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Math is at play in every sphere of our lives, from recipes to internet security to the electoral college. But that reality can be hard to convey through the drills, static numbers and strict rules that make up so much of K-12 math education. Educators have made strides to engage students through math. One way to bring the subject to life, according to a math research organization, is through literature.

“Mathematics is very creative and playful and joyful,” says Kirsten Bohl, a spokeswoman for the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. “Books connect with that sense of wonder and imagination and creativity.” 

To spotlight such books, MSRI created the Mathical Book Prize in 2015. Each year a panel of librarians, teachers, mathematicians and early childhood experts selects winners and honor books in five age categories. This year’s picks brings the full Mathical list to more than 50 titles that cross genres and formats, including picture books, graphic novels, biographies, and young adult novels.

What matters most, according to Jordan Ellenberg, co-chair of the selection committee, is that the books succeed in communicating mathematical ideas or problems and also succeed as great books.

“Anybody can stick a lot of math in a book,” says Ellenberg, a University of Wisconsin professor of math who also holds a master’s degree in creative writing. “If it’s a bad book, it’s not going to interest kids.”

The committee also looks for books touching on a range of interests. “A lot of kids don’t think of themselves as math people, but the intention of the award is to help kids understand that math is for everybody,” says Bohl.

Below are 10 books on the Mathical list, including this year’s winners.

Baby Goes to Market
Written by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank
2018 Mathical prize winner

At a Nigerian outdoor market, Mama shops while Baby attracts edible gifts from the vendors. Baby eats one of each treat before adding the rest to the basket. When the basket gets heavy, Mama hurries home to feed “Poor Baby!” who’s “not had one single thing to eat.” According to Ellenberg, the math in a children’s book need not be announced in the title, but children should be able to recognize that it’s happening. For example, Fran Wilson, one of the other judges, shared that second-graders in her classroom pointed out the subtraction at play in Baby Goes to Market without her prompting. “That’s a sign of a real winning book,” says Wilson.

Have You Seen My Dragon? By Steve Light
2015 Mathical prize winner

A child narrator searches high and low for his pet in this multilayered counting book. Children will enjoy spotting the roving dragon amid a richly detailed, pen-and-ink cityscape. They will also practice counting via a set of objects featured in spot color on each spread: two hot dogs, five water towers, 12 pigeons, and so on — up to the 20 lanterns in a final scene where the child and dragon are reunited.

Sheep Won’t Sleep: Counting by 2’s, 5’s, and 10’s
Written by Judy Cox, illustrated by Nina Cuneo
Grades K-2
2018 Mathical prize winner

Clarissa tries all the usual tricks for falling asleep, including counting sheep. When that fails, the sheep suggest counting alpacas — this time in pairs. When that also fails, the alpacas recommend counting llamas — by fives. As the trend continues, Clarissa’s room fills up with woolly animals in bold colors and patterns. The comical storyline and bright illustrations will engage early elementary schoolers as they practice advanced counting skills.

Absolutely One Thing
By Lauren Child
Grades K-2
2017 Mathical prize winner

Big brother Charlie guides little sister Lola through the rules of numbers as they trek to the store to pick out a toy. Younger readers will enjoy correcting Lola’s faulty number sense, while older readers can join Charlie in embedded calculations, such as: how many stickers does Lola have left after sticking five on the pavement, three on a tree, two on her shoes, one on her brother and one on the dog? (Answer: zero.) Although the pages are chock full of digits, a well-paced plot, sibling humor and funky illustrations make for a breezy read.

A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars
Written by Seth Fishman, illustrated by Isabel Greenberg
Grades 3-5
2018 Mathical prize winner

How do you convey the immensity of numbers like three hundred seventy billion billion? Writing 37 followed by 19 zeros likely won’t do the job. Instead, this book uses awe-inducing facts from the cosmos (a hundred billion trillion stars in the universe) and the ground beneath our feet (10 quadrillion ants on Earth) to explore scale and estimation. According to Ellenberg, literature can’t replace classroom instruction in the practice of math but books like this one can spark a “dizzy excitement” that’s also important to the learning process. “You can tell a kid there’s no largest number,” he says. “If they can feel it, that’s a different story.”

Secret Coders #1: Get with the Program
Written by Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Mike Holmes
Grades 3-5
2016 Mathical prize winner

Hopper knows there’s something strange about her new school. When she and basketball star Eni team up to find out what, things turn out weirder than she imagined. Readers are introduced to the principles of programming through logic puzzles, a robotic turtle and creepy birds in this adventure-filled graphic novel from the 2016 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The book is the first in a series. Mathical also offers an educator tip sheet for Secret Coders.

Giant Pumpkin Suite
By Melanie Heuiser Hill
Grades 6-8
2018 Mathical honor book*

In addition to presenting calculations, figures, and puzzles, another way for a book to be mathematical is by portraying characters who love and practice math. In Giant Pumpkin Suite, math and cello enthusiast Rose deals with literal and figurative growing pains as she joins her shorter, nonmusical twin brother in a project to grow a record-breaking pumpkin for the state fair. “We want kids to see mathematics but we also want kids to see mathematicians, because math is in the end a human activity,” says Ellenberg.

Really Big Numbers
By Richard Evan Schwartz
Grades 6-8
2015 Mathical prize winner

With frank, funny narration Schwartz takes readers on a numerical journey that begins at one and proceeds through mind-bogglingly large figures — but still ends very far from infinity. Complex ideas are tackled through everyday objects and patterns in whimsical, geometric drawings. Unanswered questions on some spreads will encourage readers to keep pondering and calculating after putting the book down. Mathical also provides an educator tip sheet for this book. 

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
By Margot Lee Shetterly
Grades 9-12
2018 Mathical honor book*

Better known as one 2017’s hit movies, Hidden Figures tells the inspiring story of African-African women “computers” whose brains and grit helped launch NASA astronauts into orbit. With more depth than the film, this book illuminates the interconnections between math, careers and social..

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Elizabeth Vega teaches pre-kindergarten at Loma Verde Elementary in Novato, California. Her school and district leaders want to do more project-based learning and have invested in getting teachers like Vega some training. That means she took one workshop on project-based learning, got excited about the possibilities, and then was sent back to her classroom to try it out.

“It sounded all great when they talked us through it,” Vega said, but when she got back to her classroom, and only had her notes for pointers, the whole endeavor became overwhelming. That didn’t stop Vega from trying, but the first project she and her team teachers implemented didn’t go at all how they’d planned.

‘One of the most common things that’s missing from what people call projects is that it’s not intellectually challenging.’Bob Lenz, Executive Director of the Buck Institute

The team noticed the school’s garden was dying and they thought it would be neat for students to design a new watering system. But the kids didn’t care about the project at all. They just said, “use the hose.” Vega wasn’t entirely sure they even fully understood the problem, but she could tell they weren’t engaged in solving it, so her team ended up dropping the project.

“I think it was eye-opening for us,” Vega said. It was a clear example of why students need a voice in the design process, something Vega remembers from her training, but that somehow got glossed over when the teachers sat down to plan. “We need to have that conversation with our students first and ask them what problems we’re having at Loma Verde. That way they have voice in that process,” Vega said.

This first hiccup hasn’t deterred Vega. When she’s had success she can clearly see students are engaged with projects. She does wish she had more support as a way to check the things she’s trying against best practices. She’d really like to have a project-based learning coach, but if she can’t have that, she’d like tools to help her reflect on how to improve.

“I think teachers crave resources,” Vega said. “Right now they feel like they don’t have the tools, and we don’t even know where to start.”

There are a lot of teachers in the same position as Vega. Interest in project-based learning has exploded, and the practice can now be found in some form or another all over the United States. But while interest in projects is high, a deep understanding of what makes project work meaningful and impactful to students is less ubiquitous.

“People are calling a lot of things project-based learning that aren’t necessarily high quality learning experiences for kids,” said Bob Lenz, executive director of the Buck Institute for Education. That’s a concern for many educators, like Lenz, who have worked on project-based learning for decades and know there’s danger in an education trend that goes wild, but isn’t implemented well.

“It could be just another wave of PBL that came and went,” Lenz said. That’s why the Buck Institute convened a broad range of teachers, education leaders, policy groups, foundation representatives, international stakeholders and others to design “A Framework For High Quality Project Based Learning.”

The Buck Institute for Education convened a steering committee of project-based learning stakeholders to write a framework for high quality PBL. (Courtesy/HQPBL)

To write this document, a core group of educators who have taught with projects for a long time wrote a draft and got feedback from the convened stakeholders. They made revisions and then put the new draft out for public comment. They got a few thousand comments within the U.S. and globally, which they used to revise once again. The third iteration went back to the steering committee for final sign-off and touch-ups.

“It wasn’t too hard to find consensus, but some of the challenge was, ‘are we describing what teachers are doing or are we describing what kids are doing?’” Lenz said. Ultimately, the steering group decided that there are plenty of existing materials focused on teachers, but few that describe what student learning looked like in a high quality project-based learning environment. Lenz hopes that by focusing on students, parents can also use the framework to hold schools accountable.

The framework is built around six basic elements that the framers believe must be present: intellectual challenge and accomplishment, authenticity, public product, collaboration, project management and reflection.

“One of the most common things that’s missing from what people call projects is that it’s not intellectually challenging,” Lenz said. He acknowledges that progressive educators often criticize the Buck Institute for coaching teachers that projects should be standards-based, but Lenz said that’s one way to make sure the projects aren’t disconnected from content.

The Mission Project — which until recently was common for fourth graders in California schools — is a good example of “project” that doesn’t hold up under this framework. Usually students learn a lot of history about how the missions in California came to be, and then as an afterthought they build a model mission. The “project” part could be completed by a parent or bought off the shelf. It has very little connection to the learning. This is what some educators call a “dessert project” — it comes after the learning. And according to the new framework, it’s not really project-based learning.

“The big ah-ha for a lot of teachers in our workshops is that projects can be about academic content,” Lenz said. “It’s often seen as something after kids have learned their academic content.” But there are other misconceptions as well.

“A lot of new models are oriented, and have as part of their espoused design, that they want to use personalized learning and skill-based work so kids can do project-based learning,” Lenz said. He’s describing a strain of the “personalized learning” movement that uses online playlists to move students through content, but also tries to blend projects in as demonstrations of learning.

“I don’t think they’re very clear on what makes high quality PBL,” Lenz said. That’s where the authenticity and public product standards come into play. If the project doesn’t mirror the ways people work in the real world then it isn’t authentic, according to Lenz.

“When PBL is done really well the context engages kids and then teachers can apply the same strategies they might have used out of context to kids who are a little more engaged,” Lenz said. He emphasized that teachers have to give students structure and support to get good outcomes, especially when students haven’t experienced projects before.

“The process is what it should be all about,” Lenz said. But in order to move beyond content, teachers have to be clear about teaching skills like setting goals and making action plans, and then teachers have to assess those skills as they would content. As with anything else in the classroom, project-based learning teachers can’t assume kids already have the skills.


Telannia Norfar teaches high school math at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City — where she was also a student. She’s had a few careers before teaching, but since she entered the classroom 11 years ago she’s been using project-based learning. Norfar is on the steering committee that worked to create the High Quality Project Based Learning Framework.

“With so many practitioners who have been in the project world — and did it even when it wasn’t popular in education — for all of them to come together and come up with common language will be really helpful,” Norfar said.

Norfar’s district isn’t big on project-based learning and for a long time she didn’t have any colleagues who were interested in collaborating with her. But she has continued to use projects to teach the most important math concepts, the ones she really wants students to nail, for one simple reason — she says it works.

“When I think of what is the magic sauce for me, it’s the public audience or public product piece,” Norfar said. “It happens every time, no matter what the project is, as long as it’s outside our four walls, they do amazing stuff.”

Norfar doesn’t want to simplify the many important pieces of quality projects, but she also doesn’t want interested teachers to feel so overwhelmed they never start trying. She finds a lot of her math projects by talking to people outside of education. In social situations, on airplanes, at networking events for other professions, she asks professionals how they actually use math in their work. She builds projects from there.

“You can start with your friends, especially if you didn’t come from a family where everybody is a teacher,” Norfar said. Many math teachers, she said, haven’t used math in a profession; they were just good math students. To help students see relevance in math, and to empower them to make a difference with the knowledge they are gaining, Norfar wants them to use math in authentic ways.

Norfar has done financial planning projects, architectural design projects, aerospace engineering projects (inspired by a conversation about matrices with an engineer on a plane), and she’s currently exploring a chemistry related project with a professor friend.

Norfar says every year it’s the projects that change students’ minds about their future in mathematics. She remembers one student in a pre-AP class who was struggling. As a class they worked on a project to design a new house for a family that was outgrowing theirs. The student’s father worked in construction, and he helped her draw plans that were blueprint quality. “And it inspired her to become an architect,” Norfar said.

One misperception Norfar sees among many colleagues who are skeptical of project-based learning is the belief that everything has to fit into a project. Norfar says she only spends time on projects for the standards that are most important. To decide, she used the book “Power Standards” to get at the heart of her content standards. She breaks out the six most important units and spends a month on each of them.

“It looks like we’re covering a lot, but even inside of it we intentionally said we really need to introduce this to help them understand, but it’s not the diehard thing,” Norfar said. She’s finally got an algebra teaching team interested in collaborating and it is intentionally spiraling back to the idea of the line, what it is and what it isn’t, because it’s a foundational algebraic idea.

“I could either pretend that I’m really getting through it or I could really care about a few things. And less is always more,” Norfar said. A good example is vocabulary words like domain, range, independent, dependent, discrete and continuous. These words help students talk about the performance tasks Norfar gives them, but they aren’t the “diehard thing.”

Norfar admits that it has been a long journey to get to a place where she’s comfortable owning her content in this way; and she’s still improving. Right now, her focus is on improving how she works reflection into her classes. She says teaching with high quality projects means always believing you can improve.

“I would never say I’ve got this down. That’s not possible. There’s always room to grow,” Norfar said. She’s surprised sometimes about how resistant her colleagues are to change. “I’m like, ‘the world changes, you have to change too,’ “ she said.

That’s why as much as Norfar wants all projects to involve all six of the elements set out in the framework, on a practical level she just wants people to try something new. And she’s worried that unless the value of project-based learning is assessed with more than just tests many educators will abandon it.

“I’m so concerned that we will be the next fad for education,” Norfar said. “I’ll be honest, I have some of the same test scores as the teacher next to me who does not do PBL.” But she doesn’t think the tests reveal the ways students are growing as people and thinkers when they’re engaged in projects. She wishes there were other metrics for the type of growth she sees.

“My students are so much more prepared once they leave high school than the teacher next door who got the test results, but his kids don’t know how to work together,” she said.

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Imagine a device that in just 30 minutes makes your brain more receptive to new information, cutting the time it takes to learn in half. Some neuroscientists say they have demonstrated this very feat.

Their work is part of an effort to explore how low levels of continuous electrical current, delivered to the brain via electrodes placed on the scalp, could alter neural activity and improve a person’s performance. In one experiment, for example, electric stimulation accelerated how quickly participants learned to spot concealed bombs or snipers in a military training simulation.

“We almost doubled people’s learning rate,” says Vincent Clark, a professor of psychology and clinical neuroscience at the University of New Mexico who conducted this research with his colleagues. Since the 2012 publication of that research, he and other scholars have replicated the study several times with similar results.

Clark’s study is not a lone example. Findings suggest this form of electric stimulation — known as transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS — could make you better at math, more creative and even boost memory. Last year, the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced it would support a program using this technique in order to explore whether tDCS could accelerate foreign language learning by 30 percent. (The Department of Defense also financed the University of New Mexico team’s research.) And some members of the U.S. ski jumping team competing in the Winter Olympics trained using electric stimulation headbands from the company Halo Neuroscience, which sells their headsets to the general public.

The technique, which has existed for nearly two decades, is relatively simple. People place electrodes over regions of the brain relevant to a given task, then activate the electric stimulation while practicing that task. Researchers believe the electricity can encourage brain cells to form new connections and that such connectivity is fundamental to the process of learning. Transcranial direct current stimulation is one of several non-invasive approaches used to stimulate the brain, but it’s unique in that brave do-it-yourself-ers are trying out tDCS at home. That’s because the equipment is fairly cheap and safety concerns are minimal. At its most basic, the electrodes and a nine-volt battery can cost less than $100. Several studies have found only minor side effects: at worst, skin discomfort under the electrodes.

There’s evidence its popularity is steadily growing. For several years, Reddit has hosted a forum on DIY tDCS; it attracts as many as 10,000 visitors each month who trade opinions on topics such as which headset to purchase or how to use stimulation to help with mastering the guitar. On Youtube, enthusiasts share how they experienced “euphoria” during stimulation or improved their chess performance.

But more recently, companies have made it easier for people to try tDCS at home. On Amazon, the Halo headset, which costs $719, features more than 100 reviews and a four-star rating. Caputron, which sells tDCS equipment, has noted a surge in sales around exam time, leading the company to suspect that college students are zapping their brain to boost study sessions. (In light of that pattern, CEO Robin Azzam notes that the company now sends out discount codes during those timeframes.)

But for all of the excitement about this approach to mind enhancement, there’s a lot that’s still unknown. And that’s especially true for students who are seeking an edge during cram time.

“The evidence base, as far as the ability to make you perform well on exams and other things, is absolutely incomplete, which is not to say it does or does not work,” says Marom Bikson, a professor at the Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York, who has studied tDCS.

Bikson says the research on how tDCS might affect attention, behavior and cognition is still young. He also suspects that, as when students take Adderall or down coffee during exam time, those using tDCS “off-label” are influenced more by anecdotes about the experience than by hard data.

And there are plenty of reasons to be wary of the claims surrounding electric stimulation, according to Emiliano Santarnecchi, a Harvard Medical School instructor in neurology. He says, “It’s not as simple as it seems.”

Santarnecchi employs electrical stimulation in his research and sees it as a powerful tool for learning about the brain. But he says the strongest evidence of tDCS’s effectiveness as a cognitive enhancer comes from studies that pool data from multiple published papers, looking for an overall effect. Unfortunately, that strategy often involves combining many small studies of poor quality to yield a seemingly more significant result. It also means unpublished data that did not find an effect associated with stimulation are neglected.

Santarnecchi says he is also concerned by the lack of knowledge surrounding the effects on other brain regions as a particular area is stimulated. It’s possible, for example, that there might be a hidden cost, such as damage to an unstimulated part of the brain. Nor do we know much about the long-term effects of repeated use of tDCS or if the brain habituates to stimulation over time.

He also emphasizes that every brain is different and it’s hard to know how any one person might react to tDCS. Some data suggest that people may respond differently based on their genes or even their skill in the domain they’re trying to improve. For example, in 2016, one research team found that stimulating part of the prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain that’s involved in thinking and decision making — could improve improvisational ability in amateur jazz musicians but might harm the performance of experts.

And there are those who doubt the efficacy of tDCS altogether. Some scientists argue that many of the gains people attribute to brain zapping could be chalked up to a placebo effect. (A tingling sensation at the scalp, after all, would surely cause many of us to believe something interesting is happening.) There are even researchers who challenge whether the electrical current used in these studies can reach the brain at all.

None of these caveats diminish how exciting brain stimulation could be as a possible tool for studying the brain and even a new form of medicine. Stimulating the motor cortex, for example, could help stroke patients make greater gains during physical therapy. Already, tDCS is approved in Europe to help people suffering from pain conditions and depression, and scientists are exploring its potential to help people with epilepsy, schizophrenia and other conditions. (In fact, many DIY-ers are trying to self-treat their depressive symptoms.)

But until more is known about how it works and the best ways to use it, at-home tDCS is very much an “at your own risk” experiment. For some people, that uncertainty is part of the appeal. For the rest of us, it’s worth remembering that we already have some low-risk “biohacks” for learning: eating healthy, staying hydrated, exercising regularly and getting a good night’s sleep.

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For the more than 3,000 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Wednesday’s mass shooting was terrifying and life-changing. But what of the tens of millions of other children, in schools across the country, who have since heard about what happened and now struggle with their own feelings of fear, confusion and uncertainty?

For their parents and teachers, we’ve put together a quick primer with help from the National Association of School Psychologists and Melissa Reeves, a former NASP president and co-author of its PREPaRE School Crisis Prevention and Intervention curriculum.

Tune in

First, pay attention. Not just to what kids say, but what they do.

“Watch for clues that [children] may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work,” NASP recommends. “Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet.”

For younger children, drawing or imaginative play can help them give voice to their fear, anxiety and other difficult feelings.

When the conversation starts …

Emphasize: You are safe

“The cardinal rule when talking about this kind of tragedy with children of all ages,” Reeves says, “is for adults to reinforce the safety efforts that their schools and the adults in their lives are already taking to keep them safe.”

Be specific, reminding them that’s why the school doors are locked all day and why they practice emergency lockdown drills.

Also, remind children and teens that, in spite of the headlines, schools are still the safest place for them to be. Unfortunately, Reeves says, this important message is undermined by relentless media coverage; disturbing news and images of the Parkland shooting have been ubiquitous (more on this later).

In its guidance, NASP offers this reminder: “Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).”

Let their questions be your guide

This is especially true for young children, who may know very little about what actually happened but heard something on TV or glimpsed a disturbing photograph online or in the newspaper.

“If students are saying, ‘We heard something really bad happened at a school yesterday,’ keep it general,” Reeves advises.

Ask, “What did you hear?”

If the child says, “Some kids got really hurt,” you can respond reassuringly but without unnecessary detail. Reeves suggests something like this:

” ‘Yes, some kids did get hurt, and here’s what the adults are doing at your school to make sure you stay safe.’ ”

For older kids who may know more details about the shooting — and that many students were killed — it’s important, Reeves says, to acknowledge the tragedy and not make promises that you, as a parent or teacher, can’t keep.

Instead of saying, “I’m positive nothing bad will ever happen at your school,” walk them through the concrete steps being taken to ensure their safety.

Control, control, control

A school shooting anywhere can make students everywhere feel powerless, and that sense of helplessness can feed anxiety.

“What you want to do is give them a sense of control,” Reeves says.

For young students, NASP recommends emphasizing simple examples of adult-led school safety like “exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.”

These things should not only help a child feel safer but also give her a sense of agency.

For older students, that list expands to include reporting strangers on campus as well as potential threats made by classmates or members of the immediate community.

Social media

One important risk for parents and teachers to keep in mind comes from teens’ exposure to social media. Disturbing photos and videos taken during the Parkland shooting quickly began circulating.

For some teens, Reeves says, engaging with this kind of material can cause what’s known as secondary trauma. “Parents must monitor their kids’ social media use and give them permission to step away.”

As an example, Reeves offers the story of her own daughter who, she says, had been texting back and forth with friends after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. In that case, they weren’t sharing graphic images or news reports — just seemingly harmless messages of grief and support.

But, Reeves says, with every new message coming in, she could sense her daughter’s anxiety level rising. And, she says, her daughter resisted turning off her phone for fear that her friends would think she didn’t care.

“I find many students, when you explain to them that this can be traumatizing and give them permission to step away, they’re very relieved,” Reeves says.

Technology has eroded teens’ boundaries, Reeves believes, making them want to share everything over social media. Her message to them is clear:

“This is not healthy. This is hurting you, and this could be hurting your friends.”

Note: Teachers and parents, how have you navigated difficult conversations about tragedies like the Parkland school shooting? We’d like to hear from you. Send us an email to npred@npr.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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For much of the past half-century, children, adolescents and young adults in the U.S. have been saying they feel as though their lives are increasingly out of their control. At the same time, rates of anxiety and depression have risen steadily.

What’s the fix? Feeling in control of your own destiny. Let’s call it “agency.”

“Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being.”

So write William Stixrud and Ned Johnson in their new book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. Feeling out of control can cause debilitating stress and destroy self-motivation.

Building agency begins with parents, because it has to be cultivated and nurtured in childhood, write Stixrud and Johnson. But many parents find that difficult, since giving kids more control requires parents to give up some of their own.

Instead of trusting kids with choices — small at first, but bigger as adolescence progresses — many parents insist on micromanaging everything from homework to friendships. For these parents, Stixrud and Johnson have a simple message:

Stop. Instead of thinking of yourself as your child’s boss or manager, try consultant.

To discuss the book’s big ideas, I spoke with Bill Stixrud, a neuropsychologist who has spent the past 30 years helping parents and kids navigate life’s challenges. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with a basic definition from the book’s title. What does it mean for a child to be self-driven?

When I used to do psychotherapy, I was struck by how many young adults I saw who said, “I feel like I’ve spent my whole life trying to live up to other people’s expectations. I want to try to figure out what’s really important to me.”

I think that the self-driven child is driven by internal motivation as opposed to other people’s expectations, rewards, insecurity or fear.

To be self-driven, kids need to have a sense of control over their lives and are energetic about directing their lives in the direction they want to go.

Consultants, not managers? I can imagine some parents feeling really uncomfortable giving up that much control over their children’s lives.

When I used to do therapy — I’m going going back 30 years now — I’d see family after family that said, “I hate the time after dinner at our house because it’s World War III.” And I was struck by how many of these meaningless fights would happen over homework — completely unproductive fights, hugely stressful, pitting the kid against his parents.

I just came up with this phrase: “I love you too much to fight with you about your homework.”

What I said to parents is that, if you decide you’re not going to fight about this anymore, you say instead, “How can I help?” You think about yourself as a consultant and acknowledge respectfully that it’s the kid’s homework. You can’t make your child do it. What you can do is offer to help.

You can set up what I call consulting hours between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., and just say, “I’m not going to fight with you. I just love you too much. I don’t want all this friction. This is your work, and I respect that you can figure this out and I’ll help you.” A family just told me that the temperature went down in their house by 20 degrees.

Letting go can be especially hard for anxious parents, who worry a lot about their kids getting good grades, getting into a good college, landing a good job, etc. How do you help them let go?

All of us have what I call a shared delusion: that the path to becoming successful is extremely narrow and, if you fall off it, you’re sunk. And it just doesn’t take very long to look around and realize how untrue that is.

Research suggests that it doesn’t make that much difference where you go to college in terms of how successful you are financially or professionally or how satisfied you are or how happy you are. The idea that, somehow, getting into the most elite college at any cost is the right focus of a kid’s development is completely wrong. It’s wrong-headed. And many parents with enough support can come to see that and make peace with it. But it’s a big project because so much of the world that we live in gives the opposite message.

Also, we need to make peace with reality. And the reality is, you can’t make a kid do his work. And that means it can’t be the parent’s responsibility to ensure that the kid always does his homework and does it well.

In some ways, it’s also disrespectful to the kid. You know, I start with the assumption that kids have a brain in their head and they want their lives to work. They want to do well. That’s why we want to change the energy, so the energy is coming from the kid seeking help from us rather than us trying to boss the kid, sending the message, “You can’t do this on your own.”

One of my favorite moments in the book is when you reveal how you, as a parent, approached homework and report cards with your kids. What was the message you were trying to convey to them?

When my kids were little, I had just been reading some research that suggested there’s a very low correlation between grades and success in life. And so, when my kids were in elementary school, I said, “I’m happy to look at your report card, but I don’t care that much. I care much more that you work hard to develop yourself, and part of that is developing yourself as a student. But also it means developing yourself as a person. If you want to be an athlete or musician or whatever is important to you, I care much more about that because that’s the stuff — that self-development — that helps you be successful. It’s not the grades.”

When my daughter was in high school, she came to a lecture I gave on the adolescent brain, in which I mentioned this low correlation between grades and success and how research on valedictorians suggests that they don’t do better than other college graduates once they’re in their mid-20s. Driving home, she said, “You know, I liked the lecture, but I don’t really believe that you believe that stuff about the grades.”

I told her, “I absolutely believe it.” In fact, I believed it enough that I offered her a hundred bucks to get a C on her next report card.

I assume she was an A student at the time?

Yeah, she’s now got a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. She’s a brilliant girl and a really good student. But I offered her a hundred dollars for a C, so she could understand and have the experience that, you know, one bad thing or one thing that seems like a disaster is just not that big a deal.

She didn’t take you up on it?

She never did. But I think it helped her to know that there’s many ways people become successful. And I think that message was really helpful to my son, who did not learn easily and needed help to get through school. He was a later bloomer but ultimately got a Ph.D. in psychology and is an incredible person.

I walked this walk with him — in the sense that I never oversaw his homework. If I happened to notice that he hadn’t done a very good job on something, I’d offer some suggestions, and often he’d take me up on it. Other times, he wouldn’t. And I’d say, “This is your education. I’ll help wherever I can.”

On the subject of homework, you say: Inspire but don’t require.

I wrote a couple papers on homework in 1986, and I reviewed what we know about the effects of homework on learning. And I was dumbfounded to learn at that time that there’s virtually no correlation between the amount of time spent on homework and what you learn in elementary school. And that’s partly why I concluded that it doesn’t make sense to fight with kids and have all this stress about something that doesn’t seem to contribute to learning.

Thirty-some years later, it’s still the case that there’s no compelling evidence that homework contributes to learning in elementary school and even in middle school — or in high school beyond two, 2 1/2 hours. It just doesn’t do much.

I think the wisest thing is to try to inspire kids to learn at home. I don’t want kids going home and being on social media or video games all night. I want them to be working on developing themselves, and I want teachers to inspire kids to learn. Tell them, “Here’s what you’re going to get out of this assignment. I think it will help you. Or find a different way to learn this material.” But don’t require homework and grade it because, in my opinion, it confuses the means for the end.

You say the best way to motivate a child for the things you think he should focus on is to let him spend time on the things he wants to focus on. Why?

There’s a scientist by the name of Reed Larson who studies adolescent development with a strong focus on motivation. And he concluded some years ago that the best way to develop a self-motivated, older-adolescent adult is to encourage their participation in their pastimes — in the stuff they love.

The point he’s made is that, if a kid is deeply involved in something that he loves to do, he’s going to create a brain-state that combines high focus, high energy, high effort and low stress. Ideally, at least in our professional lives, that’s where we want to be most of the time. We want to be interested, engaged, active, alert, and focused but not highly stressed.

In my own experience, I was a C+ student in high school, but I spent at least two or three hours a night working on rock ‘n’ roll music. I was in a band and learned to play instruments and learning chord structure and practicing harmony parts. Oftentimes, I’d tell myself, “Well, I’ll go into my music room for half an hour, and then I’ll do some homework.” But commonly, two-and-a-half hours later, I’d come out and have no idea where all the time went.

I feel that I really sculpted a brain that, once I found something professionally that really speaks to me, I could go pedal to the metal.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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If the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov were alive today, what would he say about smartphones? He might not think of them as phones at all, but instead as remarkable tools for understanding how technology can manipulate our brains.

Pavlov’s own findings — from experiments he did more than a century ago, involving food, buzzers and slobbering dogs — offer key insights into why our phones have become almost an extension of our bodies, modern researchers say. The findings also provide clues to how we can break our dependence.

Pavlov originally set off to study canine digestion. But one day, he noticed something peculiar while feeding his dogs. If he played a sound — like a metronome or buzzer — before mealtimes, eventually the sound started to have a special meaning for the animals. It meant food was coming! The dogs actually started drooling when they heard the sound, even if no food was around.

Hearing the buzzer had become pleasurable.

That’s exactly what’s happening with smartphones, says David Greenfield, a psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut.

When we hear a ding or little ditty alerting us to a new text, email or Facebook post, cells in our brains likely release dopamine — one of the chemical transmitters in the brain’s reward circuitry. That dopamine makes us feel pleasure, Greenfield says.

“That ping is telling us there is some type of reward there, waiting for us,” Greenfield says.

Over time, that ping can become more powerful than the reward itself. Research on animals suggests dopamine levels in the brain can be twice as high when you anticipate the reward as when you actually receive it.

In other words, just hearing the notification can be more pleasurable than the text, email or tweet. “Smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov’s dogs,” Greenfield says.

Signs you might need to cut back

The average adult checks their phone 50 to 300 times each day, Greenfield says. And smartphones use psychological tricks that encourage our continued high usage — some of the same tricks slot machines use to hook gamblers.

“For example, every time you look at your phone, you don’t know what you’re going to find — how relevant or desirable a message is going to be,” Greenfield says. “So you keep checking it over and over again because every once in a while, there’s something good there.” (This is called a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. Animal studies suggest it makes dopamine skyrocket in the brain’s reward circuity and is possibly one reason people keep playing slot machines.)

A growing number of doctors and psychologists are concerned about our relationship with the phone. There’s a debate about what to call the problem. Some say “disorder” or “problematic behavior.” Others think over-reliance on a smartphone can become a behavioral addiction, like gambling.

“It’s a spectrum disorder,” says Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, who studies addiction. “There are mild, moderate and extreme forms.” And for many people, there’s no problem at all.

In this way, the phone is kind of like alcohol, Lembke says. Moderate alcohol consumption can be beneficial, for some people.

“You can make an argument that a temperate amount of smartphone or screen use might be good for people,” Lembke says. “So I’m not saying, ‘Everybody get rid of their smartphones because they’re completely addictive,’ But instead, let’s be very thoughtful about how we’re how we’re using these devices, because we can use them in pathological ways.”

Signs you might be experiencing problematic use, Lembke says, include these:

  • Interacting with the device keeps you up late or otherwise interferes with your sleep.
  • It reduces the time you have to be with friends or family.
  • It interferes with your ability to finish work or homework.
  • It causes you to be rude, even subconsciously. “For instance,” Lembke asks, “are you in the middle of having a conversation with someone and just dropping down and scrolling through your phone?” That’s a bad sign.
  • It’s squelching your creativity. “I think that’s really what people don’t realize with their smartphone usage,” Lembke says. “It can really deprive you of a kind of seamless flow of creative thought that generates from your own brain.”

Consider a digital detox one day a week

Tiffany Shlain, a San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker, and her family power down all their devices every Friday evening, for a 24-hour period.

“It’s something we look forward to each week,” Shlain says. She and her husband, Ken Goldberg, a professor in the field of robotics at the University of California, Berkeley, are very tech savvy. But they find they need a break.

“During the week, [we’re] like an emotional pinball machine responding to all the external forces,” Shlain says. The buzzes, beeps, emails, alerts and notifications never end.

Shutting the smartphones off shuts out all those distractions.

“You’re making your time sacred again — reclaiming it,” Shlain says. “You stop all the noise.”

When they started the digital break about nine years ago, which they call “Tech Shabbat,” Saturdays suddenly felt very different. The family’s not religious, she says, but they love the Jewish Sabbath ritual of setting aside a day for rest or restoration.

“The days felt much longer, and we generally feel much more relaxed,” says Goldberg.

Their daughter, Odessa Shlain Goldberg, a ninth-grader, says the unplugging takes some of the pressure off.

“There’s no FOMO — fear of missing out — or seeing what my friends are doing,” Odessa says. “It’s a family day.”

The teen says the perspective she gains from the digital power-down carries over into the rest of the week. For instance, she thinks differently about social media. She realizes the social media feeds often make other people’s lives appear more exciting or glamorous.

“If you’re sitting at home scrolling, you’re not having that glamorous experience,” she says. “So it feels a little discouraging.”

Smartphones can compound teen angst, but there’s a sweet spot

Odessa is definitely not alone in those observations. Social media can amplify the anxieties that come along with adolescence.

A recent study of high school students, published in the journal Emotion, found that too much time spent on digital devices is linked to lower self-esteem and a decrease in well-being. The survey asked teens how much time they spent — outside of schoolwork — on activities such as texting, gaming, searching the internet or using social media.

“We found teens who spend five or more hours a day online are twice as likely to say they’re unhappy,” compared to those who spend less time plugged in, explains the study’s author, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

Twenge’s research suggests digital abstinence is not good either. Teens who have no access to screens or social media may feel shut out, she says.

But there may be a sweet spot. According to the survey data, “the teens who spend a little time — an hour or two hours a day [on their devices] — those are actually the happiest teens,” Twenge says.

At its best, technology connects us to new ideas and people. It makes the world smaller and opens up possibilities.

“The ability to connect with people across the world is one the great benefits,” Odessa believes. She says she’s made some of her friends “purely online.”

“We need to wrestle with it more,” her mother says.

Technology is not going away. Our lives are becoming more wired all the time. But Shlain and Odessa say taking a weekly break helps their whole family find a happy medium in dealing with their phones.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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The excerpt below is from the book “Connected From the Start: Global Learning In the Primary Grades,” by Kathy Cassidy, published by Powerful Learning Press.

By Kathy Cassidy

Some teachers I talk to say they do not have time to connect with other classrooms because they are too busy covering their curriculum. In fact, connecting with others is not an addition to our curriculum. It is not something we do after we have finished our reading and math for the day. It is the way we do our curriculum. From practicing counting by fives or comparing similarities and differences via Skype, to writing for a worldwide audience, to making and sharing videos of social studies concepts on our blogs, we connect and invite the world to learn with us and to help us learn. Although learning from others is a key reason why I continue to connect my classroom online, there are many other reasons as well.

1. Our Students Will Be Part Of a Hyper-Connected World

The world seems to shrink a bit more every day. This has been the pattern for many decades. As this trend continues, the world that my students will be part of in their adult lives will be incredibly connected. Twenty-five years ago, I spent some time living in Thailand. When my husband and I left Canada to move there, we knew that our only connection with our family and friends would be letters and an occasional (and expensive) telephone call. If we were to make that move now, there would be a multitude of ways we could connect with home, both synchronously and asynchronously, anytime we chose. Although having a computer or device with an internet connection in my students’ homes becomes a little more common every year, not every child in my class has this access. Sometimes these children and their parents are able to access the Internet from a relative’s home or from the public library. What is clear is that we are continually moving toward the point at which every family will be connected.

These connections are not restricted to our private lives. Business is also becoming more globally connected. It is possible and perhaps even probable that our students will spend much of their working lives in some kind of virtual conversation with colleagues from around the world. If that is even a possibility, we owe it to them to begin to prepare them for that option. We want to get them ready for the world they will be part of, not the world that we lived in as children, or even the world we live in now.

2. A Global Perspective Increases Empathy

The enthusiasm of my students at the discovery of the volcano near the Voyagers’ school was tempered by the fact that they knew volcanoes could be extremely dangerous. Because of our online connection and conversations, they felt about the students in New Zealand the same way as they did about the students in the classroom next door. They were concerned for their safety, and it was important to them to find out if their friends were in danger in the event of a volcanic eruption. It is easy to brush off dangers or catastrophic events when they do not personally affect your life. Knowing others who may be affected by that danger takes something abstract and makes it personal. You begin to care. My students were relieved to discover that the volcano in New Zealand did not spew lava—only ash—and that the ash had never endangered any of the students at the school in Palmerston North.

From children in places far from where we live, my students have learned that not everyone has the same alphabet, that people speak other languages, that some areas do not have snow in the winter, that children everywhere learn to read and write, that school rules can be different, and that, yes, there are trees in Wisconsin. Without our online connections, these global understandings might not have been gained for many years, if ever.

3. Kids Often Learn Best From Other Kids

Kids can often learn better from a classmate or another child than they can from their teacher. If you are a teacher, I’m sure you’ve seen this in your own classroom. I certainly have.

A student practices reading with a teacher-in-training on Skype. (Kathy Cassidy/Flickr)

I remember one of the moments that this was hammered home to me. One of the objectives in my curriculum at the time was learning the difference between needs and wants. I planned and taught a couple of what I thought were fabulous lessons about what each of these concepts was and the difference between the two. Then, I asked the students to make a Common Craft type of video to show what they had learned. If you are not familiar with Common Craft, they have a series of simple but brilliant videos explaining concepts such as Twitter, social media, RSS and wikis. The camera points at a table and films the narrator’s hands. As he talks, the narrator pulls pieces of paper with simple drawings or words in and out of the camera’s view.

My students’ task was to create a similar video to show what they had learned about the difference between needs and wants. When the videos were completed, it was obvious that despite my brilliant teaching, three of the students still did not understand the difference between these two words. Instead of re-teaching, I took those three students aside and showed them videos created by students who obviously had a clear grasp of the concepts.

It was like the lights went on. After having seen what their peers had created, those three students all clearly understood the differences, and they were able to go on to create a new video showing this learning. You can probably think of similar things that have happened in your own classroom.

Now, imagine those “aha” moments happening through a connection with a child in another place your students have never been and will probably never have a chance to visit. I could have simply told my students that there are volcanoes in New Zealand, or read a book about children who wear uniforms to school, or shown a video about children who live near the ocean. Would my teaching have provoked the same learning? I don’t think so. As we talked with our Kiwi friends below the equator, the children could ask questions and get answers. They could observe the learning of the other children in response to the answers we gave. My students could be part of the lives of people who lived on the other side of the world. This vivid personal connection both inspired their learning and made it more meaningful to them.

4. We Learn about Online Etiquette and Safety

Some people worry that young children should not be online because they cannot be safe. Instead, I worry that young children who are isolated from social technologies will not learn HOW to be safe online. In our increasingly connected world, it is important for even five and six-year-olds to begin to learn what is appropriate when using technology to connect.

Kathy Cassidy with her student. (A student)

While I agree we need to take steps to protect children, I think it is equally important that we begin to teach them how to handle themselves in virtual settings. Having them create digital content and interact in a safe manner is essential learning for a child growing up in the Internet age. Unfortunately, we are not having many conversations about this at the level where decisions are made about education policy and practice.

Almost everyone knows the story of an adult who, because of something that was posted online, was denied a chance at a job, or lost their employment, or was censured in some way. I know of a young man who was denied a chance to compete for a coveted job in tourism because the sponsoring organization found a video of him online using profanity at a professional football game. Incidents such as this are happening more and more often.

The issue of online bullying is also gaining worldwide media attention. Many children and adults do not realize that once something is online, it stays online. You may be able to delete it from your website or Facebook page, but you must assume there will always be a record of what you posted somewhere in cyberspace. As significant as this issue has become in our lives, it will become even more important in the future as our world continues to become more connected.

Even 10 years ago, we could never have predicted how important the Internet and the connections it allows would become. A positive digital footprint is on its way to becoming an essential part of all our lives. Even five and six year olds can begin to understand this concept.

My curriculum asks me to teach the students how to recognize potential safety risks in play areas. To my students, the Internet is a play area. Online safety is just one of the forms of safety that they need to learn to be healthy and secure as they grow.

When my own children were too young to cross the street on their own, I took their hand and crossed with them. As they grew, I let go of their hand and walked beside them. When they were ready, I watched as they crossed the street on their own. Finally, they were ready to do it entirely without me.

When my primary-aged students begin to interact online, I do not set them loose to explore on their own. I figuratively take their hand and we do things together. After much modeling, I let the students do it while I watch. When those habits are firmly established, I watch from afar while they do it without me. I do this to ensure that they interact online in a safe and appropriate way.

5. I Place a High Value on Serendipity

Time and again, our classroom interactions with students far away have resulted in unforeseen learning. When we began connecting with the classroom in New Zealand, I had no idea that they lived near the ocean or that they had a volcano nearby. Those unexpected realities led to serendipitous learning.

Over the years, we have “accidentally” discovered that some schools have no girls, that some people go swimming on Christmas Day and that some schools have no school buses. We’ve learned what it looks like to have a tornado drill in a classroom. Year after year, I have let the students “discover” for themselves that when we chat with students in Australia or New Zealand, it is already the next day there. The learning is much stickier when they suddenly perceive that the kids down under are having summer when we are having winter and that not everyone wears snow clothes for four months of the year.

One day my class received a package in the mail from New Zealand. It contained some wonderful treasures such as kina and paua shells and ash from a “real” volcano. This led to more wonderful questions about why the pumice was so light and how the paua shell got to be blue inside, and why anyone would think to eat the spiky kina shellfish! More serendipity.

These kinds of connections bring something to the classroom that nothing else can. Connecting globally has changed my classroom and my teaching practice in such a profound way that I feel almost claustrophobic thinking about old-style instruction. Maybe you already enjoy this same sense of freedom to connect. If not, let me introduce you to the tools I use to lower our classroom walls and welcome the world in.

Kathy Cassidy is a Grade One teacher for Prairie South Schools in Moose Jaw, SK, Canada, and an Apple Distinguished Educator. Since 2005, she has been integrating various technologies into her teaching practice to help “connect” her primary-grades students so they can become global learners. In addition to her widely followed classroom blog, she writes about her professional work at Primary Preoccupation and for the Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog.

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Navigating love and relationships can be difficult at any age, but especially so in the angsty teenage years. Budding romances can be fun and exhilarating but also confusing and uncomfortable. In these moments of confusion, teens often turn to friends or the internet for advice. But what if teens were trained with other options? What if lessons in love and romance were taught more explicitly in schools and at home?

It turns out that teens are yearning for these lessons. They’re looking for more guidance from parents on emotional aspects of romantic relationships — everything from “how to develop a mature relationship” to “how to deal with breakups,” according to a survey by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project.

“Our data is showing a lot of kids do want to have this conversation,” said Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist who co-authored the study of the 18- to 25-year-olds. He said that teachers and parents should be establishing themselves as experts on mature relationships and, in turn, creating an environment in which teens feel comfortable seeking advice about those experiences.

“There are a huge amount of mistakes and misunderstandings that go on here on a daily basis, and good sex education can really help with that,” he said.

The majority of us have experienced lessons on human anatomy and pregnancy prevention in school, but what Weissbourd is referring to when he says “good sex education” goes beyond the basics.

Health educators like Shafia Zaloom are trying to create a more holistic approach to sex ed by teaching lessons in love and intimacy. She teaches a six-week course at the Urban School of San Francisco that follows the lifespan of a romantic relationship. The curriculum she has developed encompasses human sexuality and personal integrity with specific lessons in topics like sexual orientation, consent, good sex and pleasure.

“I teach it because human relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives. The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives,” she said. “Authentic connection matters and makes a difference. The focus of my work has always been on social justice and equity as well. There’s a lot of work to do with this in the realm of sex education.”

One of Zaloom’s students, a 15-year-old boy, says his favorite part has been learning about the nuance of consent. In one class, students watched and analyzed a sex scene from the movie “Super Bad.” He says that activity opened up his eyes to how media can alter our perception of reality.

“When I watch movies, I usually don’t think in my head if it’s consensual or not, I just go with it, but looking back on it, I’m like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not consensual, I don’t know why he’s doing that,’” he said.You got to be taught those things, you can’t just be influenced by the things you see in the movies, you need to learn about it in real life.”

Zaloom acknowledges that, as an adult, initiating these conversations with teens can be nerve-wracking. Her advice is to: “Pace yourself. Have lots of smaller conversations (vs. the BIG TALK) over time that scaffolds the learning.”

Below are a handful of additional tips from educators and researchers on how to effectively teach about love, consent and emotional intelligence.   

Create a safe space

Matthew Lippman is a high school English teacher at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. A few years ago, he began teaching a course called MEMOIR: LOVE.

“The first thing is that you want to really set up a space that is safe and that will be, at times, uncomfortable. Super uncomfortable,” said Lippman. “Trust the kids. They know what they are talking about in big and deep and meaningful ways. I think it is very important to let them, in their own way, guide the conversation. This means that ‘getting out of the way’ is really important.”

Talk about your own romantic relationships

Tackling these conversations with teens can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never done it before. For starters, Weissbourd suggests developing go-to language. One way to do this is to talk about your own relationships. Even if they didn’t last forever, there can be value in learning about failed relationships.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you begin teaching teens about romantic relationships: What was healthy about my relationships? What was unhealthy? If they were troubled in some way, why did they become that way? What attitudes or behaviors would you change if you could? Were there warning signs in your relationship or concerning qualities in your partner that you should have seen or taken more seriously?

“It’s often helpful to discuss these questions with trusted friends or to consult experts. Share with your teens any lessons you’ve learned about the skills, attitudes and sensitivities that it takes to maintain a healthy romantic relationship or any close relationship,” the Harvard study suggests.

Facilitate conversations about ethical decision-making

What do I do if I know my friend is cheating on his girlfriend, who is also my friend? Is infidelity justified under any circumstances? Is it exploitation when a high school senior hooks up with a first-year student? These types of questions can engage teens in lively conversation — and help them formulate their own opinions about how to handle complicated situations. It also helps students gain perspective, especially when they’re dissecting these hypothetical situations with the opposite sex.

One 15-year-old girl who took Zaloom’s class said the course gave her communication tools and helped her establish her own moral compass.

“Knowing my priorities and values before going into situations taught me how to interact with people,” she said. “Not just a value for relationships … life in general. It’s really applicable to everyday life and how I can go through life with an open mind and always willing to hear from other people.”

Create empathy through perspective exercises

When teaching about consent, building empathy is imperative, says Zaloom.

“The social science shows through research that the only one common piece people who perpetrate assault share is a lack of empathy,” said Zaloom. “Empathy is the foundation of one’s capacity to have healthy and caring relationships, to truly respect someone. Needless to say, we talk a ton about empathy.”

One way to do this is to have kids interact, share experiences and listen to each other. For instance, one lesson teaches kids how to ask someone out. Students explain to each other what they’re attracted to and how various scenarios make them feel.

“It’s really great advice, actually,” said Zaloom’s 15-year-old male student. “It was really interesting hearing about the other gender. … I didn’t understand how important confidence is to a girl — being confident but not being too dominant and not being a jerk.”

Teach about different kinds of love  

Infatuation. Romance. Jealousy. Unconditional love. There is nuance in love, and educators say this is important for kids to understand, especially when they’re feeling these emotions for the first time. In Lippman’s course on love, he said students “read and talked and wrote about love in all of its forms and iterations” because “it is one of these topics that lives in everything.”

This is when talking about your own experiences with love and dating can be beneficial. Weissbourd puts it like this: “When I said I love my wife on our wedding day, that was something different than when I say I love her now. The love I have for her now is deeper and more dazzling but it’s quieter. it’s not intoxication in the same way. We don’t talk about these different types of love.”

Use pop culture and other forms of media as models

When looking to incorporate forms of media into your own class, Lippman says, “I find that music is a great literature and one that really speaks to the kids. The most important thing is to be relevant.”

Here’s a list of his favorite teaching materials, including books, poetry and music:  

  • Rainer Marie Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet
  • Matthew Dickman and Tracy K. Smith’s poetry
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams
  • Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.
  • W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe
  • Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”  
  • U2’s “One”

Ultimately, says Zaloom, remember that the majority of sex education is about values. “Many parents are already teaching about values. Now the challenge is to guide kids to understand what those values sound, look and feel like within the context of sexuality.”

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Parents today struggle to set screen time guidelines.

One big reason is a lack of role models. Grandma doesn’t have any tried-and-true sayings about iPad time. This stuff is just too new.

But many experts on kids and media are also parents themselves. So when I was interviewing dozens of them for my book The Art of Screen Time, I asked them how they made screen time rules at home.

None of them held themselves up as paragons, but it was interesting to see how the priorities they focused on in their own research corresponded with the priorities they set at home.

House Rules for the research pediatrician:

Dr. Jenny Radesky is the lead author of the most recent revision of the guidelines on media and children from the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is also the mother of two young boys, and as she says, “We’re not a tech-averse household.”

She and her husband both grew up watching “tons of TV” and playing video games. “We have a big flatscreen TV,” Radesky says. “I have a smartphone.”

In fact, she says, as a doctor she may be more prone to distraction than he is: “My husband’s really good. His stuff is always just on the kitchen counter and he hardly checks it unless it rings. But if I’m on call I have my pager on. If something is an emergency that’s how I can be found.”

For the kids, since they started school, the rule is “no media on weekdays.” They unplug at family dinner and before bed. They have a family movie night on Fridays, which is an example of the principle Radesky touts in her research, of “joint media engagement,” or simply sharing screen time.

On weekends, they allow the kids cartoons, apps and games like Minecraft. But more than just limiting time, says Radesky, “I try to help my older son be aware of the way he reacts to video games or how to interpret information we find online.” For example, she tries to explain how he is being manipulated by games that ask him to make purchases while playing.

House Rules for the sleep researcher:

Lauren Hale is a sleep researcher at Stony Brook University in New York. She sums up her findings from over a decade of research: “As kids and adults watch or use screens, with light shining in their eyes and close to their face, bedtime gets delayed. It takes longer to fall asleep, sleep quality is reduced and total sleep time is decreased.”

Hale is also the mother of two young children. She strictly enforces these rules: No screens in the hour before bed, no screens in the bedroom and no screens as part of the bedtime routine. It seems to be sinking in. When he was 4 years old, her son told his grandmother: “You don’t want to look at a screen before bed because it tells your brain to stay awake.”

House Rules for the anti-obesity doctor:

Tom Warshawski, a pediatrician in Canada and founder of the Childhood Obesity Foundation there, has been involved in education efforts to get parents to cut back on media time.

His materials promote the formula 5- 2- 1- 0. That means five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, no more than two hours of screens, one hour of physical activity, and no sugary beverages.

He and his wife, also a doctor, split their pediatrics practice when their son and daughter were young so that one of them could always be home.

“We limited TV to an hour on weekdays after all other homework was done,” he says. “We said categorically no video games — my daughter didn’t care, but my son thought it was extremely oppressive and unfair. Then he resigned himself. Ultimately, both of them have thanked us.”

House Rules for the media and violence researcher:

Douglas Gentile, a professor at Iowa State University, has two nearly grown daughters. He says when they were younger, he “pretty much followed AAP guidelines: one hour a day in elementary school, two hours as they got older. But I’m much more strict on content than I am on time.”

Not surprisingly, he doesn’t rely on ratings. Instead, he would watch something himself before allowing his girls to see it. They were big fans of the Harry Potter books; they would wait for each movie to come out on video and then watch it in short bits, fast-forwarding through the scary parts.

But, he says, being the strict dad did once backfire in a funny way. He’s a huge Star Wars fan. “I was 13 when the original movie came out. I waited 10 years, ever since she was born, to share this pivotal, important movie with my older daughter.”

Based on his description, though, she wasn’t having it.

“She says, ‘No. All they do is fight all the way through it.’

” ‘Oh, please?’

” ‘No, Dad.’ ”

Reluctantly, Gentile saw her point: “She had learned the lesson — if the movie is just about people fighting, it’s not going to make her feel happy. She’s not going to enjoy it.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Walking onto a High Tech High campus is like entering a workshop. Our tour guide, sophomore Caroline Egler, pointed out classrooms that supposedly housed physics or humanities or biology, but most students weren’t in those rooms. They were in the hallways working on projects, huddled around computers together, or even working at desks elevated 8 feet above the ground so they towered over the floor. Students seem to be working with purpose, even if it’s not immediately obvious what they’re doing. The scene is chaotic, but not out of control.

It’s not always like this, Egler assured us, a group of education journalists visiting as part of the Education Writers Association’s Rethinking the American High School seminar. Students at this campus of the San Diego-based charter network seemed more frantic than usual because they were rushing to finish projects they’d been working on all semester, she said. They’d be exhibiting their work to real-world audiences at the end of the week.

‘All of this is stuff students are researching and learning about, but it’s all integrated into this project, rather than being this cold, removed, isolated content that we study for a while and then we move on to the next thing.’Russell Walker, Humanities teacher at High Tech High

Each student had to develop a physical product to represent their learning over the semester; they planned to exhibit their work at the Mexican border in coordination with Mexican students they had been working with over Skype since the class began.

Egler explained that she was making a podcast — complete with original music composed by a classmate — about differing views on President Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. Other students in her class were exploring topics like drug trafficking and sexual harassment; the only requirement was that the project relate to the border. It was a shared project between Spanish and humanities classes.

These kinds of community-grounded events are part of what High Tech High calls real-world work. The learning and its products are displayed not just to teachers, students or even parents, but to a larger community of experts. That gives school assignments more relevance — the work actually matters to the world.

The other thing visitors immediately notice about the school is the incredible work hanging from ceilings, lining the walls, and built into the hallways. Photographs, a bridge to nowhere, self-portraits, full-size boats, weather balloons, robots — beautiful work is celebrated at the school and its constant presence reminds students of the high expectations their teachers set for them.

The High Tech High network mostly operates on the California per-pupil funding formula, but it chooses to allocate its money very differently from many other school systems. High Tech High School doesn’t have a football team, a library or textbooks, all pricey areas where the school saves some money. It also offers few class choices to students; for the most part, students take classes that satisfy the University of California’s A-G requirements. And many teachers have dual credentials, allowing them to teach multiple subjects or combine subjects.

Boat-making is a favorite High Tech High project. (Katrina Schwartz)

But what seems like a lack of choice in classes isn’t as limiting as one might think. The charter network’s schools are built around four essential design principles: equity, personalization, authentic work and collaborative design. While those guiding principles are at the heart of every class, there’s a lot of variety in every other way. And students are encouraged to pursue ideas they’re passionate about, which allows for some of the choice they might otherwise lack.

For example, Aaron Price is in the same humanities-Spanish class as Caroline Egler. He built a data logger that he attached to a weather balloon and used it to measure CO2 levels at the border. He was part of a team investigating shared environmental concerns in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Price’s physical work product was more technical, but he also wrote and published a research paper, as well as a website with his findings. It’s almost like Egler with her political podcast and Price with his weather balloon are in two different classes. That’s what personalization looks like at High Tech High schools, and it’s why students don’t mind that the course catalog is limited.

The charter network accepts students through a lottery that randomly takes a certain number of students from every ZIP code in San Diego. Since the city, like many others, has many neighborhoods that are racially and ethnically isolated, this ensures the student body reflects San Diego’s population.

SS learn about blood types, heredity and codominance of traits by typing themselves- one of the most engaging labs of the year! @hightechhigh #labscience #shareyourlearning #deeperlearning #biology pic.twitter.com/bVGGuHCC2F

— KalleApplegatePalmer (@palmer_kalle) January 25, 2018

Personalization is achieved in part by keeping class sizes small; teachers have the opportunity to get to know students and their passions well. They can adapt projects to students’ interests, and push individuals to do their best work.

“It is not students all sitting in front of computers doing a self-paced math program,” said Larry Rosenstock, founding principal and CEO of High Tech High. “It is not finding the right pace or right technique to get this inert content to each student.”

Instead, personalization at High Tech High is a partnership between the teacher and student to find an authentic project that genuinely motivates students to produce meaningful work. And, because teachers’ schedules are arranged so they see fewer students at a time, they can push the young people they work with to reach individual goals.

“It means you and the student are going to work together to design something that’s going to be academically relevant to what you’re trying to teach them, but also personally meaningful to the student,” said Russell Walker, an 11th-grade history teacher. He designs the broad strokes of the project, but students take it in many different directions.

“I would say it is criminal negligence if you’re not doing that in project-based learning,” Walker said. “Because if you’re saying, ‘Here’s this project and you’re all going to make the same thing,’ that’s not really very interesting. They’ll just copy what you did.”

Involving S voice into the development of a project provides expert insight, valuable information, and creative solutions! We invite Ss into our work to give them voice and standing…How do you engage Ss in the process of planning and learning? pic.twitter.com/WmnPaE5eg7

— Edrick Macalaguim (@EdrickMac) January 3, 2018

During the fall semester, Walker collaborated with a biology teacher on a semester-long project about space colonization. Students were tasked with thinking through what they’d need to sustain life off earth, and along the way they learned about DNA, cell replication, physiological systems in the body, ecosystems and more.

“It’s all the stuff you would normally do in a biology class,” Walker said, “but it’s applied in a way that students are interested in learning and applying it.”

For the history side of things, students had to decide what kind of society they would build on their space colony. To do that, they read political theory and philosophers from the Enlightenment. Students discussed the mistakes of colonialism, and covered a broad swath of history as they worked to create something better on their new planet.

“All of this is stuff students are researching and learning about, but it’s all integrated into this project, rather than being this cold, removed, isolated content that we study for a while and then we move on to the next thing,” Walker said.

Walker used to teach Advanced Placement environmental science at a high school in Los Angeles, where he taught 150 students each day and was expected to help as many as possible pass the AP test. He said the experience left him feeling uninspired as a professional and drained of his creativity because he spent hours handling the minutiae of lesson planning and grading.

Now, Walker says he works with 48 students (although some High Tech High teachers see between 50-100 students in core classes). His time as an educator is spent researching to prepare a great project, experimenting with the tasks for students, meeting one-on-one with students, providing critique and feedback on their work, and generally engaging with students around ideas.

@hightechhigh beautiful school, ethos and people! John, thanks again for the tour! pic.twitter.com/xLbGCwDIdd

— Nicholas Pattison (@CubedSTEM) January 12, 2018

“As a teacher, it’s way more fun and interesting to work here,” Walker said. “And I think a lot of teachers who are burned out or losing hope on the way things are running could benefit from shifting to [project-based learning].”

Another High Tech High teacher, Mike Strong, agreed that one of his favorite things about the school is the autonomy it offers him. Teachers are treated as professionals and are allowed to be creative, he said. That’s a tall order, and can be exhausting, but it’s much more exciting. And when teachers are given autonomy, they tend to transfer it to students as well.

Egler said her teachers trust her — something she’s come to expect.

“Teachers trust that if they put [students] outside of the class and let them go, that the students are going to be diligent and get to work,” she said.

If a particular student fails to live up to her end of the bargain, or is flagrantly disrespectful, the teacher can take away privileges. The school doesn’t give detentions and only rarely suspends or expels students, according to Egler. Instead, students will have a conversation with the teacher about their behavior and will be asked to think of a way to make amends.

Mark Aguirre, a ninth-grade humanities teacher, sees a lot of students who don’t think they like school, but when they’re 14, there’s still a chance to convince them that they’re wrong. He admits it doesn’t work for every kid, and some do leave, but he’s been teaching at High Tech High since 2001 and says he firmly believes it works for most students.

“You have to convince them that what we’re doing has value by coming up with something interesting for them to do,” he said.

Aside from the small class sizes, autonomy, project-based curriculum, freedom to design classes based on loose themes, and expectation that students will create work that experts will want to evaluate, High Tech High is different from the conventional high school in other ways. Students aren’t tracked, and there are no AP classes. All students can opt into honors-level work, which comes with a few different requirements but doesn’t separate them into a different section. Crucially, students decide whether they want to be on the honors track two to three weeks into the semester, which gives tentative students the opportunity to try out honors-level work before committing.

“My first instinct was that honors students should read more or different books than the non-honors students,” said Randy Scherer, who used to teach English at the school, but now directs the High Tech High Graduate School’s professional development program to support other project-based-learning teachers.

He soon realized that only kids who already loved reading were signing up for honors. That didn’t seem fair; he realized he was just padding the GPAs of kids who would read anyway. Instead he defined honors as “adding knowledge to the world that did not exist,” such as by building Wikipedia pages and writing books, for example.

“We’re trying to be creatively compliant,” Scherer said. “We have to do something so people will recognize it. But we really want everyone to be in honors.”

The charter network has skillfully pushed boundaries while making sure its students aren’t disadvantaged when they apply to college, according to Scherer. After nearly 20 years, they’ve got a good reputation, which gives them more wiggle room with the state.

“Some of the practices we push on students, like reflection, teachers do that as well,” said teacher Mike Strong about working at a charter network like High Tech High. “There’s constant critique and revision for even things like how we have meetings.”

That can become exhausting, but it’s also what keeps the school from regressing to the mean, one of Larry Rosenstock’s biggest fears.

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