What Do Race, Reading, Billy Joel, and Jeopardy Have in Common with our Nation’s Students?

What Do Race, Reading, Billy Joel, and Jeopardy Have in Common with our Nation’s Students?

They are All Putting our Nation’s Students At-Risk

Dear Colleagues,


   Last week, I was in the Student Center of a suburban high school that could be anywhere in this country just outside a major U.S. metropolis. . . listening to a group of high school students. The focus group and the ensuing open-ended conversation was set up because I did not feel that the high school was listening to its students’ voices as it tried to address its current climate and culture, and the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of the students in general and as related to the Pandemic.

   Approximately 25 students were in the focus group—the Presidents, Vice Presidents, Public Relations Officers, Secretaries, and other student government leaders from the Freshman through Senior classes. While the participating Freshmen were brand new to the High School, both the Junior and Senior class students noted that they were almost as new to the school and their peers given their all-virtual instruction from March, 2020 through August, 2021.

   Significantly, the racial composition of the focus group reinforced the reality that there are more students of color in our nation’s schools than White students. Indeed, more than 90% of the group were students of color—Black, Hispanic, Islamic, and Asian. Some of the students shared their different sexual orientations. And religious points and differences periodically infused the cultural and racial discussions.

   With the Principal and other school staff (e.g., counselors and staff sponsors/advisors) in attendance, my District colleague and I introduced the session by telling the group that we wanted them to share their perspectives, feelings, and recommendations relative to how the school and District were meeting their social, emotional, and behavioral needs— discussing what was working, what was not working, and what was missing.

   There was almost no delay between our introduction and the first student’s contributions. The discussion then went non-stop for the next 90 minutes with virtually everyone contributing. The students were honest and candid, articulate and passionate, and mindful to include all of their peers in the conversation while maintaining full respect for differing perspectives.

   In so many ways, these students handled this forum better than many adults. . . for example, in school board meetings, candidate forums, and town meetings. . . over the past few months.

   In the end, three important themes emerged. . . themes that could only be fully understood by listening to the “student voice.”

Jeopardy Answer #1. Why are many students handling their diverse, multi-cultural communities better than the adults?

   The very first comment was about how the High School avoided, stereotyped, misrepresented, or oversimplified race and culture in the curriculum. This comment was echoed by many of the Islamic, Black, and Hispanic/LatinX students in the Focus Group.

   Two students stated:

   “Islamic students are forever connected to 911, and the curriculum rarely extends beyond that event.”
   “Black history is consumed with slavery. Notable Black writers, activists, inventors, politicians, and others are under-emphasized, and issues of implicit bias and white favoritism are avoided altogether.”

   This conversation evolved to include religion and religious holidays, as well as different students’ gender/sexual orientations and explorations.

   For example, the Muslim students noted teachers’ insensitivities to the effects—on students—of the month-long fasting, from dawn to sunset, during Ramadan. The students noted that the fasting sometimes made it difficult to concentrate in class and complete work.

   Other students noted that some staff would not use specific students’ preferred gender identification pronouns.

   Relative to the former, one student noted a comparative religion class at the High School and suggested that many of its topics should be integrated into periodic “student professional development days” so that all students are educated in the racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds of the students represented in the school.

   Relative to the latter, one student expressed her feelings that the rejection of her preferred gender identification pronouns equated to disrespect and a rejection of her—as a person—in the involved teachers’ classrooms.

_ _ _ _ _

   In the end, the Focus Group students most-communicated the need for ongoing education, discussion, and understanding of the individual racial, cultural, and religious histories, traditions, and current practices of students and staff at the High School and across the community.

   This should be supplemented by including issues related to gender, gender identity/sexual orientation, national origin, socio-economic status, disability, and age.

   All of this could be accomplished by:

  • Completing a comprehensive needs assessment and current status review in these areas—resulting in a five-year Action Plan;
  • Reviewing and upgrading the quality, equity, and comprehensiveness of the curriculum and its instruction in these areas;
  • Infusing the discussion and training of these areas into the professional development (for students and staff) and extracurricular clubs and activities, respectively, at the High School; and
  • Motivating and holding students and staff accountable for translating the discussions and trainings above into consistent, positive, and respectful interactions and practices.

   One incredibly articulate Focus Group student noted the importance of communication in addressing their needs in this area.

   A second student noted that staff and peer respect and validation in these areas were essential to establishing the positive climate, culture, and collaboration—and the individual feelings of acceptance and inclusion—that everyone wanted from their school and for their educations.

Jeopardy Answer #2. Why are parents and educators so focused on having students “catch-up” academically?

   A second theme from the Focus Group centered on the academic pressure that they were feeling from parents and teachers, and experiencing (as a result) in their classrooms and courses—currently, due to the Pandemic.

   [This academic pressure is symbolically represented in the title of this Blog in the reference to “Reading.”]

   While this may vary from student to student, many students emerged from the academic and instructional disruptions of the last two school years with content, information, skill, and mastery gaps in different academic areas (especially reading/literacy, mathematics, writing, and science).

   But now instead of teachers identifying and helping to remediate these gaps—even when new or more advanced topics and skills are being taught, the students felt that they were singularly responsible both for doing their own remediation and mastering the new material.

   Beyond this, the Focus Group students also noted that (a) some teachers were “doubling-up” their instruction and homework in order to “catch up” for the last two years; (b) many teachers were not coordinating their assignments and tests across teachers so that students had the quality time for work completion and test preparation; and (c) many students were “completing assignments,” but not deeply understanding and mastering the material.

   While this discussion fed into the third Focus Group theme (see below), I commented in this area by saying:

If you teach students at a level of academic frustration, they will not effectively learn and master the material—education’s ultimate goal.
If you academically frustrate students enough, you will also create social, emotional, and behavioral frustration. At its extremes, this will result—along a continuum of responses—to some students getting angry, aggressive, and acting out, and other students getting anxious, depressed, and checking out.

   [Cue the head nods of the students.]

_ _ _ _ _

   Another student, reflecting on this area, noted that many Advanced Placement courses in the High School were more about “more work,” than “advanced and higher conceptual level work.” In some ways, the Focus Group students taking AP courses almost felt that it was not worth taking these courses given this “more work” status.

   This, of course, is both philosophically and functionally antithetical to the availability of AP courses in a high school curriculum. What would happen if some of these students “abdicated” and simply avoided these AP courses? Would any high school continue to offer these courses with low student enrollments, and given the absence of its most-capable students?

_ _ _ _ _

   In the end in this area, the Focus Group students most-communicated the need for:

  • A student- and mastery-centered focus and modification of their coursework that integrates the need for content and skill remediation into the realistic and scaffolded introduction of new information and material;
  • The coordination of assignments and assessments across teachers so that the student- and mastery-centered goal can best be accomplished; and
  • The recognition that academic learning and mastery is interdependent with the social, emotional, and behavioral status of students, and that academic pressure can trigger negative social, emotional, and behavioral reactions and interactions.

   Because I understand the dynamic nature of this area in a high school, the suggestions above would need to be accompanied, in some schools, by a concomitant modification of how teachers are being evaluated.

   This modification would need to (a) adjust the depth and breadth that teachers are expected to teach in each specific course; (b) reinforce the importance of embedding in-class remedial instruction, as needed, to address the missing prerequisite skills of students; and (c) adapt the teacher-evaluative criteria of “student success.”

Jeopardy Answer #3. Why are we forgetting health, mental health, and wellness in the context of anxiety, stress, and trauma?

   A final theme from the student Focus Group centered on their “mental health” status. Here, the students emphasized their perceptions that teachers were almost exclusively focused on academics to the detriment of students’ social, emotional, and mental health status and correlates.

   They experienced this because:

  • The vast majority of teachers, this school year, have never asked about or openly discussed with students their social, emotional, or mental health status;
  • The school began in September by immediately immersing students in academic instruction—without ever giving students an opportunity—after almost 18 months of virtual instruction—to socially transition back to school, re-develop important student-to-student and student-to-staff relationships, and debrief the experiences and emotions of their “instructional quarantine”; and
  • The only visible acknowledgement of students’ social-emotional needs is a “required” break in the middle of most classes to “give students an emotional breather.”

   Relative to the “emotional break,” some Focus Group students saw that as inconsequential to their needs, and others saw some teachers begrudgingly providing the breaks “because they were required by the District.”

_ _ _ _ _

   Without being dramatic, if this High School had experienced a school shooting or a significant collective crisis, the first days after would include a wide variety of social, emotional, and behavioral services and supports.

   How many schools or high schools did not see this Pandemic as a similar crisis and missed the mark by either (a) thinking that the “best” thing for students was to re-establish the “normalcy” of their school experience by getting immediately back into academics; or (b) were too uncomfortable—overtly or covertly—to acknowledge the social-emotional “elephant in the room.”

   As this Focus Group discussion proceeded, I offered two reflections.

   First, I extended the students’ focus on their “mental health,” by noting the importance of more broadly discussing their “health, mental health, and wellness.”

   Here, I expressed my concern about the students’ disrupted schedules and lack of sleep, the stress (as opposed to trauma) that they are under, and the impact of their own (sometimes unrealistically) high expectations.

   My second reflection (and I was saying this for the administrators and staff attending the Focus Group session) was that the High School had an opportunity for a “re-boot.”

   Here, I suggested that a staff and student Task Group be established—including a subset of the students attending the Focus Group, and that they plan a series of schoolwide activities for the first day or two after the Winter Holiday break (to also include additional days during the remainder of the school year).

   These days—which might involve no formal class or academic sessions—would be dedicated to helping students (and staff) to socially transition back to school, re-develop important student-to-student and student-to-staff relationships, and debrief the experiences and emotions of their “instructional quarantine” and the first semester of the school year.

   These days also could be used to begin discussions regarding (a) students’ gender, gender identity/sexual orientation, national origin, socio-economic status, disability, and age differences (Jeopardy Question #1); and (b) issues related to the academic program and students’ need for a modified instructional pace and skill remediation (Jeopardy Question #2).


   Over the past few months, articles in the professional press have begun to discuss False or Toxic Positivity in the educational arena.

   False Positivity occurs when you are experiencing situations that are inherently stressful or emotional, and you “put on a positive or courageous face” in order to (a) cope and maintain emotional control; (b) plan and act in behaviorally beneficial ways; and (c) change your perceptions of reality in an attempt to actually change reality.

   All things being equal, however, False Positivity can be organizationally, interpersonally, and even psychologically harmful.

   Indeed, I have seen many district and school administrators practice False Positivity with the students and staff. . . even to the point of ignoring their obvious stress and evident emotions.

   Toxic Positivity, meanwhile, works at the extremes. Here, we not only ignore stress, but we also reject or deny the stress and our emotions—telling ourselves to focus only on the positive.

   In schools, this occurs when administrators remind teachers to “take care of themselves,” but (a) maintain the pre-Pandemic routine of evaluating staff on their curricular pace and student proficiency; (b) load teachers up with extra meetings and responsibilities; (c) investigate how teachers cover topics that relate to race, culture, and politics; and (d) arrange professional development sessions led by “motivational” presenters who encourage, in essence, a toxic positivity mindset. These presenters either have no clue what teachers and other educators have experienced (and are experiencing) due to the Pandemic, or they believe that their presentations have some kind of long-term impact (which they don’t).

_ _ _ _ _

   And what about our students?

   How many of them are receiving similar false or toxic positivity messages?

   And how many of them then hide the pressure, stress, and other emotions that they are feeling. . . from parents, peers, teachers, and even themselves?

_ _ _ _ _

   So where does Jeopardy and Bill Joel come in?

   The discussion and themes from the High School Focus Group (shared above) reinforce the social, emotional, and behavioral pressure that our students are under, and the mental health jeopardy that they are in.

   These students are under enormous pressure. . . something that a “15-minute” break is not going to resolve. In fact, it is almost embarrassing that this is the primary strategy used at this High School—from the students’ perspectives—to help them to emotionally cope and maintain their social-behavioral balance.

   At the same time, I know that this High School is representative of other districts and schools nationwide.

   And so, once the word “jeopardy” came to mind, I immediately connected the students’ questions regarding the school’s commitment to recognizing and responding to their needs with the game show “Jeopardy.”

   And when I saw the pressures—real, self-induced, and perceived—that these students are experiencing, I immediately recalled the Billy Joel song “Pressure.”

Pressure  [Billy Joel]

You have to learn to pace yourself
You're just like everybody else
You've only had to run so far
So good
But you will come to a place
Where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
And you'll have to deal with

You used to call me paranoid
But even you cannot avoid
You turned the tap dance into your crusade
Now here you are with your faith
And your Peter Pan advice
You have no scars on your face
And you cannot handle pressure

All grown up and no place to go
Psych 1, Psych 2
What do you know?
All your life is Channel 13
Sesame Street
What does it mean?

Don't ask for help
You're all alone
You'll have to answer
To your own
I'm sure you'll have some cosmic rationale
But here you are in the ninth
Two men out and three men on
Nowhere to look but inside
Where we all respond to

All your life is Time Magazine
I read it too
What does it mean?
I'm sure you'll have some cosmic rationale
But here you are with your faith
And your Peter Pan advice
You have no scars on your face
And you cannot handle pressure
Pressure, pressure
One, two, three, four

_ _ _ _ _

   As a school psychologist, I recommended a number of social, emotional, and behavioral actions and activities to address the most essential student issues voiced during the High School Student Focus Group.

   But one additional idea emerged that captures the importance of actively and frequently listening to our students’ voices and functionally addressing their needs.

   This idea involved a recommendation that the students, staff, and administration at the High School develop a Health, Mental Health, Wellness, and Individual Differences Bill of Rights.

   This Bill of Rights would be created like a school district’s five-year plan. . . utilizing surveys, Town Hall forums, retreats, strategic planning sessions, guided debates, and open writing sessions.

   The Bill of Rights product would detail the principles, practices, and actions needed to facilitate (a) the health, mental health, and wellness of all students and staff; and (b) their right to be accepted—based on gender or gender identity, race or national origin, religion or color, sexual orientation or socio-economic status, or disability or age.

   I would love to see a school-centered Health, Mental Health, Wellness, and Individual Differences Bill of Rights movement begin across this country. And I hope to share this High School’s journey to this end in future Blogs.

_ _ _ _ _

   I appreciate everything that you do to support our students and colleagues in the field. Know that many of my Blogs emerge from the interactions that I experience in real schools with real staff and real students. While my interpretations necessarily come from my psychoeducational background, the experiences described are accurate and unexaggerated.

   As always, I enjoy the comments and reflections that you send to me. . . whether on-line or via e-mail.

   If I can help you in any of the areas discussed in this message, I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students and colleagues.

   I hope to hear from you soon.