What’s School Spirit For Anyway?

Another exciting homecoming week just passed at my school, and every year I find myself reflecting on an important question: does school spirit actually matter? What does it actually affect in children, or is it just a tradition? I decided to do some research, which I will present here, and then offer my own thoughts and observations.

Student Perspective

Let’s start with some work from the source. This article from a junior describes her unique school spirit experience. Her school created a club called FANS, or Following Activities and Sports, where members would go around to various sporting events and activities and cheer on their fellow classmates. The club became hugely popular and clearly burned bright memories into this girl’s mind. Being a part of the highly successful club also gave her a sense of pride and accomplishment, however that would be true of any club, not necessarily one revolving around school spirit. Despite the wonderful post on her experience, there is no real evidence that school spirit has benefitted this child’s academics. It likely helped her social development, which is great, but again, there’s no real evidence.

Some Literature

Let’s now take a look at what some research has to say about the matter. I read this whitepaper on school spirit by Linda Cowan, which describes a study she conducted by interviewing principals, teachers, and upper-classmen at ten different schools. Most interesting was her point about the goals of these organizations and how school spirit ties into them. Almost every principal interviewed believed that achieving high school spirit and “the goals of our school are inextricably linked.” While some principals hoped that students “left here as good men and women” and others wanted them all to develop “all of academic, social, and emotional skills”, despite the differences in ultimate goals, they all believed school spirit had a big part to play. Students’ take on the matter was similar, in that “it made school feel like a special place, and made me want to go.” As most educators will tell you, getting students excited to attend school is a tall task, so this should not be overlooked.

It does make you ask the important questions, however, about alternative methods of making school exciting. All of the research and opinion I’ve seen revolve solely around “making students want to come to school” and “linking up with our goals as an organization”. Is there a better way, or is school spirit truly the best way to achieve these goals?

Observations

If there’s one thing I notice the most about school spirit is that, like the student two sections above this wrote, is that it revolves mostly around athletics. Unfortunately, not every student loves sports, and certainly not every student plays them. The biggest problem here is that the benefits of school spirit revolving around sports only work for those involved, and it can be alienating for those not involved.

One thing I have to give credit to our past homecoming week for is involving every student, not just those in the athletic scene. Between Pajama Day, Red and White day, and the extremely popular and hilarious Senior Dress Up Day, every student who chose to was able to partake in the fun. The seniors at our school in particular always deliver on Dress Up Day, taking advantage of a special day allotted only for them to show their spirit. Costumes are always great, and without a doubt this day coincides with what the discoveries show above.

But this is one day throughout the year, and while school spirit is more special if it’s shown sparingly, that doesn’t help it accomplish the above goals over the course of 180 days. This all begs the question I brought up above – is there a better way? Think of all the money spent on athletic programs and the events surrounding them. Colleges host these events to make money, but obviously the same is not true for high schools. Certainly, high schools do it because they think it’s the best way to support a child’s education, but why do pep rallies occur only for homecoming sporting events, and not the school plays?

I think the notion of school spirit is actually about another, similar concept: school support. We are in the business of teaching kids to support one another with these events. Support helps helps a school become a special place, not a pep rally. Support is what builds social and emotional skills, not a football game. What we’re really doing is teaching kids how to support one another, and for the most part, I think we’re successful. Again, I look back at the ways our school has put together spirit week: we support our school by attending the pep rally, dressing up in costumes, wearing our college gear, wearing our pajamas, and stopping by the bouncing castle in the student center during a special week. We could still do better, specifically on the emotional support level, and especially when you consider what goes on involving cyber bullying these days, but this is one area that I think schools generally excel in.

 

Monthly Revelation Regarding Teaching Computer Science

As many of you might now, aside from founding Slate & Tablets, I’m also a teacher at Greenwich High School, where I have designed and implemented the new computer science curriculum, now 100 students strong. I’ve never actually taken a computer science class in my life, and am actually a chemistry teacher by certification, however in teaching this new subject area it happens almost monthly that I have some major realization about how we educate kids in school being so horribly wrong. This week, I had another such revelation, and it’s perhaps the scariest one yet.

Think about what happens to students when they walk out of your classroom every year. What do they actually take with them? Do they take in-depth knowledge of every book they’ve read in your English class? Can they label every part of a cell? Are they able to speak Spanish fluently? For every teacher, this question has two answers, the answer we hope is true, and the answer that is true. For many students, they take almost no content out of their classes at the end of each year, and instead take memories of a year with a teacher who may have inspired them, got them excited, or made them hate whichever subject they were taking. Most of this has very little to do with the quality of teacher a student has. They could have the greatest history teacher in the world: most of the content they learn in that class is going to be inapplicable to the majority of students’ careers. Instead, it’s more for the development of certain skills we identify as important: critical thinking, writing, argument, and research.

Imagine though, for a second, that the content students learn are identical to the skills we hope to impart? This is what happens in computer programming. For students learning computer science, the entirety of the content they learn amounts to precisely the skills they would need to create products in the real world. Programming, design, and some basic marketing and business education amounts to students leaving this class with something drastically different than your typical course. It’s an unbelievable thing to see students coming to this realization as well, because they discover that they are obtaining the tools to express themselves, make changes in the world, and pursue their own individual passions.

Applying this to typical courses is hard, but our science department (and the Next Gen Science Standards, in general) are going about it the right way, focusing attention on teaching science practices instead of science concepts.  Do you/your colleagues have a class that focuses on skill teaching? I’d love to hear how they do it!

Ebola and the Dangers of the Rumor Mill

Every day at school, we fight the constant battle involving educating kids about responsible use of social media. Last week, I posted about the bending videos of the iPhone and how an innocent documentation of a manufacturing defect can lead to a whole lot of bad consequences on the internet. This week, we are presented with a much more teachable moment that provides some real insight into the dangers of the social media rumor mill. In addition, this teachable moment also presents a significant danger to quite a number of human beings. This, of course, involves the ebola outbreak.

This will not be an article clarifying myths about the virus. If you are unclear about the science behind the virus, please read this well researched article on the Huffington Post. This information can be confirmed on any number of scientific websites and in numerous publications. Instead, this article will highlight more danger in alarming the public using false information and sensationalist language, and a way to use it to teach students that this is a bad thing for society.

I will begin with a personal anecdote. I recently disconnected from an individual on Facebook who shared this article highlighting what we’re not being told about Ebola. The problem I have with this article is that the author has written false information about Ebola in a sensationalist manner (everyone’s wrong and we’re all at risk) and then, instead of deleting this information, the author posted a series of updates below highlighting how even though the information he posted is scientifically inaccurate, we’re still all at risk. Following this nonsense, the author makes a meaningful contribution, involving what everyone should do right now to prepare for the worst-case Ebola scenario, which is actually great advice. My old Facebook connection read this, posted it on his timeline to all his friends, and the mill began to spin.

This is such a fantastic example of the dangers of the rumor mill and social media because it proves an important point: once the information has been posted online, false or not, even if apologized for, the damage is done. Media outlets are guilty, bloggers are especially guilty, and their friends’ Twitter and Facebook accounts are certainly unreliable sources of any information. Secondly, this case also highlights the power (and danger) of using such sensationalist language in an informational article. There’s a reason science is written in a certain style that doesn’t involve pathos and ethos; it’s because science exists to inform people, not to invoke their emotions. The substance of this author’s post is the section involving what everyone should do to prepare for the worst-case scenario outbreak, which is a small, but growing, possibility. This is actually great advice and is supported by the CDC website. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the author began their work by bashing the way the government has handled the crisis so far and (falsely) discrediting media sources for their reporting, they’ve completely missed their own point.

Using this important event as a teaching tool is a good idea. As we continue to grow in the way we use social media, we truly must begin to evolve in the way we teach students about it. As discussed last week, many people write things on the internet for imaginary points that have various amounts of value to them. To writers, likes, comments, and page views are all forms of currency. When it comes to informing the public about factual information, however, these forms of currency should carry no weight. We currently teach students to evaluate websites for last-updated posts, url contents, or whether they’re posted from a government or scientific website.  We need to begin shifting focus away from meta data and onto specific contents of these sites, because channels we used to get information from may not be safe anymore due to the competition for an internet user’s attention. Look what’s happened to the Weather Channel over the past few years: every single headline on their website is littered with sensationalist nonsense in an effort to get you to click the link so they get a user interaction point to sell to advertisers. Even now, the main article headline “This Could Change Your Family Forever” is designed to make you scared about something, but give you absolutely no information about what the article refers to. In fact, it’s about a minor climate change study and its potential impacts on the male-female ratio.

We need to begin to avoid these types of websites and not patronize them. These companies are using your attention for their own benefit because you think they’re about to inform you of something important. When it comes to informing people of fact, they don’t need to worry about the future of their potential family in order to hear what is being said.

We also need to think about what we post on the internet and the effects it has on greater society. Take this article for example. I’m not sitting here scientifically debunking Ebola myths, and I’m a science teacher! I probably could and people might listen if I did. Responsibly, I’m diverting your attention to news sites that pay people to do the research. Instead, I’m focusing on an area that I believe I have some expertise in, which is teaching students about social media. Please feel free to use this article with your students should you see fit.

Finally, as we should all always remember, Don’t Panic!

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