Posted in education

Thoughts on the Public Education System

I grew up in America’s public education system, and I’ve heard all the complaints.  “We’re never going to use this in real life.” “All they do is teach to the test, this isn’t real education.” “There’s no point in learning this random stuff.”  “I hate history, it’s just memorizing a bunch of names and dates.”

“Why can’t I just focus on what I care about, and not waste time on all the rest?”

Well my fellow concerned student, let me tell you.


Imagine you’re a kindergarten teacher.  You have a crop of four-year-olds staring back at you.  Some will be doctors, some teachers, some construction workers, some accountants, maybe a few pilots or politicians or athletes, but you have no way of knowing which kid will end up where.  You have to teach them anyway, so what do you do? You start with general skills, stuff that pretty much everyone will end up needing. You teach them reading, writing, and basic recognition, introduce them to how school works, and start building skills like imagination, problem solving, and working with others.  

See, none of these kids really know what they want yet.  Sure Mike might tell you he’s going to be an astronaut, but ask him again next month and he’ll tell you he’s going to be Mickey Mouse.  

Fast forward and now they’re in grade school complaining about times tables.  They still don’t really know what they want to be, but they’re starting to pick favorite subjects and least favorite subjects.  Mike knows he’s never going to be a math teacher, hates math, and wants to quit. What do you do, fourth grade teacher? Do you let him?  Of course not. Like it or not, Mike is going to encounter math of some sort in his life. He’s going to need it throughout the rest of school, he’s going to need it to settle a tab, and he’s going to need it to help his seven year old daughter through her hated times tables.  He’s going to need to learn that some parts of life are more or less mandatory, and they won’t always be pleasant. He’s still in fourth grade with plenty of time to change his mind, and if he quits now he may deeply regret it later.

At this age, kids are still learning things that everyone needs to know at least to some degree.  They’re still becoming themselves.

But now Mike and his classmates are in high school, and certain subjects have never seemed more useless to him.  He’s set on being a physical therapist, and classes like history and algebra are “ruining his life.” He’s balancing his precious time between applying to his dream college, practicing for state tennis, taking the ACT, trying to have a social life. Mike hates just memorizing names and dates and formulas, it’s so pointless to him and he can tell you exactly why.  

He’s never going to use this.

This is wasting his time when he could be chasing his actual career.

He has become a slave to the system!

But Mike, what happens when you get into your dream college, walk into your required general ed math class, and have to delay graduation because you couldn’t pass?  What happens when you enter your first anatomy lab and find that it includes mountains of rote memorization, just like your hated history class, and your physical therapy career is suddenly hanging by a thread?  What if you need a second job and suddenly find yourself with no marketable skills outside your niche, or your dream job also requires experience in networking and web design?

Mike is missing the big picture.  He doesn’t see that if he doesn’t remember when World War II happened, he won’t understand the significance of literature from the 1940’s or the development of the atom bomb.  He doesn’t see that if he can’t do simple arithmetic in his head, he has no hope of doing complex derivatives; he’ll get so bogged down pulling out his calculator for every step that he can’t see the problem as a whole. If he can’t memorize different muscle groups and their function, he’ll never be able to know what his future patients need.  To get to that higher level of thinking, he has to know the basics and he has to be fast at them.  There is no shortcut to knowledge.  In most cases, the only way to know something is to grind, memorize, rinse, and repeat.  In most cases, the only way to get to advanced skill sets and professions is to first work your way through the boring, tedious, awful basics.

As stated by an anonymous Quora writer, “One cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner if one does not know anything to apply.”

Our workforce is a complex and interconnected network with several roles that need to be filled or the whole society collapses.  In each graduating class, we need a new batch of food service workers, civil engineers, psychiatrists, surgeons, bankers, journalists, the list goes on.  Mike’s class needs to fill those roles. The education system faces the task of preparing them without knowing who goes to which role, so it does the best it can: it prepares everyone for everything.  At the end of their average high school experience, nearly everyone in Mike’s class is prepared enough that they could essentially go into any major or any career and have a chance.

When Mike gets to college and decides to change his major to Technical Writing, he isn’t already hopelessly behind because his high school teachers made him write essays.  When Mike presents himself to an employer, he isn’t an automaton with no skills beyond the task at hand; he is a well-rounded human being with a wide intellectual overview of the world.  When Mike continues on through university he does well because he knows how to work the education system, and he realizes that his historical knowledge is making his writing stronger, his time in anatomy is helping improve his tennis game, his math skills helped him save up for a new laptop, and his persuasive writing skills helped him write a great cover letter land a job.  

Because Mike, at the end of the day, education wasn’t for what you thought it was.  It was for helping build you into better person, giving you a vast array of knowledge, and teaching you how to think.  Intelligence cannot be found in a vacuum. Even though your high school subjects are divided and taught separately, they’re really all pieces of the larger puzzle that work together and build off of each other, and you cannot be well educated by ignoring half of them. School was an opportunity, and if it was a waste of your time, that’s partly your fault.

In many ways this system is broken, but in the most important way it succeeded.

Education must not simply teach work–it must teach life.

W. E. B. Dubois
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Posted in education, Life

Bullet Journalling tips for Students

A lot of bullet journal inspiration online just doesn’t really work for students. I mean, let’s be honest; we’re busy, and we don’t have the time or the mental space to be carrying around seven coordinated markers, updating a bunch of daily trackers, or devote a few hours a month to drawing out gorgeous spreads with a seasonal theme. Even some posts I’ve seen that claim to be for students just seem ridiculously time consuming. Like, nah. I have lab reports to write!

Fortunately, the best part about the bullet journal system is that it’s completely adaptable.

Here are my top five tips for realistically bullet journalling as a student.

I used my old bullet journal and my new 2019 journal as examples. (DISCLAIMER: Some pages have areas that are blurred out or covered in white boxes; this was done to protect personal information such as my daily schedule, location, etc.)

For each day, have a separate space for your schedule and your to do list. I’ve found it super helpful to split every day into two, one for my class/work schedule and one for assignments/tasks. Having your schedule blocked out each day is great because you can visually see how much time you will have, and be sure to never forget a class or accidentally go to class when it has been cancelled. Writing out your to do list separately also gives you a visual reference of how busy you are, and prevents assignments from getting lost in the shuffle.

This is an example of one of my busier weeks from last semester (busy enough that I didn’t take the time to decorate). Each day has the schedule on the left and the assignment list on the right. It was really nice to have the list and the schedule clearly separated, especially since I didn’t add color to the schedule like I did on less busy weeks (see below). If they weren’t separated it would look much messier, things would blur together, and I’d be much more likely to forget something.

Have a simple method to track assignments, such as this one. I write down every assignment on the day that it’s due, and write in regular reminders about big projects. There are several homework tracking methods out there, but I like this one for several reasons. It’s not complicated and it’s not on a separate page; it’s right there with your regular to do list that you look at all the time. You don’t have to refer to separate syllabuses or websites for each class, and you don’t have to worry about forgetting a small assignment or missing a due date. For big projects I write them on the due date, and write in a task such as “work on XXX project” on several days throughout the semester leading up to the project.

Image result for exceed notebook dotted
These are cheap but still good quality, and come in a few sizes and colors.

Cheapness is WAY more important than aesthetic. Especially after a long session on Pinterest or Instagram, it can be tempting to buy the best journal and markers out there and make every page a work of art. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s be real, we’re college students with limited funds. All your journal needs to do is work, and all you really need is a notebook and a pen or pencil. I found dotted notebooks at my local Walmart and they’re honestly really good. I use a cheap gel pen and gray washable marker that also came from Walmart, and some colored pencils I got as a birthday present years ago, and that’s it. You don’t need much.

Keep it simple and consistent. The whole goal of bullet journalling is to decrease your stress level, not increase it. I figured out a simple weekly layout that works for me, and I do it the exact same way every week. This was so helpful for me because I didn’t waste any time staring at a blank page trying to come up with a beautiful layout while my brain was buzzing with ten other things. If you find yourself stressed out trying to make everything beautiful or getting so caught up in designing spreads that you put off your homework, stop. Find something simple, and add crazy embellishments only if you have time and it makes you happy. As a bonus, simple spreads are more relaxing. My favorite spreads are those that have a lot of open space, light colors, and simple layouts. With all the business of college, it’s nice to have your journal be a clean space that makes it easier to breathe.

This is a good example of my basic layout, adapted to fit a certain week from last semester. Each day has a space for my schedule and a space for my assignments. On the bottom right I have space for my weekly goals and a running to do list for things that aren’t tied to a specific day, and there is more space I could have used for a cute quote or brainstorm if I’d wanted to and had the time. My standard decorating method is to pick five colored pencils and use them to make an ombre and highlight my goals. Here I also highlighted classes in dark green, work in blue, and events in a brighter green, just to add more color and separate my day.

Finally, make it work for you. Do you need more space? Try giving each day half a page or a full page, or getting a bigger notebook for next time. Do you think you’re bad at drawing? Try printing out images and gluing them in, only drawing simple things like stripes or stars, or just skipping drawing and letting your journal be simple. Do you feel confined trying to fit everything in boxes? Skip the boxes and have a series of lists, or even just one big running list. Do you love gorgeous complicated spreads? Find time for making them between semesters, on weekends, or in small increments throughout the week when you need a break. Try things out, and as you find things you don’t like, change them. It might take a lot of trial and error, but you’ll find a spread that is uniquely yours.

Happy journalling! I love to hear more advice and ideas in the comments 🙂

To see my 2019 bullet journal setup, click here.

Posted in education, Writing

#TBT: The Boring Professor

Screenshot 2018-09-26 at 6.23.41 PM
The Four Stages of 3 pm Lecture

His voice washed over the class like warm honey, trapping us in a stupor of profound boredom.  We were long past fighting to understand his long monotonous drone and were now fighting only to remain semi-conscious.  A few had already succumbed to his soporific power.  They slipped into blissful oblivion, their gentle snoring adding to the stagnant ambiance.

I stared at a small knot in the carpet.  It was the most captivating thing I’d seen all hour.  I gazed at it as though it was the only real thing in the world.  A break.  An irregularity.  A small respite from the boredom.

A blank buzzing filled the room and invaded our brains.  Drowsiness hung thick and heavy, smothering the class and stifling every intelligent thought.  I’d never thought that boredom could be physical pain.  Now I couldn’t think at all.  I felt my mental processes breaking down and my very identity dissolving.

There was no purpose to life.  There was no life.  Only a meaningless muddle of mesmerizing, meditative, mesothermic, mozzarella …

Snap out of it, I told my brain.

Mozzarella, my brain responded.

–World History lecture, 2014

Some teachers open our eyes, some change our lives, and some are so completely boring that they are immortalized in desperate prose.

Happy fall semester everyone 🙂

Posted in education, Life

The Fixed Mindset

barrier bokeh cage close up

Today I’m going to talk about possibly the most important thing I’ve ever learned, the thing that has helped me more as a student, writer, artist, and employee than any other motivational speaker or self-help book has ever managed: mindset theory.

Mindset theory is very simple at it’s core.  There are two main types of mindsets: the fixed mindset, and the growth mindset.  The fixed mindset operates on the premise that our abilities are fixed, while the growth mindset believes that we can grow and improve.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  Obviously the fixed mindset is wrong and we’re all supposed to have a growth mindset, right?  Of course people can change!  I thought the same thing when I first encountered this theory.  But the more I read the research and explored the deeper meanings, the more I realized just how fixed my mindset was.

The growth mindset thrives on challenge.  Someone with this mindset doesn’t see failure as a sign that they themselves are a failure, but instead see it as a new chance to grow.  They believe that even the most basic abilities and talents can be improved.

The fixed mindset balks at challenge.  Someone with this mindset sees failure as a direct reflection of their abilities; if they failed, they weren’t good enough, and there isn’t any point to continuing because they never will be.

People with the fixed mindset expect ability to show up on its own, before any learning takes place.  After all, if you have it you have it, and if you don’t you don’t.  I see this all the time.  –Dr. Carol Dweck

When I phrase it that directly, it’s pretty clear that this is unhealthy.  But the fixed mindset can sneak into our heads very subtly, in ways we don’t often recognize.

In school, fixed mindsetters can be seen slouching in the back row or trying to disappear whenever the teacher poses a question.  They don’t want to be called on–what if they mess up?  They might obsess over grades and lose sleep trying to pull perfect straight A’s and prove how smart they are, or they might take the alternative path of pretending they don’t care.  They’ll avoid classes they think they’ll struggle in, and can come up with anything to justify their behavior.

“Science just isn’t my subject.” 

“I’ve never been any good at trigonometry.” 

“This teacher is  setting me up to fail.”

In the workplace, fixed mindsetters can be found stressing out over performance reviews, afraid they might be falling behind expectations.  They’ll be at least a little upset that they weren’t named employee of the month or when promotions pass them up.  When something goes wrong, they’ll try to blame anything other than themselves.

“I totally deserved that promotion.” 

“I wish I could work up the courage to talk to my coworker.” 

“I’m so nervous for this meeting with the supervisor, what if I’m fired?

In all of life,  fixed mindsetters can be found robbing themselves of opportunities.  They use “I could have”s as badges of honor, reaffirming their skills without running the risk of trying and failing.  They think of themselves as having a certain amount of “talent” in any given area, some quantity they inherited but has maxed out now that they left early childhood or graduated, some inborn trait that they have to continually prove rather than improve.  They rely on test scores and awards that tell them how good they are.  When they see the success of others, they feel a little threatened.  When they mess up, they’re quick to be down on themselves.  When people suggest that they could get better, they feel their very identity is being threatened.

“Am I not good enough the way I am?”

“I’m just not smart enough for college.” 

“I could’ve gotten that award if I’d tried to.” 

“I could’ve been a professional athlete if my parents had started me young.” 

“Why didn’t I think of that?” 

“My essay’s not nearly as good as his, I bet he cheats.” 

“I’m not a talented enough writer to get published.” 

“Don’t judge me, this is just they way I am.” 

The problem with the fixed mindset is that, whether we have a fatal case or a small infection, it causes us to limit our own growth.  We don’t believe that we can fundamentally improve, and when we don’t consciously believe that, we do all sorts of damaging things.  We let opportunities pass us by.  We judge ourselves harshly without taking our potential into account.

Today, I challenge you to look for ways you have fallen into a fixed mindset.

Keep your eyes open in the next few weeks for part two, The Growth Mindset.

Did you see yourself in any of the above statements?

How has a fixed mindset held you back?

If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.  That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise.  They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.  –Dr. Carol Dweck

(The terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” were coined by researcher Dr. Carol Dweck–click here to watch Dr. Dweck’s TED Talk summarizing her research and here for her website.)