, with more than 18 percent of adults suffering from a full-blown anxiety disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. (On the other hand, in Mexico - a place where one assumes there's plenty to fret about - only 6.6 percent of adults have ever met the criteria for significant anxiety issues.) ...And as the psychologist and anxiety specialist Robert Leahy has pointed out, the seeds of modern worry get planted early. 'The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s,' he writes. Security and modernity haven't brought us calm; they've somehow put us out of touch with how to handle our fears.

"Fortunately - and not a moment too soon - a flood of cutting edge research from psychologists, neuroscientists, and scholars from all disciplines is now coming together to show us what fear and stress really are, how they work in our brains, and why so much of what we thought we knew about dealing with them was dead wrong."

Now, I am not recommending the book; I don't know how much science vs. conjecture is used in the arguments. But as we go through auditions, standardized tests and hard physics exams, I must say I am curious about the content.

Thanks to friend and colleague Andrea Axelrod for passing this along to me.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reading the PSAT Scores

PSAT Update: the scores have arrived at area schools and will be reported to parents and students at various times depending on district and school policy.

Linda Auld, of Suburban Learning Center and a Mom's College Cram Course panelist, has some pointers to help all of us interpret the scores.

1. Look at both the Section Score (20-80) and the percentile score. The percentile will give you information as to how the score compares with other sophomores or juniors who took the test.

2. Identify some schools that you and your student may be considering. Are the section scores within the range of scores reported for accepted students? If so and you are satisfied with the score range, your student may need only to review test strategies before taking the next PSAT or the SAT. If not, you may need to consider whether you feel that a more intensive prep program would be worthwhile.

3. Look at the skill category sections. Are there specific sections that were difficult for your child? If so, practice should be geared to those specific areas.

4. Analyze the test question and answer section. Determine:
-- Did the student complete each section?
-- Were the incorrect answers on easy, medium or difficult questions?
-- How many questions were omitted? Were they easy, medium or difficult?
-- On the math portion, how did your student do with the grid-ins?

5. Look carefully at the test book. (If you did not receive it with the scores, contact your guidance counselor and ask for your child’s booklet.) Did your child use active reading strategies, such as underlining or note-taking? Did he/she eliminate answer choices by crossing them out in the booklet? Did he/she mark questions when uncertain of the answer so he/she could return to them if there was time left after finishing the section?

As Linda points out, "Careful analysis of the skill category sections will help you determine the type of preparation your child needs to undertake before the next round of testing."

Linda, thanks so much for these tips!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I Feel Guilty but Can't Stop Myself

Call this a "A Mother's Lament," sung in the key of guilt.

It's tough being a teen, and it's tough being parents who want the best for their children. By that, most parents mean a successful secondary education that can lead to many options for college and beyond. To most of us, "successful" implies great grades, superlative scores, extracurricular activities that demonstrate a passion beyond the classroom.

But there are days when I don't like myself: when I go on too long -- with a child who got it before I even raised whatever topic it was -- about some school-related subject. Or when I start obsessing (in silence) about PSATs and grades of a student who is conscientious and does make the effort.

Then I read about a new film, being shown almost exclusively at schools and community organizations. It's called "Race to Nowhere," and it looks at the question we're all grappling with. How do we maintain sanity and balance when kids are being pushed -- by schools, parents, coaches and their own inner drive -- to get into highly selective schools that may not even be suited to their interests and temperament.

The movie, by the way, was made by a mother who decided to start documenting kids' lives after her 12-year-old's stomachaches were diagnosed as being caused by school pressures.

I'd like to see "Race to Nowhere" but I am not sure what can be done about the pressures we're all guilty of placing on our children.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

We Just Think We're the Center of the Universe

It has been said, and I am sure it is true, that the East and West coasts are where college admissions takes on a life of its own -- as monster. In these two locations, the whole process transforms itself into a ravenous monster that tortures students and their families for two years or so, then consumes them in one mighty gulp.

Is it like this in other parts of the country -- or do kids, high schools and parents take a more reasoned, less frantic approach?

The New York Times' "The Choice" blog will help us see how students in another part of the country react to the pressures and fears through the posts of six Denver-area seniors. Here's background on the kids and The Times' reasoning behind this addition to its blog. I think this is one I'll follow. We could all use some perspective.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Our Kids Face A Different World...

But will they be prepared for it? More student loans because the economy stinks. Likely fewer opportunities for well paid jobs. A lingering sense that this was not how it was supposed to be.

Maybe these are morose musings on a Monday, but a story about cuts to language departments in colleges somehow reinforces my concerns. New students may no longer major in French, Italian, Russian and the classics.

We're at a period when knowledge of another language (or two) has never been more critical. At breakfast today, a friend suggested that our teen's best bet would be to take Chinese in college. I understand completely. But it seems that instead we are setting up our kids to be second class citizens in a global world.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

And We Think Our Kids Are Under Pressure?

Just to bring us all back to reality, here's an instructive and touching story about a young Chinese immigrant woman who hopes to get into college as a first step in bringing her family out of poverty. She has spent a good part of her life as translator for her parents: dad now unemployed, mom trying to bring in a little money through sewing and doing alterations.

Her current struggle, of many, is crafting her college essay. She is getting help through a tutor from 826 Valencia, a nonprofit funded by the author Dave Eggers that helps low-income and immigrant students improve their writing and helps teachers get their students excited about literary skills.

I read somewhere that some parents spend up to $40,000 on tutoring and various advisers to help their children get into the best schools -- whatever they are, right? I'm rooting for the volunteer coach and the young woman!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Parent/Student Prep for PSAT Results

PSAT results will be released soon. Are we ready? If the scores are strong, congratulations are in order. If they could be better, it is not the end of the world but a call to action.

Do we know how to react if they are disappointing -- and do we know why they might not be as strong as expected?

I consulted with panelist Linda Auld of Suburban Learning Center. She has some good suggestions for us, whether we're parents of sophomores or juniors.

"I recommend that BEFORE the PSAT scores come back you have a conversation with your child about the testing experience. Things to consider:

1. Did they feel rushed? (Even if they answered all of the questions they may have rushed through the ones at the end.)

2. Did they know what to expect or did some of the question types surprise them, particularly double fill-ins and quantitative reasoning questions?

3. Were there questions that they had no experience with before (particularly in math and/or vocabulary words that they had never seen before) and what did they do (guess/skip it)?"

Linda also suggests that parents consider these points:

1. What do you feel was the student's motivational level? Was your teen trying to do well or just going through the motions -- a possibility especially for those who had to take it on a Saturday morning.

2. What amount of prep work did your child do before the PSAT - did he/she review prep materials thoroughly or just give the sample booklet a cursory glance?

As Linda says, "Thinking about these things BEFORE you see the results can help you better evaluate the scores."

We'll be posting more thoughts about the PSATs in the coming weeks, so please watch for additional insights.