Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Low-Stress High Schools?

The NY Times ran an article on Oct. 29 entitled "Less Homework, More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress" about overachieving high school students and new programs to counteract stress in schools like Needham H.S.

I have mixed feelings about it; I would generally agree that it's a good idea to give students tools and tips on how to manage stress, but I don't know how effective it can be when overachieving students see it as just another mandatory thing they need to squeeze in with the rest of their activities.

Most of us can remember being in that situation - working hard in school, applying to college, taking AP classes, being on school newspaper, captaining a sports team, taking instrument lessons, trying to cram everything in, and make time to hang out with friends. An additional yoga class would definitely be compounding the problem.

However, it sounds like administrators might actually cut some of the standard coursework to make way for "de-stress" sessions, which sounds like a ludicrous idea.

“You run out of time,” said Max Hekler, an English teacher. “You can’t teach ‘The Odyssey.’ Something has to go."

I think students should spend their time learning things they might not be exposed to or learn later in life (ie, The Odyssey). It's a lot easier to learn how to deal with stress later in life than to take the time to understand the allegory in a major piece of literature.

I also tend to think that maybe "ignorance is bliss" when it comes to stress. Students might not feel stressed, but well-intentioned administrators may be labeling it as such and manufacturing it. It's like when a baby falls - it takes cues from the reactions of others to react and show signs of pain. If the adults are smiling and supportive, the baby is fine, but if the parents gasp and rush to their side to mollycoddle them, the baby senses something is wrong and starts to cry. Similarly, I didn't think high school was stressful because everyone around me (other overachievers) were also busy and on a path of achievement. I'm not sure if we knew it was stressful, or if that knowledge would have changed how we acted.

I don't know enough about these de-stress programs, but I hope they aren't inadvertently promoting a "wimpy" attitude. The article mentions classes that have no grades and not publishing the list of seniors and where they're going to college, both as a response to the stress that it causes among students (some of whom have lied about where they're going to college!?!).

But what about the kids that can handle the stress? Are they forced to take yoga instead of reading The Odyssey? Isn't high school a good predictor of how people will handle stress in the future? I feel like they might self-select out of situations if they don't enjoy it or can't handle it. What's next, athletic competitions where no-one keeps score?

My primary concern is that stress becomes an excuse for students and fosters the dangerous attitude of learned helplessness. I think healthy competition and busy schedules push students to learn valuable lessons like hard work pays off, discipline builds character, how bounce-back after failure, managing time and priorities, goal-setting, etc. I wouldn't want stress to become another "crutch" for students like some of the learning disabilities and ADD/ADHD have become in many cases.

Maybe I'm just being skeptical... After all, I think yoga is a great thing to teach young adults, and am a big fan of keeping things in perspective and taking a step back to reflect. Hopefully these programs become wildly successful at balancing achievement and stress, without softening these overachievers too much.

  • What do you think? Please comment...


Rob said...

I definitely agree with you in your skepticism. I doubt that what adults perceive translates well to what children percieve. Children are developing a baseline, and it's okay if the child's baseline includes what adults perceive as stress. It's another of those, things-were-easier/better-back-in-the-day mentality.

In any case, my general impression is that school administrators are terrible at determining the actual needs of students. Instead they project their own desires and attitudes onto the students. It's similar to how college administrators (who grew up in a very different society) go way overboard talking about diversity to new freshmen. There may be value in it in many cases, but for a lot of us who grew up in diverse places, however well intentioned it is, it has the effect of teaching people to see things in terms of race where previously they didn't, which is just the opposite of what is intended.

Anonymous said...

I (Max Hekler) was quoted incorrectly and out of context. I teach AP English and maintain high standards and defend my high expectations. My AP students have written 20+ essays per term. We read everything from Barthes and Kiekegaard to 5 Shakespeare tragedies, 5 greek tragedies, to "Heart of Darkness" and Crime and Punishment. Your callow assumptions based on a one-liner are offensive to my practice. By the way, after my course, students take 2 AP exams each. Of 28 exams taken last year, 27 were a 4 or a 5, 60% being perfect 5's. 14 of my students collectively exempted out of 27 college courses, If that is not a stress-reducer, I don't know what is!