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By John Raftrey And Lori McCormick

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Gunn Student Posts Video on Student Deaths and Stress

Uploaded: Nov 5, 2014
Gunn senior Martha Cabot?s YouTube video comments on the recent death of a classmate and offers insight into what makes high school stressful. Video has gone viral and has been viewed over 35,000 times.

Martha Cabot, Gunn High School Student
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Prevention, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Nov 6, 2014 at 3:58 am

Another suicide?

I know little about gunn other than extraordinary amounts of homework, stress, and suicides. is this the PA legacy? Is that what we want for our kids?

Posted by Barron Park resident, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 6, 2014 at 7:48 pm

At the Gunn High parents meeting yesterday, the administrators kept saying that other schools have similar problems. But they refuse to provide any data on the numbers. Until they do, parents will assume that they are hiding the fact that Gunn's culture is the problem.

Posted by Gunn parent, a resident of another community,
on Nov 6, 2014 at 11:31 pm

It is true. According to the CDC website " Suicide (i.e., taking one's own life) is a serious public health problem that affects even young people. For youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. It results in approximately 4600 lives lost each year. The top three methods used in suicides of young people include firearm (45%), suffocation (40%), and poisoning (8%)." Locally, I know of several other high schools with teens suicides: woodside, Saratoga, San Jose, Harker, etc. Gunn receives more media coverage because of train incidents.

Posted by Gunn Parent, a resident of Gunn High School,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 7:46 am

Parents. I know you are worried about your children at Gunn. In watching the video and looking at the postings below, your worries and solutions are private concerns - how can I get support for my child, tutoring for my child. Could this happen to my child? I encourage the Gunn community to band together in creating solutions for all children.

First, support Max McGee and the new school board in implementing the recommendations of the Gunn Advisory Council which have been collecting dust since 2013. Next, instead of spending money on private tutoring, open your home to groups of students. Share your talents. Show your teen that their friends are not their competition. Support Gunn athletics and other clubs by showing up. The stands are frequently empty on game nights. Everyone can go to a waterpolo match, a football game, a volleyball game or a concert. Go down to the school board meetings and speak up. You want change. Demand it. Go to School Board meetings and ask why the Board is not enforcing the homework policy.

I know that we have all drunk the cool-aid on hypercompetition and individual achievement. There is more to life. It truly does Take a Village. Collective action, building a structure of community support is doable. I have personally done all of the things I recommend that you do. Use your time, talent and treasure to stop worrying and paying for useless services and start creating the community we want to live in and we want our teens to thrive in.

Educate yourselves and share your education with others. I suggest starting with the book by Christopher Hayes - Twilight of the Elites - America After Meritocracy. Lots of good ideas here.

I am on my way to see my son in college today. I will give him a big hug from all of us here is Palo Alto!

Posted by Former Paly Mom, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 7:48 am

I'm a mom of a Paly student of the class of 06. Yes, this was the class that lost two students to suicide on the tracks. Sometimes I think it is forgotten that Paly lost two students as it is always Gunn that is mentioned.

This means my daughter is now 26. She is still affected by the suicides of her classmates. She knew them both, having been in class with each of them. Her high school memories are full of memories of these students. Her high school memories are also clouded by stress, homework, deadlines, and she has lost touch with most of her close Paly friends, apart from Facebook.

Every time there is a suicide on the tracks in Palo Alto, she contacts me. She is angry that this is still going on. She is upset that there have been no real changes. She enjoyed being a college student. She enjoyed the fact that life at college was on her own terms rather than school's terms. She enjoyed the people she met, the friends she made, the grades she got, the life she lead, in a world she calls outside the Palo Alto bubble.

Don't be mislead. All our students in Palo Alto are affected by stress. All our students are affected by these suicides. Even those who appear to have survived our high schools, are still affected.

This culture must stop. Our schools must change. We parents must change. Our college process must change. Our educational system which promotes all these things must change. For the health and safety of our future generations, these things must change.

Posted by Gunn Mom, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 9:02 am

Hear, hear Gunn parent. PAUSD is not to blame.I believe the culture of outsourcing the raising of our kids -- by the school, nannies, tutors, psychologists, coaches and camp counsellors -- is the root cause of student stress and anxiety. The best thing we can do to help our kids is spend quality time with them. Show them, through our presence, how much we value and enjoy being with them, regardless of the actvity, or whether their team wins, or they flub a note in the piano recital. [comment removed]We parents need to show them that they are enough, beautiful and perfect, today, just as they are.

Posted by Former Gunn Mom, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 2:16 pm

@ Gunn Mom, I totally agree with you. We should not totally blame Gunn/teachers for this. The community surrounding a kid with lot of extra activities, tutoring, sports, music, etc, caused tons of pressure to a normal kid. College admission is a nightmare for teen even he/she is smart with good grade. Now a days, without lots of extra activities outside school, a Gunn student with GPA 3.98 will not guarantee him/her to be admitted to any top college. As I talked my son (Gunn graduate), he said that he does not think Gunn gives too much homework, but the pressure from peers and the whole community is stressful. Son said that UC Berkeley and UCLA give out much more homework/project than Gunn does.

For parents, as long as your teen try their best, A "B" is totally ok. There are many opportunities in their life time, let the kid be a kid to enjoy their life. Please don't add more pressure from home. Home should be a happy/relaxed/love retreat place for a kid.

Posted by Barron Park resident, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Why not create a third high school in Palo Alto for kids and parents who want to take AP classes as a freshman, study 6 hours a night, and on weekends attend tutoring centers? A Hoover elementary on steroids for older students.

The dichotomy of what the administrators and teachers are hearing from the parents won't be resolved until the high school is split.

Posted by Gunn dad, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 3:05 pm

I attended the meeting the other night. I hope the school board heard parents applaud when AP limits and enforcing the homework policy were mentioned. I agree with the parent above:

"Go down to the school board meetings and speak up. You want change. Demand it. Go to School Board meetings and ask why the Board is not enforcing the homework policy. "

We have a new school board now. Ken Dauber ran and won on a platform of reducing stress, enforcing the homework policy, and a set of other changes. He has a mandate from the community. I will be down at the school board to back that up. I hope I will see many other parents there too.

Posted by Palo Alto Employee, a resident of another community,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 3:58 pm

Please consider removing this blog post.

I understand that this is a concern for our community, but studies have shown that media coverage on suicides actually increases the chances of it happening again. These are well documented and are often referred to as "suicide clusters". Many of us who work with youth within the city received excellent training on how to deal with these situations and we were informed of ugly correlation between media coverage and suicide copycats. I know all of this is well intentioned, but it's best that it's left to the schools and that it be handled with as little coverage as possible.


Posted by Former Gunn Mom, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Maybe a third High school with more rigid AP classes is a good idea. So, these smart kids will not intimidate other kids. Limit AP classes to ALL students is good for majority kids, but PAUSD may lose some truly good students in this way. I don't have more kids in PAUSD anymore, but I can see from my own kids and friends that if a student is not doing well at Gunn, he/she should NOT apply for Berkeley or UCLA (private college is not on my list). These two colleges are much more stressful than Gunn.

For students, Go to a college that fits you and do well. You will be much more confident and will still have bright future in your life.

Posted by So Much Hate, a resident of Adobe-Meadows,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 6:55 pm

Comment is under review

Posted by Barron Park resident, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 7, 2014 at 8:30 pm

Knowing whether Gunn is an outlier is relevant. Parents of Gunn students should have the right to know. That way they can elect to transfer their kids to Paly or leave the district.

I'm optimistic that the new superintendent and principle will stop the "hiding behind the wall of confidentiality" mentality that appears to have prevented any meaningful changes the last few years.

Posted by The children are worth going out of our way, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 8, 2014 at 12:31 am

Clearly there is a lot of stress, but are there additional contributors to suicide ideation? Someone very close to the family posted recently that there was no warning. I wondered if it was only me who thought it made no sense in their case, just no sense.

There are many things that can overlay existing stresses and make people snap: medications (some commonly given to teens), lack of sleep (and lack of sleep can be from more than just homework, it can be from allergies, sleep apnea, other physical illness, caffeine ingestion), indoor mold, asthma, among other things.

For example, from this published earlier this year: "The bottom line...there's clearly a connection [between depression and asthma] and clinicians should be aware of it.""
Web Link
(A common asthma medication given to teens was also linked to suicidal thoughts by an FDA investigation recently.)

I have found that while rampant speculation about parental values and pressure, teachers and how much they care or don't care about students, are allowed after these tragedies (even when not at issue in a given case), somehow these potential other external factors are unmentionable, even though statistically they are almost certainly affecting the mental health of some or many of our teens, or could put them over the edge if other factors are an issue. Why is that? Wouldn't it help people to know it might be possible to find a reason for the way they feel and it might not be them or forever? Wouldn't it help to know we could do something concrete and make those changes? After all this time, I wish we could at least talk about these things, bring them up in the discussion and be realistic about them. More importantly, I wish we would do what we can to reduce these potential contributors.

Posted by Excellent Sheep, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 8, 2014 at 7:23 am

For a thought-provoking examination of the current culture surrounding the education of our country's youth, I recommend reading "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite" by William Deresiewicz. Lots of good ideas ripe for discussion in this community.

Posted by Marc Vincenti, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 8, 2014 at 7:07 pm

Dear paloaltonliners,

"Missing Connections," pasted in below, is an opinion piece I wrote, and that the "Palo Alto Weekly" was kind enough to print in its pages three years ago.

It's long. I've chunked it down, but it's still a big meal for this site; and I have no problem with the monitor removing it if it's just too long. I wouldn't post it except that it's newly pertinent, and so many of us are talking about these difficult issues and looking for a path forward, and maybe "Missing Connections" will help point the way.


Marc Vincenti

Missing Connections:

Five Steps to a Mid-Course Correction for Gunn

Every teenager is an aerialist of sorts, and we on the ground below?parents and teachers, counselors and doctors and cops, city fathers and mothers?hold our breath as we watch them cross that wide gap, that a high wire, between being children and being grown. Having outfitted them, we now do what we can: pull for them, gasp, cross our fingers, pray.

We wish them, as hard as we can wish, a safe transit.

The local coalition born out of our losses, Project Safety Net, has been weaving protections for our kids if they should fall. But since it?s common sense, too, to help kids stay balanced and aloft, Project Safety Net has also recognized that the high wire itself?if you will?can be steadied against gusts, secured to hold fast, and made of material that grips the feet.

Amid our sadness and turmoil, it?s understandable that some of these precautions, though, aren?t yet in place, are still missing; and indeed, a ?developmental assets? survey has now come back from our high-flying youth, telling us that virtually half of them are vulnerable to some kind of tumble, are at risk.

So it?s our collective responsibility to stay on this task.

From my vantage point of 15 years teaching English in Gunn classrooms, let me set forth the five, most pressing steps that I think will make our kids? high transit safer.

These measures?which align with Project Safety Net?s ?next steps? for a more supportive school environment (see section P-8 of their report)?relate to test and project calendars, homework purpose and amount, academic integrity, and giving students a greater ?voice? in their campus lives.

Three of the five steps can be taken by summer?s end (one requires a computer program, to be sure, but another needs only a signed piece of paper). Two further steps call for transformations in the school culture, but even these can be underway by next winter.

We can move with speed.

Our hope, to be sure, isn?t to be found in our phrases in a newspaper or in a public meeting, or in theories or ideas. It?s to be found in our classrooms, offices, hallways, and quadrangles. It?s to be found in our libraries, nurses? offices, auditoriums, and gyms.

It?s to be discovered in a changed coloration to life in our schools, daily habits that begin to bend toward joy, a new texture of closeness on campus that can be seen in brighter eyes and heard in livelier voices. We are capable of these things; we are Palo Alto.

1 ? The Student with Room to Breathe

Are homework loads too heavy in our high schools?

We disagree, and will always disagree, on this. The answer depends on circumstances and is an individual, family, subjective call. But we can agree to disagree. yet still make progress on this front, because of one circumstance we share.

While homework loads are talked about in the hallways at school, in the library and student centers, on buses, at School Board meetings, and around dining tables at home, they aren?t talked about nearly enough in the one place where it counts: the classroom.

This is only natural. It?s as unrealistic to expect young people, beholden to an authority figure for their all-important grades, to take on such figures face-to-face as it is to expect that the keepers-of-the-grades can always be aware of the force-fields of power that their position sends off.

But while this is only natural, it need not be so. Healthier communication?healthy ?connections? in the classroom?can be jump-started by a connection online.

Students and teachers need a shared, confidential electronic log of homework minutes assigned and homework minutes worked. They need to have a "conversation" that begins online.

Teachers and teenagers would interact on the site, with teachers typing in the number of minutes of homework they?re assigning each night, and students able to view, and print out, their projected total minutes for all classes. Teachers, if they wish, should be able to view the total homework load for each of their students; students, if they wish, should be able to view the average total homework load of their classmates (no names, of course).

This daily, weekly, monthly reporting and tracking will make teachers and students more self-aware about what they?ve undertaken, as well as open a door to candid, in-class conversations?based on shared, accurate data?about how much is too much and how little is too little. This will tend toward feelings of connection, and realistic homework loads that leave room to breathe.

It will help moderate the differences in workload from teacher to teacher, which often make kids feel that the playing field isn't level, in terms of their ability to achieve the grades they want (and often motivates them to cheat).

The system could anticipate long-term assignments, even whole units, as well as be in the mix from night to night. It would post, for all to see, expectations for weekends, holidays, and breaks. It could help teachers anticipate when their colleagues have scheduled major projects due, and so avoid academic ?rush hours? with simultaneous due-dates causing bumper-to-bumper academic stress.

We ought to be puzzled that we haven?t created such an electronic log to support our kids, when we?ve busied ourselves with elaborate online systems to track their grades, tardies, cuts, absences, and classroom behavior.

Versions of such logs can be purchased on the market?though these are often shaped not for the kids' sake, but to attract the adults who will be spending the money on them. I?ll bet our whip-smart kids would take great pride in constructing one on their own, at great savings to us and great credit to their résumés.

We live in the Information Age. Let?s get some information.

2 ? The Student with Time to Sleep

Do our kids take too many APs?

The answer is the same for these college-level courses (which clock in at 30-60 minutes of study per night) as for homework loads in general: it all depends.

Different students, different parents, see this differently. Since some will go to the barricades for a students? right to take five, six, seven Advanced Placement classes?even after being told that Stanford, and other universities, look askance at such transcripts?it would benefit us little to get into a knock-down-drag-out over this.

Happily, there?s a middle way. Knowing that it bears a measure of responsibility for kids? well-being, Gunn, through its guidance department, is already vigilant about AP loads staying sane and safe. Students and parents must, already, sign an AP contract that gives a nod to the workload involved.

But the contract should be read aloud by the assembled parties; and as it is now written, it is too bare-bones. Some meat should be put on it, providing food for thought.

Drawing upon the ?developmental assets,? the contract might read:

"We, the undersigned, are aware that, for the student named below, the nightly homework for his/her 3 4 5 6 7 (circle one) Advanced Placement classes will total about _____ minutes.

"We?re aware that this workload may, while offering advantages in learning, result also in disadvantages: greater stress; added anxiety over grades; loss of sleep (known to be related to depression); loss of time to connect with teachers and classmates; decreases in social, family and cultural life; and the attenuating of some of the ?41 Developmental Assets? identified by the District as beneficial to youth.

"These include assets #1-3 (Support), assets #17-20 (Constructive Use of Time), assets #25-27 (Commitment to Learning and Positive Values), and assets #32-34 (Social Competencies).

"Lastly, we?re aware that major universities such as Stanford, Harvard, and Yale recommend against students taking too many APs."

With signatures on such a form, then, admission to more than two AP classes would be automatically allowed. Read and sign, and?though hopefully now with eyes wide open?you?re in.

At least, at least, everyone would know what they?re letting themselves in for; and a contract with such language could spark balanced thinking and in-touch, informed conversations.

3 ? Students? Peace of Mind

Right now, our kids suffer the continuous, calamitous stress?monthly, weekly, nightly?of deciding whether or not one will betray oneself, and one?s classmates and teacher, by cheating.

Though it makes us wince and blush to think of our kids, ever, as dishonest, we must agree that Project Safety Net?in its recommendations for reducing students? ?stress and distress??is wise to ask us to look at academic integrity.

This is not, first and foremost, a moral issue. It?s an issue of mental health.

Nothing causes teenagers more distress than cheating. It?s a source of anger, envy, self-doubt, remorse, defiance, misery, and a daily distrust among students and students, students and teachers.

In a limited-sample survey last year, 30% of Gunn students said they?d cheated on tests, 20% said they?ve plagiarized, and 70% said that copying homework happens often or very often. Almost half of our kids see getting ?unpermitted? aid on an assignment as a ?trivial? infraction.

Surveys of high-school cheating in this country commonly show that over half of kids do it. And cheating increases, of course, as competition for GPA's heats up and academic pressures boil over.

Different workloads, different courses, different academic years, different classmates, different rumors?in every context the subtleties, and necessary calculations of cheating, vary. But the decision to cheat is, by and large, solitary and anxiety-ridden.

It made may be made at 2 a.m. in the morning or lunchtime in the quad; or it may come amid an exhausting pileup of homework; or it may be a knuckling under to peer pressure; or it may be a silent scream of protest against high-school life?but it is never stress-free.

Having cheated, one can?t forget that one has. ?Will I be caught?? ?What would mom or dad say?? ?Ohmigod, what if it goes on my college transcript?? And a more profound anxiousness: ?What kind of person am I?? The costs pile up.

And yet the ?opportunity cost? of not cheating seems too, too much to pay. ?What if I don?t cheat? And everyone else is doing it anyway! It would be stupid for me not to! My grade will go down.?

For we adults to turn a blind eye to cheating, in fact, is for us to reinforce the silent message that grades trump all. If people can and will do anything to get them, grades must truly be sovereign!

It?s time that we convey to our kids that many things, such as patience and daring and compassion and the content of their character, are far finer than grades, and that one thing certainly among them is integrity, while another?even more important?is peace of mind. This is the ?expanded definition of success? that Project Safety Net calls for at the very core.

Changing a culture of ?everybody does it? to one of ?it?s just not cool? is not a difficult matter. It?s a matter of willpower. A model awaits us at St. Francis High?and a mentor in their principal, Patricia Tennant?where a committed faculty tackled the challenge of cheating in the classroom.

In 2008, and in fairly short order, St. Francis went from a student culture that tolerated fraud to one of zero tolerance by telling the kids what cheating is, telling them not to do it, telling them it will not be tolerated, and spelling out the swift, sure, significant consequences?and doing this comprehensively and, above all, sincerely.

Their most powerful measure was to have the teachers speak to their kids, from the heart, about the personal hurt that they feel when students lie.

It?s a pipe dream to think that kids can feel connected?which, if it means anything, surely means mutual trust?in a school where cheating, and the competitive anxiety it produces, are an acknowledged part of the culture.

To put cheating to rest at Gunn would be to refuse to accept the law of the jungle as any law, as any peace of mind, at all.

4 ? The Student Who is Present at School

Even if occasionally they aggravate us, drive us nuts, make us want to tell ?em to leave us alone, we?re amid a passionate affair with our cellphones.

With these friendly-to-the-hand, merrily-jingling magic wands, we solve emergencies and stay safe, govern our children and keep close to those we love, and seem to teleport ourselves to be in multiple places at once.

But for a teenager? a young person of shifting moods, quick distractions, and a brain whose ?judgment? lobe is still forming?being in several places at once is a debacle when one?s supposed to be at school.

It makes little sense that in the most stress-filled stretch of their day? multiple hours during which they must attend to multiple academic subjects while sitting in desks in multiple rooms?we outfit and enable our youth with this extra stress-producer, cellphones.

When we first allowed phones onto campus?back in the prehistoric ?90s?such devices could do not much more than call, or record calls. Now, more than a decade into this experiment in combining the education of teens with all-day, instant connectivity, their phones also bring texting and Facebook onto campus, and games and multimedia, and bullying and sexting.

The average American teen sends and receives 3,339 texts per month (for a girl, the figure is 4,050) and the average Gunn student, according to a survey last year, spends two and a half hours daily with social media. This wireless current flowing through teen lives is especially strong where they most deeply live, in their romances and peer relationships.

?Cellphones give teenagers unprecedented 24/7 access to their relationships,? says Jane Randel, director of Love is Not Abuse, ?and can dramatically extend the radius of power and control a teenager has over a boyfriend or girlfriend.?

When a student comes into class (perhaps late) having read a long, upsetting text; or sits in class planning a text to friends headed for Starbucks (?When class is over, what?ll I ask them to bring me??); or is taking a difficult exam, aware that mom expects a phone-update right after; or is phoning home between classes to help dad track down some homework; or is reaching into a book-bag during a Power-Point in a darkened room to check the latest campus Pop Poll; or is texting on and off all day long in order to stay socially ?plugged in??well, certainly no teacher can hope to connect with, reach the mind or heart of, such an interrupted child.

These ?inner distractions? might be only intermittent, or seem minor, but when added to the other things that decrease kids? connectedness in class?lack of sleep, anxiety due to inner pressures, fear of embarrassing oneself, normal teenage daydreaming?the emotional static that a teacher has to pierce can be considerable.

The solution is not to ban cellphones from campus, but to simply forbid their use during the entire instructional day. (Gunn already forbids their use during class.) This would include passing periods, preps, brunch, and lunch.

To enforce this ban, we don?t need to get involved with metal detectors and searches of bookbags. It?ll be enough just to assure notice of violations on transcripts and/or in the guidance counselors? letters of reference to college admissions officers.

Telephone emergencies, or even merely ?urgent? situations, can be easily handled with one or two lines made available to students in the Main Office for limited use. Already, teenagers on campus can be reached at will, by concerned grown-ups, via classroom phones and the school?s system of public address loudspeakers.

We can assure that no student with a legitimate need attested to by a physician would be prohibited from using his or her phone in an emergency.

For our kids? peace of mind, we have to consider the possibility that giving them all-day, immediate access to electronic correspondents and sites is an experiment that is failing, which needs now to be replaced by another ?strange,? ?counter-intuitive? experiment: no phone use on campus from the first bell to the last.

If we leave phones in young learners? hands we?re simply not serious about decreasing stress at school.

5 ? The Individual Student

Classes have gotten bigger at Gunn. Does this matter?

In thinking about class size?how many teenagers belong in a room with one grown-up?usually we enter one of two blind alleys. 1) The smaller the better. 2) A first-rate teacher is what really counts. The Ones must then fend off the question: ?Would you want your child in a tiny class taught by a second-rate teacher?? And the Twos must answer: ?Would you want your child taught by a first-rate teacher in a packed theatre or gym??

The fact is, a really brilliant teacher, intellectually and pedagogically gifted, can successfully teacher larger and larger classes, through force of personality alone. But in a roomful of teenagers?with their urgencies, moods, distractabilities?this teacher?s resources for classroom governance will always run out at about 28-30 kids.

But even at this limited number, the teacher can?t hope to offer the connectedness, the emotional sustenance we so badly want for our kids, because connectedness and sustenance require so very, very much.

Every student added to a teacher?s roll sheet is not a number but a human being. (Palo Alto parents surely believe this of their sons and daughters!) And every single student requires a commitment from the teacher.

The commitment is to: give help with assignments; answer questions asking for clarification; distribute hand-outs and texts; coax and welcome the student into class discussions; test for grasp of the material; figure accurate scores and grades; respond to emails; respond to parents? or guardians? emails; report absences; be helpful during and after illnesses, or after suspensions; be available to talk outside of class.

And the teacher?s further commitment?if we truly want them to connect with our kids?should also be to: say hi and goodbye every day; call the student by name; make eye-contact several times an hour; note or inquire sometimes after his or her mood; praise the student?s performance; put the student in charge of something meaningful; ask his or her opinion; listen closely; showcase the student?s work; help retrieve lost items; phone home with commendations; respect confidentiality; and, via the fleeting, subtle exchange of looks in class, supply reassurance, recognition, encouragement, empathy, confirmation, and support.

If every student deserves all these things, and some even need them very badly, then to do all this as effectively with 30 kids as with 25 is a human impossibility.

And so we should want top-notch teachers?even it if means hiring more of them?teaching smaller classes.

Money is not the issue, surely. In recent years we?ve spent scads of money, wads, on modern things electronic?email, voicemail, online attendance, Smartboards, classroom video and DVD players, campus cable TV, classroom movie projectors, InClass and Infinite Campus, ever newer generations of computers and software and systems?while at the same time failing to do the very best, most state-of-the-art thing to give our students and teachers the chance to feel close: keep class size down.

Instead of allowing the crowds of faces in our classes to grow ever larger, we need to hold them to a number where the teachers cannot only count the faces every day but can look into them and begin to see what is there?boredom or eagerness, fatigue or pep, depression or elation?and gracefully adjust to form a human connection.

Some Final Words on Connectedness

Having chosen human "connectedness" as the lantern in our troubled dark, we cannot re-examine too closely what we mean and feel by this word, this notion. Are two people ?connected? if they?re in the same room together?

Are two people ?connected? if they watch a video or listen to music together? Are a grown-up and teen ?connected? during a long talk in which the grown-up offers advice and guidance while the teenager silently listens? Are any of us ?connected? to anyone if we?re too frightened or shy to say what we really feel?

We owe this idea our best thought, because we have chosen it to light our way.
To become ?connected,? I think, is first and foremost to do the simplest, most basic thing to give our students and teachers the chance to feel close, or at least as close as human beings can in a frantic world: give them time for each other.

Teachers are the grownups with whom teenagers spend most of their waking hours?even more than with counselors or coaches, friends or family. But we erase teachers? time for individual students by putting more and more kids into one class.

We wipe out students? time for their teachers by allowing so many cares and burdens and requirements into their lives that they: must rush out the classroom door toward the Next Big Challenge without having time to ask that extra question or hear that extra, one-on-one word of encouragement; must dash into class at the last minute, distracted, because they?ve been texting; can?t complain to the teacher about heavy homework because to do so might be to risk one?s grade (and it?s too gigantic a risk); or must fight fatigue in class because they?re running short of sleep; or can?t connect with the day?s lesson because they?ve been too busy with Facebook and homework night before to read the scene in ?Macbeth? or do the algebra set or the psych experiment or the French verb conjugation because they have too much to do. Whew!

And we think we can solve this problem by adding more! More advisors or advisory periods, freshmen-transition curriculum, special assemblies, theme weeks, surveys! Madness!

Whatever connectedness is, it can?t happen when teachers are teaching too many kids, or when kids are overworking themselves, or are sleep-deprived, anxious, or distracted.

People simply can?t connect if they?re too busy, too weary, too worried, or too wrapped up in their own thoughts to reach out.

That?s worth saying again:

People cannot connect if they cannot reach out.

Posted by think differently, a resident of Adobe-Meadows,
on Nov 9, 2014 at 9:56 am

I too believe we need a third way. The high schools are too large and impersonal. This starts in middle school and just gets worse.

We should re-open Cubberly as a "choice" high-school. It needs to be different and allow students (and parents) who want to get off the AP rollercoaster and switch to something else like IB.

Posted by Common sense, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Nov 9, 2014 at 10:00 am

However well-intentioned, Marc Vincenti's reposting of a whole essay (even if edited) -- MANY screenfuls of text, even when not viewed on a mobile device -- as a Town Square "Comment" above is awkward, poor netiquette, and ultimately, very unnecessary.

The way to handle such a situation is to post a LINK to the text online elsewhere. If the Weekly published it, its author can find it in the paper's online archives, or if necessary, post it somewhere else, and provide the link here.

That's a valuable elementary principle from computer science: Never send the data if you can send the data's location instead.

I say nothing about the essay's content, but to encounter such an imposing wall of text, longer than all the other comments combined, in this format is off-putting.

Posted by Concerned parent, a resident of Gunn High School,
on Nov 9, 2014 at 12:07 pm

These are very interesting comments. I agree that high school in Palo Alto seems unusually stressful compared to elsewhere. However, is it possible that everyone is jumping to conclusions about the recent news? It may be premature to automatically blame stress from schoolwork and college applications for contributing to this tragedy. It may even be a little disrespectful to speculate on such things if you do not have any direct knowledge of the situation.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 9, 2014 at 8:40 pm

Here's an interesting blog from a former Ivy Admissions officer in response to this video.

Web Link

Posted by EaseUpOnStudents, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 9, 2014 at 10:11 pm

This is a very touching video. It reiterates two themes of stressors that run throughout student surveys: academic stress and family pressure.

Reading Teacher Vincenti's post shoes that there is a gap between the school framing and the community. For example Teacher Vincenti asks is there too much homework? And answers with equivocation:"We disagree, and will always disagree, on this."

In fact, there is little disagreement; there is a homework policy, it says there is too much homework, and orders staff to reduce. This policy is not being implemented.

Mr. Vincenti - news flash: there is too much homework.

He then goes on to prescribe a complex time tracking solution which does not exist. His framing is insidious: by tracking homework , he can load students to the breaking point. The goal appears to be reframed as how to maximize the amount of homework. How to take as large a share of student time as possible is not a goal.

Let's reframe this the proper way: the GOAL of every teacher in this district should be to teach so effectively that NO homework is needed.

The goal should be to minimize homework. Mr Vincenti -cut your homework in half right now. Then ratchet down to zero wherever possible.

Why half? Because surveys show students are doing about double what the HW policy recommends.

And sure -ask your students how much time they spend, you can do that tomorrow, without software.

As for your point on cheating - it is born of desperation. Desperation in the environment you create in the school. There is no honest way you can exhort students to stop cheating when you are the responsible party creating the environment responsible for the desperation.

This is another place the school and community differ: you see cheating as a character flaw and exhort (pressure) students to stop. But, actually, that is just more pressure. I see this differently: please stop creating classes so difficult and time pressure so high that cheating is required to survive . Oh, and quit judging every student shortfall as a fundamental character flaw. Look at the root cause: it's you.

Finally to address Martha Cabot's point about parents calming down. (Disclosure - I don't pressure my kids to take higher lanes or APs unless they want, and we put hard limits on APs) nonetheless I empathize with the students about parent stress. However, my experience is that the majority of family strife and pressure IS ABOUT school. In fact when you examine the root cause of most pressure you find that the schools have EXPORTED pressure from the classroom to the families.

That's a double whammy - not only are the schools loading kids to the breaking point, but the problem shows up at home. Do I care if they get a 'B' on an assignment? No. But that is a red herring argument often put up by teachers. The reality is that we parents must pressure the kids to GET ALL THE WORK DONE. See, the real problem is not a B or C on work, it is a ZERO when homework is not done. The schools know this. - a few zeros and your grade plummets to a D rather fast.

This is not a crisis about getting into Yale, it is a crisis about getting anywhere. Never mind the impact that years of being judged harshly has on students esteem.

So when teachers overload students , they have exported homework enforcement onto the parents. I'm sick of being your Homework Bitch Mr Vincenti.

Because years of pressuring kids to complete mountains of homework drives a wedge between children and parents.

And when crisis strikes , this wedge between parents and kids is terrible. We have been co-opted into your horrible system, and students no longer see us on their side.

So that's it really. A horrible system of pressure foisted on students and parents. Parents forced to enforce a broken system, and students who don't see anyone on their side.

So when we see a discussion about community and school pressure, let's just be clear the school is broken, has no feedback mechanism, exports it's pressure onto parents and students alike. When looking for the root cause of this mess, look no further than the doors to the school. Directly and indirectly.

Posted by Who has control? Teachers do., a resident of Bailey Park,
on Nov 10, 2014 at 11:37 am

I would like to see the PASD PRINCIPALS ask each teacher to sign a pledge to not assign more than "X" minutes of homework per night, figuring on no more than 2 hours per night in total homework for fully loaded students.
If the parents feel their kid needs more, assign it yourself and feel good about it. Right now the broken school of Palo Alto are being held hostage by those who think more homework is the answer.
No way I would put my kids in any PA high school currently. I love my kid and our happy household far too much. It was different in the 80s, but so was the demographic makeup of Palo Alto. Things can still be fixed in the schools, but not until mental well being is prioritized over grades or acceptance to specific colleges. Simply put, if we do into fix the broken schools, we'll continue to relive the headlines again and again until finally someone in power admits what the rest of us have known for years.
I'm here to scream out loud that the emperor has no clothes.

Posted by Dilettante, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Nov 10, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Schools: get rid of letter grades/rankings, and go to a simple Pass/Fail system.
Parents: stop reading the college rankings (they are too gamed).
Students: ride your bike to a friend's house.

Posted by C, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 10, 2014 at 5:15 pm

"ask each teacher to sign a pledge to not assign more than "X" minutes of homework per night, figuring on no more than 2 hours per night in total homework for fully loaded students."
The problem with any homework limit is that there is no true way of estimating how long it will take. How is the time defined -- average time, or how long it takes the slowest student? How about the fastest? How do you even know how long it takes these students - surveys? I remember taking surveys that had questions along the lines of "on average, how many minutes do you devote to this class per day?" and I also remember answering truthfully: about 45. But because I always did it the day before class, it would take 90 minutes and my homework load would feel much greater. Even though PAUSD now runs on an every-other-day schedule, students tend to do work the day before (or at least that's what I've observed. Again, this isn't always the case - sometimes students balance their workload properly. But oftentimes they do not, and I was one of those students).

It's true that the workload at PAUSD school is at the very least a little bit unreasonable. But I don't see any way to remedy that with an overarching policy.... I would never demand that APUSH stop assigning American Pageant chapters, for example, nor would I say that daily math homework must stop. Doing so would negatively impact the amount students learn. What can be done is cut the astonishing amount of busywork involved in some classes for class presentations and creating posters and whatnot which is of little educational value -- but again, there is no way to create a broad policy to deal with this. "No posters?" They've already tried to reduce busywork by making group projects in class...

What I am trying to say is that PAUSD is trying to remedy the problem, but a hard limit on homework time is not the solution.

Regarding the obsession with "acceptance to specific colleges" -- it exists. But in practice it's not just the Ivies and students who aspire to attend there -- almost every senior is concerned with their first choice college, whether it be an Ivy, State School, technical institution, or art school. Sure, people tend to pay more attention to who gets into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, etc. than Caltech, Vanderbilt, out-of-state-State schools, Williams, etc. but this is largely because 1) everybody knows who's applying to them 2) they are name-recognizable more than most other schools and 3) it's easier to keep track of who's applying to what ivy than who's applying to what UC because the pool of students is smaller. It's also important to note nobody ever says to anyone else anything along the lines of "Congratulations on getting into one of your top picks, but really it's not a great school at all." Everybody knows the college admissions system is a lottery where no matter how many 'tickets' you earn you are never guaranteed admission, and nobody thinks "well maybe if Susie had tried harder she would have gotten in." And nobody says "Wow, Susie got into an Ivy and went to some other school instead. What a bad decision." It seems the perception of Palo Alto's college culture is "Ivy or nothing"... but that's not really what it is. Just food for thought.

Posted by PalyParentOfTwo, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 10, 2014 at 5:53 pm

@ C writes - "What I am trying to say is that PAUSD is trying to remedy the problem, but a hard limit on homework time is not the solution. "

Really? If they are trying to work on homework policy, they are doing a great job keeping this a secret. The policy was hammered out two years ago, and they have had more than a year to implement. I just don't see it. I don't even see them struggling with the issues you suppose that they are grappling with.

In fact, I see no movement at all.

Here is my suggestion - put some teeth in the homework policy. Let's try this:
- survey students workload monthly
- within the next 3 months, any site in which 75% of students report load under the homework policy guidelines is deemed "in compliance"
- any site which is not are identified for reorganization.

Reorganization means that by the end of the school year the site is closed, the teachers relieved of their responsibilities, and we start re-hiring from the Principal on down.

Because honestly, why bother having a policy that the teachers ignore? Why have protections for the safety and well-being of our students that are ignored? Do we really want to continue to pay staff who do not have the best interest of our students (and their survival) in mind?

When will the community finally get fed up SEEING NO ACTION on this issue?

Posted by Finally a good guy finishes first!, a resident of Charleston Gardens,
on Nov 10, 2014 at 6:59 pm

Thank God Ken Dauber was elected and there is now some hope, albeit slender, that we might at last tackle some of these issues. Dauber has been advocating implementation of the homework policy ever since it was first adopted. He's the only person who three years ago was willing to stand up and be counted on to pursue these issues -- the issues of P-8 of the Project Safety Net suicide prevention plan -- even though it was unpopular with an "establishment" that just wants higher scores and a feel good Newsweek ranking at all costs. Ken just stuck with it and stuck with it -- bearing all the slings and arrows, and kept organizing and kept educating the community and now thankfully and finally there is a new majority to take sensible action on this issue.

We have a homework policy on the books thanks to Ken. Now let's get it implemented. He said two years ago that the board was making a mistake by not following through. Let's help Ken to get the votes to follow through!

I personally want to thank Ken for all he has done and congratulate him for carrying the ball for youth in this town. He's a hero, and I'm so happy he won.

Posted by Hermia, a resident of Triple El,
on Nov 11, 2014 at 11:08 am

My girls went to Paly two years apart (graduating in 2009 and 2011), and in that six year period there were regularly scheduled No Homework days. Not a single one of those days passed without at least one teacher PER CHILD saying, "well I know you don't have homework in your other classes, so you can do this project for me." Not one.

Also, don't think the suicides you hear about are the only ones. One of their friends committed suicide at home, not by train, and it was simply not reported or discussed. The kids know, though.

Last, we're also not counting the suicides that take place in college based on damage done here in PAUSD. This can be a bleak and cruel place.

Posted by Martina, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 11, 2014 at 12:32 pm

As a former Paly parent and Gunn staff member,[content removed]. Paly has a less stressful atmosphere than Gunn. The "Gunn type A" student does exist at Paly but to a much lesser degree. Paly is primarily a jock culture and more laid back. Gunn is a pressure cooker culture with far more type A parents - helicopter parents. They hoover and smother their children. They are very competitive among themselves for bragging rights about their child's "success." The badger teachers/staff about grades. They are relentless in driving their children to take MORE APs, get into Ivy League colleges, fill up their "spare" time with activities. Gunn staff cave into this parental pressure, in particular the administrators. Many teachers are pressured by administrators to change grades, to lower their standards, and to ignore procedures. Teachers are thrown under the bus by weak willed IS's and administrators. Paly is certainly no paradise, in particular for non-Asian/non-white students. Just look at the pitiful graduation rate for brown and black Paly graduates. The majority of non-white/non-Asian students at Gunn don't do much better. As a matter of fact, black & brown kids perfer to go to Paly rather than Gunn.

I pray that things will get better, but I doubt it.

Posted by Boardermom, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Nov 11, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Personally, I believe that blogs such as this one, promoting conversations about college admissions and secondary school options, when to hire a tutor for the SAT's and when to hire a college admissions specialist, significantly contribute to the hyper-competitive culture in this area. It is not just a Gunn problem, a Paly problem, or a Menlo or M-A problem, IT'S A PARENT PROBLEM. But no private or public high school is willing to put the brakes on asking our students to do too much. Not Casti, not Gunn, not SHP, not M-A, not Paly, not Woodside, not Menlo, not Sequoia or Carlmont. And all the private professionals make a lot of money "assisting"our kids to do more and more each year.

Unfortunately, no one appears willing to take stand against the Ivy League/Stanford Industrial Complex. [content removed]

Posted by John Raftrey and Lori McCormick, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Nov 11, 2014 at 3:13 pm

John Raftrey and Lori McCormick is a registered user.

Posted by teacher elsewhere, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 11, 2014 at 11:45 pm

Unfortunately, Martina and Boardermom are correct in stating that the primary problem begins with the parents.

I am a teacher but not at a PA high school. That said, I recently spoke with a former Gunn teacher who provided some not-at-all-unexpected feedback regarding the situation. She told me that she and many other teachers she knew at Gunn did not like the way things have been going but the parents put increasing pressure on them and the school administrators to push the kids harder and then the parents push additionally, both their children and the teachers. She said she basically thought these kids were not learning as much as a result (just getting better scores on tests) and wasting so much of their youth.

I see this often, first-hand. I see parents talking with other parents about their children, asking how many languages their kid speaks, how many instruments they play and what universities they want their kid to attend. Sometimes the kids are as young as 10! It is quite embarrassing to see; both as a teacher and as a parent.

And I often see parents in this area taking credit for their children's successes. "See. My kid got into Stanford. I guess all those extra tutoring sessions I arranged paid off!" Please give the kids some credit. Hearing things like that, no wonder some of these kids think they are failures even when they get straight-A's!

The public education system in this country is flawed. But the fix is not to simply push the kids harder. Let's think about what our end goals are. Is it that we want our kids to get into the best universities? or to be good people, with a well-rounded education?

Posted by a parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 12, 2014 at 12:17 am

teacher elsewhere,

Many parents are pushing for less homework in PAUSD, no deal.

While your friend may have simplified it as everyone else's fault, that is not true.

Posted by teacher elsewhere, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 12, 2014 at 1:19 pm

a parent,

I do not think this former Gunn teacher oversimplified anything. Nor did she say it was everyone else's fault. Nor am I saying that. On the contrary; we each have an obligation to do our best, as both parents and teachers (as parents, we are also some of the most important "teachers" our kids will ever have).

As others have noted, we all owe it to our kids to do what is best for them. And doing what is best for them is not simply spending a ton of money on their education and expecting - sometimes urging - their schools perform miracles.

And, as many of us know all too well, many parents in this area are not stopping at pressuring their kids to do well in school. Extra-curricular activities are hopping in this area, as parents push their kids to learn everything under the sun. What? Your son only plays TWO instruments and only plays THREE sports? What is wrong with him? Your daughter must be a failure if she only speaks 3 languages, dances, plays softball and is a chess master at the age of 10... Sure, many of the kids really like getting to participate in a variety of activities, particularly when their friends are also doing them. But what is the end goal? Giving them exposure to many activities is fantastic. Encouraging them to focus on healthy extra-curricular activities can be a very good thing. But if it is simply to pad their application to Stanford...?

Much of the stress kids in this area feel is due to peer-pressure. Not that other kids are necessarily pressuring each other. But some of them feel the pressure. Some of our kids are going to handle all the stress just fine. But not all of them. And some of the kids who are not the superstar students, but are surrounded by them, feel inferior. Let's keep things in perspective and remember that some of the most successful people in history did not go to the best universities. Could you still be proud of your son or daughter if he/she did not get into Stanford, or even - oh no - drop out of school to start a business? Food for thought:
Web Link

Posted by a parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 12, 2014 at 6:32 pm

teacher elsewhere,

"Your son only plays TWO instruments and only plays THREE sports? What is wrong with him? Your daughter must be a failure if she only speaks 3 languages, dances, plays softball and is a chess master at the age of 10.."

I'm sorry, I think this is a generalization, and I am not recognizing these extremes among high school parents. Most our high school parents look like they are surviving battles, as many do. Raising teenagers is not exactly easy, and not to forget so much has changed with "social" media.

Maybe your comments are about young parents?

Parents in high school barely even interact with each other, how would your teacher friend know they compare if their children are speaking 3 languages?

Posted by a parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 12, 2014 at 6:38 pm

It could be a difference in schools, I am familiar with Paly and not as much with Gunn but comparing kids still sounds like something younger parents would do. You know how everyone is guilty of comparing babies.

Anyway, I think we agree that oversimplifying is not useful.

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