Category Archives: High school

Entering the conversation

A few weeks ago, I began reading The Global Achievement Gap by Dr. Tony Wagner. It was published in 2008, so I realize I’m eight years late to the table, but I’m still so glad I found this book. On just about every page, I’m tempted to write, “Amen,” “Yes,” or “Preach!”

What’s funny is that at the time this book was published, I was in my fifth year of teaching and feeling many, many of the emotions Dr. Wagner expresses he felt while in the classroom. How I wish I had read his book at that time in my career! Perhaps I would not have felt so alone in my professional frustrations.

Because of my admiration for Gap, I also purchased Most Likely to Succeed, which was written by Dr. Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. As I began highlighting questions they pose, I thought about how great it would be to enter the conversation too. Then I thought – I have a blog! I can enter the conversation!

In their Introduction, Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith mention that they “have found it invaluable in setting the tone for a discussion about education to ask participants to reflect on their school years. Specifically, we ask them to describe what aspects of their education had a profound positive impact on them” (4).

For me, it started in kindergarten. My teacher Mrs. Sapp was fun, energetic, and loved teaching. I don’t remember anything specific about that year. I’m sure I learned math and spelling, but that’s all faded into the blurred colors of childhood. What I do recall is the joy I felt going to school.

At my public high school I had several amazing teachers and an amazing administrator as well. I had Mrs. Pecor for Algebra II and AP Calculus. She was tough, tiny, and had a raspy smoker’s voice. I was afraid of her in the best possible way – I didn’t want to let her down. Her tough standards did not preclude a willingness to help, and I always felt supported. In this class, I felt challenged as an individual and learned the benefits of working hard on a seemingly impossible task. (Math was never my strong suit, yet earned a 4 on the exam. That’s a badge of honor for me!)

Mrs. Hartley was my AP Lang and AP Lit teacher, as well as my newspaper adviser. We read and discussed and wrote, and then we did it all again. Her classes were the only ones in which I discussed modern day issues through the lens of multiple genres. I enjoyed the creativity behind working on the school paper. As many other people report in Most Likely to Succeed, I too liked working on a collaborative project, being given adult responsibilities, and being challenged in my abilities.

My drama teacher, Ms. Schwarz, offered guidance, humor, support, and opportunities to be both myself and someone other than myself. We worked as groups and teams, learning to perform and how to manage pre-show jitters.

Mrs. Featherstone was an assistant principal at the time, and we formed a bond that has continued into my adulthood. She is working mom who was a teacher, assistant principal, and is now a National Board Certified Principal working on her Ph.D. Is it any wonder why she is a role model to me?

Reflecting on these teachers makes me realize something: the most profound positive impact on my education were these intelligent, hard-working, funny, giving, and talented women. They constantly challenged me and held up high expectations for me, but they were always there to support me as well. I didn’t want to let them down, but I didn’t fear failure. I knew they were on my side and there was a mutual respect for one another.

But it wasn’t like we all sat around singing kumbaya. They TAUGHT me. They made me think and write and calculate and act and learn. There’s no doubt that I wouldn’t have been the teacher I became without those teachers to show me the way.

And now I’ve entered this conversation! Next up is Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith’s question: “What is the purpose of education?” and trying to find a definition of what “constitutes real learning.”

Wake up, America: high school starts too early.

Today I read an article on entitled “High Schoolers and Snooze Buttons: A Public Health Crisis?” Here’s the crux of the story:  high school students are forced to go to school too early. The current schedule is out of sync with their natural rhythm of sleep, which results in tired, unfocused teenagers who may then suffer from “obesity, depression, smoking, drinking, and lower grades.”

Please allow a young Olson to capture my response:

Full House Duh


I’m glad a scientific study has made these findings, I am. But good grief, people – this isn’t a surprise. It shouldn’t even warrant a “Really!?” Another, less-scientific version of this study would have been to ask every high school student, teacher, and bus driver, “Hey, do you think high schools start too early?” The resounding answer would be yes. Unless the kid is asleep, in which case you could safely take their response as an affirmative.

For 8 years, I arrived to teach with the moon shining down upon me. I would trudge to the library, fill up my cup with crappy (but free!) coffee, cross the courtyard, climb the stairs, and unlock my classroom door. On this daily journey, I would pass kids scattered about like half-asleep cats. Some were laying on ledges, others were propped up against backpacks on the ground, still others clumped together in hushed circles. There was little energy, save for a few kids joking around or bobbing their heads in rhythm to the music thumping in their earbuds.

Is this then the start of a productive academic day? One that doesn’t even begin in actual daylight?

But wait, you say, millions of kids have gone to school early and been plenty smart and fully functional. Yes, it’s true that most teenagers deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. But at what cost? And how many more have struggled and suffered because they’re just downright tired?

People typically make the following arguments to pushing back the start time: 1) It will cost money; 2) It will force undesirable changes to the start times for elementary and middle schools; 3) There won’t be enough time for sports, clubs, jobs, and homework.

Yes, it might cost money and affect start times at other levels. Yet there are always options. In Montgomery County, MD., the school board recently pushed back the school start time by 20 minutes for high school and middle school. Of the many options they debated leading up to the decision, the cost of changing the start times varied from millions of dollars to nothing at all. Ultimately, free-of-charge won out, but 20 minutes is at least a small mark of progress.

I absolutely believe in the importance of sports and clubs, and I understand that many kids work because they supplement their family’s income. By no means should we make these activities unfeasible for kids. Instead, we could re-envision the entire school day based on scientific findings that tell us more about healthy brain development, nutrition, sleep, and overall well-being.

Why not start school at 8 a.m. and then embed a time for sports practices, clubs, and other after school activities within the late morning or early afternoon? Afterward, students eat lunch and continue with the rest of their academic day until about 4 p.m. By starting the day later, students would be more rested. By incorporating physical or creative activities at the start of the day, their brains and bodies will be invigorated, allowing them to turn their attention to the mental tasks that await the rest of their time at school. After the final bell rings, students can go home, go to work, or still meet with their peers, teammates, or clubs if needed.

When I got pregnant with my daughter and began reading about the sleep cycles of babies, the books told me that once she started sleeping through the night, I should expect my baby to wake between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. I laughed with relief. I’d be getting at least a half hour of extra sleep every morning than I did as a teacher.

Let’s let all of our babies get more sleep – no matter how old they are.