Smartphones and Anxiety

A couple days ago my daughter was playing the piano for her grandparents. They love listening to her play songs she’s learning or old recital numbers. At least twice a week she’s playing for them after dinner. What makes this a really remarkable feat is that my in-laws live six hours away in New England. They’re able to watch and listen to my daughter play because of FaceTime.

Do I worry about the impact smartphones and other devices will have on my daughter as she gets older? Sure, I do. I’m a parent, so I pretty much worry about everything. It’s part of the job. But I also know that there are some amazing things this technology can do for my ten-year-old daughter – playing the piano for her grandparents, virtual field trips, research at the tip of her finger.

Just this week I was involved in a discussion about the rise in student anxiety across zip codes, socio-economic status, gender, and race. The common consensus among those involved in the conversation was that technology was to blame.

New research, however, is challenging that line of thinking. The researchers, lead by Candice Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, believe that devices are not the sole culprit but are just shining a light on an underlying mental health problem a child would have even without smartphones.

After reviewing other studies and data available, the researchers stated, “The review highlights that most research to date has been correlational, focused on adults versus adolescents, and has generated a mix of often conflicting small positive, negative and null associations.” Correlation does not equal causation. Just because the increase in smartphones and mental health problems in the United States happened at the same time, doesn’t necessarily mean one causes the other.

Some evidence to support such a claim can be found across the Atlantic. Larger parts of Europe have seen an equal increase in smartphone use without an equal increase in anxiety and other mental health disorders. If the smartphone was the problem then these parts of Europe would see an increase in anxiety comparable to the United States.

According to the study, the United States has been an outlier in suicide rates worldwide. Every adolescent age group in the U.S. has seen a rise in suicide deaths from 1999 to 2017. The greatest increase has been among girls 10-14. This group has seen rates triple during that same time. Worldwide, suicide rates have dropped during this same time period.

So what, other than smartphones, could be contributing to an increase in anxiety and mental health concerns? Jeff Hancock, founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab, offered some other possibilities for what might be making our kids anxious: climate change, income inequality, or rising student debt.

“The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear,” Hancock said, according to the New York Times. “But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it’s not even close.”

Are there drawbacks to an increase in technology at our kids’ fingertips? Sure. We obviously don’t want children so involved on their devices that they don’t go outside and get exercise or have healthy conversations with people. This research, however, argues that the smartphone might not be the real reason children are more anxious.

We should still allow our children and students to have access to devices, but we need to have conversations about using them appropriately. Like any technological advancement, there are benefits and drawbacks. We just need to make sure we truly understand both.

Numberless Word Problems

A few years ago I was doing a lot of one-on-one work with a student who struggled in math. We often met before class to do some mental math and try to improve his number sense. After school, we would revisit the skill we discussed in class that day. He made a lot of progress and was starting to feel much more confident about math in general and problem solving in particular. Then we introduced fractions.

Shortly after we started our unit on fractions, he put his head down in frustration. I asked him what was wrong, and he replied, “I was just starting to get math and then… then fractions happened.” It was as if he had contracted a deadly virus named fractions. We talked about how good problem solving doesn’t change just because we moved from whole numbers to fractions. Over the next month or so, we continued to work and his confidence with fractions improved as well.

My approach with that student would be slightly different today. Instead of moving him right into word problems with fractions, I would use numberless word problems to help ease some of the anxiety. The numberless word problems would be a sort of scaffold to the problems with fractions. This would help him see that we’re still using the same problem solving strategies we used with whole numbers.

Numberless Word Problem in 4th Grade

Numberless word problems are just that – word problems without numbers. Let’s look at the following problem.

Brian eats 1/8 of the pizza and Julie eats 4/8 of the same pizza. How much of the pizza did Brian and Julie both eat?

This is a pretty basic word problem involving fractions. Some students might struggle with this problem simply because they are intimidated by the fractions. So, why not take the fractions out all together?

Brian eats some pizza and Julie eats some pizza. How much of the pizza did Brian and Julie both eat?

Now we can have a conversation about what is happening in the problem. We can talk about how one person has some amount of pizza and another person has another amount. We want to know how much they have together. That hopefully leads students to see that this is an addition problem. Once they understand the context of the problem and have determined the operations they need to use (addition), then they can start looking at specific numbers.

Depending on the students and the problem, I might put some whole numbers in the problem before moving to fractions. This will give the student another opportunity to see the context of the problem before the fractions are introduced. I did this today with my class.

I took a problem from our math book and covered up the fractions to create a numberless word problem. This is how I introduced the problem.
After we discussed the context of the problem, and determined the necessary operation, I put whole numbers into the problem.
Then, we looked at the original problem with fractions and talked about how the structure of the problem didn’t change because of the fractions.

This is a wonderful strategy because it helps students focus on the context of the problem. The focus on the narrative portion of the problem before worrying about the numbers. They can’t worry about the numbers, because they aren’t there yet.

Teaching Students with ADHD

One year I had a boy named Jimmy in my class, and he was one of the coolest kids I ever taught. (I always change names of students on this blog.) Jimmy asked me almost every day how my previous night was. This wasn’t just something he was taught to ask, Jimmy was genuinely interested in what I did and how I was feeling. He had the hardest time sitting still. Jimmy was such a kind kid who seemed to genuinely care for everybody around him and had a heart of gold. He had an extremely difficult time staying focused during a lesson. Jimmy would often display his artistic talents by drawing me pictures. If you’ve worked in a classroom, you probably know a kid just like Jimmy – kind, talented, sweet, but has trouble sitting still and staying focused.

It was clear to me early on that Jimmy had ADHD. I don’t think I heard the team ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) when I was kid. The term ADD was initially used in an American Psychiatric Association manual in 1980. An upward trend of ADHD diagnoses followed a 1997 survey of parents nationwide. As many educators know, that upward trajectory has continued today.

Different students with ADHD benefit from different supports in the classroom. Some students see improved attention simply by sitting near the instruction. Other students need more supports like a timer to help keep them on task or a checklist to ensure they have the belongings they need at the end of the day. I was interested in creating a list of strategies to help students with ADHD, like Jimmy. I used a few websites to help me compile a list of non-medication strategies to use with students:

  • Give minimal number of directions;
  • Give directions in written form when possible for student to reference as they work;
  • Limit the amount of work on a page;
  • Cover up some work or text on a page to minimize distraction;
  • Use color coded folders to help student stay organized;
  • Periodically help students clean out backpacks, desks, folders, etc.;
  • Use checklist for assignments or homework materials;
  • Frequent redirection;
  • Peer tutoring;
  • Think/Pair/Share and other sharing strategies;
  • Give student movement breaks throughout the lesson and day;
  • Teach study skills explicitly;
  • Give student clear expectations;
  • Give students clear deadlines when assignments are due;
  • Use brain breaks;
  • Give students choice on assignments.

This is not an exhaustive list of strategies to support students with ADHD. It is, however, a place to get some ideas to get started. They are strategies I was so glad to discover when I had Jimmy in my class. Hopefully they can help the Jimmy you have in your classroom or school.

The Most Important Person in Somebody’s Life

The biggest news of the week, possibly the biggest news story of the year, is the death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and the other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in California on Sunday. My heart goes out to everybody affected by the tragedy.

Kobe and I were the same age and graduated from high school the same year about two hours away from each other. I’ve watched him play basketball since he was a senior in high school and always respected his game. The dunks, clutch shooting, and killer instinct on the court were always impressive, whether you liked the Lakers or not. What was more impressive than the work on the court, however, was the role he played off the court as a dad to his four daughters.

Being a dad to a little girl is an amazing and terrifying job. You want the best for your child and always worry about the worst. Seeing all the stories of Kobe and his daughter, Gianna, made it clear that his children were the most important people in his life.

My daughter, Anna, and me at Hersheypark.

I think about this often as a teacher. Having a child of my own gives me a perspective I wouldn’t have had teaching in my twenties. Every student sitting in my class is the most important person in somebody’s life. Knowing parents trust me to take care of their child, the most important person in their life, is a very humbling honor.

That’s why I go into every interaction with a parent knowing the person we’re discussing is as important to them as my daughter is to me. When I have to discuss a difficult topic with a parent, I try to think about how I would want a teacher to share that same information about my daughter. When I have to share something difficult, I always start with something positive the student is doing and end with something positive.

Every child has amazing qualities their parent should be proud of and that we as a team should celebrate. That child is the most important thing to that parent, and I can never forget that. How could I forget? I have a little girl and she’s the most important thing to me.

How Much Media Do Kids Consume?

Last year I heard two boys in my class having a very heated discussion about a video they watched the night before. I kept hearing Ninja this and Ninja that. After listening to the boys talk about “Ninja” for a couple minutes, curiosity finally got the better of me. “Who’s Ninja?” I asked.

They both looked at me like I just fell off the turnip truck. “Mr. Rashid, Ninja is just the best gamer in the world,” one of the boys replied. It turns out they were just two of the 22.3 million subscribers Ninja has on Youtube.

This interaction, and having ten-year-old daughter myself, really made me wonder just how much media our students and children are consuming. It turns out, Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization who analyzes media use by children and families, had the same wonderings. They conducted a study of how children ages 8-18 use and consume media.

A few points in the key findings really stood out to me:

  • The number of 8-year-olds with a phone increased from 11% in 2015 to 19% in 2019;
  • Children, 8- to 12-years old, average 4 hours 44 minutes of screen media each day, not including time at school or working on homework;
  • 51% of teens read for fun at least once a month;
  • Lower income children spend almost 2 hours more with entertainment media per day than their higher income peers (5:49 to 3:59);
  • Teens using a computer daily for homework has risen 30% in four years – 29% in 2015 to 59% in 2019;
  • Daily computer use for homework has also risen among tweens – 11% in 2015 to 27% in 2019;
  • Low-income teens spend less time (34 minutes per day) using a computer for homework than their higher-income peers (55 minutes per day).

What really jumped out at me was that children (8-12) are on a device consuming entertainment for almost 5 hours a day. That’s time they’re not reading, playing outside, or spending quality time with their friends and families. Children using devices isn’t a passing fad, and I would be shocked if the numbers related to children and media screen time don’t continue to rise in the coming years. As educators, and as a society, we need to figure out the implications of this increase in screen time.

50 Books in 2020… #2

Last night I finished my second book of 2020. (My goal is to read 50 books in 2020.) This was a special book for me because I didn’t read it alone. I read it aloud to my ten-year-old daughter, Anna.

The book was The Giver by Lois Lowry. It won Lowry her second Newbery Medal – Number the Stars in 1990 and The Giver in 1994. In the book, 12-year-old Jonas lives in a futuristic society where there is no pain, fear, or hatred. Everyone and everything is basically the same. Jonas is chosen to be the communities next Receiver of Memory, which gives him authority in his community. While training for his upcoming job, Jonas learns some dark secrets about what would otherwise seem a utopian society.

The Giver is a fantastic book to read whether you’re ten, like my daughter, or in your 40s, like me. In fact, The Atlantic wrote an article about reading The Giver as an adult. My daughter and I both couldn’t wait to see what happened next. We would talk after we read each night about what happened and what we thought would happen next.

We read together almost every night. In fact, our goal for 2020 is to read together every night before bed. Tonight will be 27 nights in a row. We take turns choosing the books. I picked The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. She chose Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. There are nights where I am out of town or Anna has a sleepover and we will FaceTime to read together. Last night, we were coming home from a day-trip to Washington, D.C., and I read the last chapter to Anna while my wife drove.

Anna in a Washington D.C. bookstore choosing our next read aloud book.

The 15-20 minutes we read together each night is almost always the best part of my day. We usually cuddle in bed, read, and talk about our book. It is such a wonderful routine to help us both unwind for the day and get our minds ready for bed.

Reading with Anna… and our labradoodle, Maxwell.

In my classroom, I usually assign reading for homework. There are no reading logs or other forms of accountability. Reading regularly is just a good habit to create. There are times when parents tell me they have a hard time getting their child to read each night. I often suggest reading aloud to them.

When parents ask me what they can do to help their child become a better reader or enjoy reading more, I always tell them about reading with Anna. I explain to them how we created this routine and both cherish that time together. I am able to model fluent reading for her and help her comprehend text at a deeper level.

Most importantly, I get to spend quality time with my little girl. She won’t be little much longer, so I’m going to read every book I can to her while I can. Really, we both win.

Three for the Week

Saturdays are my time to reflect on what I read, heard, and discussed throughout the week. It is my “exit ticket” for the last seven days. So here are three ideas that made me think this week. (They are not in any particular order.)

I had this week’s Three for the Week written in my head when I woke up this morning. I knew exactly what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it. Then I had the privilege of going out to dinner with a wonderful nineteen-year-old college student. This student grew up in rural poverty. Things haven’t been easy for her, but thanks to some breaks in life, she’s now attending a very good college with dreams of becoming a lawyer and having a greater impact on the world. Our conversation completely changed my three takeaways from this week. Here they are:

1 – There is an enormous opportunity gap in the United States, and it is happening in areas all across the country. Some of our students living in poverty are just as smart, if not smarter, than their more affluent peers. The barriers they face, and often their underfunded schools, make it harder for their brilliance to be seen.

2- Even if students are able to overcome their disadvantages, there are still so many factors they have to navigate and overcome. For a young student who grew up in poverty and has dreams of going to law school, there’s the expensive LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). You can forget the pricey prep courses to get ready for the LSAT that wealthier students can often afford to give them a leg up on law school admissions. It is a constant challenge to get ahead.

3 – The idealism and optimism of our younger generations is so refreshing and gives me so much hope for the world my daughter will inherit.  Despite the disadvantages this brilliant young woman has had to overcome, she still wants to help people. She wants to use the breaks she’s been given to go to law school and change the world. The odds were against her getting out of rural poverty and studying at a world-class institution of higher education, but I’d put money on her going out and changing the world.

Can Teachers Be Financially Comfortable?

I had a conversation at lunch today with a couple of colleagues about financial wellbeing. It’s an important conversation to have – if not with colleagues, then with a spouse/significant other, or at least with ourselves.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, a healthy teacher is better able to take care of students. One important way to take care of our overall health is to ensure that our financial wellbeing is monitored and addressed. Financial insecurity can lead to chronic stress, which can negatively affect mental and physical health – ulcers, digestive issues, migraines, insomnia, anxiety, etc.  

There are many resources out there to help understand finances and improve financial wellness. One that I like, and have personally used, is Dave Ramsey’s baby steps:

  1. Save $1,000 for your starter emergency fund.
  2. Pay off all debt (except the house) using the debt snowball.
  3. Save 3-6 months of expenses in a fully funded emergency fund.
  4. Invest 15% of your household income in retirement.
  5. Save for your children’s college fund.
  6. Pay off your home early.
  7. Build wealth and give.

Dave Ramsey wrote a best-selling book, called The Total Money Makeover, which outlines the baby steps and guides readers to, what he calls, financial peace. It is an incredibly quick read, and can help anybody become more knowledgeable about finances and money. One friend recently told me the book literally changed his life.

I’ve read a number of the books on this topic by a range of authors and financial gurus. The key isn’t necessary whom you are reading but that you are reading and thinking about your financial wellbeing. Two other books I’ve found interesting are The Millionaire Next Door and Start Late, Finish Rich. These two books are wonderful because they apply to the average person, not necessarily a surgeon making $500,000 a year. They, and Dave Ramsey, discuss a common thread: financial health is not correlated to level of income.

It is no secret that teacher’s are not in the top income earners in our country. Should teachers be paid more? Yes, but we can only worry about what we can control. So how do we work with what we have, financially speaking? That’s what some of these resources will help unpack. Most of the authors and gurus boil it down to simple ideas like planning, being intentional with money, and minimizing the amount of debt you have because that means more interest payments.

There are many teachers continually improving their financial wellbeing. In fact, a recent study found that one of the top five professions for millionaires is… wait for it… teachers. (Engineer, accountant, “management,” and attorneys were the other professions in the top five.) If planning and being intentional are some of the bedrocks to financial wellbeing, then who knows how to plan better than teachers?

This study shows that it is possible for teachers to become financial successful. The goal isn’t to become “rich.” The goal is to pay attention to our financial wellbeing, continue to learn about finances, and put ourselves in a position so that money is not a constant stressor which leads to health problems. The goal is to be healthy, so we can all be better teachers!

Math Clothesline

We just wrapped up a unit on fractions which covered equivalent fractions, common denominators, simplest form, comparing fractions, and ordering fractions. Comparing and ordering fractions gave me an opportunity to use a strategy which I absolutely love: clothesline math.

As the name suggests, I put a clothesline up in my room (really just a piece of yarn) and students use it to create a number line. It’s a great strategy because it works with whole numbers, fractions, decimals, algebra, and on and on.

I fold a notecard in half and write the fraction on one half. This allows the fold of the card to hold the number on the clothesline. Since I’m writing the numbers myself, I can make the numbers fit whatever lesson or standard I need. For example, in Pennsylvania fourth graders are only comparing fractions with denominators limited to 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 100. So, I create fractions cards which fit those parameters.

There are times when I will place cards on a table and let students choose their own number. Other times, I want to be a little more strategic with who gets each card, so I will distribute them to students. This allows me to ensure that students are getting fractions that match their math abilities. I give students who have a better grasp of the concepts fractions which are in the sixths, while struggling students might only get fourths. If a student has to draw a model of a fraction, it is easier to draw fourths as a visual representation than sixths.

Once all students have the cards, we discuss which numbers should be placed on the clothesline first. Yesterday, my students determined that 0 and 1 should be the first two numbers. Then they decided that 1/2 should go next because it is the benchmark we used in our lessons on comparing and ordering fractions.

Once we have 0, 1/2, and 1 placed, we start to have a discussion about the other fraction cards. I allow students to talk with a partner as we move through the numbers. When students go to place their fraction, they have to share three things:

  1. Say the fraction
  2. Share which two numbers their fraction goes between
  3. Explain, using math vocabulary why you placed it there (common denominators, common numerators, relative location to the benchmark, etc.)

Once we get started, my role is to simply facilitate the conversation. I don’t tell students whether they are right or wrong when they place their fraction. Yesterday, three of the fractions were placed in the wrong spot. Once every student placed their card, I asked if there were any changes we needed to make. Then the conversation moved into a bit of error analysis. After some discussion and debate, the cards were placed in the correct order. Once again, I let my students talk about what they saw and what needed to be changed.

Students were drawing models on whiteboards, comparing fractions using common denominators, and one student even asked to use the fraction tiles we have in our room to model his fraction.

One student models 5/6 and 8/10 with fraction tiles.

This is such a wonderful activity because it checks so many boxes. In addition to comparing and ordering, students are experiencing many of the Standards for Mathematical Practice. Students are constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, modeling with math, attending to precision, and looking for and making use of structure. I am a stickler about precision in this activity. One student said, “The number on the top in 4/8 is smaller than the number on the top in 5/8.” I will ask them what we call the number on the top and ask them to restate their reasoning. “The numerator in 4/8 is smaller than the numerator in 5/8.” If the students stops there, I will prompt them. “What does the numerator represent?” I will prompt the students until they explain that the numerator in 4/8 represents 4 parts, and the numerator in 5/8 represents 5 parts. The parts are the same size since the denominators are the same, so 5/8 is greater than 4/8.”

I also make sure there are some equivalent fractions included in the cards. When students have an equivalent fraction, they use a paperclip to stack the numbers to show they fall on the same point on the number line, or clothesline.

Each year I introduce this as a whole-group lesson. This allows students to experience those rich conversations with students of all math abilities. Then I use it as a small group activity. Students work in groups of 3-4 and deal cards to one another. They take turns placing their cards and have a similar discussion. As an exit slip, I’ll have students choose three fractions and write how they ordered them. This can also be done by taking a picture and using an app or other digital sharing tool.

This is a great activity that can be used in so many applications throughout the grade levels. The conversations are fantastic, and students are engaged in the activity. Hopefully you find it as valuable as I do.

Teacher Efficacy

What really works in schools? What can we do to have the greatest impact on student achievement? What has a greater impact feedback or homework?

John Hattie is an educational researcher whose work answers questions like these. His book Visible Learning looked at over 800 meta-studies. From those studies, which included over 80 million students, Hattie was able to create a list of the most effective teaching practices. Here are his top five:

  1. Collective teacher efficacy (1.57)
  2. Self-reported grades (1.33)
  3. Teacher estimates of achievement (1.29)
  4. Cognitive task analysis (1.29)
  5. Response to intervention (1.29)

After analyzing data from the 800 meta-studies, Hattie created a hinge point of 0.40. The average effect size in the meta-studies was 0.40, so that’s how the hinge point was determined. Anything above the hinge point of 0.40 was viewed as having an effect on student outcomes. Collective teacher efficacy had an effect size of 1.57.

So, what is collective teacher efficacy. According to Hattie, it is more than teachers believing they can make a difference. “It is that combined belief that it is us that causes learning. It’s not the students. It’s not the students from particular social backgrounds. It’s not all the barriers out there. Because when you fundamentally believe that you can make the difference, and then you feed it with evidence you are then that (is what makes it) dramatically powerful.”

The teacher has a powerful impact on student performance if they collectively believe they’re making a difference AND feed that belief with evidence of their success. That impact on students is what makes teaching the hardest job in the world and also the most important. Go believe in yourself and make a difference!