Friday, February 25, 2011

Thoughts on Book How to Be a High School Superstar

I'm a quarter of the way into the book How to Be a High School Superstar and feel the need to share my initial thoughts. This book has been recommended to me by a few of homeschool moms I know in real life and some of my blog readers. I didn't research the book before buying it. I didn't even know the subtitle when I ordered it from

The subtitle is: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) and the book is by Cal Newport who apparently prior has published two books, one on study habits and one on succeeding at college.

This book is written to an audience of schooled teens and their parents. The author knows of the race to get into top colleges and realizes that most feel the way to do that is to do rigorous academics, which today (versus in my generation) means taking AP classes in high school and let's not forget to do other things to show that the student is active and well-rounded. I am sure you have heard of teens stressed out by doing too many extra-curricular activities. Can't we all agree that some teens do things with their time just as resume boosters? Okay now that we're on the same page...

Newport offers an alternative plan. The premise is that colleges are sick of having (in my words) carbon copy applicants with a zillion of the typical teen extra-curricular activities. Newport first discusses the other, newer fad of trying to prove that the applicant has a passion for something. Newport moves beyond this passion thing, to say what the colleges really want, now that they have (in my words: a ton of applicants who have rigorous courses, AP classes and test scores, high SAT and ACT scores and all the extra-curriculars) --- what they really want is INTERESTING PEOPLE for their student body. These interesting people are not just good souls they actually DO things out of the ordinary and enjoy their life.

Newport says that what they want more than the rigorous classes on the transcript AND good grades AND high standardized test scores is something unique and interesting to the student that the student had to take initiative of and to have found time to learn about and do. This is the same notion that I read in The New York Times perhaps four years ago. That old article (it was a whole newspaper page long I wish I had the link, sorry), said that there are too many students doing formal organized events with someone else in leadership and that what they now wanted was the student doing something that was unique or out of the ordinary that the student must create or take pains to make happen and navigate themselves through rather than doing some lemming activity.

The emotion I'm feeling at this moment about this idea is hard for me to describe in one word. I want to say out of body experience but that's not it. Oh, what is the word I'm searching for? Is there such a word in the English language?

What I'm thinking is that a major reason I started homeschooling in the first place was for all the reasons that Newport talks about here. I am a homeschooling mom who (wanted and now has) interesting happy kids who already have had the benefit of relaxed academics and who do not yet suffer with stress or anxiety about their schoolwork or fretting over their futures.

However as a homeschooling mom there is a pressure that the colleges are giving us homeschoolers to have our kids be carbon copies of traditional high school kids, the things that are making kids stressed out, physically and mentally sick. (Have you seen the documentary Race to Nowhere yet?) Some of us escape the drill and kill until the high school years then it rears its ugly head.

With my son in his second semester of eighth grade homeschool I was on the verge a couple of months ago of making big changes to our homeschool and even considered entering him into school in order to give the colleges what they deem necessary. We decided to stay the course with homeschooling.

I note also that some colleges have even stricter requirements of homeschoolers that would rob them of more of their free time and make their lives even more stresseful than the schooled kids by requiring them to take even more SAT II tests and it also would help if they had more AP classes with the accompanying AP test score of a 4 or 5.

Yet Newport writes with advice for how high school students should change what they do with their time (including taking less high school courses than typical in order to make more free time) then to do something interesting and unique under their own guidance in order to become an interesting person that colleges happen to value (he says) more than they value the cookie cutter top students.

In fact the kid who comes out looking like what Newport describes would be what we in homeschooling circles call either a "relaxed homeschooler" or even maybe "a radical unschooler". If Newport is correct that means those radical unschooling parents who tout that they did very untraditional things with their time and had relaxed academics, gave their kids the gift of time to follow their passion even if that left gaps in certain common content areas, are right about their kids turning out just fine and also being highly sought after by colleges when it came time to seek admission.

So where I'm at today is I'm thinking about the many reasons over the years that we chose to homeschool and among them are things that Newport is recommending schooled kids do in order to help them get into competitive colleges (and of course to find joy in life). Yet I feel the colleges are pressuring homeschoolers to not just replicate the now-common high school student path, transcript and scores but to do even more.

I don't know if I'm coming or going...

If my kids had feelings of confusion about their futures or certain low expectations it would be easier for me to grasp the idea of continuing with relaxed homeschooling through the high school years and continuing lots of unstructured time in order for my kids to just do what they felt like doing (preferably with that being something worthwhile not just watching entertaining TV and playing video games).

Well what I know from my family's own experience so far is the nutty over-scheduled homeschool experiment I tried in 2010 in order to have more group learning activities and have my kids do sports and Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts was an unhealthy way to live. We were all starting to get anxious and stressed enough to not really be enjoying much of what we were doing. I also note that it was harder to really learn when running around like a chicken with our heads cut off.

At the start of 2011 (without Newport's guidance) we went back to the mindset of accomplishing more by doing less. I have made sure we are have large blocks of unstructured time in our days. I have increased goals for academic content mastery but by teaching at home rather than majorly focusing on outside classes we are being more efficient with our use of time (since teaching 1:1 takes less time than group learning). I have cut out some extra-curriculars. Three homeschool co-ops are being cut down to one. My older son is even leaving his favorite academic competition after the March event (since the way it is being run this year is much more of a time waster and is less effective in accomplishing a good end result). We are all learning to say no more in order to make more time to do what we really want to do while also having time to do the things he needs to do.

I need to let myself follow my instinct and my heart even when it overrides what so many others seem to be doing. I'm going to have to trust the process first and foremost and secondarily make sure enough boxes are checked off to make my kids look good on paper.

I guess what's bugging me about How to Be a High School Superstar is it sounds a lot like the books I read in my early days of homeschooling about "why homeschooling is good and how it produces kids who are not only intelligent but more mature than schooled kids and it produces good hearted people who are truly interesting so don't worry about homeschooling "ruining" your kid they will turn out great if you just try it you will see".

Homeschooling done well produces kids who you actually want to be around as they are not only able to hold a conversation with an adult and are willing to look them in the eye but have something to say that an adult would want to discuss. Some of them do really cool things that show they have already or will soon be making an impact on our world. And guess what? That is exactly the same goal that Newport discusses in this book including laying out a plan and a process for how a typical, generic, stressed out, boring high school student can change (which makes them look like a homeschooled kid).

Wow, my head is spinning...after years of being questioned by pro-school people about possibly wrecking my kids lives due to homeschooling it seems that their kids are being given advice to live their lives more like the homeschool kids.

Too much of this kind of thinking is enough to make a person go crazy or leave them feeling like they are living in an alternate reality.

(Cue the Twilight Zone theme song.)


christinethecurious said...

Yeah, the future is mysterious all right; hard to know exactly what the kids will need, what they will want to do, where they will want to study, and when they will change their minds; let alone what the admissions officers will think.

I think everyone frets that they are doing a disservice to their children - probably why we all defend our choices so loudly, everyone is scared.

-Christine in Massachusetts

Sandra Foyt said...

Spinning is the word! I know exactly what you mean, and let me tell you, it seems that every day we figure it out again.

A long time ago, a teacher friend told me that everything in education is a spiral where fads come and go, and come back again.

When parents enter the education arena, we become part of that spiral too. However, you are so right about trusting our instincts, even when we question everything we do and have done.