All the Cool Kids Are Stressed

Notes from the Classroom

It’s testing season and stress is at an all-time high. But the past few years, I’ve started to notice an alarming trend. The students aren’t stressed about their stress; they celebrate it.

On test days, an AP student will drag into class and proudly proclaim that he was up until 3:00 a.m. studying. Not to be outdone, a fellow student will counter that she slept for three hours–midnight to 3:00–and then got up to continue studying. And they’re not lying.

I get more emails from my students between the hours of midnight and 6:00 a.m. than any other time. They chug coffee and Red Bull. They give up activities they truly love in favor of more studying and more test prep.

Happiness and a balanced life? Totally lame. Stressed and miserable? Badge of honor.

A Culture of Overworking

I know it’s not just my school. The other day a fellow English teacher in another school tweeted this to her students:KV

On the same day I saw her tweet, I read this New York Times piece about how a high school in Massachusetts is working to combat stress among its students.

And it’s not just high school students. In my Twitter feed, this opinion piece about our culture’s celebration of overworking popped up. Why wouldn’t our kids wear stress like a badge of honor? We do.

I think English teachers have a unique opportunity to do something about the stress we see in our students. We can’t change the culture of overwork and stress completely, but we can set our students up to better manage it.

Writers’ Notebooks

One of the easiest places to open the conversation about stress and workload is in the students’ writers’ notebooks. I think we need to be careful about how we frame those writing invitations, though. Inviting students to write about their stressors might be an opportunity to unload and unburden themselves, but it might be just one more chance for them to glorify their stress. Instead, frame reflective writing opportunities around stressors, successes, and plans.

Recently, my AP Seminar students returned to school on a Monday after a weekend of completing drafts of a major essay. The stress in the room was palpable when they entered. We started with our notebooks:

What’s something you’re happy about with your writing?

What is something that’s stressing you out about your writing?

What is the next step in your plan?

Verbally, I urged the kids not to skip a question or respond with one-word answers. As they wrote, I walked around and encouraged those who were struggling to find something good, and engaged those who couldn’t see a next step.

By the time we were done with our notebooks, the tension had eased and they were ready to dig into their drafts. If we are mindful about creating opportunities for students to work through their stress, hopefully they’ll be able to do it independently, too.

Standards-Based Grading

A broader consideration for reducing stress is in how we grade.

Though we are all eager to focus on the learning and to discount the letter grades, many of our students (and often their parents) are most concerned with their grades. As English teachers, we are uniquely situated to move toward standards-based grading because so much of our curriculum focuses on skills rather than content. If our students begin to see our classes as opportunities to practice skills and grow over the course of the year, perhaps individual assignments will begin to feel less like a hammer drop.

For example, in AP Language and Composition, I needed to prepare my students to write three different styles of essays. Throughout the second semester, we probably wrote four or five of each type. We conferenced about them, we self-assessed, we peer reviewed, and the writing improved over time. Through it all, students knew they would have multiple chances to improve and show me what they could do. When it finally came time to make one “count,” the pressure was significantly lower than if I had been counting them all along.


One final way we can help our students manage stress is through our own modeling.

English teachers are notorious for dragging home bags and bags of essays. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably guilty of telling your students how buried you are in papers.

However, do we share enough of the ways we find balance in our own lives? Do we find balance in our own lives? If we do, we should share it with them. Tell them about how we pushed the stack of papers aside last night and stayed up reading–not a required novel but something we loved. Or even better? Tell them how we pushed the papers aside and played outside with our kids. If you don’t do those things, it’s time to start.  

On that note, it’s a beautiful day. I’m going for a run.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

A Really Bad Day (Redeemed)

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_155402741I’d been experimenting with standards-based grading, gradually building trust with a group of seniors I’ve had for two years by “respecting their learning process.” I’d ask them to read something, negotiate a time frame, and I’d plan based on the assumption that they’d come prepared. I quit using reading quizzes for “accountability” in favor of Harkness-style discussions, and I thought it was working. 

Then came the really bad day.

Picture: The room is set for a Harkness discussion. I told my students, as always, that I’d be evaluating the quality of the group’s discussion. They’d all get the same pass/fail grade—and if they weren’t prepared, or had not completed the reading, they shouldn’t put their classmates’ grades at risk.

I knew a few would self-select out—but not all of them! Not one student finished the reading, apparently.

There went all the trust I thought we had. They’d never read anything I’d assigned, I thought. Not an essay, book, short story, not a poem. It had all been a sham and I’d been an utter fool!

Where would I go from here? Back to chapter quizzes, and kids memorizing plot points in the hallway before class, only to forget them seconds after the quiz?

Luckily, a few students came to me and said that they had read, but were afraid to join the discussion because the group was going to be too small. They might not be able to sustain a good conversation with so few others. Interestingly, most of the ones who had completed the assignment weren’t the ones with the highest grades in my class. These were the kids who usually read the books but maybe didn’t regularly complete assignments, so they didn’t always make straight A’s. They told me they liked the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, and they wanted to talk about it.

The Response

It was time to differentiate my instruction. 

shutterstock_342973556I created two paths for students to demonstrate their skills. One was the Harkness option for students who’d read. Student’s who weren’t comfortable with that, for whatever reason, were assigned a series of dialectical journal entries which I’d read and grade.

The students who chose the Harkness method sat down and proceeded to discuss the book with great authority, great insight. They were passionate, original. Their conversation was so smart. I wanted to join in, but that’s one of the prime rules of a Harkness—I don’t participate. I did fill pages of my notebook with their ideas.

Watching these students set me thinking. They’d come prepared and they were demonstrating all the high-level skills we’d been working on. They used the text to lend authority to their arguments, extend them, and support claims. They might not be the ones who got A’s, but whose fault is that? Did the assignments and grades I’d been giving honestly reflect my students’ abilities?

The next class period was also interesting. I let the students who discussed the book continue their conversation by creating graphic representations of their ideas. I let them talk, tape ideas on the wall, and use yarn to connect them. I gave time to the rest of the class, so they could read or complete their assignment. But they could not join the discussion until those were completed.

No one lost points or got marked late. I let them learn from each other at their own pace. The students who hadn’t read, and who were working independently, worked very hard to get into the group, which was strange because so many of them complain about “group work.”  

The Takeaways

The whole experience left me thinking about my practice. 

Trust but verify. I understand the philosophy behind standards-based grading, but the sad truth seems to be that some students aren’t ready for this level of responsibility. I still need a system that “holds them accountable” (ick).

Points aren’t accountability. Based on what I saw, students want to be part of high-quality activities that allow them to demonstrate how smart they are, points be damned. Getting back into the circle wasn’t about points. They had ideas and things to say.

The process is important. When we started our next book, there were students who had to prove that they’d read the book by submitting dialectical journals. Most of these students admitted that doing the writing, and being true to the process, had spurred their thinking and anchored their ideas in the text.

Pay attention to the outsiders. I’m ashamed to admit that I was taken aback by the abilities and intelligence of “mid-level students,” who showed me again that grades and points aren’t a good indicator of ability, understanding, creativity, or anything that matters. What I really need to do—and this brings me back to the beginning—is to stay out of the way, and give them ways to be brilliant.

So, my horrible, terrible, really bad day turned out to be . . . horrible, sure, but instructive.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.