Thomas Broderick

The Pros and Cons of Taking Above-Grade-Level-Courses

By Thomas Broderick

As a high school teacher, I came across many students placed in above-grade-level courses. In some cases, students were gifted and needed a challenge. (My school did not offer honors or AP courses.) In other cases, students were put into a class because there was no other option. (My school was small, so this happened a lot.)

Starting from my personal experience as a student and teacher, I want to use this article to discuss the pros and cons of taking above grade-level courses. Though I am writing this article with you, the student, in mind, pass this article along to your parents and teachers. There are a few things they can learn from it, too.

The Pros of Taking Above Grade-Level Courses

I want to tell you about one of my first students. Let’s call her D. I first had D her freshman year, which was odd since my school usually didn’t accept freshmen. But D was a special case. Quiet and bright, she excelled in my sophomore English class. Due to my school’s student scheduling mishaps, she also took U.S. government, a senior-level course. D took these challenges in stride. Four years later, she graduated class valedictorian.

What’s D’s story teaches us is that some students can perform exceptionally well in above-grade-level courses. How did she do it? She had a few essential advantages going for her:

  • Academically gifted
  • Self starter
  • Motivated
  • Grit

Believe it or not, the top bullet is the least important. In my career as a teacher, I had many academically talented students who lacked the social skills, motivation, and resilience necessary to work to their real potential. In my opinion, grit is key to success. As reported by The Atlantic, grit is “shaped by several specific environmental forces, both in the classroom and in the home, sometimes in subtle and intricate ways.” More than anything else, D’s grit helped her succeed.

Sum Up: If you possess these traits, especially grit, an above-grade-level course may be right for you.

The Cons of Taking Above Grade-Level Courses in High School

As a teacher, I never had a student who could not handle the responsibilities of an above-grade-level course. When I was in middle school, however, I was that unprepared student. The Powers That Be decided that I was ready to take 7th-grade math in the 6th grade. I was not prepared academically, emotionally, or socially. I quickly found myself back in 6th-grade math. What does my story teach us? Just because a student is labeled ‘gifted’ does not mean that he or she can learn in an above-grade-level course.

Let’s break down some of the issues that students in this situation face:

  • Feeling alienated from grade-level peers
  • Feeling like ‘the odd one out’ in a class of older students
  • Lack of organizational skills (e.g., not using a calendar to organize assignments and due dates)
  • Lack of coping skills (e.g., reaction to performing poorly on an exam)

This isn’t the entire list of concerns you may feel. If you have the option of taking an above-grade-level course next semester or next year, write down your concerns and share them with your parents and teachers.

Sum Up: There are many potential stumbling blocks when taking an above-grade-level course. Choosing to take one requires much consideration.

If You’re Taking an Above Grade-Level Course

After my brief experience with 7th-grade math, I didn’t get another chance to take an above-grade-level course until 10th grade. Long story short, I and a handful of other 10th graders enrolled in honors chemistry, a course that up until then had been off limits to underclassmen.

Did I struggle? Oh yeah. But how I succeeded in that environment can teach you how to excel in your course. Let’s review some valuable pointers:

  • Ask for help. In honors Chemistry, I needed A LOT of tutoring from my teacher. To get it, I had to ask for it. There’s no shame in it, and asking for help is the first step toward a better grade and better outlook.
  • Enlist the aid of an older sibling. If you have an older brother or sister who’s still in high school, pick their brain about the best ways to succeed in the course. Even if they never had the teacher or course, they can still provide some valuable tidbits about organization and planning.
  • Roll with the punches. Even if the course is your favorite subject, you’re likely to struggle academically, especially at the beginning. If you fail your first test, it’s not the end of the world. All it means is that it’s time to follow the advice in the previous two bullets.
  • Join an extracurricular activity. To lower any feelings of alienation from your grade-level friends, join an extracurricular activity where you can interact with them. Even if it’s only one day a week, you’ll get more time in an environment of familiar faces.

Sum Up: If you’re taking an above-grade-level course, know how to reach out for help and stay connected with your grade-level peers.

If You’re a Parent or Teacher

As a parent, it’s natural to feel a swell of pride when a teacher suggests that your child could take an above-grade-level course. Go ahead and feel proud. But before doing anything else, consider the pros and cons covered in this article. Though bright, your child may not be ready for such a big academic and social leap.

If you’re teaching a student in an above-grade-level course, the best advice is to treat the student like every other during class. However, keep in mind that the student may need additional supports to succeed, such as scaffolding. Using these scaffolds for the whole class will not single out the student. Also, expect the student to need individualized guidance, especially during the beginning of the year.

Sum Up: Your child or student will likely need extra help when taking an above-grade-level course.

Final Thoughts

Taking an above-grade-level course requires a particular kind of student. Is that student you? It depends. If you’re unsure whether you can handle the jump, consider honors or AP courses as an alternative. They’re extremely rigorous and provide an excellent academic challenge. Also, excelling in these courses looks just as favorable in the eyes of college admissions counselors as above grade-level courses.

Finally, before making any big decisions, talk to your parents, teachers, or other adults you trust. They will provide you sound advice.

No matter your choice, good luck in the coming year!

Overcoming College Admissions Terrors

By Thomas Broderick

Boo!

Didn’t mean to scare you, but I couldn’t help myself. Halloween is a day of scares, frights, terrors, and most importantly, candy. For high school upperclassmen, Halloween is scary, too, but for different reasons. Instead of ghouls or zombies, this holiday brings another horror: the kickoff of college admissions season.

Boo?

Yes, college admissions can be terrifying, especially in the final weeks leading up to application deadlines. Though you may feel fine now, the pressure will mount as the days count down. Even if you are a high school junior, this time of year includes added stress, as upcoming midterms will have a significant effect on your all-important junior year GPA.

In this article, I want to take a little bit of the terror out of the holiday, giving you the chance to enjoy that sweet, sweet leftover candy.

College Admissions Stressors: A Review

College admissions come with a lot of stressors. Before we get to the solutions, let’s review the problems:

  • Tight Deadlines: There are many of deadlines and important dates related to the college admissions process. To add insult to injury, rarely are two important dates on the same day. This deadline jumble can lead to feeling stress over an extended amount of time, which causes the same mental exhaustion as having many big deadlines on the same day.
  • Family Expectations: Halloween, and the holidays that follow, will put you into contact with members of your extended family. If you are a high school upperclassman, they will barrage you with questions about your plans. These questions, though innocent, can make your stress levels skyrocket.
  • Grades: If you’re a high school junior, you don’t have to worry about applying to college just yet. Even so, midterms are fast approaching, the results of which will significantly influence your junior year GPA. College admissions counselors closely examine applicants’ junior year performance when making their decisions.

Now that we’ve covered the terrors, let’s talk solutions!

Beating the College Admissions Terror

Though your first response may be to calm yourself with copious amounts of candy, I’d recommend against it. Besides causing stomachaches, candy does not help solve your stress’ underlying causes. Let’s look at a few ways that do:

  1. Organize and Track Your Deadlines: Whether on an app or an old-fashioned calendar, write down all of your upcoming deadlines between now and your final application deadline. Not only will seeing the deadlines give you a sense of perspective, but you will also feel great each time you mark one off the list.
  2. Create a Midterm Study Plan: Even if you are a high school senior, it’s still important to study for (and do well on) midterms. Though rare, some colleges do rescind acceptances if a student’s senior year grades falter. Once you know your deadlines, find time in the two weeks leading up to midterms to study for these crucial tests. It may be a tight squeeze, but the sooner you start planning, the more time you will find.
  3. Stay Physically Active: A lot of eating happens this time of year, and though food may bring some temporary comfort, a lot of sugar and fat can make you feel unwell. You need to be at your best, so make sure to exercise at least three times a week. You’ll keep off some of the holiday pounds, sleep better, and feel healthier overall.
  4. Set Aside Some ‘You’ Time: It’s easy to lose yourself in tests, applications, grades, and everything else going on this time of year. That’s why it’s important to take some time just for you. Do something you enjoy!

Final Thoughts

Halloween should be a time of scares rather than worry. By applying my tips and tricks, you should feel better about the weeks ahead, leaving you some breathing room to enjoy the holidays.

Now please pass the bag of individually wrapped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

The Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing

By Thomas Broderick

For Americans 60 and younger, standardized testing is part of our shared experience. The ACT and SAT are as much a rite of passage as they are tools for colleges to determine whom to admit. Some states even require high school students to take the ACT or SAT to graduate. These two tests are an ingrained part of the fabric of American life.

On the other hand, many colleges and universities no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores. Their reasoning: standardized test scores are just a number, and cannot reflect an applicant’s true to potential to succeed in college. Also, education groups have pointed to the SAT / ACT as the cause of teenagers’ unhealthy stress levels.

So what are you, a 21st-century high school student, to think? In this article, we’ll explore both sides of the issue. Finally, I’ll leave you with a little advice on how to excel both academically and mentally during standardized test season.

The Pros

If there is a case to be made in favor of the SAT / ACT, it’s that preparing for these tests teaches you many life skills that you will need later in life. What do I mean? Let me break it down for you:

  • Planning: Preparing for a standardized test requires a lot of planning. Do I need a tutor? Which test-prep book should I buy? How long each day should I study? These are only a few of the questions that you must consider when building a successful study plan.
  • Routine / Discipline: Preparing for a standardized test requires you to create a study plan, along with the discipline to see it through. This is a life skill that people need no matter what life throws at them.
  • Coping: Your first attempt at the SAT / ACT may not go the way you expect. If this happens, it’s okay to feel disappointed, especially if you created and followed through on a study plan. After sadness should come the resolve to improve on your weaknesses. Your test results will tell you where you need to improve, giving you a valuable study tool.

The Cons

There are two sides to every coin, and the SAT / ACT has just as many cons as pros. Let’s look at the big ones:

  • Stress on You: Do you get knots in your stomach when you think about the SAT / ACT? That’s not uncommon; I felt it, too. Also, as a teacher, I knew a few students who broke down in tears during these tests…even the practice tests.
  • Stress on Your Teachers: Believe it or not, testing season has the same effect on teachers as it does on students. Think about it: they have to rearrange their schedules, teach test-prep strategies (boring!), and try to explain the importance of doing well on the SAT / ACT. Also, principals put pressure immense on teachers during standardized test season; many schools’ reputation rests on raising or maintaining their standardized test scores. In summary, nobody is having a lot of fun this time of year.
  • You Aren’t a Number: As a former high school student and teacher, I have plenty of experience to prove that a test score is small potatoes compared to the everything else that makes up your college application portfolio. So even if your scores aren’t where you want them to be, feel confident in the other parts of your application that make you a shining star.

Staying Centered

So it’s standardized test season. Besides creating and following through on a study plan, there are many things you can do to minimize the ‘cons’ this season brings with it. Here are two simple strategies:

  • Cut everyone (and yourself) some slack: Students and teachers are testy this time of year, and it’s not uncommon for everyone to feel stressed out. Realizing that others feel the same way as you will help you work with your teachers and peers.
  • Take some time for you: Study plans are great but combined with your school work, extracurricular activities, and family life, you can feel that you don’t have a moment for yourself. Yes, there will be many busy days, but don’t forget to build in personal time. If you have to put aside your work for an hour, the benefits will outweigh the negatives.

Final Thoughts

Standardized testing isn’t going away anytime soon. That being the case, I’m glad you took the time to learn about both sides of the issue. A little perspective goes a long way. Now that you have some essential knowledge, use it to help start your study plan. I wish you the best of luck on test day!

Charting Your Educational Path

By Thomas Broderick

Today is Columbus Day, and if you have the day off from school, good for you. A lot of high school students don’t, so enjoy your free day. But since you have some time on your hands, let’s talk Columbus, or more specifically, his first journey 525 years ago. Columbus, despite all his promises to the Spanish monarchy, had little to no idea what was he was doing when he set sail. In fact, if the winds hadn’t been favorable, he and the crews of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria would never have made it back home.

Columbus was unsure about a lot of things.

I bet you’re unsure about what this year of high school will bring. Thoughts of college convey the same sense of trepidation, only magnified. Like Columbus, will you make it there? And even when you ‘arrive,’ will your destination be the one you intended? So on this Columbus Day, let’s examine your educational path. Our goal will be to help you create the outline of a map charting your journey to college.

After all, I bet Columbus sure wished he had a map in 1492.

Step One: Determine Where You Are

You can’t figure out where you’re going unless you know where you are. That means sitting down to evaluate everything that makes you, well, you. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What are my interests and passions?
  • What is one thing that makes me unique?
  • If I could change one thing about myself, what would it be?
  • If I could not take one subject in school, what would it be?
  • How have I performed academically in high school so far?
  • Am I enjoying my extracurricular activities?
  • Am I taking an active role in my community?

The answers to these questions will help you create a small, personalized student profile. You’ll have to face a few hard truths, but there will undoubtedly be reasons to pat yourself on the back, as well. No matter what you discover about yourself, you will have taken the first step of your educational path.

Step Two: Decide Where You Want to Go

Deciding to go to college is a big step, but after that, you have to find your dream school. With literally thousands of options, the choices can feel overwhelming. If you’re going to ‘set sail’ for college, you must pick a direction.

By completing step one, you already have a powerful tool at your disposal. For example, by identifying your likes and dislikes, you can write off many colleges due to their course offerings or campus culture. Your academic performance plays another significant role. If you’re a junior who has struggled academically, it’s doubtful that an Ivy League or ultra-competitive school will accept you.

The point is that you’re looking for a college that works not for your parents, not for your peers, but for you. And since applying to college is competitive just about everywhere, you need to choose 4-6 possible colleges where you would be perfectly happy. Make sure your list has the following:

  • One reach school (<20% chance of admittance)
  • Two to three maybe schools (40-70% chance of admittance)
  • One safety school (>90% chance of admittance)

In short, cover your bases. To get you started, here are some key self-reflection questions:

  • Which colleges offer majors in the subjects in which I’m interested?
    • Are these programs well-respected? What are current and former students saying? Where do graduates end up working or go on to graduate school?
  • Do I want to stay close to home or explore a new part of the country?
    • This may seem like a trivial question, but your future school’s location will have a large impact on your life outside the classroom.
  • Why do I like ‘College A’ over all the others?
    • Self-reflection can help you identify other colleges similar to the one you prefer the most.

Step Three: Chart a Course

So you know where you’re going. That’s great! Don’t know how to get there? That’s okay! We’ll figure it out together.

Get out your list of potential colleges and universities. For the moment, ignore the ‘maybe’ and ‘safety’ schools. To chart your educational path, we’re aiming for the top of the list. Everything you do from here on out will make you attractive candidate to that one school.

Why shoot for the moon? Easy. Even if you don’t make it into your top-choice school, you will make yourself the best applicant you can be to all the schools to which you will apply.

Let’s dive into our final set of questions to help you chart your course:

  • Are my standardized test scores comparable to what this college expects of its applicants?
    • If not, how can I improve my scores?
  • Are my classes challenging me?
    • Colleges love applicants who take rigorous courses. (I cannot overstate this enough.)
  • How can I set myself apart from thousands of other applicants?
    • For example, if your dream college promotes community service, you can set yourself apart in your application by promoting the community service you performed in high school. (e.g., Make it the topic of your personal essay. Write about how you went above and beyond!)

Final Thoughts

Well, loyal readers, I hope I’ve given you some tools to help you start your academic journey to college. There’s a lot to do, so don’t be shy about going to your parents, teachers, and college counselors for advice or help. Yes, adults are very busy, but the one’s who offer their help will have the best advice.

Finally, may calm seas and good winds bless your journey.

Technology in the Classroom: What Teachers Need to Know

By Thomas Broderick

In the last two decades, technology has drastically changed the educational experience. From computers to smartphones, teachers and students have access to some of the most powerful teaching tools on the planet.

However, using these tools the ‘right’ way is a complicated and somewhat controversial subject. Some teachers are virulently anti-technology, as they see devices as distractions. And it is not just older teachers who hold this view. At the beginning of my teaching career, I saw technology as a hindrance rather than a benefit. Looking back, much of that belief stemmed from my teacher education. The former teachers educating me never had a student with a smartphone or laptop.

So how should teachers adapt? Let Google teach students? Ban cell phones? The answer, as you might expect, is in the middle. Though there is no ‘right’ way to use technology in the classroom, there is a fine line that teachers must walk if students are going to gain the maximum benefit from using technology as an educational tool.

Students Have the Tools, but Not the Skills

As a new teacher, I tried to keep my classroom cellphone-free. Students texting caused me endless frustration. Taking up phones always caused large rifts between me and students. I provided them no guidance other than negative reinforcement.

Looking back, the problem was that I did not recognize that students lack the skills to responsibly use their technology. Since I did not grow up with smartphones or texting, I could not use life experience to help students use their technology responsibility. Fortunately, there came a moment when I realized the new role modern teachers must adopt: technology Sherpa.

Guiding Your Students

Even if you, like me, did not grow up with a smartphone or laptop computer, you can still model how to appropriately and productively use technology in the classroom. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Start with Google. In other words, start with what students already know. Maybe it’s having them look up a picture for history class, a short story for English, or examples of Renaissance frescos for art class. Verbally praise students who stay on task.
  • Redefine Your Classes’ Relationship with Technology. This advice works particularly well for teachers who are known for taking up students’ phones. When a student finds something of value (e.g. a picture) with his or her phone, ask permission to (temporarily) take up their phone and show the image to the class before returning the phone to the student. This action shows that you both recognize their work and respect their property.

Going Deeper

  • Integrate the Use of Technology into Lessons: Even when going deeper with technology, it always pays to start small. If you are planning to do a station activity, for example, have one station ask students to use a smartphone (or a provided computer) to research certain information.
  • Use Educational Apps: Educational apps aren’t just for elementary school-aged students. For example, there are many apps that can help high school students improve their SAT scores.
  • If Possible, Make Technology a Key Component of Students’ Classroom Experience: If your school is lucky enough to have one-to-one technology, consider using technology as an integral part of your lessons. For example, an Algebra II teacher could have students use Khan Academy during each lesson. Students would review topics and perform practice problems on their computers before tackling the teacher’s formative or summative assessment.
    • When it comes to assessments, there’s no need to break out the pencils. Google Apps/Docs has many tools teachers can adopt to create a paper-free classroom.

Mentoring New (and Experienced) Teachers

If you successfully redefine your classes’ relationship with technology, you can still do much to help other teachers. Teacher education programs, even the best ones, tend to neglect the role of technology in the classroom. And even if they taught these skills, the evolution of technology would still outpace their advice. Here are some things you can do to help all teachers navigate technology in the classroom:

  • Have New Teachers Observe Your Class: Invite a new teacher to observe how your class uses technology. Not only will they pick up some new skills, this experience will also help you form a stronger professional relationship.
  • Present Your Best Practices to the Entire Faculty: Another idea is to address the entire faculty during a staff meeting or professional development day. This way you will be able to distill your classes’ positive relationship with technology into a presentation from which all teachers can learn.

Final Thoughts

Technology has the potential to radically transform education, that is, if you let it. Finding a balance between technology and traditional teaching methods will require time, hard work, and a few mistakes along the way. But the results are worth it. Your students will have learned a set of skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Helping Young Adults Balance Collaboration and Competition

By Thomas Broderick

Preparing for college and real life requires much more than learning facts and performing well on standardized tests. Life skills are just as important. Parents and teachers agree that topics like money management and career planning are essential for young adults’ future success. Yet when it comes to collaboration and competition, teachers and parents are at a crossroads. On one hand, students should know how to work well with others, contribute to a team, and even become a leader when the time is right. On the other hand, students’ peers are their future competition for not just a spot at a competitive college, but for future career opportunities, as well.

So what should teachers and parents emphasize to the young adults in their care? Always aspire to be the shining star when working with others, or put the team first? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Push children too far one way, they will lack the skills to work well with others. Push children too far the other way, people might take advantage of their hard work.

No matter the students’ personalities, there are ways to teach them how to balance collaboration and competition when working with others. In this article, we’ll explore both sides of the issue and discuss ways to give college and career-bound students the best of both worlds.

Competition

High school students are in competition with one another for top grades, SAT scores, spots on the team, and winning the romantic affections of another student. Competition is a deeply ingrained part of the high school experience, all of it culminating in the fight for a spot at one of the best colleges or universities. However, just because students compete in high school does not equate into all students knowing how to compete in a healthy, productive, and most importantly, fair way.

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At the same time, teachers have little choice but to promote competition among their students. After all, applying to college, landing a career – they all require students to become fiercely competitive. Yet this environment, in addition to teenagers’ general inexperience, can lead to one of two unhealthy habits:

  • Focused too much on competition that hurts others to achieve personal goals.
  • Buckles under the constant pressure and gives up, negatively affecting grades and relationships with others.

Collaboration

From the world’s largest companies to the smallest local businesses, employees who can collaborate with their coworkers are at an advantage for promotions, leadership roles, and a larger salary. In short, it pays to know how to collaborate. In high school, teachers traditionally promote collaboration through group activities and projects. After school, coaches and club leaders promote teamwork.

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In the 21st century, teaching collaboration skills may need a tune-up. For example, two collaborators working on a project entirely online sidesteps many collaboration pitfalls such as incompatible personalities. However, technology can complicate collaboration by taking out the human element. This lack of direct interaction can impede the formation of strong professional relationships.

Now that we’ve explored some of the benefits and pitfalls of both collaboration and competition, let’s discuss what teachers and parents can do to instill healthy attitudes into young adults.

What Teachers Can Do

There are many things teachers can do to promote healthy collaboration and competition in their classrooms and after-school activities:

  • For group projects, have both individual and group grades. This way, a student is responsible to herself and to the larger group. Neglecting one over the other will have negative consequences for the student.
  • Let students make mistakes. No matter what classroom strategies you implement to help students navigate the fine line between collaboration and competition, students are bound to make mistakes. Unless these mistakes were disregarding/breaking the rules you set for an assignment, use them as a teaching opportunity rather than a punitive one.

What Parents Can Do

As a parent, you have a greater opportunity (and responsibility) to teach your children life skills that will serve them well in a world that promotes competition and collaboration.

  • Promote healthy collaboration and competition outside of school. One of the best ways a young adult can learn about collaboration and competition is through a summer job. The stakes are higher, money is on the line, and your child will interact with new people of all ages and personalities.
  • Tell life stories. By the time your child is a teenager, he or she probably no longer considers you a perfect person. Though that change in perception can burst your bubble, it is a great way to start talking to your child about your life experiences. For example, discuss a time when you worked with someone who did not perform well, and how you handled the situation. Maybe someone stole your idea, or took advantage of your kind nature. Or maybe you were the one who took advantage of others. No matter the case, share these stories with your child and how the experience made you a wiser and better person. Your child may still make mistakes, but at least she will take some of your wisdom with him or her.

Final Thoughts

Walking the fine line between collaboration and completion can be tricky at best. Through using the techniques I have described, I am confident that you will be successful in helping your child or student develop these valuable life skills.

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